Monday, October 26, 2009

Bored? Now what?

It's no secret that I've been unemployed since the end of May. And although I'm sticking by my decision to take my time and find the right position that satisfies both my responsibility to provide for my family and my desire for career growth, I won't deny that the past few months have been tough. In fact, with my wife having her own, home-based business, we are frequently ready to maim each other simply due to my ennui and our constant exposure to each other.

This "I'm so bored that I want to gnaw my fingers off" feeling can happen at other times too. Several years ago, during the last business downturn (or, more specifically, during the Internet bust that occurred earlier this decade), I was working for a small company that produced web-based software. Our pipeline was in the dump and there was little to do, which was scary considering that we had 150 people and a rapidly dwindling bank balance.

To put it bluntly, even though we had some small consulting engagements that kept my team busy some of the time, there was never enough work to engage all of us on a regular basis so we did things to keep us busy. There should be no surprises here: one colleague played an acoustic guitar; another (a foodie) took us to various (and excellent) places for lunch; the rest did other things like surf the net; I played games and chatted with my family via instant messenger.

Even though it was no surprise that the company was going down no one in the development side of the house seemed to take the news seriously even after two rounds of layoffs. And when the company finally made the really hard decision to let go of 50% of the remaining staff (starting with the resignation of the executive management team), we found ourselves wondering how we were going to bounce back.

Well, I didn't (not quickly at least). I was out of work for 4 months, used a significant portion of our savings, and only because a friend of mine had a lot of contacts did I start work again as an independent consultant doing application development at one of the media companies.

If I had the wisdom to do so, there were several things that I could have done that would have lessened the blow of my layoff.

Education. .NET was already in the late stages of its beta and was already generating huge amounts of buzz. I had not bothered to look at it (mostly due to Microsoft's never ending reputation of not being able to release something worthwhile in its first release; I decided to wait until version 1.1), yet I could have been on the cusp of one of the biggest software development movements in recent memory.

Adapt. My colleagues in sales, marketing, and other areas of the business were busy to some degree but not so busy that they wouldn't have been able to show me what their job entailed and especially how they fulfilled the responsibilities that their position carried. This exposure, while it would not have made me an expert, would have added to my overall value to the organizations that I worked for in the future.

Market. I knew that my position didn't have enough activity to warrant me staying at the company (unless the company's fortunes reversed), yet I didn't take the opportunity to sell my worth to the decision makers in the company. And while blogs weren't yet all the rage, there were still other ways to get on people's radar (namely the USENET groups, writing letters to the editors of major trade publications, etc.) that I didn't take advantage of.

Look. By the same token, I knew that my job was in jeopardy. I wasn't willing to admit that the job market, though, was in such a sad state that it would take a few months to find something comparable. Had I done so, I could have started looking for a new position much sooner.

My point is that in depressing times it is easy to allow yourself to give in to despair, yet this is exactly the time when you can take advantage of slower periods of activity to better yourself as a professional. Louis Pasteur once said, "luck favors the prepared mind." Prepare yourself, then, for changes ahead and you'll be able to focus on the execution when those changes occur rather than lose your focus as you wonder what to do next.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Repetition

Anyone who is a baseball fan has to wonder what is going on in the Angels' heads based on the way they are playing. I can't easily recall two games that were filled with more game-changing blunders than the two that I've watched between the Angels and the Yankees. It sometimes makes you wonder if the Angels have even practiced much.

Maybe they should take a cue from Direct TV. Craig Calcaterra put it in a humorous light in his NBC Sports blog Random observations from ALCS Game 2.

As I sipped my beer and waited for the commercial break to end, I wondered to myself: "is there a single person watching this game who said 'you know, I wasn't going to get Direct TV, but now that the Black Eyed Peas have weighed in on it, I'm going to take the plunge.' "

He is talking about, if you haven't watched the games yourself, the incessant commercials that feature Fergie and Will.i.am overdubbing their own music video (for the song Meet Me Halfway) with a plug for Direct TV. These commercials seem to be on every minute at least, and pretty soon you are tuning out the sound and thinking about the list of things you need to get from the grocery. ("Beer? Check. Toilet paper? Check. Chips? Check.")

Once, Fred Voccola who was at the time the Head of Sales at the now defunct Identify Software (and is now, contrary to what his LinkedIn profile reads, the President of Trellia Networks), said during a sales meeting that the reason why you see 100 Ford F150 commercials during the Super Bowl is because they know you will forget the commercial as soon as it stops showing. Having so many of them ensures that you remember the product long after the game.

If that's the case, then we should be remembering Direct TV for quite some time.

In all seriousness, we should all take a cue from this annoying marketing tactic. While there is definitely the risk of being annoying, I claim that there is a middle-ground where you can ensure that people know who you are or what you are selling without making them want to gouge their eyes out with the back of a spoon when they see you coming. In other words, develop a 15-30 second pitch to remind people of what you represent and then find some way to weasel it in to your conversation, preferably at the beginning.

The advantages of this approach? If designed properly, the pitch will constantly set expectations of what they can expect you to deliver. Or, more importantly, they will know what they should not expect you to deliver. And that may be the most important message of all.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Customer Focused, Part 2

Last week I discussed how having an eye for the needs and desires of the customer can translate into real, tangible benefits for your company. Since then two other incidents have occurred that I feel a desire, almost an obligation, to share with you.

