Feb 222018

No One Will Ever Thank You for Keeping Prices Low

I was in a Board meeting last week (not Return Path’s), when one of my fellow directors came out with this gem:  “No one will ever thank us for keeping our prices low.”

When I first heard this, as is the case with most great quotes, I was drawn to its wit and simplicity.

But then I started thinking – is it true?  My mind first went to retail.  Having a reputation as being a low-cost provider can be in and of itself effective marketing – if that reputation is strong enough and your selection is wide enough, at least in retail-oriented industries, customers may consistently buy from you even if you’re not ALWAYS the low-cost provider.  Wal-Mart and Amazon prove this one out every day.  That’s the economic equivalent of customers thanking you for keeping your prices low.  Or pick an even more extreme example – gas stations, where there’s even more limited brand loyalty and even more product commoditization.  There’s really no reason to buy gas from a station who charges more than a couple pennies more per gallon than its neighbor.  No, thank you.

But in a B2B environment with smaller numbers of customers and smaller numbers of SKUs, this comment makes a lot more sense.  IT or Marketing departments don’t exactly go to the grocery store twice a week to buy data or software solutions!  I’m a big believer in the diminishing differences between the B2C and B2B universes, but this area may be one where the difference is still sharp.

Low prices might lure prospects to your doorstep, but they’re not going to keep buying your product if it’s not of sufficiently high quality.  Buyers measure quality in different ways, but here are three frameworks to think about as you contemplate the quality of your solutions relative to their prices:

  • Is the quality of your product “above the bar”? Meaning, does it work well enough to get the job done that customers are hiring you to do?  If not, you do not have a sustainable business.  If so, see the next two questions
  • Is the value of your product strong enough relative to the price you charge? Value-based pricing is increasingly difficult in an era of hyper competition, but if you can offer tailored enough solutions by vertical or of course by client, you can really optimize your pricing model
  • Is your price/value equation strong enough relative to the price/value equation of a competing solution? Sometimes a “just barely good enough” solution can beat out a superior solution as long as it’s a LOT cheaper and the job the client needs done isn’t mission critical

The final thought vector in this equation is friction.  Go back to the consumer examples above – your switching cost to buy gas at Station A one week and Station B the next week is zero.  But in a B2B environment, there’s always at least some friction around switching products.  Friction could be implementation cost, time, execution risk.  It could be employee or customer training.  It could be integration with other systems or workflows.  It could even be desire to maintain a halo effect from doing business with you.  The more friction you have with your product, the easier it is to maintain higher pricing.

So my conclusion is that high prices are rarely going to chase someone away in a B2B, low client count/low SKU/moderate friction environment.  And that means my fellow director was spot-on:  no one will ever thank you for keeping your prices low.  All in, this comment was a great reminder for any B2B organization about how to think strategically about pricing.

Jun 122017

Why You Won’t See Us Trash Talk Our Competition

We’ve been in business at Return Path for almost 18 years now.  We’ve seen a number of competitors come and go across a bunch of different related businesses that we’ve been in.  One of the things I’ve noticed and never quite understood is that many of our competitors expend a lot of time and energy publicly trash talking us in the market.  Sometimes this takes the form of calling us or our products out by name in a presentation at a conference; other times it takes the form of a blog post; other times it’s just in sales calls.  It’s weird.  You don’t see that all that often in other industries, even when people take aim at market leaders.

During the normal course of business, one of sales reps might engage in selling against specific competitors — often times, they have to when asked specific questions by specific prospects — but one thing you’ll never see us do is publicly trash talk a single competitor by name as a company.  I’m sure there are a couple people at Return Path who would like us to have “sharper elbows” when it comes to this, but it’s just not who we are.  Our culture is definitely one that values kindness and a softer approach.  But good business sense also tells me that it’s just not smart for four reasons:

