Are You Evolving or Going Extinct?

November 16, 2009

By Matt Michel

Legendary football coach Woody Hayes once said, “There are three things that can happen when you throw a pass, and two of them are bad.”  I wonder what Woody Hayes would think of the spread offense? 

There was a day in college football when the Wishbone offense seemed unstoppable.  Emory Bellard, who created the Wishbone said, “We tied the first one, lost the second, and then won the next 30.”  Today, Bellard acknowledges that football has evolved.  He says the most creative offense is Texas Tech’s Spread. 

College football is a cutthroat business.  Offensive and defensive innovations sweep through the ranks every few years.  Coaches visit other schools and hold and attend clinics every year.  If they don’t keep up with the latest evolutions, coaches are soon be out of a job.  Coaches who fail to evolve as fast as the game are soon relegated to watching the game, from home.

The pace of change is increasing football, but also in business.  For a while it seemed Starbucks was golden.  Yet, the coffee chain announced the closure of 600 stores.  The market is changing and Starbucks management is trying to evolve and change with it.

To market is changing for you as well.  A few years ago few contemplated $4.00 gas.  How is the price of gas affecting your customers and your operations?  Do you need to change?  Do you need to evolve?

Charlie “Tec Daddy” Greer promotes his DVD training series with a dinosaur and the line, “Evolve or Die!”  Charlie nailed it.  Sadly, many contractors are not evolving, even though the market is changing around them.  They’re comfortable, set in their ways, complacent.  Their businesses have done just well enough that the owners feel they do not have to do more or learn more.  That may have been true when the market was stable and the competition was equally complacent. 

Complacency is no longer a choice.  The choice is evolution or extinction.  But how?  How do you evolve?  How do you find the cutting edge?  It starts by opening your mind to new ideas, by learning, by seeking.  Here are 12 ways to keep learning…

1. Read Trade Magazines
More than likely, one or more trade magazines cover your industry.  Read all of them. 

There’s great information on Internet blogs, but the trade magazines trump the Internet.  Anyone can start a blog and pontificate away.  The trade press offers built in quality control.  They screen writers and edit copy.  As a result, the advice is likely to be more reliable, the writer more reputable, and the copy more readable.

2. Read Books
There are not many quality business books within most trades because the trades are too narrow a market for writers.  However, there are a few.  Every air conditioning contractor should read “HVAC Spells Wealth” by Ron Smith.  Plumbers should read “Just Add H2O” by Dan Holohan.  To improve your financial knowledge, check out Ellen Rohr’s book, “Where Did All The Money Go?”

For inspirational stories, I recommend Mark Matteson’s “Freedom From Fear” and “Freedom From Fear Forever.”  I also like Ruth King’s “Ugly Truth” books, which report stories from small business owners.

This is just a start.  Send me your recommendations.  If I get enough, I’ll run a list in a future Comanche.

3. Keep a Book Handy
I almost always take something to read everywhere I go.  If I’m stuck waiting, I read.

4. Listen to Books
Many business books are recorded on CD.  I know Ruth’s are on CD.  Ron Smith is working on an audiobook.  Browse your big box bookstore and look at the audiobook section.  If you drive a lot, turn off the radio and tune into business knowledge.

5. Attend Conferences and Seminars
College football coaches attend coaching clinics.  You should attend industry conferences and seminars.  For HVAC, Comfortech in Atlanta will be the best this year.  If you’re in the air conditioning industry and only attend one conference, Comfortech is it.  And Comfortech is evolving.  You’ll hear some great fresh speakers, like my friends Benson Green and Andrew Oser, who are talking about green business opportunities.

If your industry lacks a Comfortech, talk with your suppliers.  One or more probably brings trainers in on a regular basis. 

Conferences are especially good evolution opportunities because you can rub shoulders with others who are in the same boat you’re in, facing the same challenges, and trade ideas.

6. Compile a List of the Things You Want to Learn
It sounds silly, but once you write down the things you want to learn more about, you will begin to recognize opportunities for education all around you.  Most of the items on my list are tangential to the industries I serve.  They’re things that will help me become more productive, more knowledgeable, and of better service to my customers.

