Achieving Business Excellence with John Spence

The Top 4 Business Trends of 2015

Last day of 2015I have literally just walked off the stage from my last presentation/workshop for 2015. It’s been an extremely busy year with more than 200 days on the road, zigzagging across the United States and Canada and delivering programs in Australia, New Zealand and most recently Poland. As I look back over the year here are a few big takeaways that I think you might find of interest.


  1. Culture and talent are critical. In most of the businesses I worked in this year the single biggest place where they could reduce waste, reduce costs and increase revenues and profits was in the quality of the people on their team and the culture in the organization. I believe that companies need to put more focus on hiring, growing and retaining top talent – and building a winning culture of engaged, satisfied and loyal employees who are highly results driven, customer focused and accountable. To me, these should be major strategic objectives in almost every business.


  1. Lack of accountability and disciplined execution are the biggest problems I see in almost every organization worldwide. There is no shortage of bright, sharp, talented people who can develop highly innovative strategies and ideas – but there is a huge shortage of people that can take those ideas and effectively turn them into results in the marketplace. Again, another place to see major revenue growth and profitability in many companies is focusing more on execution.


  1. As I look at the programs I was asked to deliver, there is a clear pattern of a handful of workshops and keynote speeches that the majority of my clients asked me to focus on:
Advanced leadership, especially leading organizations through change

I delivered this program for a number of companies whose industries were undergoing massive change and were challenged to get their employees not just to embrace change, but to drive change.

Winning culture

Many of my clients requested that I help their organizations learn more about how to create higher levels of engagement, commitment, teamwork and collaboration – what I have come to call creating and “ownership mentality” throughout the organization.

Business excellence/strategic thinking

I spent a good bit of time this year helping companies take a hard look at their current operations, benchmark against best practices and fine-tune their strategies to be successful in the future.

Consultative sales

Although I started my career doing high-level sales training, I stepped away from it for a few years, but now many of my clients are asking me to help their entire organization become a sales organization focused on being trusted advisers to their customers.

My recommendation would be to look closely at your organization and make sure that none of these are areas that you are neglecting.


  1. Lastly, I am becoming more and more aware that building a strong network of people that want to help and support you (because you are helping and supporting them) and then using that network to generate strong positive word-of-mouth… should also be one of your major strategic objectives. It has become obvious to me that social media, combined with social proof, are the future of referrals and word-of-mouth marketing. But all effective networking and word-of-mouth marketing is based on, delivering massive value and being so incredibly remarkable at what you do…that people want to remark about you, that is, tell other people about how great you are. Just trying to build up your email list or the number of contacts you have on LinkedIn is not an effective strategy, it only works when the connections are created through trust and strongly demonstrated competence.

So those are some of the major things I noticed about 2015, which means they will probably continue to be big issues in 2016. Are you seeing anything different?

I very much look forward to your thoughts – John


Strategic Partnerships as Effective Business Growth Strategies

j0302925One of the best business growth strategies that will extend the reach and revenue of your company is creating strategic partnerships. By forming strategic partnerships with other businesses that offer complementary products and services, you can cultivate a mutually beneficial relationship that will help both of your businesses grow. However, as powerful as a great strategic partnership can be, the downside of the failed partnership can be very painful both emotionally and financially, so here are a few ideas to help you make sure that you put yourself in the best possible position for developing a positive and successful strategic partnership.

How to Use Strategic Partnerships as Business Growth Strategies

Go for the Win-Win

The first step is to make sure that there is truly a synergistic, win-win relationship between the products and services your business offers and what the partner’s business offers. Some classic examples might be:

  • A tire store that creates a partnership with the detailing firm
  • An accountant and corporate attorney who refer business to each other
  • A fitness club that creates a partnership with an athletic clothing store
  • A house painter who strikes up a partnership with a handyman

The goal is to figure out with whom you share the same customers and find a way to combine your services for even greater value to those customers.

Connect on Core Values

Once you have determined who would be a good strategic fit, the next step, which is possibly the most critical, is determining if you would have a good “values fit” with that company. How well your businesses complement each other will not matter at all if your strategic partner does not share the same core values that focus on honesty, integrity, customer service, and business professionalism. Therefore, it is essential that you take the time to truly discover as much as you can about the potential partner and to share as much information as possible with them in an effort to know and understand each other deeply, all before you begin a partnership.

Plan for Every Possibility

Once you have established that you have an absolutely superb fit with the core values of your companies, the next step is to discuss and write down extremely clear expectations for what the partnership will entail. It is imperative that you do this at the very beginning of the relationship, before anything has gone wrong and before there is any emotion involved. Unclear expectations about how the partnership will work, such as how the money will be divided, how you will deal with problems and issues, how you will share customers, etc., is the single biggest cause for partnerships to end in litigation. Sit down together and write out every possible scenario you can think of and then come to VERY clear agreements on exactly how you will address each of these circumstances. If you do this before you do any business at all together, you will spare yourself many sleepless nights and many throbbing headaches. Shared values, transparency, and clear expectations are the hallmark of lasting business partnerships that serve as successful business growth strategies.

Communicate Regularly

Lastly, it is important that you keep the lines of communication open between your organizations by scheduling regular meetings to check on progress, review issues, and revisit your partnership agreement. These meetings help to make sure that everybody is on the same page and is highly pleased with how things are moving forward. These meetings should be held weekly, or at the very least monthly, to make sure that you catch problems before they become big and messy. A phrase I have used for a long time to describe this thinking is: “Kill the monster while it is small.”

Strategic Partnerships For Strategic Growth

When done correctly, strategic business partnerships can have a huge and positive impact on your company’s success by allowing you to increase value to your customers, increase market share, and increase wallet size. However, when done poorly, they can also destroy a business. So follow the steps listed above to help optimize your ability to establish successful and enduring strategic business partnerships.

Picking the Perfect Professional Speaker for Your Event


Hiring a professional speaker for your event is a big decision. Not only is the actual speaker expensive, but the overall costs that include all of the attendees, the hotel rooms, the food and drinks (especially the drinks!), the AV company, and everything else that goes into hosting a conference or corporate meeting can be wasted if the keynote speaker is a flop. So, after more than twenty years of attending and speaking at major conferences around the world, I have taken the time to provide my best advice for how to pick the right speaker for your event.

