Category Archives: competition

Support decisions from your firm: an objective on which there are disagreements is better than no objective at all.

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We have all seen it. Whether we participated or not in the discussion, upper management takes a decision we don´t agree with it and that we know will be unpopular within our own managed team. We fought well but in the end, the decision was not the one we recommended.

Disappointed, worried about losing the bond with the team, no one can dismiss the temptation, especially young managers, to distance themselves from such decisions.

This is a very dangerous road that one should avoid travelling on. One of them being that manager might not have all the information to judge, but that is only part of the reason.

You may think implementing an unpopular decision weakens your influence on the team members as they will not see you as the ally you wanted to be. And sometimes the friend you wanted to be. Nothing good will come from that.

One of the TV series that I am never tired of watching is „Band of Brothers“. In the episode „Breaking point“, the soldiers are awaiting orders in a place called „Bois Jacques“ in the bulge. German soldiers are well equipped and bombard the American lines with artillery barrages that take a human and psychological toll on the men. There are casualties and wounded men every day. It’s a harsh winter, food is cold, and the situation seems stuck.

To make matters worse, they are under the command of a very poor superior officer appointed by the higher-ups in the military staff: lieutenant Dyke. Morale is low, and some of the men fight their stress and dissatisfaction by mocking their commanding officer. At that point, one of the platoon leaders, Lipton, overhears the imitation done by George Luz . He tells him that although the imitation is immensely funny, he asks him to stop doing it as “it does no good to anyone”.

In short, it is worse to have no leader to travel with than a leader who takes you on a dangerous road. Immobility is a much greater demotivation factor than a non-unanimous goal. Immobility, feeling of abandonment, creates restlessness, loss of confidence, loss of purpose.

And what good will come to your team from standing out as „rebels without a cause“? Will they grow in the organization because they refuse to do something considered unwise? Will they make management change their decision? No, they are making the situation worse for themselves, and the manager is not leading them to a better reasoning.

And what will they think of a manager that is neither capable of being convincing when discussing with the higher-ups nor capable of action within his own team.

Now most certainly, nothing is more ridiculous than blind propaganda when beginning to travel on a path that seems so unappealing to the people you work with, that is a question of communication. But keep the lines moving.

Agree, disagree, get in touch!

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Filed under competition, leadership, management, sales management

A strong collective needs to be built on the right values and leadership reasserted

Fotosearch_BIM_182 We had some staff change this summer which made it possible for me to take a look at how the  “collective” of my team.

To be clear, by “collective”, I mean how the team works together, cooperates, helps one another, and respects one another. Building a strong collective is a necessity if you wish to do a little more than manage conflicts during the day, and a strong collective multiplies the speed at which each one progresses as information is shared, tips given, and the manager is not the only reference point for a team member with a question.

That being said, a strong collective is not the signal for a manager that he can pull out of the daily practice and bury himself/herself in pure strategic thoughts or worse, in simple number collecting. A collective has its own dynamics, and can turn to a monster if the goals of that collective are not those of the firm. And if the perceived leader of the collective pulls the rest of the team to thoughts and actions that do not suit the general direction you wish. That can happen if the collective starts adopting a clanic behavior. By that I mean an attitude that would lead to closing themselves to other influences. As the human bonds between the team members become more important and evolve into a sort of friendship, they become the main drive of the collective rather than the goal that is to reach targets and contribute to the growth of the organization.

Closing themselves to other influences might also lead to rejecting newcomers. As said, this has been a concern for me this summer as I needed to add new people to the team, replacing one person who had moved on and adding a new sales position. It would be wrong to consider that such rejections lie on the fear of losing one’s job: it is a typical human trait to form groups and integration for newcomers becomes harder as the team has solidified behind known members and habits. Finally, and this needs to be in everyone’s minds: a strong untamed collective might give the birth of a new leader that would not be the manager. Although the manager is unchallenged as the official leader of the group, he loses his informal leadership and sees his position weakened.

