Focus on the Right Initiatives when Drafting Your Strategic Plan

Earlier this year, Booz & Co. published the results from their web-based survey of over 1800 global executives (Coherence Profiler Results Summary) on the topics of strategy development, decision making and priority setting, capabilities, growth, and cost cutting. In subsequent blogs, one of which I referenced in a previous blog on Strategic Planning, co-authors of the study, Paul Leinwand and Cesare Mainardi, discussed some of the more interesting and thought-provoking issues they discovered. 

One such blog, Stop Chasing Too Many Priorities really struck home with me. In it, they highlighted a couple of their discoveries… that most executives (64%) report they have too many conflicting priorities and that respondents from firms with fewer firm-wide strategic priorities report higher revenue growth. They go on in their blog to say:  

The real question executives should be asking is:Triangle

"How can I get focused on the right initiatives for my company?”

The answer:

Seek input from your Advisory Board members.

Let them prioritize your initiatives so you can focus on the right ones!

At a recent Customer Advisory Board meeting, my client did just that.  At the time of the meeting, they were in the midst of their strategic planning process. They had completed their market research and industry analysis, and identified a significant number of potential initiatives. They knew they had the capabilities to do each of them well and that each had the potential to help increase revenues and help them grow. They believed they were all viable options.

Fortunately, they also knew they had way too many initiatives to pursue and that sufficient resources simply could not be allocated in so many different ways!  They decided to seek guidance from their Advisory Board. They shared their research and highlights of the initiatives they were considering. They then asked the following questions:
  • Which solutions provide the most value to your organization?
  • Which solutions are you most likely to buy?
  • In which solutions should we invest?
My client learned a lot from their customers that day. They learned what was important to them. They learned what they would be willing to pay for. They learned what to pursue and what not to waste their money on. They learned that just because they could pursue lots of different things, doesn’t mean they should because their customers may not buy them!  And most importantly for their longer-term growth, they learned which initiatives to focus on!

Customer Advisory Boards Can Drive Strategic Planning - Part Two

In my last blog, I suggested that the strategic planning process can be improved by soliciting help from your Customer Advisory Board.  I suggested that you start by giving members an opportunity to validate your Vision, and that by including your Advisory Board in the process, you can be confident your newly drafted strategic plan will lead to success.

Validating the Vision is just one way an Advisory Board can drive strategic planning. Members can also help with your SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) Analysis. In fact, who better, other than your own customers, can (and will) provide honest feedback about what you are and are not doing right? If they are asked, I can almost guarantee that your Advisory Board members will provide you with the truth, nothing but the Truth!

Near the end of a recent Advisory Board meeting (the fourth meeting of this particular group of members) the executive sponsor (the president of the organization,) called for a private meeting with his Board members. He excused all other members of his executive team and pulled up a chair for a heart-to-heart chat. He was trying to turn his organization around and wanted to hear first-hand, what his advisors had to say.   

truth next exitThey told him the truth. They reiterated much of what they had said during previous meetings. They shared their frustration that they hadn’t been taken seriously before. They told him what his organization was doing well and what they were not doing well. They told him what market opportunities he ought to be leveraging, and that part of his own organization was his biggest threat and must be fixed….NOW! They didn’t sugar-coat a thing. Some members were rather blunt, and what they said wasn’t easy for him to hear. They did not affirm that everything was fine. They told him what he needed to do to be successful and in the end, he knew what they said was true.

Are you confident that your strategic plan will lead to success? If not, perhaps you need to change your approach.  Solicit the help of your Advisory Board. They’ll provide you with the truth and give you the confidence you need to lead your organization to success. 


Customer Advisory Boards Can Drive Strategic Planning - Part 1

In a recent HBR blog, Making Your Strategy More Relevant, Paul Leinwa and Cesare Mainardi suggest that “many business leaders seem to be losing their confidence in strategy, or at least in their own company’s approach to it.” In fact, in their ongoing Booz & Company survey, “53% of their respondents don’t feel their company’s strategy will lead to success.” I’m really not surprised.

Boring MeetingTraditional strategic planning seems to be a four-letter word these days. People I talk to dread it. From my own experience in a previous life, it’s a months-long tedious process of endless meetings and debates over which products and services are more likely to lead to success. More times than not, the end product is a tree of paper that sets on the shelves in executive offices until the process begins all over again in six months! 

The big question
How can the strategic planning process be improved?

The answer: Solicit your Customer Advisory Board members to help.

Let Customer Advisory Boards validate your Vision!