Determine the Type of Speaker

First, answer the question, “Why exactly are you hiring a professional speaker?” Typically, there are four different services that a speaker can deliver for your audience, so you must decide which one are you seeking.

  1. Motivate/Inspire: A speaker tasked with motivating and inspiring others gets your people pumped up. They tell amazing stories, and they challenge people to think bigger, to dream bold dreams, and to put a dent in the universe! After a talk from a speaker like this, your people will be energized and excited.
  2. Entertain: A speaker expected to entertain puts on a great show. Usually, an entertaining speaker could be a magician, hypnotist, artist, ventriloquist, or some sort of a musical act. Your people will enjoy the session, will be surprised and delighted, and will have fun.
  3. Inform/Persuade: For this service, you want the speaker to deliver critical information that will expand and direct the thinking of the audience. This speaker is an expert in your field, such as an economist or futurist, or a business leader from another industry. The goal here is to give your people new information and make them think in a fresh or different way.
  4. Teach/Instruct: This sort of keynote speaker is there to deliver ideas and information that your people can absorb and then implement in their jobs. The audience will learn new skills, tools, and techniques that they can apply while trying to improve their work, their careers, and the company. Teaching and instruction is often achieved through a main keynote speech accompanied by an additional breakout workshop.

It is extremely important that you be very clear on what sort of result you want from the speaker’s presentation. The question I always ask my clients to understand their needs is: “If you stopped one of your people in the hallway after the presentation and asked them what they took away from the speaker, what would be the four or five things you would want to hear come out of their mouth?” All four of the above outcomes are excellent: just make sure you know which one you want and hire a speaker that can provide it for you perfectly.

Determine the Level of Speaker

The next thing to figure out is the level of speaker you need for your event. To me, there are basically three levels of professional speakers that are delineated by their price structures.

  • Level 1:  This is typically someone who is new to the professional speaking business and has a fee range between free and $5,000. They have some experience at the podium and might have some very good content, but as the old saying goes: “You get what you pay for.” Although this advice applies to every level of speaker, it is especially critical for this level of speaker that you make sure to get a video of this person presenting and to check their references.

**Quick note about references: do not allow the speaker to simply give you a list of hand-picked references, as they will only give you the ones that were very happy with them or the ones that are their friends. Instead, ask for a list of references from the last five speeches they gave in date order so that you can check on how they have actually performed for recent clients. This information will also give you a good indication of how busy they are. If the last five speeches occurred over the last three weeks, the speaker is likely very good; if they are spread out over the last eight months, then the speaker is probably not so good.

  • Level 2:  This is a speaker with a good deal of experience and a fee range of between $10,000 and $30,000. This is a real professional speaker, someone who does it for a living and does it well. They should have an impressive website, a long list of notable clients, probably have written a book or two, and be considered an expert in the area you want them to speak about. A Level 2 speaker should have an extremely professional high-definition video of them speaking to large audiences. As you watch the video, you should find it compelling and exciting, and you should find that their style matches well with your target audience. Level 2 speakers usually have a professional staff that assists them, and you should expect that both the speaker and the speaker’s staff are easy to deal with and willing to be flexible in customizing a program to meet your needs exactly. If the speaker or their staff is difficult to deal with or seems uninterested in truly working closely with you to customize their presentation, you and your audience will likely be disappointed.

**Quick note about professional speaking credentials. Lots of speakers belong to an organization called the National Speakers Association (NSA). Many of the very best speakers in the world are members of this association…and many are not. It would be my recommendation to depend more heavily on the quality of the speaker’s website and video, the ease of working with them and their staff, and the references from their last five speeches. If they have a bunch of certifications and awards from the NSA, that is great, but it is not a guarantee that they will be great with your audience.

  • Level 3:  This is a big name celebrity or political figure with a fee range of between $50,000 and $150,000 or more. You are not necessarily hiring this person for their expertise at the podium but rather for their Star Power. Typically, this is a very popular actor, big time sports star, recent Olympic gold medal winner, or top-tier politician. Many of them can deliver incredibly powerful presentations, and many of them are absolutely horrific public speakers. Watch some of their videos carefully and then decide if the name will be a big enough draw even if the quality of the presentation isn’t superb. They will definitely have a professional staff and will probably be difficult to deal with because of the unique demands of people at this level.

**Quick note about speaker fees. When you book a speaker, you can expect to pay their fee for the presentation, for any printed materials they might have for their presentation, and reasonable travel expenses (airfare, hotel, food, and transportation to and from the hotel and event) compared to the level of speaker you are hiring. For example:

  • Level 1 speaker = coach, cab, and economy hotel
  • Level 2 speaker = first-class, cab or limo, and business-class hotel.
  • Level 3 speaker = first-class or private jet for them and their entourage, limo, luxury hotel, full suite, and possibly a security detail as well.

**Quick note about speaker bureaus. Most Level 1 speakers handle their own bookings; Level 2 speakers handle a lot of their own bookings and also go through speaker bureaus; and Level 3 speakers almost always go exclusively through a speaker bureau. You will find that most speakers are represented by several different bureaus, but their pricing and contractual requirements are usually the same at every bureau. The real value of a speaker bureau is in giving you high quality options. If you can tell them exactly what kind of speaker you want, what kind of outcome you’re looking for, and what your price range is, they can give you several excellent options. Also, note that once you hire a speaker through a bureau, you should continue to go through the bureau if you ever want to bring them back. One of the main rules of the professional speaking business is that if you get a client through a bureau, you never book that client again without involving the bureau.

Determine the Specifications of the Speaker

What I have covered so far are the big questions about how to pick the right speaker for your event, but here are some other questions you might ask any potential speakers once you have narrowed your list down to a few:

  • Is your fee just for doing the one speech, or are you willing to do breakout sessions and other things for the same fee?
  • If you have books, will you sell them to us at a discount, or bring them yourself and do a book signing?
  • If we buy your books for everyone, will you hand sign them with a special salutation and our attendee’s names?
  • Do you have any follow-up videos or materials that we can send to the audience to reinforce what you taught them, and is there any fee for that?
  • If you arrive the day before or are leaving the next day, would you attend our cocktail party/dinner to mingle with our VIPs?
  • Will you give us a discount if we hired you for several events at once?
  • If your fee is too high for us, are you willing to split the fee if we can arrange for other paid speeches while you are in town?
  • If you are not available on the day we need you, can you recommend other excellent speakers that you feel could also deliver a superb presentation for our audience?