Everyone has probably his own way of keeping on top of their collective, and I hold no unchallenged truths, but here are my suggestions:

First, I do not lock myself in an ivory tower: I take interest in their work and what they do outside of work, I am always on their business deals and I try to find good things to say rather than recriminations to make. The good things are our values and they are stressed and rewarded whenever possible. Overall they are explained. And rules apply to me.

Secondly, I try to get the people to mix. For example I have a few rules on groups who go to lunch for example: I keep each lunch group small so it is impossible for the older members not to go to lunch with some of the new guys.

But finally, and I find this unavoidable, I also have to play harder occasionally. At some point, discussions are finished, and that’s it. The worst part being that you may not be fully right or fair, but it is necessary to show that in the end, the decision is yours. Being unpopular is not pleasant. And as a sensitive person, I prefer to be liked, but I know that the priority of the manager is to make it work. In short, it’s being the catalyst of values and guardian of their application. A mix between being a courteous and friendly working member of the collective and a gang leader. Quite some gymnastics! And yet it is what makes the job of management interesting and you navigate in constant experimentation as the environment, the customers and your own people change.

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Involvement requires taking a chance every day

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One of the skills involved pointed out in management is “involvement”.

For me, that latter skill translates as not being afraid to take a risk.
If you get involved in the work of your team, your opinion, your explanations and your advice all become material and are put to the test. If it works, you win, if it does not…you lose. But you do not lose as much as if you had not taken that chance.

One of the deeper impressions your management should project is credibility.

When I started out, I viewed credibility mainly as proving to those I managed that I was capable of doing the same things they were. I personally remember my first 3 months of managing among other people a salesperson over thirty years my elder who had total disrespect for me. I got my lucky break by being able to do a sale he had described me as impossible an hour earlier. And he begged me to put the sale on his salesperson code as one of the products sold came with a hefty bonus. From that day on, I told him how it was going to be.

Perhaps that is one of the original aspects of the quest for credibility: you cannot learn it, you can only seize it.

With time, your management position might go up and even if that does not happen, the needs and expectations of the team members grow as fast as their skills. They require new input, require new motivational goals, and require understanding better their point in the overall organization.

This year, as I am starting my third year on full time with swepro, I know that there will be new challenges for me just as for my team. From one company with one employee (I fired three a couple of weeks after my arrival), we now have three companies on the Central European market with ten salespeople introducing products beforehand unknown to this region. We are profitable on our older operations (Slovakia and Czech Republic), although much still needs to be done to reach the profitability we enjoy in competitive markets such as Germany where our products reduce production costs.

My personal objective is not to lose the edge over the technical aspect of selling. There is still a lot to do regarding the basic sales skills. We will work on reformulation and better reaction to objections. But with those that are the most ahead, the challenge will be to improve our strategic approach with our customers: managing time better, mapping the firms not forgetting people, processes and potential.

January has always been the month where I sometimes started smoking again. Because there is always a little stress factor taking a look at the challenges of the coming year. And evidently the risks that need to be taken from getting involved in the work of the team.

I hope they will look up to me. And they will if they know that I put what I tell them on the line and that I test it in real life.

In short, it takes energy not to retreat behind a computer and manage the daily issues. But there’s no other way than jumping in and sharing what you know, and sharing your vision even if it requires you to be occasionally wrong.

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Let’s put “soul” and “care” in customer attitudes

Family-owned companies try harder

In May, I took a group of Slovak entrepreneurs on an “Armagnac”, “Wine” and “Cognac” tour in Southwestern France. We enjoyed great wine, great small hotels and great restaurants.

I took my friends only to small places, well rated, but not at the top “Michelin” level. And often, we asked the locals where we could go for lunch or dinner.

There is something about these small family owned restaurants. They want you to feel at home, they talk with passion about the special of the day, they offer you a last drink “on the house”. And they were genuinely honored to host Slovaks (many places for the first time) and they made it felt.

It showed the benefits of small operations when it comes to customer attitude. Like others, small entrepreneurs also make mistakes, but it always seems to matter less somehow because they are not just doing a job, they are living their lives.

Customer attitude needs “soul”

I like procedures when it comes to customer service because it helps, especially the newcomers in an organization, to understand how to materialize customer service.

