The 2005 Business Plan - Making it in the year ahead

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

By John Graham

What's so special about January 1 of a new year? While one year flows into the next without regard to a calendar change, the start of a new year is still very much of what can be called a refocus event.

There are "the business planners," those who feel that they need a road map for the upcoming 12 months. For weeks, everyone is engaged at updating last year's plan -- which was also the plan for five years earlier! Then, after the "big meeting," the plans are put away and it's business as usual.

All the phony pronouncements, useless posturing and hollow promises to reach unrealistic goals only obscure the annual opportunity to focus on what can be accomplished with sufficient effort. Putting all the nonsense aside, here's a 10-point business plan that focuses on task-driven strategies that make a difference.

1. Focus on the customer's experience

Forget about strategic planning; that just puts the focus on the company. The new measure of quality is the customer's experience with your product or service. Amazon's success has nothing to do with books or barbecues. What's evident is the extent to which this company thinks like its customers.

Or visit the meat department in any supermarket and you'll find chicken whatever way you want it.

Take the Honda Element, perhaps the most customer-friendly vehicle on the market today. Designed for twenty-somethings, Boomers are going for it. Room, flexibility and fun. It's always ready. You can even hose down the inside! And the price is right.

2. Focus on prospecting

There's always more talk than action when it comes to prospecting. And for good reason. Most prospecting isn't prospecting at all. It's little more than wasting time looking for needles in the haystack.

What's needed is a prospecting program. It starts with asking the critical question: "Who do we want to do business with if we had the opportunity?" Instead of having a handful of so-called prospects, a program opens the door much wider.

The next step is building the database and developing a prospect cultivation plan. Stay in regular touch in various ways. Be ready when the prospect gets ready.

3. Focus on giving customers choices

"What are my options?" is the first question today's customers ask. If they can't get them in one place, they'll find them elsewhere. Choices are the best way to overcome price problems, too.

But don't make the mistake of offering too many choices. When we're overwhelmed with possibilities, we react negatively. We check out and go somewhere else. Remember, even menus in Chinese restaurants are getting shorter.

4. Focus on follow up

Here's the most difficult problem facing every business and it impairs productivity. Leave voicemail and email and anything else you can think of -- but there's no response. End result: nothing gets done. And then come the complaints about mistakes and missed deadlines -- and they come from those who failed to respond.

Reduce stress (yours and everyone else's) and get more business by responding now.

5. Focus on niches

Mass markets have gone the way of mass communication. Just check the number of cable channels. Today, there's a "blog" for everyone. In retailing, Staples has traded in its original "warehouse look" for an attractive, appealing series of "boutique" centers. The mass merchandisers seem to hitting more than a few bumps. The demand is for a personalized approach.

Focus on specific markets with mini-websites, letterhead and business cards, email bulletins and newsletters for each one.

6. Focus on fast

Urgency is in. No one is willing to wait for anything. In fact, speed may well be the primary factor in evaluating the quality of service.

What should we be doing? Get rid of anything but a "do it now" mindset. Frankly, faster is better. One company president was surprised to discover that on-time delivery and quality customer service were keys to overcoming the price problem.

Get orders, proposals, quotes, responses and so forth out fast.

More business is lost by failing to respond fast than any other way.

7. Focus on your markets, not the competition

There's a difference between keeping an eye on the competition and following it. Competitors set the agenda for too many businesses. Not LG Electronics, the South Korean manufacturer. Committed to owning a big piece of an already congested upscale kitchen appliance market, it isn't flinching even though the competition is intense. Their stainless steel product lines are grabbing attention and sales away from both U.S. and European manufacturers.

8. Focus on legacy assets

Companies often forget about one of their major assets. It keeps them in business and they rely on it every day. Unfortunately, they fail to recognize its enormous value.

It's that reservoir of knowledge and experience built up over time that helps them identify problems and solutions quickly and accurately because they have dealt with the situations often.

Even more important, it's this accumulated experience that's highly transferable. Drawing upon the company legacy, solving new problems is far easier.

9. Focus on facts

Los Angeles entrepreneurs Brad Saltzman and Stephen Bikoff had plans to take their two low-carb Pure Foods stores nationwide. Unfortunately, low-carb became high-stress. The stores are losing money and the plans are scrapped.

What went wrong? A Forbes columnist interviewed the owners. "We thought we were invincible because the low-carb trend seemed to be so solid," said Saltzman. "That's why we didn't do any due diligence. We just dove into it."

Too many people in business are convinced by their own convictions. They don't want to take the time or spend the money to make sure their decisions are valid.

10. Focus on forward

We all look back, of course. If there's anything to learn from the World War II generation it is the unavoidable fact that we call them "The Greatest Generation" simply because they looked forward, not back.

Millions of Americans are discovering that they need to let go of the past if they want to work again. Those who spend months and years pursuing jobs in the industry where they spent 20 years often find themselves permanently unemployed. But others who make a quick assessment of the opportunities and realize they must make a career change tend to succeed.

Rather than dwelling on "numbers" as such, this 10-point "business plan" focuses on task-driven strategies for staying on course, standing out from the competition, attracting and holding customers and giving a business a competitive advantage.

Most importantly, this approach doesn't depend on economic factors or industry conditions. It all depends on taking responsibility for specific tasks.

John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing and sales consulting firm in Quincy, Mass., 02170 (617-328-0069;j_graham@grahamcomm.com. The company's Web site is www.grahamcomm.com.

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