  • We’re very focused and disciplined in our outbound communications — and there’s only so much air time you get as a company in your industry, even among your customers — on thought leadership, on showcasing the value of our data and our solutions, and on doing anything we can do to make our customers more successful.  Pieces like my colleague Dennis Dayman’s recent blog post on the evolution of the data-driven economy, or my colleague Guy Hanson’s amazingly accurate prediction of the UK’s “unpredictable” election results both represent the kind of writing that we think is productive to promote our company
  • We’re fiercely protective of our brand (both our employer brand and our market-facing brand), and we’ve built a brand based on trust, reputation, longevity, and being helpful, in a business that depends on reputation and trust as its lifeblood — as I think about all the data we handle for clients and strategic partners, and all the trust mailbox providers place in us around our Certification program.  Clients and partners will only place trust in — and will ultimately only associate themselves with — good people.  To quote my long time friend and Board member Fred Wilson (who himself is quoting a long time friend and former colleague Bliss McCrum), if you lie down with dogs, you come up with fleas.  If we suddenly turned into the kind of company that talked trash about competition, I bet we’d find that we had diminished our brand and our reputation among the people who matter most to us.  Our simple messaging and positioning showcases our people, our expertise, and our detailed knowledge of how email marketing works, with a collective 2,000 years of industry experience across our team
  • Trash talking your competition can unwittingly expose your own weaknesses.  Think about Donald Trump’s memorable line from one of the debates against Hillary Clinton – “I’m not the puppet, you’re the puppet” – when talking about Russia.  That hasn’t turned out so well for him.  It’s actually a routine tactic of Trump, beyond that one example.  Accuse someone else of something to focus attention away from your own issues or weaknesses.  Don’t like the fact that your inauguration crowd was demonstrably smaller than your predecessor’s?  Just lie about it, and accuse the media of creating Fake News while you’re at it.  Disappointed that you lost the popular vote?  Accuse the other side of harvesting millions of illegal votes, even though it doesn’t matter since you won the electoral college!  Think about all these examples, regardless of your politics.  All of them draw attention to Trump’s weaknesses, even as he’s lashing out at others (and even if you think he’s right).  We don’t need to lash out at others because we have so much confidence in our company, our products, and our services.  We are an innovative, happy, stable, profitable, and growing vendor in our space, and that’s where our attention goes
  • Publicly trash talking your competition just gives your competition extra air time.  As PT Barnum famously said, “You can say anything you want about me, just make sure you spell my name right!”

Don’t get me wrong.  Competition is healthy.  It makes businesses stronger and can serve as a good focal point for them to rally.  It can even be healthy sometimes to demonize a competitor *internally* to serve as that rallying cry.  But I am not a fan of doing that *externally.*  I think it makes you look weak and just gives your competitor free advertising.

May 122016

Book Short: Scrum ptious

Book Short:  Scrum ptious 

I just finished reading Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, by Jeff Sutherland and JJ Sutherland. This reading was in anticipation of an Agile Facilitation training my executive team and I are going through next week, as part of Return Path’s  Agile Everywhere initiative. But it’s a book I should’ve read along time ago, and a book that I enjoyed.

Sutherland gets credit for creating the agile framework and bringing the concept scrum to software development over 20 years ago. The book very clearly lays out not just the color behind the creation of the framework, and the central tenets of practice again, but also clear and simple illustrations of its value and benefits.  And any book that employs the Fibonacci series and includes Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” quote — my all-time favorite — is off to a good start by me.

I’ve always appreciated a lot of the underlying philosophy of Agile, such as regularly checking on projects, course correcting in response to feedback from customers or other stakeholders, and working hard to remove any impediments to progress in real time.

One of the author’s most poignant points is that “multitasking makes you stupid.”  I hadn’t focused in the past how agile allows you to clear away context shifts to focus on one task at a time, but that’s another great take away from the book.

Our Agile Everywhere initiative, which is designed to improve productivity across the organization, as well as increase accountability through transparency, is even more critical in my view after having read this book.

The thing that I am left struggling with, which is still very much a work in progress for us, and hopefully something that we will address more head on in our training next week, is the application of the agile framework to teams that are not involved in the production of a tangible work product, such as executive or other leadership teams.  That is something that our Agile Everywhere deployment team has developed a theory about, but it still hasn’t entirely sunk in for me.