That being said, “soul” is what is the most missing in customer/supplier relationships. The customer is just behind someone doing a job, and following some procedures.

You cannot train “soul”. This comes more or less naturally. You can tell an employee that the customer is important, that the customer brings money in the company, that it’s the customer’s money that is used to pay salaries. All of that is fine, but there is no “soul”, there is none of that committment that is going to result in a real customer/seller relationship.

And worse of all, it stops working as soon as there is the slightest problem.

“Soul” does not equal communication

I have seen many “communicating with customers” trainings. Companies that seeked to improve customer satisfaction worked on communication. Countless programs were invented, countless employees were subjected to speeches, role plays and what not in a very theoretical customer relationship policy.

In the end, and even in large firms for which we expected better, communication with customers just became a training on automated and pre-chewed responses to customer inquiries and remarks. No organization can really improve its customer service if it only thinks that it’s just a technical issue with communication.

Do not get me wrong, communication will work, but if there is something to communicate.

Do the employees feel that the customer is a respected person in the organization? Can the organization renew itself and admit when it is wrong? On what does the organization focus when talking internally to its employees, how does top management set the example, and how are concrete cases debriefed internally and learned from?

Does of any of this exist? Let me blunt, in some companies that thrived from their dominant position, noone even thinks about the above because as long as revenue comes in, it must mean that customers are happy. And if revenue does not come in, it’s the fault of the employees who do not communicate well. Let’s train them with the most expensive firms on the market.

And in the end it does not work. Surprised?

It’s all about care

In those small restaurants I was talking about in the beginning, “soul” is there because people own the place. It’s their creation, they want it to work, they want it to be successful, and they make no charts about it, they go with a feeling.

And the employees follow suit, because they feel part of the family.

That family is bond by the commitment of the owners to make the small operation a success. The owner is also very present, cooking, serving, talking to customers, making those small decisions such as offering a second round of coffee or a drink. Employees see that, they relate to that, and for the most part they start to understand how much the owner cares, and how much it is important to provide to customers the experience that they need.

In such firms, there is no hiding behind some customer satisfaction charts or an empty speech.

What firms need is an exemplary message from top down showing great care about the customer experience.

Given the challenges shown in the latest “Global Competitiveness Report, it is more than time to rethink how we are going to give to every customer a great experience and modernize our customer approach with fresher and more critical thinking.

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Filed under Article, central europe, competition, customer service, distribution, economy, export, sales management, sales manager, Slovakia, Uncategorized

Comrades and Business owners!!! Unite for competition!!!

I am quite interested with Orange and T-Mobile not wanting to pay the fee to the Slovak telecommunications regulator for the extension of their license because they see it as too expensive. To be honest, I have no idea how it should be priced, but I found one of the arguments given by Orange Slovakia very interesting.

Orange claims in today’s (August 25th) edition of Hospodarske Noviny that  it is unfair that o2 (the newest competitor in Slovakia who started operations in 2007) paid 8 times less a couple of years ago when it acquired the license. It considers the measure discriminatory.

From where I stand it looks fair: you use more bandwidth, you pay more. It will be interesting to see o2’s reaction when their license comes up for renewal, but until then, it would have been outrageous to ask for a comparable cost for the license. It would have also been a blow to a free market system.

Competition is the cornerstone of our economies. It is competition that leads to innovation, to better customer experience, and to lower prices that benefit the entire economy in return. Competition is only a problem for companies seeking revenue by doing none of the above.  I am not discarding the need for firms to have strong financial results and reward shareholders (I am one myself), but a free market system must be associated with a strong competitive environment.

As there are now the first heated discussions in our four party coalition about next year’s budget, there are some talks on lowering payroll taxes in regards to keeping Slovakia labor costs competitive.

There should be in fact discussions about maintaining or strengthening Slovakia’s competitivity, but not without taking a broader look at all factors leading to increased costs for firms in this country.

Labor costs have been influenced by a rise in salaries (especially in western Slovakia) that was out of control until the first financial crisis of 2008. And these salaries are being pushed up by high real estate and mortgage costs, food costs, and gasoline costs. The best potential employees are on the lookout for better salaries because they need them for their families, and this drives costs for companies up just as much as the payroll taxes.

