Saturday, October 27, 2007

All Quiet on the Western Front

A light rain this morning may help close the current chapter on the wildfires that have been the top story in the news this past week. I got a call from a friend in Norway and an email from my sister who was in Ireland this week checking to see if I was OK as the images of the fire were being broadcast around the world.

What was ironic, that despite me being in a mandatory evacuation zone (by 300 years), I personally was effected in some surprising ways. As a self employed consultant, if I don't work, I don't pull a salary, I tried to maintain my focus on doing what I needed to get done. My high school age daughter ended up getting the whole week off of school so I did have the opportunity to spend a bit more time with her than usual. In recorded and email updates from her school district, I was kept up to date with what her school closing schedule would be. In the last update, it was reported that 20 staff members and 340 student lost their homes which is truly tragic and speaks to the magnitude of the impact on those closet to to fire. I heard one neighborhood in nearby Rancho Bernardo lost over 200 homes.

I received a call from a friend in the southeast who indicated that she would stick with hurricanes as her disaster of choice. I found that ironic as even though a few miles away from me hundreds of people were losing their homes, I had very little concern about my personal safety. My home was in an area that was designated a mandatory evacuation zone which may likely be criticized in the future as a bit of an over reaction by public officials. I believe over 300,000 people lived in areas that we within the evacuation zones. A case can be made that well over 100,000 people were evacuated prematurely. I'm guessing the fire would have had to burn through about 5000 homes before my neighborhood would have been threatened. Comparing hurricanes to fires is not really a valid analogy as technology can do very little to effect a hurrican and massive evacuations are often required and certainly extremely disruptive. This recent fire is likely to stimulate tens of millions of venture capital to develop solutions for mitigating the impacts of fires and increasing the capabilities of protecting homes from wildfires. Cisterns, battery backup power, and small powerful water pumps are likely to be items that homeowners backing up to open space areas are required by their insurance companies to invest in if the want continued insurance. Let's look to entrepreneurs and the American spirit to make sure the next wild fire season is less impactful.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Competing for Customers

Ultimately, a brand must sell something to a customer in order to be a viable entity. The result of this requirement is that brands and the people who manage them must convince a customer that their product or service is superior to the offerings of competitive brands. An enormous amount of information exists in books and online about competitive strategy which oftentimes is fairly generic and brand managers must interpret how to best apply this knowledge.

Information about customers and prospects is a critical element in closing the loop. Understanding who your customer and how they think enhances the ability of brands to "win" that customers heart, mind and wallet. In the course of my consulting, I have access to the Google Analytics for a number of my clients. By studying this data, you can learn a huge amount about your customers.

I have a client that manufactures the Litter-Robot (, a $299 self cleaning cat litter box. The company does a significant amount of its sales direct to the consumer via the Internet and I spend a fair amount of time trying to figure out why visitors come to the website, how they use the information and how to turn more of them into customers. The following are some of my admittedly non scientific observations:

1) A huge amount of visitors are looking for self cleaning cat litter boxes on company time. I guess that it is no secret that much online shopping happens during work hours and for selfish reasons, I wouldn't want that to stop.

2) International visits often represent 10-25% of daily traffic. This amazes me how flat the world has become so quickly. How do these people in dozens of countries around the world learn about the Litter-Robot and other products I am involved with. Obviously, an increasing amount of information is coming from sources that are not originated ion the visitors home country.

3) Can customers be segmented by employers? The following compares how many visits for a company it took to generate 1 sale:

4 General Electric
10 Hewlett Packard
2 Hyundai Motor Company
1 Temple University
2 University of Connecticut

I don't know if you can draw any conclusions from the above numbers like university folks being well educated and ready to buy or Hyundai Motor visitor being more aggressive than visitors from GE or NASA. Could Hewlett Packard coming in at 10 visits per sale indicates a culture that moves cautiously or slowly. Heck, even the rocket scientists from NASA can make a decision quicker than the ink jet folks.

4) Can Google Analytics be a source of competitive information? Here's a couple of data points that I'm currently pondering.

Microsoft accounted for 39 visits and no sales. could it be that Microsoft is considering entering the self cleaning cat litter box business? Or is this a function they are considering for the next version of Vista?

Goldman Sachs viewed 20 page views and didn't make a purchase. Perhaps they are planning to make a billion dollar acquisition of Automated Pet Car Products, the company that manufactures the Litter-Robot.

5) Drilling down in page views and time spent on the site can also be revealing.

Someone from the Air Force Material Command viewed 17 pages in a 37 minute visit. You would expect someone who is involved in buying materials for planes to thoroughly evaluated all the information. On the other hand, someone from the Air Force Flight Test Center zoomed through 24 pages in 36 minutes. Must be a Top Gun used to speed compared to his counterpart in the Materials Command.

What does this all mean? The better you know your customers, the best you are likely to do to win their business. Google Analytics provides a rich source of data regarding buyer behavior it the wise competitor will tap into it for insight,

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Competition for Employees

It's a whole new world we are operating in and demographics promise that the future will be very different as Boomers leave the work force and employers scramble to replace them with the following generation which is numerically smaller. Compounding the scarcity of educated competent employees are the changing attitudes about company loyalty and the increasing number of work alternatives. A recent survey of college students indicates an expectation to change jobs fairly frequently as they have grown up with parents and role models who have voluntarily or involuntarily changed jobs and companies with regularity. Employers are going to need to work harder at making companies more accommodating to their key employees.

Technology has enabled an increasingly large portion of the workforce to telecommute or work virtually. Job sharing and flex hours are also alternatives that are becoming more common. The increasing cost of gas and committing is also putting pressure on employees who live greater distances from their workplaces.

I recently had lunch with a VP of a Fortune 100 company who currently has over 25 direct reports and a travel schedule that has him away from home four days a week. This person is a high performing star who finds himself weighing the tradeoff's of a successful corporate job with the sacrifices he makes missing his pre teen children growing up. If this corporation and others like it don't make some changes to improve their workplace, they will find that their best and brightest will leave to pursue other opportunities that are open to them. Corporations that find that they are populated with employees who don't have more attractive options will find themselves in a poor competitive position.

Continued innovation in telecommuting, working virtually and creating environments that employees will find stimulating and productive on a sustainable basis are likely to be key success criteria of the most competitive companies. The "burn em and churn em" mentality never really worked. Continually replacing the more senior employees with younger, lower paid staff members is a losing proposition when you are competing with companies who understand how to leverage and retain their intellectual capital.