It All Starts with a SWOT

No General leads his or her army into war without knowing both the terrain he or she will face and what the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy they will face. In the current market environment, achieving profitability should not be difficult, even with pressing weaknesses. However, just like seasons change, the market will swing the other way. The smart companies know this, and are reinvesting their profits into building networks and advantages, to put themselves ahead of the their competitors when tide goes out. Knowing what your business needs to do next comes naturally to some business leaders, but for most, setting a course for the future requires equal parts Collaboration, Introspection and Honesty. An excellent way to get you started on this path is with a SWOT analysis.

SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Strengths and Weaknesses are internal business factors while Opportunities and Threats are external factors and variables. There are several different templates out there that can be found with a quick Google search and each organization will have their preferences. However, the physical form is not as important as actually doing the exercise.

This analysis is not just for use at the enterprise level. It is equally powerful when done at the division, department or even product line/customer account level. You are probably already doing a similar analysis on all your top accounts but possibly not in as formal a framework. By using this method in conjunction with being closely integrated with your large account you should be able to foresee any threats to that client and be prepared to fend off any attempts by other carriers to take over some or all of the business.

Strengths
Look at factors such as:
• What are the organization’s advantages?
• What do you do better than others?
• What unique resources can you offer (ideally ones that a customer will pay for)?
• What does the marketplace see as your strengths?
• What is your unique selling proposition?
When looking at your strengths, also look at where you are in relation to your competition. If all your competitors are achieving 98% on-time deliveries then you achieving that is not a strength, it’s a market necessity (a table stake). Also take the viewpoint of the customer as they are the ones making the buying decision!

Weaknesses
• What could you improve on?
• What should you avoid or eliminate?
• What does the marketplace see as your weaknesses?
• What does your competition do better than you do?
• What causes you to lose sales?
• Are their perceived weaknesses that you could easily overcome?
Be honest in this step as downplaying weaknesses will not allow you to move forward and address them.

Opportunities
• What are emerging trends?
• What changes in technology are coming in the near, medium and long terms that you are posed to exploit?
• What competitors are family owned and are showing signs of cash flow issues?
• What new developments are your current customers working on?
• What new businesses are coming to your marketplace?
One approach to take is to look at your strengths and ask if they open any opportunities. At the same time ask yourself if the elimination of any weaknesses could also create an opportunity.

Threats
• What obstacles do you face?
• What are your competitors doing?
• What technological game changers are coming that you are not ready to exploit?
• What is your financial position – any cash flow or debt problems?
• Are quality standards or specifications for your product or service changing?
• Are there any weaknesses that could seriously threaten your business?
• Are there any Political, Economic, Socio-Cultural or Technological (PEST) factors to consider?

Once you have made an exhaustive list for each category, it is now time to pare down the list and prioritize each item. Finally make sure that any options generated are carried through to later stages in the strategy formation process. Make certain that you follow through and create a strategy once the analysis has been done.

An important task is to measure the gap between where you are and where you want to be. This helps you create goals that can be measured and verified. It’s much better to say “achieve a 5% increase in miles per gallon” than it is to say “improve fuel efficiency”. Understanding what these gaps are will guide both you and your staff towards implementing an effective strategy to get to where you want to be.

Finally, be prepared to revisit this analysis on a periodic basis – possibly yearly for the entire enterprise, more often at the product or customer level. Look at what has changed. Did you improve or eliminate any of your weaknesses? Did your competitor find a way to close the gap on your price advantage? Did something new that has the potential to be a game changer come on the market recently? This should not be a static document and it should be one of the first things you turn to when a new threat or opportunity comes on the horizon. By understanding what is happening on the playing field means that you can make the proactive moves of a market leader instead of reacting like a follower.

