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Monday, April 27, 2009

Bye, Bye Blogger

When it comes to using the web, I'm amazed at how much there is to learn every day. A case in point is blogs. Blogging is a good thing to do for a number of reasons. First, it allows you the opportunity to communicate with the people who are interested in what you say. Secondly, and a critical point at that is that a blog also provides you an opportunity to reach people you don't know who might be interested in what you have to say. It provides the opportunity to create a following and will hopefully lead to new customers.

I've been blogging for quite some time, my first post was in October of 2007 and encompasses something like 65 posts in total. What I did not know until recently was that my site was not receiving the benefit of all this activity. See, we've been using blogger, which is a Google product. It has nice functionality and best of all, its free. But, unfortunately, by using blogger in its standard format, the domain for our blog was vann-group.blogspot.com. This means that instead of driving traffic to our site, we were in fact helping drive traffic to Google. I'm pretty confident in saying that Google does not need my help to drive traffic.

There are a number of other reasons why its not a good idea to have your blog tied to a free blog tool like Blogger. Hubspot has a post - Why Business Blogs Shouldn't be On Blogspot.com" that you should check out for more insight into the topic. Also, if you are interested in seeing how well your site is maximized for the web, check out Website Grader, also a Hubspot tool. The first time we ran www.vann-group.com through the grader in December, we rated a 51 - this morning we are up to a 70. I expect it to go even higher now that we've moved our blog to www.blog.vann-group.com. So, if you have our blog bookmarked, please change the bookmark, or even better subscribe to the blog using an RSS feeder.

As an FYI, we are using WordPress as our new blogging software. WordPress is also free, but is an amazing tool. If you are going to start a blog, I would highly suggest using it.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Decline of Differentiation

You may recall that back in March, we posted about a recent study done by Brand Keys regarding customer satisfaction and loyalty. The elements of the study that we saw provided some great insight, including this nugget:

The brands that won are the beneficiaries of consumers’ new expectations regarding brand value. The most significant shift is a neutralizing of the impact of price. And, believe it or not, this can actually turn out to be good news for brands. While economic news hasn’t been good, these shifts provide opportunities for brands that pay attention to what the consumer really expects and offer meaningful differentiation, will tip the value scales in their direction, because value matters more than ever. More than just price.

In catching up with my reading after a couple of days, I found this post - the Decline of Differentiation by the folks over at Branding Strategy Insider that provides some more insight into the study. What I found interesting, particularly from a brand perspective is that in a study of 1,847 different products/services analyzed, only 21% had any points of differentiation that were noticeable to consumers. Amazing when you think about all the time, money and effort spent building brands. Branding Strategy Insider chalked this up to the following:
  1. Relying too heavily on price oriented programs rather than brand building. Unless your goal is to be the low cost provider, discounting is bad!
  2. Allowing the creatives to be too creative; the result is ads and campaigns that are clever and win awards, but don't promote the differentiation of the product/service.
  3. Management consultants don't focus on the customer in a meaningful way as they don't understand the mind of the customer, "which is where the marketing battles take place"
Number 3 speaks to us quite clearly, as we fully recognize that business strategy needs to start with the customer. If you don't understand what the customer values and you don't speak to it, you can't expect to stand out in the customers mind.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Management Fads & Trends

Over at BNET, there is a post entitled 9 Notable Management Fads (or Trends) that is worth a quick read. Of the 9 mentioned, my favorite comment is the one regarding strategic planning:

Strategic Planning. Rarely has such a critical concept been so poorly executed by so many consultants, executives and companies. It’s almost embarrassing.

I couldn't agree more with this sentiment. Strategic Planning has a bad reputation! We spend a significant amount of our time in front of our prospective clients explaining why the approach we take to planning is different than what they are used to. Its gotten to the point where we have started using the term transition planning, success planning and anything else that we can find to differentiate ourselves from the countless consultants who think a SWOT analysis and a series of "what actions are we going to take this year" is a reasonable approach to strategy.

In addition to the nine, I also think that two that are missing from the list, but warrant being included are Six Sigma and Innovation. An entire industry of consultants has popped up around each of these topics which have both spawned and untold number of books about how to implement Six Sigma and how to instill a culture of innovation in your company.

Are there any fads/trends that should be added to the list?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

How do we Add Value

A critical challenge for all businesses, but particularly professional service businesses is adding value. We constantly hear that we have to "add value" - it is the rallying cry of consultants, management and leadership. ADD VALUE! Of course, the problem with this mantra is that we don't necessarily know what "added value" means. never mind how we add value. Over at the American Express Open Forum, there is a great post entitled "Are you a 100% sure you are adding value people will pay for?" that focuses on the definition of added value.