Here are a few more points to consider:

  • If you are holding your event at a ritzy resort, offering an extra day or two in the hotel as an incentive might be attractive for a Level 1 speaker, but most Level 2 and Level 3 speakers spend a good part of their life living in hotels, so this is not usually an attractive bonus to them!
  • If the speaker does not have a lot of repeat business, then they are probably not delivering great presentations. Superb professional speakers are typically hired again and again to come back and deliver more fantastic speeches for large client companies. So, ask them who some of their longest-standing clients are and how long they have been working for these clients.
  • If the speaker seems more focused on selling books from the back of the room and getting a copy of the attendee list, you will likely be disappointed, as they will focus more on themselves than on the audience.

Empower Yourself to Pick the Perfect Speaker

There is a lot more that I could say about how to pick the right professional speaker, but I know that if you start by using the advice I have shared with you here, then you will have a much greater chance of hiring just the right speaker who can deliver a world-class presentation for your audience, be easy to work with, and give you a fair and reasonable price for the quality and the value that they deliver.

I hope you found this helpful, and I welcome any additional comments. Thanks so much – John

Running an Effective Strategic Planning Retreat

shutterstock_18116173A very close friend called today to ask if I could facilitate an upcoming strategic planning retreat for his company, and unfortunately, the days he needed were already booked. So, I offered to send him a quick overview of what I feel it takes to put together a successful strategic planning retreat, and this is the information I gave him.

How to Run a Successful Strategic Planning Retreat

  1. Establish a Specific Deliverable. The best place to start is at the end. Therefore, the first step to presenting a successful strategic planning retreat is to create a very specific description of exactly what you want the deliverable of the event to be. What would a perfect outcome look like? How will it be measured? If you can figure out specifically what you want the retreat to achieve, it is pretty easy to go backwards from the finish line and build a program to that will accomplish your goal successfully. So, always begin with the end in mind.
  1. Bring in an Outsider. Use an outside facilitator, someone with superb experience in running many, many similar retreats. There are two main reasons to use a facilitator: process and people. Any truly qualified facilitator will have a proven process they have used for years to effectively get teams to their desired destination. It really does not make too much of a difference what process they use, so long as it is intuitive, easy, and effective. The other main reason for a facilitator is people, or better said, egos. You need someone who is NOT from the organization that can step in and take control if things get off track: someone who is not afraid of the political ramifications of telling the boss to be quiet! An outside facilitator can perfectly play the part of the “velvet hammer” by shutting down tangents and pushing back on overbearing individuals.
  1. Define the Purpose of the Retreat. Well before the retreat begins, decide whether this will be a “strategic planning” retreat or just a “planning” retreat. In other words, are the people in attendance actually going to take part in setting the strategy, or are they simply there to figure out how to implement someone else’s already developed strategy? I have seen a lot of retreats go down in flames when the participants thought they were going to be able to impact and influence strategy only to find out that it had already been set in stone and their only role was developing a work plan. Therefore, you should decide and communicate beforehand what type of retreat you are having.
  2. Evaluate the Condition of Your Team. Is the team ready to have a high-level retreat? Do you have the level of trust and professional respect necessary to have the sort of open, honest, and robust discussion that is critical for developing a truly effective strategic plan? If people do not feel extremely comfortable sharing opposing opinions, fighting for unpopular positions, and challenging the status quo, then you will never be able to have the intellectually rigorous debate needed to arrive at a superior strategic plan.
  3. Prepare Thoroughly. Try to get as much done before the retreat as possible. Typically, I do three key things a few weeks before the retreat.
    •  I deploy an internet-based “Organizational Effectiveness Audit” to every person who will be involved in the retreat. This is a brief, confidential survey to gauge the level of trust, openness, and respect within the team. If the scores from this audit are not high enough, I will recommend replacing the first day of the retreat with a High Performance Teams workshop in order to get the group ready for the rest of the work.
    •  I ask everyone to carefully review the current vision, mission, and values of the company (if they have them) and to come prepared with any comments and suggestions, but ONLY if they feel very strongly that changes need to be made. Opening up the vision, mission and values to general discussion is usually opening up a can of worms that you’ll never get shut again. The way I look at it, the vision, mission, and values of a company are sort of like a tattoo: they are supposed to be pretty permanent and are very painful to change, so you need to be completely certain you are not happy with what you have before you undergo the effort of working on it.
    •  I ask people to do a fair amount of the SWOT work before they arrive. I send them a survey with some key questions about Internal Strengths, Internal Weaknesses, External Opportunities, and External Threats, and ask them to fill in the answers. The key here is that the answers MUST be in the form of a statement of “fact”: things they either know or don’t know. No guessing, no estimating, and no assumptions: we need to deal with facts. And when we come to a place where we don’t have the facts, then we now know that we need to go find them! Here is a sample of the questions I typically ask on the survey:
      • What do you see as the top three internal strengths of the organization right now?
      • What do you see as the top three internal weaknesses of the organization right now?
      • What do you see as the top three external opportunities for the organization right now?
      • What do you see as the top three external threats to the organization right now?
      • What do you think are the top three most important areas of focus over the next three years?
      • If you were the CEO, what top three things you would change or fix immediately?
      • What is your single biggest concern about the business right now?
      • What are the top three things that must be accomplished in this meeting?

I then take all of the answers from the survey and combine them into an executive overview of the most common answers so that people can get a general feel for what the entire group is thinking.

