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Thinking Outside the Box: Creative Business Planning Strategies

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September/October 1999 - Volume 78, Number 5

by Parnell Black, MBA, CPA, CVA

Tunnel Vision

What does thinking outside the box mean to you? Believe me, if you haven’t thought about it - you should. Because being successful in this day and age requires we constantly re-evaluate, re-engineer, re-group, re-establish, re-visit, re-structure, re-direct, re-?, re-?. The dynamics one deals with in business today, I contend, are far more complicated than 50, 25 and even 5 years ago. Technology that affects the way we work and communicate is changing at an astronomical pace; competition is around every corner; costs are skyrocketing; good people are getting harder to find; we need specialists who do not exist; there just isn’t enough time in a day; and the baby’s crying at home. How can one possibly keep pace?

Frankly, I don’t have an answer to this question. I wish I did. One thing I do know is what this pace can lead to. That is tunnel vision. Tunnel vision is the way we look at the world when we’re going through the motions, taking things one day-at-a-time, living from paycheck to paycheck, keeping our head above water, hanging on by a thread, and keeping up with the Jones’s.

Knowing Your Destination

Often, in an attempt to avoid stagnation and be proactive, individuals and organizations make plans for the future. They address strategy, competition, product mix, marketing channels, staffing needs, pricing, costs, budgets, resources, industry dynamics, implementation, research and development, systems, funding, cash flows, etc., etc. Planning for the future is a very important activity. All businesses should periodically take the time to plot their future course. In my opinion, planning is as vital to business success as piloting a plane is to landing. Without it, you won’t reach your destination. The problem with business planning is very few businesses know their destination. Why is this so difficult? Because most planning doesn’t take us outside the box. What’s the box? It’s going through the motions, focusing on the same company dynamics, and same initiatives from year-to-year, e.g.,

  1. Cut costs
  2. Add distribution channels
  3. Hire more staff
  4. Increase bank lines
  5. Diversify product mix
  6. Buy more computers
  7. Be more competitive
  8. Reduce prices - increase volume
  9. Create strategic alliances
  10. Improve customer service

All of these good intentions are meaningless if we don’t quantify how and where each one of these goals will be accomplished, in effect:

  1. Which costs can we cut, and what consequences will result?
  2. Who will be our most likely distribution channels, and what resources will be required to support them?
  3. Where is staff needed and do existing job descriptions have to be revised to accommodate these new positions?
  4. What banks are most likely to increase lines from existing levels, and what might have to be given in exchange?
  5. What new products do we want to offer; how will we promote them; and what product support will be required?
  6. Who needs upgrades to their computer, and what advantage will this provide them and the company?
  7. How specifically are we going to beat the competition, and at what cost?
  8. Where do we reduce prices ? across the board or with loss leaders? How, why and how much will this increase volumes or will it just reduce revenue?
  9. Who are the best strategic alliances; what do they have to offer; and what do we have they want?
  10. How and where can we improve customer service; what controls need to be put in place and how do we measure the effectiveness?

Inside the Box Thinking

One thing that becomes apparent looking at this list is in business we have many boxes to think outside of. A business itself is not just one box. This point can best be illustrated by dissecting one initiative on the above list - "Improve Customer Service." I find this is one of the most common areas of focus businesses and experts talk about when planning for the future. And rightfully so. Customer service is key to success for almost every organization, barring monopolistic industries and socialistic societies. Tom Peters author of In Search of Excellence states "There are three sustaining factors in all great, growing and profitable companies: 1) Superior Quality; 2) Superior Service; and, 3) Constant Innovation." And, I believe it requires constant innovation to stay thinking outside the box.

What is the Box?

There are many ways businesses can improve customer service, but more often than not, initiatives become mere "lip service." Converting initiatives to action is the challenge, and that, I contend, requires thinking outside the box. What are some typical inside the box policies and initiatives companies make to improve customer service?