At a recent Customer Advisory Board meeting, my client shared their newly-drafted Vision Statement… to be the trusted provider that helps global clients do xyz. My client was shocked at what came next. He was already moving on to his next slide when a member in the back of the room spoke up. “Whoa! Wait a minute… go back to that slide!” Advisory Board members wanted to discuss that Vision Statement! Members wanted to know why their host company was being so modest. For the next twenty minutes or so, members asked questions and commented as follows.

  • Why are you limiting yourselves?
  • You are much more capable that you give yourselves credit for. 
  • We (some of us) already view you as a trusted partner. 
  • You’ve worked hard to earn our trust. 
  • You are much more than simply a service provider. 
  • The word “global” is in the wrong place. 
  • Your vision needs to be broader. 
  • You’re capable of being more than just a “partner to global clients.” 
  • You’re capable of being their “trusted global partner.” 

That’s a big difference. My client was pleasantly surprised. His Advisory Board members (his top customers) thought pretty highly of his company and wanted them to be successful. His Advisory Board members wanted them to strive for something bigger and better AND they believed they could do it!

Are you one of those business leaders who’s losing confidence in strategic planning? Perhaps you just need to change your approach to it. Solicit your Customer Advisory Board to help! You too may be pleasantly surprised. It could make a big difference! 

Look for Customer Advisory Boards Can Drive Strategic Planning - Part 2 coming soon!


Just Ask Your Customers. They WANT You to Know!

Sometimes I feel like a broken record. If you want to know what your customers are thinking, just ask. If you want to know what keeps them up at night or where they’re placing their bets, just ask. If you want to know how you can help them be successful, just ask! And yet, all too often, you don’t.

Just AskI recently got into a conversation about this with a procurement manager of a multi-billion dollar international conglomerate who was getting tired of waiting for his suppliers to ask!  Instead, he was taking matters into his own hands and reaching out to them.  He wanted them to know his organization better and he wanted to give them an opportunity to become more than just a supplier.

In hopes of developing mutual respect and trust, he scheduled two-hour meetings with each key supplier and set the following agenda.

• Share Strategies
• Set Expectations
• Identify How to Work Together

He wanted his key suppliers to understand his organization and the challenges they were facing. He wanted them to know what his organization was building and how they saw the future. He wanted them to know their strategic objectives so they could help his organization achieve them.

He also wanted them to know what he expected of them and what they could expect from him. He shared his philosophy for conducting business, the day-to-day support required, and cost objectives. He wanted his key suppliers to understand his business and his industry better so they could work together to build a mutually beneficial relationship.

So far, there have been mixed results. Those suppliers who embraced what was shared during their two-hour meetings have reaped the benefits. Their working relationships have improved. Mutual trust has been established. They are called upon for their expertise and are asked for advice. As a result, their sales have increased. They have become trusted partners.

So if you want to know what your customers are thinking, just ask. If you want to know what keeps them up at night, where they’re placing their bets, or how you can help them be successful, just ask! They’re waiting to tell you. They WANT you to know!

What’s Your Preference… The Past or The Future?

In the May-June 2011 issue of The Ohio State University’s Alumni Magazine, Jeff Robinson writes about his interview of Les Wexner, CEO of Limited Brands and one of today’s most successful business people. Earlier this year, Wexner and his wife, Abigail donated $100 million to OSU, the largest philanthropic gift in university history.

Jeff’s interview centered around Wexner’s belief that had it not been for Ohio State, he wouldn’t have gone to college, wouldn’t have met the friends and professors who so greatly influenced his life, and “probably wouldn’t have started a business.” He, like so many others, are grateful to their alma maters for what they have and for whom they have become. It is a touching story.

Past.Future SignWhat really piqued my interest though, was another part of the article…. the part where I discovered that Wexner and I have something in common! When asked if he ever wanted to study something other than business, Wexner told a story from long ago about he and his friends deciding on their majors. One wanted to study pre-med, which made sense because he wanted to be a doctor. Another wanted to be a history major. This did not make sense to Wexner. He couldn’t understand why anyone would want to know what happened in the past and commented that “I’d like to know what’s happening today.”

I couldn’t agree more. My philosophy about the past is to remember the good times. Other than that, learn from your mistakes, get over it and don’t let it happen again! Pretty superficial, I know. An analyst I’m not. There will be no poring over financials and analytics for me. Give me a look into the future instead! A thirst for what’s happening today and a keen interest in what is likely to happen in the future is why I do what I do and why I find customer engagement programs so exciting!

They’re all about what’s happening today and what is likely to happen in the future. They’re focused on success! They’re about learning from mistakes, overcoming challenges, developing new products and services, and changing direction for future growth. They’re not about the past.