7. Teach
Nothing causes you to dig into a subject more than teaching it.  Offer to lead a seminar at a conference or a local trade association meeting.  Offer to serve as a speaker for a local service club.  Lead an in-house training class.

An alternative to teaching is writing.  Draft an article for a trade magazine and submit it.  Write a business article for a community newspaper.  Your research process for the article will stimulate new ideas and evolutionary thinking. 

8. Take a Continuing Ed or Online Course
Four year colleges, community colleges, private organizations, and parks & rec departments all offer continuing education classes.  In addition, online courses are available for anyone with an Internet connection.  We’ve got a wide array of heavily discounted online courses available for Service Roundtable members.  Other organizations probably make similar offerings.  Explore them.

9. Ask Questions
If you want to innovate and evolve, you must be curious.  Ask lots of questions.  For example, I recently dropped off laser toner cartridges for refill (about half the price of new cartridges).  On the counter of the store I noticed a huge four-sided display for business cards, mounted on a Lazy Susan for easy rotation.

I was curious, so I asked the employee about it.  “Oh, my boss built that,” she said.  “It’s mostly for his friends.”

I told her that her boss has a lot of friends.  “Well, I think it’s mostly people he knows from the chamber of commerce.”

I asked if people came by to drop off cards.  “Yeah,” she said, “We get people who stop in all of the time to make sure they still have cards.  And usually, they pick up other cards while they’re here.”

Wow, what a great grassroots marketing concept!  The owner built a sizeable business card display, promoted it at a chamber of commerce meeting, and people drop by to see the display, and add their cards.  The way the display is designed, there is only room for three of four cards.  If you tried to leave 50, most would fall to the floor.  This means people need to check back.  The store owner is driving traffic and referrals for next to nothing!

If I hadn’t been curious enough to ask about it and follow up with more questions, I wouldn’t have learned about this simple, clever innovation. 

10. Visit a Peer
When I think of air conditioning contractors who are on the top of their game, two who instantly come to mind are Mitch Cropp at Cropp-Metcalfe in the Washington, DC area and Robert Wilkos at Peaden in Panama City, Florida.  I can’t tell you how valuable it is to spend an hour with people like Mitch and Robert.

Mitch and Robert (and hundreds of other contractors I know) are incredibly open.  Give them some lead time and they’ll make time if you want to visit their operation and see what they do.  While both people are incredibly giving by nature, they also benefit every time they meet with another contractor.  You learn and so do they.

The best small businesspeople always seem to be the most open.  They’ll make time for you if you call them and show a sincere interest in learning about their operation.  In truth, you flatter them with your request.  I know I would be flattered.

Draw a 200 mile radius around your current location and identify five to six companies you would like to visit.  Take a day out, every other month, and see one.  Be sure to ask lots of questions and take lots of notes.

11. Join a Group
If you really want to evolve, hang out with evolutionary people.  This may be your local trade association.  It may be a leads club or even, a civic club.  It can be a professional society like the American Marketing Association.  Or, it can be an active online community like the Service Roundtable.

When you join a group and pay attention to what others are saying, you learn.  Moreover, you learn things that you didn’t know that you didn’t know.  For me, this is a common occurrence.  I see contractor questions and answers on the Service Roundtable that open up whole new avenues of inquiry for me.  I think I know a lot, but am repeatedly shown I know less than I imagine. 

Groups make you smarter.  I’ll be honest, by myself I’m not all that bright (just ask my kids).  But, add the experience and intelligence of other people and I can be surprisingly astute.  Groups can work that way for you too.

12. Challenge Your Assumptions
Evolutionary thinking requires you to challenge your assumptions.  Have you always sold service agreements annually?  Why?  Why not offer a monthly agreement where you ding the customer’s credit card twelve times a year for a small amount?  Why not offer a multi-year agreement.

Challenge every assumption you make about business in general and especially, about your business in specific.  Are the assumptions correct?  Have things changed?  Is there something you’re missing?

Evolution or extinction… it’s your choice.

Source: Comanche Marketing. Reprinted by permission.
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Copyright © 2009 Matt Michel

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