  1. Answer SWOT Questions in Teams. Once we get to the retreat, it should only require a very brief discussion to determine if the vision, mission, and values are still relevant and on target. If not, I try to work fast to get a consensus on the appropriate changes. With everyone on board for the vision, mission, and values, then the next step is to break people up into groups to review the executive report on the answers to the SWOT analysis survey. I like to try to keep the teams small enough so that no one can hide and not participate: groups of four to eight people are just about right. I also want each team to have representatives from different parts of the organization, not all from the same department or managerial level – diversity is a key here. I will typically give them about two hours to work in their groups, and their task is to review the report and work together as a team to answer the exact same questions again, but this time, to get everyone to agree on what their team comes up with for their answers.
  2. Determine the Most Important Issues to Address. I then ask each of the small teams to present their answers to the questions, and I work as the facilitator to combine all of the answers from the various teams into one clear overview that everyone agrees represents a solid SWOT analysis of their company. I might not be able to narrow the list of answers down to just three in each category, but if I can get it down to four or five answers that everybody in the room agrees with, then we now have something very focused from which to work.

*** Side Note: I do not let the teams talk to each other once they start the SWOT process. I want them to work completely independently because I am interested in seeing how well the different teams are correlated on what they feel are the best strategies. If all of the teams come back and say pretty much the same things, then I am highly confident that a bunch of smart people looked at a lot of data and came to a general consensus on the appropriate course of action, and they did not do so through “groupthink” because the teams did not cross-pollinate! If all the teams come back and present wildly different strategies, then I know I have a problem. And if the teams come back with about an 80% overlap? Well, then that is where the facilitator earns their fee by working to mesh and mold the various ideas into a single, coherent, and agreed-upon strategy.

  1. Prioritize the Important Issues. Once I feel comfortable that we have pretty much exhausted the SWOT analysis and created some good thoughtful answers to each of the above questions, then I will ask the teams to review the new list of agreed-upon SWOT answers and prioritize these answers into strategic objectives. What, specifically, should they do with the information they now have in front of them; what actions should they take; and how will they prioritize their actions for time and resource allocation? I usually ask them to designate the issues as such:
    • An “A” priority is one that requires immediate attention. It is a critical issue and demands action.
    • “B” issues are important but require no action right now. They might need action in a month or two, or we might have to address some “A” issues before we can take any action on one of the “B” issues.
    • The “C” issues are important, but there is nothing we can specifically do to impact them. These might be economic, political, or regulatory issues that we need to watch carefully and possibly respond to, but there is nothing per-se that the organization can do to influence or control these particular factors.
  1. Select Your Main Strategic Objectives. Again, I typically give the teams about two hours to mold all of the SWOT information into a prioritized list of strategic objectives. I want them to think at a very high level here about the big picture issues: the most important things that will drive the success of the organization over the next twelve to thirty-six months. Basically, all strategy just comes down to making choices about how to allocate precious resources: time, money, and people. By looking at the SWOT analysis and figuring out what is most important, the company can understand how the strategy should take shape and what the most important things are for them to focus on in the near term in order to best prepare for the long term. The goal is to take all this information and boil it down to three or four key strategic objectives – a handful of mission critical areas for the organization to confront.

*** Side Note: you will notice that I said “three or four key strategic objectives.” Okay, I admit: maybe you could stretch it to five, maybe even six, but you cannot have twenty-three strategic objectives! Not even fifteen, twelve or ten. The key to effective strategy is FOCUS. You must get it down to the few truly critical priorities and then, most importantly, figure out what to say “NO” to.

  1. Make Plans for Implementation. In most one-day retreats, this is about as far as you can get, with possibly a little discussion about the tactical implementation of the strategies. This leads me to two VERY important issues. The first is that the diverse teams we created to develop the strategies are not good for deciding on tactical implementation issues. The tactical implementation issues should be developed by the people who will be held responsible for actually doing the implementation. I try to let the people who do the work every day figure out the best way to do it in the future. Yes, we give them some ideas and input, but ultimately, they need to decide on the best way forward for the projects on which they have the most expertise. The second key issue is that a strategic plan is NOT complete until you have also developed a “Strategic Execution Plan.” So, at this point, I usually complete the retreat and send the project teams off to work on their specific implementation plans.
  1. Finalize Your Strategic, Tactical, and Execution Plans. Perhaps several weeks later, after a number of rounds of sharing and editing the strategic, tactical, and execution plan rough drafts, the entire planning team gets back together to look at the final document. Here is where they hash out the last details and work to create a document that everyone feels good about and to which everyone is willing to commit.

What You Can Accomplish with a Strategic Planning Retreat

At this point, the plan is finally complete, and here is what you have accomplished:

  • You have given everyone a say in the outcome: a chance to fully participate in crafting the key strategies that will move the organization forward.
  • You have endured a thorough and exhaustive process to ensure that the best possible ideas and suggestions went into the plan and that the plan did not get hijacked in a groupthink session.
  • You have prioritized the key strategies to allow for the proper allocation of resources, people, funds, and time by figuring out what to focus on and when you must say “no.”
  • The people who will be responsible for actually implementing the plan have played an integral part in developing the specific tactical plan for effectively executing the strategic plan.
  • You have gained consensus and commitment to accountability in a very public and powerful way.

Now comes the REALLY hard work: the 100% disciplined execution of the plan for the next ten months or so before it is time to start the process all over again! Good luck running your next strategic planning retreat!

Free eBook Link for Building and Sustaining a Winning Culture by John Spence

My Top 10 Business Success Tips

untitled10In November of this year, I will be the guest of the American Consulate in Poland in order to deliver a number of classes on entrepreneurship and business excellence at several universities in Kraków. Today, I received an email from a contact in Russia that is interested in possibly hosting a few business seminars in Moscow, and in that email, he asked me for a “bullet point” list of business tips to put in their newsletter to promote the events. So I sat down and tried to come up with the ten most important things I could offer, and I thought the list turned out pretty cool, so here it is.

