5 Key Questions to Get New Business Ideas Off the Ground

frame We all have great ideas, or work with people who do. How many of them actually go anywhere? Brainstorming is fun, coming up with new ideas is exciting. But to turn that fun and excitement into tangible products or business you need to answer some key questions to frame your idea and give it some structure or foundation to help it get off the ground.

I’ve had the privilege to work with some people who are exceptionally bright, visionary, idea-generation machines.  For some people this is a hobby.  My colleagues tell me I’m good at providing structure to their ideas, so here are the questions I ask, and help them answer:

  1. What problem are you solving, or what possibility are you offering?
  2. Why should your customers care? Why should you care?
  3. What makes you unique, different, or memorable?
  4. What skills, people, or services are you missing that prevent you from presenting a complete offering?
  5. What is your business model? How do you make money?

Answering these questions will tell you if have, or don’t have, a viable business concept worth further exploration.  All five questions should be answered from the “customers” perspecitve and the need that is being filled.  Remember if your business doesn’t have customers, then you don’t have a business, you just have a hobby.

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Book Review – “Answering the Ultimate Question”

260692_cover.inddSince I have written in the past about Net Promoter Score (NPS) the publishers of this most recent book sent me a copy and it’s about time I posted my review.

There has been much criticism of NPS as a single measure of loyalty.  With most of the criticism centered around the disbelief that a single metric can be reliable, and the inability of others to reproduce the results from the original book.  With this recent work it looks as though the authors are more on the path of using NPS as a process for building a customer-centric business than as a single indicator of ability to grow.  The authors state “Net Promoter is a metric and way of doing business.”  So while the book answers some questions, it still leaves others unanswered.


  • It backs off from the single metric concept and offers a good framework or operating model for collecting, analyzing and acting on customer feedback.
  • It provides several good options for understanding and segmenting customers and what to do with each segment. It also offers a good methodology for driving organizational change towards becoming a more customer-centric organization.
  • It finally talks about multiple question surveys for gathering customer feedback.
  • They urge caution when using NPS to impact employee compensation.


  • It lists a major tenet as “linkage to financial outcomes” but doesn’t discuss or show how to really do that.  How does one prove that an improvement in financial performance is due to an increase in NPS?  They state that it does, but don’t show how to prove it.
  • Their discussion around correlation, regression, and relative impact analysis without a detailed example is a major fault.  They tell you why it’s important, but it really falls short on implementation.
  • Much of their discussion around customer-centricity is not all that new.

So if you are struggling with how to start on the path towards a customer-centric culture it’s a good read.  If your still hoping that asking one question will get you a loyal customer base, keep hoping my friends. It’s just not that easy.

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How to Grow a Professional Association

bar_chart_biz_people1.jpg Over the years I have served on the Boards and Committees of several professional associations.  It’s great networking, and the meetings are usually great learning opportunities.  I often get asked to serve on the Membership Committee due to the nature of my ‘customer relationship’ work.  The challenge facing associations is often the same – how to grow and maintain financial stability.

With each association I typically go through a very basic exercise as a starting point for understanding the membership.  Keep in mind that most of the people that run these groups are volunteers, with limited resources, so I need to keep things simple.  Here are the steps I typically go through:

  1. Ask for a list of all current members and the data fields in the membership database.  This should have fields such as name, title, contact info, company, start date, renewal date, etc. 
  2. Next ask for monthly data that includes the total number of current members, past members, and new members. 
  3. Ask for a list of all past members, including contact info, start date, and end date of membership. 
  4. Ask for monthly meeting data such as number and names of members and guests at the last several monthly meetings. 

Next, my goal is to use this data to get a quick “pulse check” of the health of the membership, improve our retention rate, and grow the membership.  Here is how we will use the data I have requested:

  1. The current membership list will be used to calculate average tenure of the membership.  I will do the same with the list of all past members to see if we are currently losing long-term members or short-term members who may have signed up for a membership and then realized the organization is not for them.  If you have captured the reason why members don’t renew, consider yourself very lucky!
  2. The current membership list will then be sorted by renewal date.  This can be used to implement a variety of contact campaigns to alert members that their renewal is coming due, and to remind them of the value your association provides.
  3. The monthly data will allow you to see trends and calculate a churn rate.  Is your membership count increasing?  Is it coming from more new members, or fewer lost members? 
  4. The dropped member list can used if you have the appetite to undertake a “win-back” campaign.  Your organization may be re-branding itself or refining it’s direction.  Once this is done you can contact past members and invite them back.
  5. The breakdown of members/guests at meetings will help you understand the financial impact of a membership.  This will allow you to calculate the average number of meetings a member attends.  Using your cost/member/meeting you can see if you need to adjust membership fees.  You can also see what guests attend each meeting and suggest that a membership may be a better deal for them.

Once you nail your reporting needs, and measures of performance, you can get everyone on-board with growing your association and enjoying the benefits of all your hard work. 

Great Expectations – Customers as Competitors

expectations2.jpg I’m seeing an interesting trend in my client work. The metrics used to measure the health of customer relationships are declining, yet the companies have not really changed anything operationally. So how does one explain this disturbing trend? First, getting to the heart of the matter would require a deep dive into the metrics to look for other trends, correlations, and insights. Until that happens, I’ll offer up one cause that may be impacting all sorts of other companies.

