High blood pressure is a silent killer. Combined with other risk factors it can lead to death. Similarly, in business, there are seven silent business killers that if combined, can lead to the death of a business. Here are the warning signs the health of a business may be at risk:
#1 Life Is Great
Things have been going well for a long time now. You hardly ever hear of any problems. The numbers look good, although lately they have been getting a little soft. You are not too worried because your people will tell you if something is wrong, although they didn't the last time you lost a customer. You found that out by accident. Right about now you are feeling like you have this CEO thing down cold! Maybe it is finally time to work on that golf game. You couldn't be more wrong.
When you feel like this it is time to be on your guard. Dig hard into your operation to see what's wrong. Peel back the onion of your financials and find out where the issues are. They could be buried deep so look hard.
Do a deep dive of every department. Remember, you are not trying to determine if you have problems-you do. You are trying to find out where they are.
#2 Everyone Makes Nice In Meetings
When your people have a meeting, they look more like an oil painting than an engaged team. Your meetings are oh-so-nice. No disagreements, no conflicts, no lively debates. If things do start to get a little heated, someone offers to "take it offline". When there is a discussion, people look to you to see what your view is before they take a position. They are more concerned with being nice than moving the business forward. They live by the old Abraham Lincoln mantra of "better to be silent and thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt". But you can't move the business forward without conflict. So the absence of conflict should not be your goal. Productive conflict should be. Here is what you need to do:
Encourage, insist, and even demand that people engage in conflict. Make it clear that the absence of conflict is not o.k. But just be sure it is the productive kind.
Conflict needs to be managed, measured, and meaningful. Otherwise it turns destructive in a hurry. Train everyone on the team in conflict management skills.
#3 Innovation is DOA
Product development has been a little slow for a while. The company used to crank out new products all the time. These days, most of your product developments are minor enhancements that don't yield better margins. But that's OK, because the customer expects product improvements. Still, it bothers you that while they expect improvements, they won't pay for them. You are on a death trajectory, just waiting for the competition to make you irrelevant. You need to re-energize innovation-fast.
Make innovation the number one goal in the company (read: big incentives for achieving innovation goals). And just don't make it a goal-make it an absolute requirement. Don't restrict this to new products. It can and should include internal and external processes and procedures.
Train everyone (and I do mean everyone) in the tools and techniques of innovation. This is a process that can be learned and applied by everyone, not just the "creative" types.
Throw a challenge down for an annual innovation award. Whoever comes up with the most innovative product or process gets a large cash award.
#4 Your Sales Team Works For Your Customer
When a conflict arises between your company and a customer, does your salesperson side with the customer? When it comes time for a price increase do your salespeople make it happen or do they sandbag you until you give up? Ever hear the expression "customers pay the bills"? Or how about this: "the customer is always right". These are signs of sales people who may be on your payroll, but they work for your customer. If you think that is a good thing, think again. Your customer will put you right out of business by squeezing your margins to nothing if they can get away with it. Your customers are constantly advising your competition about how they can deliver better quality or lower price than you can. Your customers will abandon you in a minute for a better deal somewhere else. So why on earth would you want sales people who work for your customer? If this sounds like your sales team, here is what you should do:
Sales people develop deep relationships with their customers. So deep they are afraid to offend them, give them bad news (like a price increase) or otherwise irritate them. Shake them up. Change account assignments. In the new assignments, change the incentive plans to include whatever it is you have been trying to get done, but couldn't because they were working for the customer (i.e. price increase)
Develop a new model for the sales person of the future. You'll need it because some of the old guard won't make the trip. Be prepared to act on them.
#5 Your Toxic Employees Killing Off Your Customers
Ever meet a rude flight attendant? Or how about a front desk clerk who could care less about your problems? Have you ever walked into a restaurant and been ignored by the hostess? These are just a few examples of toxic employees. One toxic employee can destroy years of customer loyalty. One toxic employee can chase dozens of customers away every day. Imagine how much business they can destroy in a month, or in a year. Don't let his happen to you. Do a toxic employee checkup:
Go toxic employee hunting. Take this one organization layer at a time and start asking who the toxic people are. And don't buy the excuse that no one knows who your toxic employees are. Someone knows.
Once you have identified them, tell them they must change their behavior immediately or they can't stay. And terminate them if they don't come around. Don't wait too long on this, because your customers aren't waiting around for you.
Set a new standard of behavior for the entire company. Once you have cleaned house, be mindful that weeds always grow back, so be prepared to prune the garden often.
#6 Factory Cost Is Under Control
Your manufacturing manager has been producing your widgets for what seems like forever. He knows exactly how to run that factory. He does a great job in scheduling the work, purchasing raw materials, and shipping the product out. However, it seems like a long time since he talked about cost reductions. He cites good reasons why cutting costs is hard to do, and he tells you that the answer to the problem of margins is to raise prices. He tells you costs are under control. Under control is not good enough. If the Chinese don't get you, some other developing country you never heard of will.
Set a goal for improving productivity by 10% per year. And don't play the shell game of "where did the savings go"? When you improve productivity that much, you either need to raise the top line or reduce the workforce. Otherwise you are just playing "fantasy factory".
Be willing to invest in capital equipment to automate, create work cells and implement lean methods.
#7 Hiding In the United States
You know the US market well, as do your people, because it is your only market, even though you are pretty sure your product could be applied internationally. The problem in the US is that margins are getting thin. You were surprised recently to learn that a foreign competitor took some business away from you. You had never heard of this company before, and your salespeople were dumbfounded. Now you're worried that they are after the rest of your business. And they probably are. Don't wait around to find out. Here's how to get started:
Hire an expert international consultant. But be sure he is an expert in your particular industry. There are vast differences within a foreign country from one industry to the next so you need to be sure you hire the right consultant with the right background.
Get a passport if you don't have one already. This may sound fundamental but you would be surprised how many CEO's I talk to that don't have one.
Go to the Federal Government for help (no really!). The Commercial Service has excellent country/industry guides from all over the world. And their Gold Key Service can provide customized information based upon your industry and product. Gold Key also provides in-country introductions.
[With more than three decades of management, executive, consulting and speaking experience in markets all over the world, Miller Ingenuity CEO Steve Blue is a globally regarded business growth authority and "turnaround specialist" who has transformed companies into industry giants and enthralled audiences with his dynamic keynotes. He may be reached at www.StevenLBlue.com.]