The original definition of added value was: “The contribution of the factors of production, i.e., land, labor and capital goods, to raising the value of a product out of commodity status”. The article suggests a new definition: “Added Value is total value MINUS the value without us. What you get is what you bring to others".

I like the definition, and think it can be used as a rather provocative question during a strategic planning session. More importantly, we should also be asking the inverse and identifying what the customer considers "added value". Alternatively, and likely the subject of another post is to ask ourselves the question of whether or not we should even be attempting to provide added value? What do you think?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Mass Pike & Mismanagement

This is one for the "you can't make this stuff up" list. Apparently, the Mass Pike was backed up for oh, 45 miles or so on Sunday, because many of the toll takers decided to "bang out" for the holiday and management did not feel compelled to call in additional help, because they are really desperate for money and hoping to conserve cash. In an all too typical fashion, the response from Alan LeBovidge, the Director of the Pike was to blame his customers. As noted in this article in today's Boston Herald:

LeBovidge acknowledged his agency could have done a better job placing signs ahead of toll plazas telling drivers which lanes they should be in. But the Pike chief shifted the ultimate blame from his own management decisions and his toll takers’ work ethic to the drivers who were caught in the mess.

“Not enough drivers had Fast Lane transponders,” LeBovidge said.

Clearly, Mr. LeBovidge has never driven on the Mass Pike. If he did, he would know that the Fast Lane does not run the entire stretch of the Pike! Even better than this response was his advice: drivers better get used to it, or get a transponder. Memorial Day, he said, is likely to be just as bad.

Good to see our government representatives doing all they can to serve the people. By the way, Mr. LeBovidge is reported to make $140,000 a year and gives it to charity. Oh, and those toll collectors who couldn't be bothered to make it into work on Sunday - the senior toll collector makes on average $57,500 a year plus overtime and benefits.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Why I Read: The Blender Effect

One of the objectives I set for myself sometime last year was to keep better track of my time. Tracking time on paper or Excel made the billing process time consuming and painful. I started using Freshbooks, a fantastic web based application that is perfect for people like me who sell time. I was recently reviewing my time for the past six months and was startled not by what was on the time cards, but what was not. I have a pretty consistent work schedule. I'm normally in by 7:30 and stay at the office until 5:30 or 6 every weekday. Plus I usually work another 8 hours on Saturday and am out networking or at functions several nights a week. A realistic estimate of my work week is probably 65 - 70 hours a week.

However, my time sheet doesn't reflect that; it typically reflects 40 - 50 hours because its missing some activities. I don't keep track of phone calls or activities that run less than a half hour nor do I keep track of my time doing email, working at night, some of my retainer work or quick projects that are for friends of the firm.(i.e. non-billable) or non-profit. However, this only accounts for part of my missing time - let's say that accounts for 7 - 10 hours a week. What happens to the other 10 or 15 hours of missing time?

It turns out that I am spending a lot of time educating myself by reading; on average 1.5 to 2 hours a day, which amounts to somewhere between 600 and 800 hours a year! At first I was appalled by the number - no wonder I need to spend so much time working - I'm screwing around on the web all day! However, as I thought about it, I realized that reading that much every day is absolutely critical for me. By selling my advice, I am selling my knowledge and insight. I can't gain that knowledge and insight without constantly adding to it. That knowledge is provided from numerous sources.

The first place to begin is to look at my RSS feeds. I am currently following 37 blogs, not including a daily search of AllTop. Some of these are updated everyday (sometimes dozens of times) and others a couple of times a week. The topics are very diverse. Tech Crunch and Venture Beat keep me up to date on the latest happenings in technology. I follow Seth Godin and Guy Kawasaki to get my fill of recognized thought leaders and Chris Brogan for insight from an emerging thought leaders I follow several brand strategy focused blogs like Branding Strategy Insider, the Keyhole and the Darby O'Brien Agency Gut blog. For my social media fix I read the blogs of Fresh Tilled Soil, Groundswell and the Global Social Media Network. Beyond all the blogs I follow, I am also following the news constantly - Huffington Post, MSNBC, CNN, etc. And, when all that fails, I've got a twitter feed that is constantly identifying articles and posts that I might want to read. This also doesn't include the various magazines and books that get read on a daily/weekly/monthly basis. This is where the knowledge comes from.