John Spence’s Top 10 Ideas for Business Success

  1. The quality of the people that you can get, grow, and keep on your team will determine the success of your business in the long run. Other companies can copy your products, distribution, and marketing and beat you on price, but if you have top talent that is loyal, engaged, and excited about working for your company, then you have a huge market advantage.
  2. Whoever owns the “Voice Of the Customer” owns the marketplace. The company that listens to the customer the best and understands their needs, wants, fears, desires, and wishes – this company will be able to create a massive competitive advantage for itself.
  3. The formula for business excellence is: (Talent + Culture + Extreme Customer Focus) x Disciplined Execution = Business Excellence
  4. One of the keys to success in any organization is having a clear, compelling, tightly focused and well-communicated vision and strategy for growth.
  5. Culture = Cash. The number one factor for having highly engaged, satisfied, and loyal customers is having highly engaged, satisfied, and loyal employees. Remember this: the customer’s experience will never exceed the employee’s experience.
  6. Ambiguity Breeds Mediocrity. If you want to create a culture with high levels of both personal and mutual accountability, it is essential that you establish clear, specific, measurable, and binary goals.
  7. In every business, there are a handful of Moments Of Truth. These are the three, four, or five MOST important interactions with your customer on which you must deliver flawlessly, every single time for every single customer, if you want to grow a successful business.
  8. To be successful in the future, the rate of internal innovation must exceed the rate of external innovation (II>EI). As a business, you have to innovate, create, strategize, and implement better than anyone you compete against in the marketplace. As an individual, this also means that you have to continuously improve every single day in order to out-innovate the people with whom you directly compete.
  9. Don’t worry about the competition; instead, worry constantly about being better than you were yesterday and about absolutely delighting your customers. This is how you win in business.
  10. You become what you focus on and like the people you spend time with. Whatever you fill your brain with and whomever you choose to spend your time with will determine what your life will look like a decade from now.

I truly welcome your additions to this list. It would be fun to get this list up to fifty or even one hundred business tips.

Grow Your Business With This Master Key to Success

In one of the greatest self-help books ever written, Napoleon Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich,” the author states that one of the Universal Master Keys to Success is creating mastermind groups, which are small groups of experts, advisers, and mentors that focus on assisting you with your business, career, and life. I could not agree more, as I’ve stated many times that the most important thing I’ve ever learned is this: you become what you focus on and like the people with whom you spend time. Along those same lines, it is also my firm belief that another Universal Master Keys to Success that will absolutely grow your business is obtaining referrals.

The Power of Referrals

In his wonderful book, “The Referral Engine”, my good friend John Jantsch points out that nearly 80% of all NEW clients and NEW business brought into most companies come directly from referrals. However, only about 23% of businesses have any kind of organized referral system. Do you, like me, see the huge opportunity here to grow your business?

According to Jantsch, the power of glitzy advertising and elaborate marketing campaigns is on the wane; instead, word-of-mouth referrals are what drive business today. People trust the recommendation of a friend, family member, colleague, or even stranger with similar tastes over anything thrust at them by a faceless company. Therefore, the goal must be to harness the power of referrals in order to ensure that steady flow of new customers that will grow your business, and then to keep those customers happy, loyal, and engaged so that they refer your business to even more customers. This is the very definition of a virtuous cycle.

The Referral Engine

Some of John’s recommendations for how to build the referral engine that will grow your business include:

  • Talk with your customers, not at them. Thanks to social networking sites, companies of any size have the opportunity to engage with their customers on their home turf as never before, but the key to engagement is listening.
  • The sales team is the most important part of your marketing team. Sales people are the company’s main link to customers, and customers are the main source of referrals. Therefore, getting your sales team on board with your referral strategy is critical.
  • Educate your customers. Referrals are only helpful if they are given to the right people. Educate your customers about to whom they should be talking.

The Referral Cycle

The secret to generating referrals to grow your business lies in understanding what Jantsch calls the “Customer Referral Cycle”: the way customers refer others to your company who, in turn, generate even more referrals. Businesses can ensure a healthy referral cycle by moving customers and prospects along this path of action: Know, Like, Trust, Try, Buy, Repeat, and Refer. If everyone in an organization keeps this sequence in mind and focuses on it daily, with every customer and prospect, then your business will generate referrals like a well-oiled machine, and that well-oiled machine will grow your business.

Let me give you an example from my own business. When a new client hires me to do a workshop or deliver a speech, at the beginning of the process, I say to them:

I am totally going to work my butt off to deliver the highest quality program I possibly can for your attendees. So, if I deliver something that significantly exceeds your expectations, then I’m going to ask you to send a strong personal referral to a minimum of ten of your colleagues, letting them know about what a wonderful job I’ve done for you and suggesting that they consider hiring me for their next workshop or speech. If I absolutely earn that, will you agree to send the referrals for me?”

I have never had a client say no to this request, especially since it is all based on me first delivering a truly superb speech or workshop. So, if I hit it out of the park, they are willing to send my name along to 10, 20 or 100 of their business associates, knowing that if any one of them hire me, I would work just as hard for them. It makes the client feel good to refer business my way and confident that if one of their friends takes their advice, I will make sure that they are 100% satisfied, which is a true win-win for all involved.

The Referral Technique

I also have another referral technique that works extremely well. If a client or even an attendee of one of my speeches or workshops approaches me after I have just finished my presentation and says, “Wow John, that was a fantastic speech. Thanks for all of the great ideas and information”, then I immediately say to them:

Thank you so much for that very kind compliment: I appreciate that a great deal. Actually, the best way you can thank me would be to tell a whole bunch of people you know about how much you enjoyed my program and how much value you took away from it. In eighteen years of doing this for a living, I have learned that 99.9% of all of my new business comes directly from happy customers telling their friends and business colleagues about the work I do. It would be great if you could take five minutes to send out a handful of emails to anyone you feel would enjoy the sort of presentation you just saw.”

Having a set response like this, that is well thought out, professional, and honest, has been one of the most powerful referral tools I have ever used. Do you have something like this for your business? How do you currently ask your best customers, in a professional, clear, focused and comfortable way (NOT a memorized script!), for them to please send you several dozen targeted referrals?

The Referral Template

These questions bring me to my next point, which is: it also helps if you make it really, really easy for people to send a great referral your way. As John pointed out, the first step in this process is to help your customers clearly understand WHO is a good referral for you and who represents the kind of clients you want to gather. After that, you need to make it almost effortless for them to refer you to lots and lots of the right people so that they can help you grow your business. For example, if you have a client who is enthusiastic about sending referrals to you, you might simply type out a short note that they can use as a template. Here is an example of what I send to my customers when they agree to send out an email on my behalf:

Dear ________,

I hope this note finds you doing very well. I recently listened to a really fantastic speaker who said that if he hit a total homerun, we should thank him by telling 15 to 20 of our colleagues about his work. Well, because he did such an awesome job, I wanted to honor his request. I am writing this note to highly recommend John Spence. His session was fast-paced, engaging, fun, and full of truly useful information. Here’s a link to his website so you can take a look and see what sort of programs he presents. He does a really super job:

I simply send this template to my client and ask them to look over, customize, or change it in any way that makes them comfortable, and then e-mail it to anyone they feel would find value in the work I do. Some clients don’t send any emails; some clients send a handful; and a few very special clients send it on to dozens and dozens of people. I promise you, there is no advertising or marketing program in the world as powerful as a happy client sending several dozen emails to their clients and colleagues to strongly recommend your services – it is absolutely pure gold!