I can’t wait for next week’s training session!  If you have any experience applying the agile framework to different types of teams in your company I’d love to hear more about it in the Comments.

 

Mar 142013

Luck Matters (and You Can Only Make Some of It)

Luck Matters ( and You Can Only Make Some of It)

There was a great article recently in the Financial Times that’s worth reading here.  (Warning – you might have to complete a free registration in order to read this article.)  The premise is that most outliers, to use Malcolm Gladwell’s term, achieve their super status at least partly through luck.  And once that status is achieved, the good things just pile on from there.  This concept is as much Gladwell’s as that term is.

I always say that “you can make your own luck.”  And to some extent, that’s true.  Hard work and persistence and creativity can eventually open up doors on their own, no question about it.  While this article doesn’t say there are limitations to that axiom, it does note that hard work, persistence, and creativity PLUS some good luck is the more likely path to being #1 in your field.

Think about it this way – why is the most gifted golfer of the last 15 years someone who grew up in Southern California with a father who loved golf, and not, say, someone from the sub-Saharan region of Africa?  The latter person might have the equivalent amount of raw talent as Tiger Woods, maybe even more grit and determination.  But he’s probably never even heard of golf.

So what’s the lesson here for business leaders?  First, count your blessings.  You’re probably where you are for a bunch of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with you.  Second, look for other people to work with you who are lucky as well.  I read somewhere once that Tony Hsieh of Zappos asks every person he interviews if he or she is a lucky person – and that question pulls a lot of weight for him.  Finally, put your head down and work hard.  While this point is 100% valid, the thing is…you can’t do anything about it anyway, so you might as well push as hard as you can to do the best you can with what you’ve got!

May 102012

Learning Through Extremes, or Shifting Gears part II

OnlyOnce is 8 years old this week, which is hard to believe. So it is fitting that I got halfway through a new post this morning, then a little alarm bell went off in my head that I had written something similar before.  The topic is around moderation versus extremes.  I first wrote about this topic in 2005 in a post called Shifting Gears but I have thought about it more recently in a different way. 

Instead of phrasing this as a struggle between “Meden Agan,” which is Greek for “everything in moderation,” and “Gor oder gornischt,” which is Yiddish for “all or nothing,” I’d like to focus here on the value of occasionally going to an extreme. And that value is around learning. Let me give three examples:

-We were having a buy vs. build conversation at work a few months back as we were considering an acquisition. Some people in the room had an emotional bias towards buy; others toward build. So we framed the debate this way:  “Would you acquire the company for $1 instead of building the technology?” (Yes!) “Would you buy it for $10mm?” (No!) Taking the conversation to the extremes allowed us to focus on a rational answer as opposed to an emotional one — where is the price where buy and build are in equilibrium?

– With my colleague Andrea, I completed a 5-day juice fast a few weeks back. It was good and interesting on a bunch of levels. But I came away with two really interesting learnings that I only got from being extreme for a few days:  I like fruits and veggies (and veggie juices) a lot and don’t consume enough of them; and I sleep MUCH better at night on a relatively empty stomach

– Last year, I overhauled my “operating system” at work to stop interviewing all candidates for all jobs and stop doing 90-day 1:1 meetings with all new employees as well. I wrote about this in Retail, No Longer. What finally convinced me to do it was something one of my colleagues said to me, which was “Will you be able to keep these activities up when we have 500 employees?” (No) “So what is the difference if you stop now and save time vs. stopping in 6 months?” Thinking about the extreme got me to realize the full spectrum

It may not be great to live at the extremes, but I find extremes to be great places to learn and develop a good sense of what normal or moderate or real is.

Mar 292012

Book Short: Awesome Title, So-So Book

Book Short:  Awesome Title, So-So Book

Strategy and the Fat Smoker (book, Kindle), by David Maister, was a book that had me completely riveted in the first few chapters, then completely lost me for the rest.  That was a shame.  It might be worth reading it just for the beginning, though I’m not sure I can wholeheartedly recommend the purchase just for that.