The Top Five Leadership “Don’t Do’s” When You Are Focusing on Reducing Employee Turnover

  1. Here is a harsh reality: you simply stating that the company is going to take on and beat employee turnover will at best be received with reluctant hesitation and/or apathy. This should not come as a shock but if you are approaching 100% turnover (or higher), it is not likely that your people believe too much of what your management team is saying. So why not look for (or create) a bell weather moment? Winston Churchill was credited with saying “never waste a good crisis”. You should pick when to reveal your company’s new retention initiative wisely. If you can tie it to a critical event, good or bad, then you need to determine out how to do that. In my past we decided to train all the “inside the walls” employees on customer service. When people start to realize how their actions affect those around them they start to quickly get the picture. When we finished the training, retention was a natural extension and the transition was easy.
  2. Do not take the issue of your company’s high turnover on as a challenge until you can wrap your head around the fact that you did everything necessary to cause the turnover you have now. The point here is that if you don’t take ownership of the issues neither will your people. Excuses for turnover are far too common and easy to come by. We have all heard them repeatedly over the years. Remember that the blame game does not solve anything. The only way to get off to a good start is to state that you’re determined to turn the corner on your company’s turnover and that from now on the responsibility for every employee that leaves or is fired from your company is on you and your people. There is an opportunity learn from every single failure. Take that failure personally. No one goes to work in the morning with the intention of failing. These are people’s families that we are messing with.
  3. Don’t keep your people in the dark about what you’re doing. Use every channel possible to let them know what is going on in your business. For your company to turn the corner on driver turnover you will need the assistance of everyone in the business. What is discussed must be the priority. Think about this: I give you information because I trust you, I value your input and I need your help. I don’t share information because I don’t particularly care about your opinion and I don’t think your input will bring value to this initiative. Want your people to be more engaged when they come to work? Let them become part of the solution, share as much information with them as possible and then ask them for their help.
  4. Do not try and impose your own personal values on people. If you or your senior managers developed a value statement and then took it to your people and expected them to respond positively to that statement, then you are in trouble – it just won’t work. A strong values statement can be the cornerstone of your retention objectives but only if it reflects your collective values and that you plan on following through with it. Here is the question to pose to your people – what would your perfect company look like? One paragraph from each person is all that is needed. Do it as a team that is working towards a common purpose.
  5. Do not get impatient. This is change and change will scare people. However, being patient does not mean turning a blind eye to behaviour that is counter to the company’s goals. Being patient means coaching and walking the walk. If that individual who refuses to change crosses the line again and again you will have to take the steps necessary to get the right people in those roles. These are tough decisions, but they are entirely necessary for you to succeed. Stay determined!

Time to Look for a New Home – Have You Outgrown Your Terminal?

It’s Monday morning and the yard is packed.  The sound of 40 buses running while the drivers do their circle checks has caused you to get yet another neighbour complaining about the noise.  Your shop is repairing yet another hood and bumper that were hit by someone trying to back into too small of a space.  And now Jimmy is coming into the office all steamed up because his parking spot is blocked in and there is no way he’s going to make his run on time.  Oh, and the dispatcher is running late because of more construction on the Interstate and the surface streets are full of people trying to bypass the mess.  As you get yet another cup of coffee and start to wonder if maybe it’s time to look for a new yard.

Now don’t get me wrong, growth is a good thing (if it is profitable of course).  Unfortunately, it sometimes means that the terminal that you have already paid off has become too small.  Maybe it’s a block building that can’t be easily expanded to increase your shop.  Even if it is curtain wall construction, perhaps the perimeter wall is already too close to the fence.  Maybe you are just land locked and the person with the empty lot around the corner wants too much for it.

Alternatively, you may have recently lost one of your school districts because they are forever asking you to “sharpen the pencil”, playing you off against Fly by Night Bus Lines and treating your services like a commodity to the point that they are causing a negative return.  Perhaps in the latest negotiations the bulk of your work is now on the other side of the state.

Regardless of why your business has changed, there will come a time when you think about moving to a new location.  Before you pick up the phone and call a real estate agent you need to create a list of must haves, nice to haves and any show stoppers.  Examples could include:

  • Easy highway access to reduce deadhead and travel time
  • Close to your major customers
  • Access to public transit or a relatively short commute so that is not a constraint to hiring staff
  • Close to where you drivers live so that does not give them a reason to leave

Sometimes you will have to do trade-offs.  If one of your major customers is a school board in Marietta, GA then you will not want to put a terminal down in Forest Park, near the Atlanta Airport.  It may cost you more upfront to be in the north end but the payback of drivers not losing an hour or two each trip running through (or around) Atlanta could be huge.