The Growth of Referrals

So there you have it. Obtaining referrals is a Universal Master Key of Success that will grow your business. However, you can’t just sit back and “hope” that your clients will refer you: you need to turn your business into referral engine! And how you do that? By following these steps:

  • Talk with your customers. Use social networks to engage your customers and generate referrals.
  • Get everyone in your business involved in asking for referrals.
  • Help your customer understand WHO is a good referral for you.
  • Make it incredibly easy for your customers to give you referrals.
  • Ask for referrals ALL the time.
  • And most important – do such amazingly awesome work that you truly EARN tons of referrals!!!

I hope you found this article helpful and that you put these ideas that will grow your business to good use!

Wishing you every possible happiness and success,

John Spence

Fire Your Customers

Screaming into telephone.It can be very challenging for a business owner to finally admit that it’s time to…

“Fire the Customer”

Let me be very clear here, the truth of the matter is that not every customer is a good customer and if you allow a bad client/customer to stick around too long, they may just run you out of business. Of course you want to take absolutely spectacular care of your best customers and turn them into customer evangelists, but when you end up with a customer terrorist the best course of action is to politely send them to your biggest competitor! (I’m only half kidding here)

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen businesses almost go bankrupt trying to please difficult customers that drive them crazy, use of tons of resources, always complain, pay late and argue about the price. When I sit down with the business owner and make them take a good hard look at the relationship with a customer like that it usually becomes pretty obvious that they are actually losing money every time they deal with that customer. So how do you avoid getting into that kind of a situation? Here are a few ideas…

Set Clear Expectations

At the beginning of the business relationship take the time to sit down with your new client and be exceedingly clear about how the relationship will work. Explain to them specifically what you promise to deliver, how your pricing is structured, the best ways for you to communicate with each other, what to do if there’s a problem – and exactly what you expect from them as well. Put it all on the table, leave nothing to chance, don’t assume anything. It’s one of my absolute favorite business quotes as it relates to accountability inside of an organization – and creating accountability with your clients:

“Ambiguity Breeds Mediocrity”

If you failed to do this at the beginning of the relationship, try to have this conversation the minute you start to feel uncomfortable and think that the relationship might be headed south. If at all possible you want to have this conversation while there is no emotion or dysfunction in the client relationship. If you try to have this conversation after something big has gone wrong, it will just deteriorate into finger-pointing, excuses and blaming.

Develop Red Flags

Go back and look carefully at every time in the past that a client relationship has imploded, what was the pattern? What were the warning signs that things were getting off track? Did they start to become overly demanding? Did they start paying late? Did they start asking for you to do extra work and not want to pay for it? Did they call up one of your employees and scream at them? Did they make a mistake on their end and then turn around and blame you for it? These are the sort of things I’ve seen in the businesses I’ve owned and when one of these red flags popped up I immediately started examining the client relationship to either improve it or terminate it.

Fire Nice

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got about hiring people was:

Hire Mean and Fire Nice.”

In other words, be really tough in the interviewing process, push hard to make sure the person really is a good fit and truly wants to work in your company, be aggressive in explaining exactly what the job will entail so that the candidate knows precisely what they are getting into, what will be expected of them and what it will be like to work in your company. If they still want to work with you after this sort of an interview, then you likely have a good candidate. However, if things go wrong and they don’t turn out to be a superstar, be very kind, generous and fair when letting them go so that you can help to avoid ill-feelings, nasty rumors or even a lawsuit. To me, it’s exactly the same when accepting a new client. Be tough in the interviewing process (that’s right, you interview new customers just as much as they interview you as someone they want to do business with) to make sure that this potential new customer meets your “Ideal Customer Profile.” Are they the kind of person that you want to do business with? Will they be a good partner? Are they the kind of client who can bring you new customers and more business? Do they have the financial resources to pay on time and in full? Are they nice people that you would enjoy working with? If the answers to a lot of these questions are no – you are better off to recommend that they go to your top competitor and let them deal with a potentially disruptive customer.

Now I understand that sometimes you need every customer because you need cash flow, but when your business is stabilized and you’re not scrambling to bring in every single dollar you can, then I highly recommend you backup and start to pursue and accept only the best customers. I also highly recommend that as soon as a customer starts to trip a few of the red flags, you either fix it right away, or fire that customer!


I hope you found this helpful – John

How To Get More Customers

Small-Business-Owner-Regrets-and-DifficultiesRecently I’ve had several friends who own small businesses ask me how to get more customers. Since this is an issue that nearly every small business owner struggles with I decided to grab an article I wrote several years ago about “How to Win in a Local Market,” and updated with some new ideas and suggestions.

1. Figure out exactly who your key target customers are – the part of the market you want to own. The best way to do this is to look at your current customer base and identify the customers that you absolutely love, the ones that are easy to deal with, really like your products and services a lot, see value what you offer, are glad to pay the full price – the ones you wish you had lots and lots of more customers exactly like them. Then take the time to write down everything you can possibly think of that clearly identifies this specific target group or groups of customers. What is their age range? What kind of car do they drive? What do they buy from you now? What is their education level? Where do they get their information – magazines, TV shows, social media platforms, and websites? What groups do they belong to? What are their hobbies? Do they have kids? What sort of jobs do they have? (if you run a B2B company you’d want to learn everything you can about their business, who there customers are, how they are positioning their business in the market and who are their top competitors).The more you can understand about your specific target market and what motivates them – the better job you can do of serving them and capturing more customers just like them.

2. Another great way to understand what motivates your target audience – is to ask them! Again, identify a group of your very best current customers then send them a brief survey with these questions:

• What, specifically, are the top three or four reasons you chose to do business with us?