We've been looking to relocate to NJ to be nearer to my wife's family. With the real estate market there is in a real slump - that's relative to the rest of the country, where things are bad as well - there are some great deals to be had. We stumbled across one of those deals when my wife chanced across a bank-owned, previously attempted to be auctioned off but failed property that is listing at 50% of what it was sold for in 2003. We looked at the property on Friday night; saw the apartment to be in rather good shape (not perfect, but who's going to argue about minor stuff with a Viking Professional stove and Subzero refrigerator in the kitchen?); and as we contemplated our next step found out that the bank was going to make a decision on what bid to accept on Monday morning at 10am.

Panic panic panic. What to do? We had to find out all sorts of information about the property to determine a reasonable bid. (We did not, at that time, know about the 50% discounted price.) The realtor representing the bank said a formal offer letter would be needed as well as a pre-qualification letter from a lending institution or a mortgage broker.

The Wrong Way
I had been pre-qualified by a "one stop realty shop" early this year so, after tracking down the number of the person with whom I spoke at that time, I gave him a call. It was just after 1pm on Sunday afternoon, and he remarked that he was leaving the office to go home and watch the Giants game. But he assured me that he would be able to speak at 7pm that evening and gave me his cell number so that I could call him.

7pm came, and I made myself ready to speak with him, i.e. I went into my "home office" (read: kitchen), prepared myself with whatever information he would require to look up my credit score, etc. Then I called but got no answer.

"Ok," I thought. "Maybe he's at the office and is on another line." So after leaving a message on his cell phone, I called the office but received no answer there either.

After spending the next 2 1/2 hours "blowing up" both of his phones (as my wife calls it), I gave up.

The Right Way
I had assumed that, since I had been pre-qualified by this person already that it would be easier to get the statement refreshed. I had assumed that it would be impossible to get such a letter from another institution on such short notice. But now I was in a bind, so I tracked down another mortgage broker that I know online; asked to call him; then told him of the situation and asked for advice.

What was David Archibald's (of ICC Mortgage Services) response? "Call me at 8:30 tomorrow morning and, based on what you're telling me now, we should have the pre-qualification letter for you in 15 minutes." True to his word, I did and we were able to submit a bid for the property 30 minutes before the deadline.

The Result
The bank ultimately rejected everyone's offer (but that's a story for another day). Yet in spite of the fact that I will not at this time require financing, I'll leave the guessing to you as to which of the above two companies will get my business when I am ready.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Customer Focused

Lately, I've been looking at the finer details of people's experience, especially those who are in senior positions within their respective companies. After noticing a lot of MBAs in the group I asked Tom Schodorf, who is the former General Manager of BMC's Services Delivery business unit and now has his own executive consulting company, what work experience or other tangible credentials / certifications a CEO needed to have to be successful. His response was insightful:

"Very few things sharpen the senses more about the needs of your customers than having a quota and selling the product quarter after quarter. Experience in sales and marketing as an individual contributor and in management helps you understand nearly every facet of your own business as well and is very valuable experience for future CEO's."

If I may summarize the first point it is "be customer focused." I would argue that this is not only necessary for a CEO to be successful but that it applies to the entire company in general. Some examples of this are listed below:

"Editor in Chef"

In a previous life, I published a magazine for several years that was aimed at the OS/2 development community. (Yes, I'm dating myself.) Early on, I recognized the need for business cards since I was fully expecting to attend trade shows and report back on trends in the marketplace that were relevant to my readers.

I worked with a printer to design an appropriate card for myself (and my columnists); placed my order with them; and waited for the cards to arrive. When they finally did arrive, a glaring error caught my attention. Instead of being listed as the Editor in Chief, I was the Editor in Chef. (Food Network, here I come!)

I called the printer and explained the situation to them. Realizing that the PC Expo in NYC was only 2 days away, they rushed a corrected print job and hand delivered the cards to my doorstep in spite of the fact that I lived 30 minutes away by car.

The Free Upgrade

In 2008, I purchased one of the most amazing pieces of music software I have ever owned: Celemony's Melodyne pitch correction plug-in for Steinberg's Cubase music production system. Unfortunately, I was unable to install it for just over a month, which wouldn't have been a problem except for one thing: soon after I did install it, they announced a free upgrade to a new version that had mind blowing features. The catch? You had to have registered it before a certain date.

I had registered mine less than a week after the deadline even though I had owned it for several weeks already. "Not a problem," said Celemony's user support team. They said they would honor the free upgrade for me in spite of the late registration.

The point that I'm trying to bring up is that companies these days have the power to define their relationships with their customers, whether those customers are the individuals like myself or huge companies like the global financial services companies. And with the lightning fast speed that information is disseminated over the Internet, the perception that their customers have regarding the relationship and the degree of importance that suppliers place on that relationship can be communicated to a vast audience in relatively short order.

Can this actually have an effect on a company's bottom line? Absolutely. Consider the following example:

In early November of last year I became aware of a stalled sales opportunity at a large insurance company. They already owned some of our software, but we were trying to sell two new sets of technology to them that we knew would have large repercussions on their effectiveness as a company. Unfortunately, due to the corporate culture there, the new technology was undergoing a review that was more rigorous than was probably necessary.

I already had a strong existing relationship with the Economic Buyer there, which I leveraged to not only broker a meeting between the Sales Manager and him but ensure that the necessary information was extracted from the meeting to put together a very aggressive close plan. The result? A deal was closed within 4 weeks of the meeting that was worth over USD$1mm in revenue.

Would the deal have closed without my involvement? Undoubtedly. The Sales Manager was very good. But unfortunately he had not yet met the Economic Buyer so there was a long road ahead of him before he would reach his goal. My involvement wasn't critical but because of it the deal closed by the end of the calendar year, which coincidentally was the end of the purchaser's budget cycle.

Relationships can indeed be a deciding factor in your business. Build and foster them with the decision makers in your own company or in your customers' companies and watch your success grow.