You might want to start by looking for an existing facility.  The best option is a terminal that someone else is selling.  Terminals are an unusual beast – the building may not need to be large but there must be a lot of open land available for parking and maneuvering equipment. You will likely have to do some renovations to make it fit your needs but at a minimum you should not run into any zoning issues.  If you are not certain what your longer-term needs will be, sharing a yard with another company through renting their unneeded space could be an option.  However, keep in mind that if that company experiences growth you may be asked to move again.

If you want to build a new facility, keep zoning at the top of your mind.  There are a lot of municipalities that are outright hostile to our industry.  Part of the problem is terminal buildings tend to be small relative to the size of the lot (generally less than 20%).  That will result in a lower property tax bill compared to a warehouse that covers 75% of the lot.  Check the local bylaws in case they require a minimum percentage of building footprint to the size of the lot.

Avoid irregular shaped lots if possible.  A rectangular lot will maximize the amount of equipment parking.  A pie shaped lot will end up with areas that are no good for parking buses other than older equipment that has not yet been sold.

Another consideration is what neighbours you will have.  You don’t want many houses nearby as they will probably make noise complaints to the municipality.  I once had an inherited facility in a mixed residential/industrial area.  I could count on at least one phone call a week complaining about the backup alarms waking them up at 5:30-6:00 in the morning when the buses started heading out on their routes. You may be forced to put in fences or berms to abate the noise, adding to your overheads and detracting from your ROI.

Another consideration is the existing grade and soil composition of the land.  You are going to have to do some grading to put down the appropriate aggregate and then compact it.  You will want to avoid having to build up areas so that water is not going to pool or require additional drainage.  Also, how stable is the soil – is it heavy compacted clay or is it sand? The site preparation work could be your largest expense, so you will want to find properties that naturally minimalize it.

Finally, what sort of utilities are already servicing the land you are looking at?  Is it a fully serviced lot or will you be required to bring in the utilities at your own expense?  What utilities are available?  For example, what sort of internet connections are in the area?  If you are using cloud-based technologies, will you have enough bandwidth available?  If you’re planning for the future, fiber should be a priority.  What sort of right of way is available if you need to service the property yourself?  For example, does a specific utility have the exclusive rights to the poles in the area?  You could end up needing to trench or drill conduit to bring in electricity, telephone or fibre optics lines even though there may be poles on the property already. Is water and sewage available or will you need to drill a well or use a septic tank?

As you can see there are a lot of things to consider before you even think about hiring an architect to design the building.  There’s a lot that could go wrong in this process.  Make sure you are using a real estate agent who understands industrial/commercial or have a consultant who can walk you through the process.  There’s a lot of work before you even get a shovel in the ground.  There will always be something that pops up during the process but avoiding as many of them before the purchase can keep the project on its timeline and keep it within budget.

Be a Disrupter (Before Someone Else Eats Your Lunch!)

Among the many newsletters I receive each day there was one that caught my eye this morning.  There was an article on Amazon and how their ambitions on the supply chain should have logistics companies worried.  E-commerce has been steadily gaining market share from traditional bricks and mortar retailers, nor accounting for 9.5% of the total US retail market.  Another article I read last night talked about how grocery stores are facing tighter margins and reduced earnings because of things like Amazon buying Whole Foods and selling more groceries online as well as the rise of online services that make it easy for any small restaurant to allow for internet or app based ordering and pooled deliveries.  Millennials are just not buying cars the way other generations did, but they are more comfortable with the idea of ordering what they want from their phone.  Some traditional retailers are turning to offering delivery to meet this trend.  Some retailers will innovate, but others will follow in the fate of retailers like Sears, Toys R Us and Circuit City into massive store closures or bankruptcy.