At a recent Board meeting, members told their hosts that service consistency was a problem, that it was a drag on their performance and perception with customers.  They said improving it would not only improve customer perception, but would serve as a differentiator in the market. Board members didn’t rehash every misstep, nor did our client make a movie out of it. Instead, they are turning their service organization around. They are assessing their processes, structure and approach, and are determined to deliver quality service consistently. Service will become a market differentiator and it will lead to their ongoing success in the future!      

So, what is your preference? Do you prefer to rehash the past or are you like Les Wexner and me who prefer to look to the future and our ongoing success?


What are Your Customers Saying About You?

People TalkingAt the conclusion of an Advisory Board meeting, before any members depart for home, we typically conduct a brief satisfaction survey to learn what members thought about their meeting experience.

The survey asks them to rate their overall meeting experience and how valuable the discussions were to them. It asks how well they think their hosts listened to what they had to say and whether or not they felt their ideas were heard. It also asks what they liked and disliked and what aspect of the meeting they found most valuable.

The last question is my personal favorite …Has your experience impacted your perception of your host; and, if so, how?  The responses are always reassuring and make me smile. It was no different earlier this week when I aggregated the results from a recent meeting. Oh sure, there’s almost always one person who says “no,” but then they justify their negative answer by adding “I already had an excellent perception of them!” These people just like to mess with us, I know!

And then I start reading all the comments…

“Yes, it has proven to me that they are very much invested in the satisfaction of their customers!”

“Yes, I was able to share my real opinions and received straight answers to my questions.”

“Yes, I got to know them on a personal level and learned more than I ever knew about their products.”

“Yes, they are a dynamic company that is open to change.”

“Yes, they really do want to get to know their customers better so they can improve products and services.”

“Yes, they are a company that listens to its customers and adapts its business strategies to cater to our needs.”

“Yes, they are only one of our providers, but they have everything we need and want!”

Wow, these are the types of comments we all want to hear, don’t we?  So… when was the last time your customers said such nice things about your organization? When was the last time you spent time together with your top customers and every one of them came away saying such wonderful things? Think about it. What are your customers saying about you? 

Customer Advisory Councils.... Intangible Benefits that Create Value for Members

In a recent blog on, Devra Garteinstein posted that "to create value in business relationships, you must provide intangible benefits for the customer above and beyond the basic product or service they receive." She went on to say that "every company creates value for its customers in its own way, and that the process of creating that value can be one of the most satisfying and meaningful aspects of owning and/or operating a business."

Customer Advisory Councils are one way of creating this kind of value for your customers. Intangible benefits are exactly what members receive from their participation.  Through personal interactions (e.g. face-to-face meetings) with their peers and members of the host's leadership team, Advisory Council members
have the opportunity to build professional relationships with other market leaders. They share insights and collaborate on ideas. They learn from one another, and take what they learn home to better serve their own organizations.

Together, advisory council members influence the strategic direction of the host organization.  They have a seat at the table with members of the leadership team and provide unfiltered feedback on potential offerings. They are often the "first to know" about product updates and new offerings. They have direct access and ongoing dialog with members of the executive leadership team and participate in productive and straight-forward discussions. As one member recently stated, "It has been brilliant to properly meet and get to know members of the executive team. It has been an extremely valuable experience. Very well done!”

bft mtgIndeed, personal interactions are important for developing relationships and are a key component of an advisory council meeting. There must be a good balance of meeting and free time to allow for the development of such relationships. In the Forbes Insights research report, The Case for Face-to-Face, researchers reported that "executives expressed an overwhelming preference for face-to-face meetings" because they "build stronger, more meaningful relationships." They said that "personal interaction - getting together to talk over dinner, drinks or a cup of coffee--- is the foundation on which business relationships are built."

So if you want to create value and enhance relationships with customers in the coming year, provide them with intangible benefits. Bring them together. Give them an opportunity to interact with their peers and get to know you and members of your executive leadership team on a personal level. Let them learn from one another. Allow them to influence your strategies. Who knows...Devra may be right.... it may just be one of the most satisfying and meaningful things you do in 2011!


Cautious Aggressiveness... so what's your philosophy for the New Year?

At a recent networking event, I asked a local business leader what his philosophy was for the New year. "Cautious aggressiveness" was his reply. A bit of an oxymoron, I admit, but I was intrigued so probed a little further.

He went on to explain that over the last 18 months during the recession, his company responded like many others. They reduced their workforce and cut expenses in all areas. They watched every penny. They put a hold on development and growth and simply tried to maintain.

supportBut now, with the dawning of the New Year, optimism for a recovering economy is turning into reality. His company is starting to allocate resources toward the development of new products and markets. They are however, investing in this development in a conservative manner due to limited resources.