The rapid growth of the internet and supporting technologies has given consumers increased strength in the customer/company relationship. As customers have grown in power, so have their expectations, and their expectations are your real competition. Whatever you want to call it, this growth in popularity of customer-centricity is taking hold in a variety of industries. The believers are investing serious time and resources into understanding customer expectations, and improving their value and relevancy to thier customers. It’s paying off. Look at the growth of Amazon.com or the ratings for GEICO, or any of the blogs listed in my blogroll and you’ll find examples of companies who are improving thier customer relationships through improved products, services, and customer experiences with positive results.

As consumers see improvements with one company they begin to expect it from other companies, and often in totally unrelated industries. If I can open a CD account online with a bank in Indiana, why can’t my local credit union do the same thing? If it’s easy to get someone to help me at Home Depot, why do I have walk the isles at Lowe’s looking for the same assitance? When you call in for assistance to the California Franchise Tax Board the representative now gives you the the option to leave feedback following the call! If the Tax Board wants my feedback, why doesn’t everyone?

When it comes to customers and their expectations, being good enough isn’t. For many products and services, most customers won’t think about switching until thier current provider screws up or just doesn’t meet their expectations. Not meeting expectations is the initial driver to look elsewhere. It’s these expectations, whether realistic or not, that are the new competition. As more companies earnestly focus on improving thier value to their customers, the bar gets raised for all companies. Companies who have bought into a customer-centric way of doing business will be the winners. That means that customer-centricity is part of the life-blood of the company, that it is measured and rewarded, and that customer expectations are understood and often exceeded.

You Can’t Spell Customer ‘Success’ Without the S’s

success.jpg I’ve been working on a big “measuring the customer experience” project and it got me thinking. What is it that makes one customer initiative a success and another, well, not so successful? I didn’t want to say “failure” because I believe there is no such thing as failure, there’s only feedback. As I visited the recesses of my brain (yikes!), and researched best practices, I came up with 3 things you must consider when your company decides to focus on customers. They are the 3 S’s critical for success, and they are not mutually exclusive:

  1. Strategy
  2. Silos
  3. Staff

1. Strategy – The value of strategy should be pretty clear, and it needs to come from the top. What is your customer strategy? How are customers treated? How far will you go? Does cash flow come from products or from customers? (answer = customers). Have you taken the next step to customer advocacy? Do you want to “bump the lamp” like Disney? It needs to be defined, it needs to be clear, and it needs to be measurable. Remember, this just might be your biggest competitive advantage.

2. Silos – Is your CEO in charge of your customer strategy? Do you have a Chief Customer Officer who is charged with all things customer and can get all department heads on-board? Or is you Marketing VP expected to handle customer strategy? If it’s the latter, you may have some difficulties ahead. Customers touch every part of the business and unless you have someone with the authority to get things done, it won’t happen. You’ll need a team of senior executives from each area of the company who are responsible and rewarded for crafting and implementing your customer strategy.

3. Staff – Does the rest of your organization fully understand your customer strategy? Remember, everyone is directly serving customers, or serving someone who does. Have they been included in the design of your strategy? Does your front-line staff get it? Are they trained, supported, and rewarded based on customer success? Do they have the ability and desire to serve customers, to be empathetic, and to solve problems?

Having a wonderful CRM system and a visually rich customer dashboard doesn’t mean that customer success is a given. These three S’s often de-rail the best laid plans. If your just starting out, it’s best to acknowledge them up-front and include them in your implementation plan. If you down the road already and things are not working as expectated then take a step back and assess if these areas need some work. So, here’s to all your customer successes (wait, that’s 4 S’s …)

Do you have the right employees for your customer strategy?

man_smile_1.jpgWhen I make my monthly visit to my neighborhood PetCo I often stop at the near-by Jack In The Box drive-thru for a quick meal.  Up until a month ago this Jack In The Box was closed for several weeks to do some remodeling.  It just so happens that I have been there three times in the last month, which for me is a lot.  It’s also a lot of trips to the pet store, but that’s another story.

So once the Jack in the Box re-opened I was curious what improvments they made.  My answer came during my third visit of the month where I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted at the window by a very friendly and engaging young woman.  As she handed me my receipt she pointed out the invitation at the bottom of it inviting me to take their “Voice of the Customer” survey (wow, these folks all really current with their buzz words).  Little did she know that those words were like magic to my ears 🙂  I played coy and said “survey?” She then went on to tell me that I should take the survey to tell them what I thought of the remodel.  I told her I noticed they had been closed for a while and wondered why.  She very happily went on to tell me about the new interior, that I could now get lattes, new desserts, and watch TV on their new flat panel screens, etc.  She said I really should stop in and check it out. 

Now I don’t know if my next latte will be at Jack In The Box, but as I drove away I was really impressed with how excited that woman was about all the new changes.  I also wondered why I was only handed a receipt on my last two visits with no similar personal invitation to take their survey.

The critical element for all of us that work in the world of “Customers” is to not forget about the people we rely on to implement and execute our customer relationship strategy and tactics.  Be sure you have the right people in “customer facing” positions.  Will they be able to implement the strategy? Do they have the right skills, or will new staff be required? Are they engaging, are they good listeners, do they enjoy providing good service, do they want to take the time to do what is right for the customer, and do they enjoy their job?   Let’s also keep in mind we have to do a great job of communicating the strategy, why it’s important, how to make it come to life, and reward those who get it and live it.

A side note about their survey.  I recently wrote about feedback incentives.  The Jack In The Box incentive was to be entered into a sweepstakes where I could win $10,000.  Now I know that is a lot of money, but I have never found sweepstakes to be a great incentive for survey responses.  The odds are typically poor, and most people won’t be excited to respond.  But if I do win the $10K, I’ll be sure get my dog some wonderful new toys!