Let’s face it, most of us are busy enough trying to meet our short to medium term business objectives.  Who has time to find the next big technology or trend in our industry?  And besides, being the leader can be a risky thing.  It’s never fun to put your career on the line for a relatively untested idea. What if you guess wrong?  Why not let those small start-ups live on the bleeding edge while you sit back and wait to see what ideas gain traction?

We need to make sure that there is a culture of Intrapreneurship in our organizations.  We all have red tape and redundant processes that are “the way we have always done things”.   Our managers and staff need to be empowered to question those processes and be encouraged to come up with alternatives that we support and allow to be experimented with.  I don’t mean letting them just try anything – customers can not be negatively impacted.  At the same time, front line managers must be given some leeway to green light ideas that can be quickly executed.  Nothing stifles creativity more than having a drawn-out process where all changes need to work their way up to senior management and then back down again.  Give your functional managers the ability to approve experiments within a reasonable boundary so that these trials can happen quickly.  Some projects will have impacts across the organization or be capital intensive enough that senior management needs to be involved but look at ways that the process can be shortened.  Smaller companies with a flatter structure will be acting on these sorts of ideas more quickly and start taking your customers away as a result.

Intrapreneurship needs to be something that we build into the recruiting process.  Offering the ability to create new businesses can give you a significant advantage when it comes to hiring the best and the brightest.  This is a strategy that companies like P&G and Google have used for years.  Offering the freedom to have ideas supported (and later rewarded) can provide a way to attract better new hires than just throwing more money at them.

One thing to keep in mind is most of these ideas and improvements will not be big, especially not at first.  How many start ups get to huge valuations within the first year?  Almost none of them!  And many that do become successful probably would not get approved in the typical corporate review process.  Think of many of the great baseball teams – how many of them rely solely on the home run to win pennants?  If that was the way to do it, then this year’s New York Yankees should be miles ahead in the AL East with their new incarnation of the Murderer’s Row.  Unfortunately for them, they are sitting 4.5 games back of the Red Sox.  You are going to get better results relying on small ball to get runs and then when a home run does come around it is just a bonus.  And don’t to try to force things.  In Thursday’s game between the Yankees and the Royals, veteran KC player Alex Gordon ignored the stop signal at third, tried to create a run and got gunned down at home for the final out of the game.  The same thing can happen to your business when it only tries for the next “big” thing.  The reality is that none of us know what that will be (and if you really do know what it is, why aren’t you already doing it?) Encourage those smaller improvements – streamline your billing process, find a way to do routing better.  Those smaller things will add to the bottom line and give you the resources to fund the big ones when they appear.  Besides, having several smaller bets means that failure on any one of them will not threaten your business but going all in on a potentially big one could.  At the end of the day, innovation is like portfolio theory.  By diversifying your holdings, you reduce the overall risk profile.  Most disrupters stated as a small idea that ended up growing beyond what it’s creator hoped for.  So, encourage that innovation within your company and pay attention to what’s going on around you.  That way you remain nimble enough that if someone else does start to eye your lunch you can create and implement solutions that allow you to remain differentiated from the rest of the market.  It’s not going to be easy to give up some of that control, but it will be significantly less painful to give it up on a small initiative than it would be to have to bring in something big because that’s the way the market has gone while you stood pat.

Where Do Leaders Go for Advice?

Effective leadership in business, politics, a family, or in any situation or organization is a critical success factor. I have seen, and been involved in many situations at many trucking companies, non-profit organizations, and community efforts that would not be suffering but for one missing element, effective leadership. Someone with dedication, vision, and a strong moral compass who walks the walk can fix almost any issue in any circumstance; I know this to be true!
 
Leadership used to be tied to that person being a role model but that idea is suffering badly in the public eye. I have been fortunate in my lifetime, along with many of you I’m sure, to be exposed either through teachings or first hand witness to many great leaders that were in the public purview. Folks like Tommy Douglas, father of the Canadian Health Care System, Winston Churchill and his heroic stand during World War 2, JFK and the unfolding of the civil rights movement, Terry Fox, Mike Hanson and the list goes on and on! These were and are great role models, and these were folks that knew the price of leadership whether they sought it out on purpose or it came to them as a result of a heroic effort, they rose to the occasion for all to see and stood proud.
 