To ensure that they are using their resources in the most efficient and effective manner, they are consulting with their customer advisory council for direction. They will be asking their customers where they are investing for the future, what they need to be successful, and how his company can help them get there.

I'm confident that he will get the answers he needs from his customers. They are the experts after all! In fact, at another advisory council meeting earlier this year, we asked those seated at the table how long they had been in the industry. Collectively, they had been working in the industry 282 years! Pretty impressive. And yes, I think that makes them the experts!

So if you're looking for direction on where to allocate resources in the New Year, bring your top customers together and simply ask them.  Ask where they are investing. Ask what they need to be successful, and ask how you can help them. You'll leave with the answers you need and more importantly, the confidence to move forward.


Customer Retention... It takes much more than a corporate gift!

I read an anonymous blog post this week about corporate gifts being "the key to customer retention." The post went on to say that business gifts (logo'd apparel, pens, mugs, and calendars) increase brand recall and loyalty, increase order size and frequency, and ultimately are responsible for revenue growth. That sounds so easy and maybe it is that simple in some industries, but for most of us, particularly in B2B, customer retention takes much more than a pen with a company logo!

Jill Konrath, author of Selling to Big Companies, spelled it out well in a special report from, entitled "The One Piece of Advice You Need to Earn Your Clients' Loyalty."  She says you must differentiate yourself. You must become invaluable to your clients. Easier said than done, I'm sure.

Jill highlights the following five things you need to do to make yourself invaluable to your customers.
1. Deepen your knowledge and skills
2. Look for opportunities
3. Share your ideas
4. Speak up
5. Suggest alternate resources

listeningThese are excellent points, but they cannot be done without listening to your customers first! Learn first-hand about industry trends and challenges. Hear what your customers are struggling with and what they need to succeed. Understanding your customer's world is imperative to helping them achieve their goals and objectives. Only then, will you be capable of identifying solutions. Only then, will you be capable of developing new products and services to better meet their needs. And only then, will you be capable of challenging their thinking and becoming truly invaluable.

Corporate gifts are indeed a nice way of saying "thank you for your business," and they're great for re-enforcing your brand. But to enhance your customer retention strategies and grow revenues, you need more than a gift or two. You need something much more substantial. You need to bring real value to the relationship. You need to differentiate yourself and become invaluable to your customers. And it all starts with listening to your customers first!

Retaining Customers... It Really Is as Easy as 1 - 2 - 3

I read an article recently about three simple steps that make customer retention easy. I had to laugh though, as it was three pages long and each of the 3 steps were comprised of 5-6 sub-steps, none of which were easy! So, I've compiled my own list of three simple steps.

Over the last week or so, we've had single-digit temperatures and several inches of snow. It is "beginning to look a lot like Christmas," which is exactly what we want this time of year in Ohio. Colder weather typically arrives in Octoer and we turn the heat on to take the chill off in the morning. We play a game at our house... how long can we go before we turn the heat on for good?! We got our first blast of cold air back in early October. We were still playing the game at our house and hadn't turned the heat on yet, but my elderly parents were freezing. That happens when you're 85 & 90-plus, especially when your furnace goes out! They called the repairman and sure enough, they needed a new furnace.

Now, I don't know about you, but I've never purchased a furnace. My furnace has always come with the house, and we haven't yet had to replace one. But I'm pretty sure that for most of us, buying a furnace is not a normal, everyday purchase, where 123you pick and choose where to buy based on customer service and loyalty. So I was shocked at the level of service provided. The company Dad called responded almost immediately, worked over the weekend, explained exactly what they were doing (Dad watched and chatted with them the entire time!), brought in heaters for overnight use, wore shoe protectors and cleaned up after themselves, and then hand-delivered a fruit bouquet three days later to ensure that everything was working properly and to say "thank you for your business!" All that for a single purchase that will last for the next 15-20 years. It still boggles my mind... I can almost guarantee you that my Dad is not going to buy another furnace anytime soon. I'll also tell you that I know who to call when my furnace does go out, which is just a matter of time, I'm sure!

The bottom line is this company gets it! They hire friendly, polite people who care about the quality of their work. They care about their customers, listen to what they're saying, and respond accordingly. They appreciate each and every customer. To them, it really is as easy as 1 -2 - 3.

1) Engage & Respect your customers
2) Listen & Respond to their needs
3) Show Appreciation

So no matter what type of business you're in (B2B or B2C), keep your retention strategy simple. 1 - 2 - 3; it really is that easy!