• How did you find out about our business?

• Is there anything we could do to improve your experience in doing business with our company?

You might want to add a few other questions, but the goal is to look over all of the replies and see if there is a clear pattern. If there is (and there almost always is), the answer to question number one is your brand. Your customers have just told you exactly why they buy from you, which is likely the reason that other customers like them would buy from you too, so make this the main focus of all of your advertising and marketing. The answer to question number two tells you where to invest your advertising and marketing dollars – these are the places where your target customers are looking to find out about businesses like yours. Question number three tells you exactly what you need to go back and fix right away to increase the loyalty and engagement of your current and future customers. This is extremely powerful information and unfortunately very few businesses ever take the time to actually ask their best current customers why they are customers and what they could do to increase their loyalty. It is always been one of my top business mantras: Whoever owns the voice of the customer owns the marketplace. Take this to heart!

3. Once you get all this information back, create a very detailed “Ideal Customer Profile” to help you understand and stay focused on the people who will make your business successful. Clearly describe exactly who your target customers are, why they do business with you, how they found out about you, and what you can do to continuously delight and surprise them – and then make sure everybody in your company understands that critical information and uses it to guide their daily actions and behaviors when interacting with your customers — and you use it to build your business and branding strategies.

4. Determine who your top competitors will be for those specific target customers, who is already servicing them right now? Then study those top competitors to deeply understand how they position themselves – what services they offer – what promises they make – what sort of value proposition they are currently bringing to the marketplace that is, for some important reason, winning over the customers that you want to win way from them!

5. Figure out how to clearly differentiate yourself from your competitors in a way that will raise the bar and recalibrate the customer’s expectations, and be sure that the way you differentiate yourself is of true value to your customer, as defined by the customer, not by you. Understand this: All effective strategy is just Valued Differentiation multiplied by Disciplined Execution. In other words, to win in the marketplace you must offer something that is unique, exciting and compelling – that is differentiated from all of your competitor’s offerings, hopefully in a way that is defendable so it is not easy to copy – that your customers truly value and are willing to pay money for… and then you must execute on that flawlessly each and every day for each and every customer. It’s a fairly simple and straightforward idea that is exceedingly hard to do successfully. This will be one of your biggest challenges in gaining new customers and running a sustainably successful business.

6. Create strategic alliances with people who, by the nature of the business they are in, can become wonderful sources of referrals to you. You want to get as many people like this on your team as possible… but you especially want to identify the top four or five “Opinion Leaders” who are the most influential sources of referrals for you so that you can get these very important individuals on your team and creating a constant stream of high-quality, targeted referrals that represent your Ideal Customer Profile. The best way to do this is typically to define the people who have the same general customer base as you and that you feel do an absolutely fantastic job at delivering something to these target customers – that is not in competition with what you do – or even better is a complement to what you do. For example, if you are an expert in building high quality pools, you can easily partner with many of the local builders in your area. If you make custom clothing, partner with your local dry cleaners and high-end shoe dealers. If you own an accounting firm, you want to be connected with the top bankers and financial advisors in your area. If you owned a boat dealership that sells high-end boats – partner with a local Mercedes-Benz dealer. These sort of symbiotic relationships with people who are highly connected to your target customers is priceless.

7. Also determine people that are in your direct area of competition – but that you do not want to compete against, and try to form strategic alliances with them so you can work together and be in co-opition instead of competition. For example, you own a great Italian restaurant but there is a fantastic Chinese restaurant on the other side of town, why not share gift certificates to share customers. No one is going to eat Italian or Chinese every single time they go out, so rather than competing, why not share the top customers and help each other be more successful. This is why you often see five or six furniture shops or restaurants in the same mall, they are all attracting more customers to their “destination” and thereby everybody gets more business. Can you do this with some of your friendly competitors?

8. Identify your key “Moments Of Truth” — the handful of key things that absolutely have to go right in order for you to be able to meet and exceed your customer’s expectation —  and create processes to make sure that they are delivered flawlessly — flawlessly – – – every single time. For example, although there are hundreds of interactions every time you go out to have a meal, pretty much every restaurant on the face of the word only has 4 moments of truth:

• Food quality

• Service quality

• Price / value

• Cleanliness

If a restaurant does lots and lots of other things right but messes up any one of these four items badly, they will go out of business. On the flip side, if they do these four things exceedingly well every single time, customers will overlook failures in a few other minor places. So here is the BIG question: What are the moments of truth for your business? The three, four or five things that you must do exceedingly well in order to create highly satisfied, loyal and engaged customers. Figure out those key moments of truth and make sure that everybody in your company works tirelessly to deliver them perfectly all of the time. (This is one of the most powerful business success ideas I know – if you can determine what your key moments of truth are and deliver them flawlessly you will build a strong foundation for a highly successful and profitable company. Make sure you work on this).

9. Position yourself as an expert, trusted advisor, partner and peer to your customers by continuously delivering them REAL value. If you are in a B2B Sales, add real value and assistance to your customers by helping to make them look really good and delivering massive value to their customers. The key idea here is the only person that can decide what is valuable… is the customer. It does not matter what you think is cool, exciting, fun, unique or valuable – it only matters what the customer thinks. So invest the time and energy necessary to get as close to your customers you possibly can and thoroughly understand exactly why they think that what you offer is special, unique, differentiated and valuable to them.

10. Be sure that every single time you do a superior job – and your customers tell you that you are fantastic – follow up instantly with a request for referrals. If they say “You’re awesome, thank you, thank you, thank you”… tell them that the very best way they can thank you is to tell 10 other people about how fantastic you are and recommend that they do business with you. Positive word-of-mouth referrals, are the single most valuable advertising/marketing vehicle there is on the face of the earth. A significant amount of new research indicates that 43% to 78% (that is basically half to three-quarters) of all purchasing decisions today are made by referral – word-of-mouth, social media, texting, email – people ask their friends and colleagues who they should do business with and basically “crowd source” even major purchasing decisions. You can pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy ads in every magazine in the world – but a handful of strong personal referrals from key opinion leaders will drive much more business than those as ever could. (By the way you still need to market and advertise – but word-of-mouth referrals, especially through social media, is incredibly powerful and will only get more so).