Let’s take the example of gasoline costs in Slovakia. I tank in all of Europe for my job and Slovakia’s prices never cease to amaze me. Data confirms (according to the webportal natankuj.sk) that even without counting taxes, Slovakia has 0,9 Eurocent more expensive gasoline than the EU average, and 2,6 Eurocents more expensive diesel fuel. Each time I fill up now, employees of the gas stations started giving me window tissue wipers. At current gasoline prices, I feel I would be eligible for stock options to be honest.

In conclusion, I don’t want government controlling prices. We should ask however that our governments (and the EU) make it as easy as possible for new players and innovative ideas to take hold in our markets. And in the case of Orange in Slovakia which finds its license expensive compared to that of a newcomer, well so be it. A market is not some organization’s property.

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Car prices in Europe: evolution and differences between member states: Slovakia prices in free fall, for best deals shop in Hungary

The European Commission has released its car price survey for last year.

The report focuses on pricing differences between EU member countries by comparing price lists of cars in member states, and adapting major equipment differences.

This study has been issued on a regular basis since 1993 and has strongly influenced manufacturers to narrow the price differences of cars between EU member states or face (unwritten) a totally liberalized market.

Major differences occur often in pre-tax prices, since in countries where cars are heavily taxed, competition between manufacturers often drag fully taxed prices down. With the Euro, gaps have been considerably reduced as currency variation could not explain differences any more, and that price variations between countries became more visible to consumers.

Slovenia shines as one of the cheapest markets of the Eurozone after Greece. In the small car, it is the least expensive Eurozone country for 7 models out of 30. When it is more expensive, difference rarely reaches 5% difference with the nearest country.

As for another Euro country, Slovakia, the most important information is that according to the report, prices of new vehicles have dropped more than 17% when average prices in Europe dropped only 2.5%. It is no surprise that the used car market suffered as it did. I recalled on my website some used car professionals talking about sales prices going down one third.

We know that the Czech and Polish markets are highly competitive. The report shows it as the Czech Republic is cheaper than any Euro country for 7 models out of 20 from the small car segment and for 6 models out of 20 for the lower compact segment (Škoda Octavia…). It is to be said that this result is achieved even though the Czech Crown has appreciated against the Euro 3% between January 2010 and January 2011.

But the palm of attractive car prices is Hungary: in the small car segments, it shines as the cheapest country in almost half of the most selling models. In the lower intermediate segment, Hungary is the cheapest market for 5 out of 20 models.

Read more at> http://europa.eu/rapid/pressReleasesAction.do?reference=IP/11/921&format=HTML&aged=0&language=EN&guiLanguage=en

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Filed under Article, automotive, central europe, competition, Czech republic, European Union, Slovakia, Uncategorized

Used cars with no kilometers shown?

I visited on the road a large used car retailer to take a look at its operations in a surviving sales site (one sales site in Slovakia was closed last year).

Some cars are shown without the number of kilometers. It simply says “unknown”

It looks bad, but this is a major improvement.

Let’s face it; our countries in general were a fantastic oasis for remarketing high mileage cars from Western Europe. What Germans and French did not want, the Poles and Slovaks took. Well, let’s say that some importers took at low prices cars that were magically improved and sold at higher prices…much higher prices. After all, these cars had less than 100000 kilometers…

So I applaud transparency in this business.

Transparency will clean up the offer of used cars, and correct prices. It will help the establishment of an intermediate used car market and help develop inter dealer B to B trading by creating stronger market price differentiations between products.

Perhaps, the money invested by manufacturers in used car programs (Peugeot, Citroen, Kia and Škoda among them) will pay out.

Best operators, and best advised operators might take the train of this opening of business. If they do not, AAA Auto will take the food right out of their mouths regardless of the quality of their certified used car programs.

For leasing companies and manufacturers, the oasis of markets that buy everything  is drying up. I foresee strong corrections in price depreciations in the near future.

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Filed under Article, automotive, competition, customer service, Slovakia, Uncategorized