September 2009

I have always found that clutter is bad - in personal life as well as in business. But it seems to be our nature to amass but never whittle away; our instinct to hoard but not let go. But as Henri Matisse wrote, “Instinct must be thwarted just as one prunes the branches of a tree so that it will grow better.”

This lesson of pruning is one I am retaught every few months in business. For instance, for entrepreneural ventures such as those I’m involved in, cash is king and year-on-year revenue growth is a badge of victory we wear proudly. We work hard to win clients and work hard to negotiate deals. The instinct, then, is to keep all clients all the time. We tell ourselves that we’ll fire a particularly bad client as soon as we replace that revenue. Oftentimes, we never do. That client lingers on like a bad marriage or else it’s us that we find fired! During the whole ordeal, no one is happy.

Happiness, and indeed organizational success, as measured across a broad spectrum of indicators (such as revenue, profitability, work culture, and job satisfaction) seems to come from proper pruning in anticipation of future success. In business, this means that I must be vigilant in discerning the true value of money. Not all dollars are the same; not all money is healthy.

At the most basic level, a bad client may sap employee morale or exhaust a lot of company resources. Overhead factored into profitability properly, you may be better off flipping hamburgers! Similarly, a bad client may be bringing in $20,000/month but, like golden handcuffs, limits you from perhaps launching a new product or taking time to reorganize your enterprise - the opportunity cost of which could well be above the $20,000/month mark.

Rob Bell, in his popular Nooma series, speaks of a child that walks around the beach picking up shards of once-beautiful seashells. With his hands full, he suddenly spots a large starfish on a rock. His parents notice and excitedly tell him to pick it up. Dismayed, the child looks at the starfish then looks down at his full hands. “I can’t!” he cries, “My hands are full.” Too often we give up the glorious for the mundane.

The maxim in business really is: prune everything; prune annually.

In an increasingly interactive world with ever-powerful gadgets to entertain, inform, and organize our lives, the basic telephone seems passe and very few businesses think about utilizing a phone call for anything more than connecting customers to agents or allowing customer self-service using interactive phone response. These businesses are missing out.

I have had the joy of living and breathing interactive voice response (IVR) for 45 days at my new venture - IVR Technology Group. And I am amazed at how much life there is (still) in a telephone call. Forget your morbid thoughts of touch-tone hell and not being able to speak to a live person for a second. Think creatively, instead. Here is an example:

With new FTC/FCC rules in place starting September 1, 2009 that makes outbound telemarketing even harder to do, companies are scrambling to find ways to get prospects to give them actionable phone information. But what better way to get an actionable lead than by taking a captive audience and offering them a few minutes of entertainment in exchange for their phone number? Imagine a large digital display on an empty airport wall where bored people are sitting waiting for their plane. The digital display gives out a toll-free phone number that people can call in using their cellphones. When they call in, they are automatically enrolled into a car racing game. Each caller gets a car and the race begins. A caller can press 4 to speed up, 6 to slow down, 1 or 8 to turn etc. The keypresses on their cell phones are captured by an IVR application and communicated to the game server via web services. Loads of fun for a bored caller and an actionable contact for some company.

Imagine also the ability to instantly communicate time-sensitive information across multiple devices using only a telephone. You are a payroll processing company and your client web portal goes down. You call into an IVR application, record a message saying your site is down, and hang up. The IVR application then, in a matter of seconds, pulls up your contact lists, sends an automated call to some and plays your message, and for those who prefer email and text messaging communications, it converts your message into text and sends it out.

It’s pretty amazing what can still be accomplished with a phone and a dialtone! And the cost is not prohibitive to boot. With advances in technology, companies like IVR Technology Group can create and host IVR applications for businesses in the “cloud”. This means no technology to install, no changes to your PBX that you can barely administer extensions on, and a rapid launch.