11. Keep close to your best customers. Check in with them regularly – talk with them – ask questions and LISTEN. Learn everything you can about why your best customers are loyal, and make sure you give them what they want, while them, delight them and consistently exceed their expectations (just slightly – you do not want to erode your profit margin by delivering more value than the customer actually wants). Then gently began to ask these fanatical “customer evangelists” to help you spread the word about how great your business is. If they love you and the products and services you deliver, they will be happy to tell their friends, family and colleagues about how awesome your business is. Turning your best customers into your marketing department is an incredibly powerful strategy, because no matter how good your advertising and marketing is, people will immediately believe their friends recommendations far above even your very best ad. Happy customers who tell everyone they know about how great you are can completely change the future of your business. This is another area you should focus on intently.

**I think this is a good place to make important point: For most of you reading this article the future success of your business will depend very, very, very heavily on the quality of the people that you can get, grow and keep on your team. Great products with terrible customer service = bankruptcy. Hire the best talent you can, train them constantly, treat them fairly, pay them fairly (10% above or below what they would make to do the same job at another company) and empower them to go out and take care superb of your customers. Here is an extremely important point: The customer’s experience one never exceed the employee’s experience. 

“Hire top talent – create a winning culture that engages and empowers them – focus them intently on delivering superior customer service – then hold them accountable for executing on your moments of truth every single day for every single customer.”

12. Become a student of every other business you interact with. What are they doing well that you can adapt to your business? What are they doing poorly that you want to make sure you’re not doing to your customers? Every time you buy something, go out to dinner, order something online, interact with a vendor – it should be a lesson on things that you can steal and apply in your business – or things to avoid at all costs in your business.

13. Track everything I just told you about. Don’t go on instinct or gut feelings, collect data and facts on what is working and what is not – as measured by customer satisfaction scores, profitability and other key metrics. It does not matter what you “think” is working, it only matters if your target customers think is valuable and are willing to pay money for!

14. Once you figure out what works best for you – what truly leads to gaining real market share and significantly increasing profitability – focus like crazy on that area and get better and better at it every day.

15. Lastly, never stop doing everything on this list. Markets exchange, new competitors enter the market, customer’s requirements change – and you have to be able to change with them. Things move really, really fast so agility, adaptability, continuous improvement and ALWAYS listening to your customers is essential to the long-term success of your business. What makes customer’s super happy today, might very well make them very angry next month – so you have to stay on the very cutting edge by knowing more about your customers and your market than anyone else you compete against. Although extremely difficult to do – this is not optional!

I hope you found some of these ideas helpful and that you will share them with anyone you can think of in your network that you feel would find value in them too.

As always, I look forward to your feedback, ideas, comments and suggestions. Thanks so much — John

The Key to Business Success: Customer Focus

Any of you who have been reading my blogs for a while know that I’m an absolute fanatic about customer focus, owning the voice of the customer, Moments of Truth and creating customer evangelists. This is based on years of research and study, working with hundreds of companies around the world and owning several companies of my own. It just seems to me if you get close to your customers, understand them better than your competition and deliver things that truly meet their needs at a reasonable price…you will win in the marketplace.

ag-lafleyBut don’t take my word for it, I was recently watching a wonderful video on the Big Think website where A.G. Lafley, the former CEO of P&G (Procter & Gamble), was describing their strategy to win in the marketplace.

Since Mr. Lafley is widely recognized as one of the top CEOs in America, and has been able to deliver incredible growth and success at P & G, I thought you might find his ideas interesting.

Here are some comments directly from the Big Think interview:

I believe everything starts with a deep understanding of who the customer is, what he or she wants and needs and then trying to give it to them. What experience does she want? What relationship does she want? How is she going decide whether we’re a good value? How is she going decide whether to try us and after she uses us whether to buy us on a regular basis?”

My emphasis added above, because I have long been a cheerleader for the idea of:

Whoever owns the Voice of the Customer owns the marketplace!


Here is Mr. Lafley reflecting on one of the major customer strategies that they implemented during his tenure as CEO:

“We used to talk a lot about winning the consumer moments of truth. We wanted you to have a good purchasing experience. We wanted you to have a good usage experience. We wanted you to have a good after usage experience. And ultimately we were looking for loyal consumers who promoted our brands to their family, their friends, you know, people in the neighborhood. Okay, that was our whole business model.”

One of the main things you learn from listening to your customers is their critical Moments of Truth. The three, four or five things you must do to create highly engaged, satisfied and loyal customers who become customer evangelists for your products and/or services. Once you understand these essential interactions, the Moments of Truth, then you must build processes, systems and training programs around them to ensure that they are delivered flawlessly for each and every customer, each and every time.

Here are some great comments on why he felt some of the company’s advertising was not effective:

“Frankly in my view there were a lot of pretty unsuccessful commercials. And the reason they were unsuccessful is they really didn’t have a customer or a consumer in mind. You know, I don’t feel like they put the consumer first. I don’t feel like they made a clear promise to that consumer. I don’t feel like they created a relationship with that consumer or had a dialog with that consumer.”

And lastly he touched on something that has long been one of my major pieces of advice to businesses I work with: Don’t worry about the competition, worry about having really, really happy customers and everything else will take care of itself.

Here’s how Mr. Lafley explained that same idea:

“You know, I guarantee you if we won with consumers – if we won with consumers and consumers loved our brand and product line, the financial results would come eventually. Always did.”

I feel awkward quoting so much from the Big Think interview, but I simply wanted you to hear exactly what one of the leading CEOs in the world had to say about the importance of getting close to your customer, listening to your customer and then delivering exactly what your customer has told you they want to buy from you. Now, I know the customer isn’t always right, and sometimes you have to innovate and anticipate based on their feedback, but I do know that at the end of the day the customer is the person who pays ALL the bills, so it’s worth taking a significant amount of time and money to listen to them carefully.

If you’d like to watch the interview, click on the logo  below which will link directly to the Big Think website with the A.G. Lafley video already queued up, and if you haven’t watched the videos on Big Think you’re going to be very pleased with the rich content and excellent interviews on their site.

I hope you found this blog of value and that you share it with your network – thanks – John


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