Of course today’s scrutiny is much more of a micro lens than the macro lens of just a few decades ago, but even so when these folks were elevated to their pedestals by “we the public” it seemed that all we did was shine a light on what was already there. Their style and class was not contrived or manufactured, what we saw was nothing more that what already existed and it was class and it gave us all something to aspire to. The world seemed a better place because of the folks that were our role models of the day.
 
I’m confident that these same types of role models exist today and these same types of folks are walking in our midst as I write this piece. That Micro examination of today’s media though shows every freckle, wart, and hiccup that ever existed in ones past, and regardless of ones character you will be vetted in the public eye to that situation or circumstance. Let’s face it, who needs that type of scrutiny. Even if you were prepared to endure the focus on yourself, all of those around you will suffer the same level of scrutiny and should they have a skeleton in their closet, condemnation by association will be swift.
 
Where big business and the mainstream media direct their spotlight and whom they place on a pedestal these days is of course the youth of North America, the trendsetters, and the consumers. Look at what’s happened in just the past 3-5 decades, during that period our elders who were once upon a time invaluable advisors to our youth, have been transformed from role models, knowledge givers and resources of a life of experience they were willing to share, into a burden on society. The very infrastructure that they built for us to live in now is turning on them and blames them for the high cost of supporting them in their advanced years and the cost associated with health care and other social infrastructure. 
 
I am no conspiracy theorist but I believe what’s happened is that the mainstream media’s focus has lead us down a path that is directly pointed at the youthful consumer, and the advertising dollars that come with selling products and services,. In doing so, they have discounted our elders in today’s society. The focus today is on youth and future possibilities not accomplishments of the past and calling on that wisdom to offer opinion on today’s reality. 
 
Direction is given and taken from advertisers trying to solicit young consumers by portraying them as the chosen generation, the folks who will evermore carve our trek into the future, new is better, old is bad. It was just a few short decades ago that seeking advice from one’s elders was common practice, and always looked upon as a prudent thing to do. How often do you hear of that today, typically the elders among us are uninitiated in the world of technology, and are made to feel left out of the loop and disconnected from the rest of the world, discounted in their value as people! I think young leaders in our industry would be wise to consult and listen to the successful people before them who made our industry so successful.
 
Nothing takes the place of experience and common sense; it was explained to me this way by an acquaintance that has a PhD in education, he says that young people have what is referred to as liquid knowledge. Which is the knowledge that comes from studying a particular subject or learning as they move through a situation? Mature people have liquid knowledge and have crystal knowledge, which is the additional knowledge that comes from having worked through a particular subject or situation once or many times. It is additional knowledge that comes from experience, trial and error, getting better and better at something, minimizing the scares, bin there done that, know the drill!
 
So whom do you call on when you need advice whether you’re a Driver, an Owner, a Department Manager ? We all from time to time should have an experienced confidant to bounce things off of and to act as a sounding board. Those industry topics that keep bubbling to the top, despite some slight changes in appearance, are the same ones that those elders encountered 3-4 decades ago. A shortage of qualified drivers, fuel issues; congestion; government regulations; tolls and highway funding; tort reform and legal issues; truck driver training; environmental issues; etc. See anything new? I don’t, and remember “A wise man learns from the mistakes of others while fools learn from their own mistakes.

Getting Strategic about Social Media

With all the choices we have for social media – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, LinkedIn, etc. – how do you ensure that you are getting a good ROI, while reaching your target audience with a message that resonates with and influences them?