  1. Take a follow-up customer satisfaction survey.
  2. Assign customers a personal representative from the company.
  3. Greet everyone with a smile.
  4. Send customers a thank you card or gift.
  5. Don’t make customers wait on the phone.
  6. Use a phone messaging system that allows customers to leave detailed messages.
  7. Communicate with newsletters and company publications.
  8. Monitor phone calls to insure service representatives are handling customers politely and competently.
  9. Set-up a problems resolution department.
  10. Be nice at all times.
  11. Find out what it is the customer really wants ? "how can we make them happy?"
  12. Don’t ever argue.
  13. Accept product returns without question.
  14. Remember: The customer is always right.
  15. Call customers to remind them of your meeting a day in advance.
  16. Say "thank you."
  17. Respect your customers time.
  18. Come prepared.
  19. Make customers at ease with loose conversation; tell some jokes, or talk about the weather.
  20. Know your product; be prepared to address all questions.
  21. Improve delivery time, shorten turnaround - "we want a turnkey operation."
  22. Take clients to lunch.
  23. Hand out peanuts for snacks.
  24. Offer self-service - "people like that."
  25. Keep customer’s water glass full.
  26. Serve coffee.

You get the idea.

All of these initiatives have merit, some more so depending on the organization. But what most lack is an action plan - a way to get the initiative off the ground. Superior customer service also requires commitment. Commitment must come from those who will implement the policies and initiatives that comprise an organization’s definition of superior customer service.

Getting Outside the Box

Two months ago, I read an article titled "Earning My Mouse Ears - A Disney Approach to Customer Loyalty," written by Ronald J. Baker, CPA and published by Harcourt Brace. It really caught my attention. Actually, the article was given to me by one of our Department Directors six months ago because she thought I would find it enlightening. For some reason, I didn’t read it - maybe the title made me think it would be childish. It wasn’t until the article was once again put on my desk that I read it, and was I ever impressed. What I learned was Disney Corp. truly understands customer service, and attributes this to their long-term success. There is too much in the article to repeat here, but one thing I learned: Superior Customer Service comes from "exceeding customer’s expectations." Not just occasionally, but as a rule. Disney defines three levels of customer service:

One - Passive which is satisfaction based, i.e., never taking the customer relationship beyond fulfilling a particular need. This is where 75% of businesses fall.

Two - Active which is performance based, i.e., soliciting customer feedback to better identify their needs and wants. This is where 20% of businesses fall.

Three - Interactive which is commitment based, i.e., creating a partnership with customers to help anticipate wants and needs. To achieve this, an organization must create a process for obtaining continuous feedback from customers on how you’re doing and on what they want and expect. This is where 5% of businesses fall. The article also defines this as world-class service.

I spent considerable time contemplating how we at NACVA can be a world-class service providers. This might sound idealistic, but I believe a worthy goal. In the area of customer service, I rank NACVA as exceptional. But, I also believe, as Disney does, world-class service requires constant work, anticipating wants and needs, and keeping customer satisfaction always in the forefront of your employee’s minds. It is not possible to implement a few "New Policies" and expect them to work, or to be remembered. So, to improve customer service where do you start ? where did I start?

Policies Don’t Cut It

Initially, I asked every employee at NACVA to read the article for group discussion at our monthly company meeting. Frankly, when the meeting started I had no idea where I was going with this topic. I knew, however, I wanted everyone to be conscientious of customer service, and I wanted a mechanism to take NACVA’s customer service to a higher level. It was important this mechanism lead to a process for keeping us on a path of constant improvement.

It was also imperative the employees participate in this discussion because any new policies would be ineffective without their commitment. This was another challenge ? getting their commitment. Throughout the discussions it became apparent each employee saw "improving customer service" from a different perspective. I realized this perspective was based on their own strengths and weaknesses in the area of customer service, and their unique role in this organization. At this point, it was starkly clear no policy, or policies, could possibly address all the areas needing change or improvement. The changes required were different for each employee, and this included me.