Determing how this knowledge is translated into insight is harder to explain, but I liken it to experimenting with blender. I'm never sure which ingredients (i.e. knowledge) I've secured are going to be applied, but I know that at some point, something I read and learned will be thrown into the blender and utilized to create a great strategy. A quick look at our success stories demonstrates the results we've achieved over the years with what I call the "blender effect".

In another post, I'll provide detail about how you can use the blender effect to gain critical insights into your business. Trust me - its surprisingly simple.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

My Choice to Fix GM and Other World Problems

As many of you know, the news of General Motors is not so good. In yesterday’s Bloomberg an article entitled "GM Bankruptcy Plan Developing as Board Seeks Savings", indicates that GM will likely be filing bankruptcy soon and splitting the company into two – one with good assets the other with bad. Too soon to comment on the plan because its all speculation, but it got me thinking about how to solve the problem. Two words popped into my head – Winston Wolf.

Winston Wolf is a character from Pulp Fiction. Pulp is a fantastic movie and for any guy who came of age in the 1990’s, it’s a cultural touchstone. The first time I saw it was in the Cinema Draft House in Arlington, VA, a great place to watch a movie because it’s a movie theater that just so happens to be a restaurant/bar as well. Pulp was an awesome movie because it was just so different; the violence was graphic, the music was eclectic, the story telling quick and the dialogue was fast, memorable and quotable - for frat boys such as myself this was the holy trinity of movie experiences.

The best part of Pulp Fiction is the characters. All are memorable and most immediately remember Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as hit men Vincent Vega and Jules. Jackson is still trying to find to recapture the magic of him as Jule's - nothing tops his quoting of Ezekiel 25:17. However, my favorite character is the aforementioned Winston Wolf.

Harvey Keitel played the “Wolf”. His job is to solve problems. Check out this clip from the movie, but beware its not suitable for work, so turn the volume down if you must watch it at the office. I like the Wolf because he is pure genius, a strategist and leader for a chaotic and pressure packed world. As I watched the clip it occurred to me that he could be a great model for a CEO because of the traits he possesses:

1. He inspires confidence. When Jules calls Marcellus and explains the situation, Marcellus tells him the Wolf is on the case, Jules says "that's all you needed to say.
2. He is trusted. Recognizing the situation, Marcellus doesn't hesitate to call the Wolf to solve his problem. Likewise, in the other scenes, no one questions his approach; they trust that he is making the right decision.
3. He embraces the moment. The Wolf understands and acts on the sense of urgency, but does it with a calming approach. He is not frantic; he is relaxed and even takes time to get a cup of coffee - lots of cream and lots of sugar.
4. He is focused. The Wolf only asks the questions he needs the answers to. He doesn't care about why the situation happened, only the pertinent facts that he needs to make decisions and create an action plan.
5. He is quick. Once he has the facts about what he needs to know, he makes decisions. He doesn't take a lot of time to analyze the options and create all sorts of scenarios. He recognizes that its better to make a fast decision that might be wrong than no decision at all.
6. He delegates. Jimmy is getting coffee and linens, Jules & Vincent are cleaning the car and the Wolf is making the call's he needs to make to dispose of the car. Everyone has a responsibility and plays a role in solving the problem.
7. He is clear and concise. As he delegates, he provides pointed direction so there is no room for miscommunication or individual interpretation. Clean the car so there is no brains, make sure you get the puddles of blood cleaned up but don't worry about having it so clean you can eat off it. With the linens, only dark ones and make sure they are heavy.
8. He cuts through the bull. When Vincent complains that the Wolf doesn't say please, he is quick to point out why he doesn't say please while restating the objective of his actions.
9. He finds solutions and has a plan. He recognized the situation and the resources available and found a solution that achieved the end goal.
10. He motivates. When Jimmy created an obstacle about his wives linens, he utilized cash to motivate Jimmy to give them up but does it in a way where Jimmy can rationalize it and feel comfortable with it.
11. He is networked. He immediately called an associate to ensure that he has a place to send the car.
12. He is flexible. While he had a plan, he also realized that something could go wrong, so in the event it did, he instructed everyone not to do anything until he made a move. He had a contingency plan in place.

Excluding the circumstances of this particular movie, doesn't he possess leadership traits that we want our CEO's and elected officials to possess? Barring that, wouldn't it be great if the country had a Wolf that we could call? Somehow, I don’t think he would have a problem negotiating with lenders, unions and vendors nor laying out a plan to solve the problems.

Beyond the auto crisis, shouldn’t we get the Wolf involved in all our other issues? Can you imagine putting the Wolf on the job for solving the housing crisis, toxic assets or Iraq? How do you think the Wolf would approach these problems?