To start, do you have a social media strategy?  Likely you have a website and marketing materials that present a consistent brand image (and if they do not then that needs to be dealt with before you even get into social media).  That branding will guide you through your social media strategy.  The strategy needs to make sure that the content you provide aligns with your overall business and marketing goals.  Make sure that you create specific KPIs that measure against the business goals.  If you can’t connect a social media activity back to one of those metrics, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it (see this recent Forbes article).  For a short video of how to create a social media strategy, click here to see this video created by the Moz Academy.  For a more detailed discussion on social media measurement, please see this Social Media Examiner interview with Dave Fleet of Edelman

As part of the strategy, determine which audiences you want to reach (see this MavSocial article for some tips).  The recruiting of drivers will likely use a different platform than trying to generate leads for your sales force.  Determine what you want to do and then be on the online platforms that your target is spending time on.  As an example, to reach drivers you will probably want a Facebook presence but if you are trying to generate leads for your truckload van division LinkedIn may be a better place to focus on.

Keep in mind the age of your target.  This is also going to influence which platforms to use.  If you are focusing on Facebook to help drive your recruiting efforts you may not be reaching enough younger candidates as they don’t spend as much time on Facebook as they do on something like Instagram.  One additional note – if you are looking to engage millennials, take the time to talk with a few twentysomethings (or at a minimum use a consultant who is familiar with them) to determine which social media outlets they are using and expect to have to change those platforms on a regular basis (for more information see this MIT article here).   The Moz Academy has another short video on identifying social channels here.  Leading Results offers 3 platforms that have been shown to be effective for business-to-business marketing – click here.

Be prepared that how you perceive your image and how the public sees it may be two different things.  You need to go out and ask people how you are positioned.  Do not just sit around a table and think that you know how people see you unless you are actively having those conversations with your target audience.  Otherwise at best you may be putting out content that does not engage your audience and you get ignored.  However, you may be putting up things that alienate your audience and you end up harming your image.  If you want people to understand or position you in a different way, it is very hard to do if you only look at your business’ perspective.  Often you will get it wrong or it just won’t work.

Along this theme is the necessity to be yourself online.  One of the goals of social media involvement is to build trust with your audience.  If your posts just sound like generic pitches that have no context then it will not come across as authentic.  Develop a narrative that explains why you are different and where you want to go.  Consider things like what charities your business sponsors as a way of showing who you are.  Whatever you do, make sure that it ties back to your goals.  As an example, if you are targeting businesses in a large city like New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, then posting that you support the local 4H club (even though it is a worthy cause that means a lot to the business) probably is not going to mean a lot to your audience on that specific platform.  Also, mix up your messaging.  If you overuse a similar message, then it will appear scripted and will detract from your trust building.  This Post Planner article by Ben Sailer can help you write better posts.

Remember that at first it is better to spend a lot of time on one or two platforms than spreading yourself out across many them.  Gaining an effective digital presence takes time.  Spend your time on platforms that are relevant to your strategy and spend time on them daily, especially as you are building your presence.  Having consistent and engaging content is the key here.  The use of some automated tools can be helpful but do not rely on them as your audience will quickly pick up on the fact that you really are not there.  In an ideal situation you will be adding content in the times that your audience is using these platforms.  Ensure that you have some sort of coverage to monitor and engage with comments and messages in real time or close to it.  Your window to engage with those users may be as short as a few minutes.  This is especially true of negative comments that people post.  Every second that you are not engaging and interacting with that user, other people are seeing that negative message that you are not responding to.  Negative comments are just an opportunity to have a conversation that ultimately should strengthen your brand.  Keep your responses respectful and remember that if one person felt strongly enough to make a complaint, there are likely many others who feel the same way but might be just keeping it to themselves and just not considering your business to fulfill their needs.  See this The Financial Brand article for some Dos and Don’t on responding to negative comments on social media.

Finally, social media is NOT the place where people go to be sold to.  Much of your time should be spent having conversations, showing what you are about and what your values are.  Just putting out sales pitches will cause your audience to lose attention to you.  It’s much better to be an influencer that puts you at the top of your audience’s mind space.  The key is to have a respectful and supportive two-way relationship with a genuine value exchange – very much like doing value proposition sales.  It’s all about building online relationships that can lead to face-to-face conversations that will get you to your goals (see this MIT Sloan Review article here).  It’s not going to happen overnight, and it will take a sustained effort so make sure that you do the upfront planning and align it with a strategy to ensure that your stakeholders get the maximum return on the time and money you invest in social media.

Take advantage of social media

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