Raising the Bar

During the meeting various individuals talked about what they could do to improve their own level of customer service, i.e., "raise the bar." This thought process lead to the decision to meet again in two weeks when each employee would share with the group an area in customer service they felt they were weak, and what action they could take to raise the bar. Each employee was asked to identify only one area needing improvement and one change (action) in how they functioned to get the desired result: improvement in customer service. I felt we would be more successful in reaching our goals if each of us set our sights on one initiative. However, with 24 employees, the overall effect would be tremendous. Essentially, we were establishing 24 policies to improve customer service.

A Win/Win Proposition

The second meeting was quite revealing - everyone was open and honest. The meeting was also very powerful. In my opinion, it’s the best one we have ever had at Headquarters. Each employee was prepared, and each had a clear idea how they were going to improve. Most importantly, what came out of the meeting was a commitment to change. This is because each one of us is doing something that we want to do; can do; helps us perform better; makes us feel better about ourselves; helps our members feel even better about us; and, something that will help NACVA continue to grow and prosper benefiting us as individuals and our members by ensuring the continued health of the Association.

Commitments To Be Remembered

To help each of us remember our commitment, each employee came up with an action step put into a short phrase (an "Affirmation"), to be posted in their office as a daily reminder of their commitment and action to effect change. Headquarters produced individualized plaques for each employee with their Affirmation on top; listed in smaller inscription on the bottom of the plaque are the other employee’s Affirmations as a reminder everyone is committed to the process. What’s most interesting? If you string all the Affirmations together it sounds like a policy statement for Superior Customer Service that could be adopted by any organization. I believe the process we went through was extremely effective, and anticipate we will go through this process on a regular basis. This is our first real step towards being a world-class service provider and with some more "outside the box thinking," I believe some day we can say "NACVA is a world-class service organization."

Speaking on a few points made earlier, which I hope are now more clear, in planning for the future you need to address all the "boxes" housed by the business. In each case, you have got to know your destination. Improving customer service is one box. World-class service is our destination.

In parting, I will leave you with a few of our Affirmations - the employee’s names have been omitted to protect the innocent (mine does not appear here):

  • Repeat the names of everyone I meet.
  • Relate to every customer on a personal level.
  • Return all calls within 4 hours.
  • I can create solutions.
  • Problems are not obstacles.
  • Treat everyone like the CEO.
  • Treat customers like they are standing in front of me.
  • Don’t point a finger - lend a hand.
  • Go the extra mile with a smile.
  • Be driven by what is important, not by what is urgent.

Reprinted, with permission, from the December 1998/January 1999 issue of The Valuation Examiner -, a bi-monthly publication of the National Association of Certified Valuation Analysts (NACVA), 1245 E. Brickyard Road, Suite 110, Salt Lake City, UT 84106. NACVA, ranked in 1998 by Inc. Magazine as one of America’s fastest growing companies, certifies members who specialize in valuing (appraising) privately-owned businesses. Business valuations are performed by our Certified Valuation Analysts (CVAs) for many purposes, including: estate and gift tax, divorce proceedings, succession planning, purchase/sale of a business. Our 4,000 members are accessible to those interested in valuation services in the Association’s Membership Directory provided on the web at or by calling 800-677-2009 or 801-486-0600.

Parnell Black, MBA, CPA, CVA is the President/CEO and co-founder of the National Association of Certified Valuation Analysts (NACVA). Mr. Black’s current responsibilities include overseeing the operations and activities of NACVA, a 4,000 plus member association of primarily CPAs who provide business valuation and consulting services. Mr. Black received a dual Bachelor of Science degree, in accounting and finance, from the University of Utah in 1979. He later performed his graduate studies at the University of Utah and received his Master of Business Administration (MBA) in 1981. He obtained his Certified Public Accounting CPA) license in 1982 and his Certified Valuation analyst (CVA) designation in 1991.

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