The concept (as well as the title) is fantastic.  As the author says in the first words of the introduction:

We often (or even usually) know what we should be doing in both personal and professional life.  We also know why we should be doing it and (often) how to do it.  Figuring all that out is not too difficult.  What is very hard is actually doing what you know to be good for you in the long-run, in spite of short-run temptations.  The same is true for organizations.

The diagnosis is clear, which is as true for organizations as it is for fat people, smokers, fat smokers, etc.  The hard work (pain) is near-term, and the rewards (gain) are off in the future, without an obvious or visible correlation.  As someone who has had major up and down swings in weight for decades, I totally relate to this.

But the concept that

the necessary outcome of strategic planning is not analytical insight but resolve,

while accurate, is the equivalent of an entire book dedicated to the principle of “oh just shut up and do it already.”  The closest the author comes to answering the critical question of how to get “it” done is when he says

A large part of really bringing about strategic change is designing some new action or new system that visibly, inescapably, and irreversibly commits top management to the strategy.

Right.  That’s the same thing as saying that in order to lose weight, not only do you need to go on a diet and weigh yourself once in a while, but you need to make some major public declaration and have other people help hold you accountable, if by no other means than causing you to be embarrassed if you fail in your quest.

So all that is true, but unfortunately, the last 80% of the book, while peppered with moderately useful insights on management and leadership, felt largely divorced from the topic.  It all just left me wanting inspirational stories of organizations doing the equivalent of losing weight and quitting smoking before their heart attacks, frameworks of how to get there, and the like.  But those were almost nonexistent.  Maybe Strategy and the Fat Smoker works really well for consulting firms – that’s where a lot of the examples came from.  I find frequently that books written by consultants are fitting for that industry but harder to extrapolate from there to any business.

Feb 092012

The Best Laid Plans, Part IV

The Best Laid Plans, IV

I have had a bunch of good comments from readers about the three posts in this series about creating strategic plans (input phase, analysis phase, output phase).  Many of them are leading me to write a fourth post in the series, one about how to make sure the result of the plan isn’t shelfware, but flawless execution.

There’s a bit of middleware that has to happen between the completion of the strategic plan and the work getting done, and that is an operating plan.  In my observation over the years, this is where most companies explode.  They have good ideas and capable workers, just no cohesive way to organize and contextualize the work.  There are lots of different formats operating plans can take, and a variety of acronyms to go with the formats, that I’ve heard over the years.  No one of these formats is “right,” but I’ll share the key process steps my own team and I went through just over the past few months to turn our strategic planning into action plans, synchronizing our activities across products and groups.

  • Theme:  we picked a theme for the year that generally held the bulk of the key work together – a bit of a rallying cry
  • Initiatives:  recognizing that lots of people do lots of routine work, we organized a series of a dozen “move the ball forward” projects into specific initiatives
  • Communication:  we unveiled the theme and the initiatives to ALL at our annual business meeting to get everyone’s head around the work to be done in the upcoming year
  • Plans:  each of the dozen initiative teams, and then also each team/department in the company (they’re different) worked together to produce a short (1-3 page) plan on a template we created, with a mission statement, a list of direct and indirect participants, important milestones and metrics
  • Synchronization:  the senior management team reviewed all the plans at the same time and had a meaningful discussion to synchronize the plans, making edits to both substance and timing
  • Scorecard:  we built our company scorecard for the year to reflect “green/yellow/red” grading on each initiative and visually display the most important 5-6 metrics across all initiatives
  • Ongoing reporting:  we will publish the scorecard and updated to each initiative plan quarterly to the whole company, when we update them for Board meetings

As I said, there’s no single recipe for success here, but this is a variant on what we’ve done consistently over the years at Return Path, and it seems to be working well for us.  I think that’s the end of this series, and judging from the comments I’ve received on the blog and via email, I’m glad this was useful to so many people.

Feb 022012

The Best Laid Plans, Part III

The Best Laid Plans, Part III

Once you’ve finished the Input Phase and the Analysis Phase of producing your strategic plan, you’re ready for the final Output Phase, which goes something like this:

Vision articulation.  Get it right for yourself first.  You should be able to answer “where do we want to be in three years?” in 25 words or less.

Roadmap from today.  Make sure to lay out clearly what things need to happen to get from where you are today to where you want to be.  The sooner-in stuff needs to be much clearer than the further out stuff.

Resource Requirements.  Identify the things you will need to get there, and the timing of those needs – More people?  More marketing money?  A new partner?

Financials.  Lay them out at a high level on an annual basis, on a more detailed level for the upcoming year.

Packaging.  Create a compelling presentation (Powerpoint, Word, or in your case, maybe something more creative) that is crisp and inspiring.

Pre-selling.  Run through it – or a couple of the central elements of it – with one or two key people first to get their buy-in.

Selling.  Do your roadshow – hit all key constituents with the message in one way or another (could be different forms, depending on who).

The best thing to keep in mind is that there is no perfect process, and there’s never a “right answer” to strategy — at least not without the benefit of hindsight!

People have asked me what the time allocation and elapsed time should or can be for this process.  While again, there’s no right answer, I typically find that the process needs at least a full quarter to get right, sometimes longer depending on how many inputs you are tracking down and how hard they are to track down; how fanatical you are about the details of the end product; and whether this is a refresh of an existing strategy or something where you’re starting from a cleaner sheet of paper.  In terms of time allocation, if you are leading the process and doing a lot of the work yourself, I would expect to dedicate at least 25% of your time to it, maybe more in peak weeks.  It’s well worth the investment.

Jan 192012

The Best Laid Plans, Part II

The Best Laid Plans, Part II

Once you’ve finished the Input Phase (see last week’s post) of producing your strategic plan, you’re ready for the Analysis Phase, which goes something like this:

Assemble the facts.  Keep notes along the way on the input phase items, assemble them into a coherent document with key thoughts and common themes highlighted.

Select/apply framework.  Go back to the reading and come up with one or more strategic frameworks.  Adapted them from the academic stuff to fit our situation.  Academic frameworks don’t solve problems on their own, but they do force you to think through problems in a structured way.

Step back.  Leave everything alone for two weeks and try not to think about it.  Come back to it with a fresher set of eyes immediately before starting on the final outputs.

Reality check.  Go back to one or two of the constituents you originally met with to begin laying out your thoughts to them – “try them on for size” – and get the unfiltered visceral reactions.

Next up:  the Output Phase.

Jan 122012

The Best Laid Plans, Part I

The Best Laid Plans, Part I

One of my readers asked me if I have a formula that I use to develop strategic plans.  While every year and every situation is different, I do have a general outline that I’ve followed that has been pretty successful over the years at Return Path.  There are three phases — input, analysis, and output.  I’ll break this up into three postings over the next three weeks.

The Input Phase goes something like this:

Conduct stakeholder interviews with a few top clients, resellers, suppliers; Board of directors; and junior staff roundtables.  Formal interviews set up in advance, with questions given ahead.  Goal for customers: find out their view of the business today, how we’re serving them, what they’d like to see us do differently, what other products we could provide them.  Goal for Board/staff: get their general take on the business and the market, current and future.

Conduct non-stakeholder interviews with a few industry experts who know the company at least a little bit.  Goal: learn what they think about how we were doing today…and what they would do if they were CEO to grow the business in the future.

Re-skim a handful of classic business books and articles.  Perennial favorite include Good to Great, Contrarian Thinking, and Crossing the Chasm.

Hold a solo visioning exercise.  Take a day off, wander around Central Park.  No phone, no email.  Nothing but thinking about business, your career, where you want everything to head from a high level.

Hold senior staff brainstorming.  Two-day off-site strategy session with senior team and maybe Board.

Next up:  the Analysis Phase.