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With the drastic decline in traded stocks and consumer confidence in recent months, combined with the uncertainty of international terror and conflict, is it any wonder that businesses are reassessing their risks and resisting change? No matter; don’t let negative conditions shake your resolve to change and adapt to today’s business realities.
The important thing is to be able to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable risks, and then embrace change. In the water treatment business, the growing fear of environmental and terrorist risks is a market condition that can work for you. New markets, technology and products all invite change in the way you do business.
You can't avoid risk
A little paranoia is healthy as long as you don’t let it paralyze you. Of course, change carries risks. Still, in today’s world, the biggest risk of all is not to change or adapt to customer concerns, offer new products and services, make use of new selling techniques and communications technologies, or demand better marketing support from key suppliers.
To run your business on the goal to “eliminate all risks” is an impossible strategy. In seeking zero-risk business, you'll never adapt to current market conditions in time to capture lucrative new niches. Tennis players know the feeling of risk aversion. They call it “being too tentative”—not hitting your best shots, trying to merely keep the ball on the court, or hoping your opponent will make the mistake. In reality, the tentative ones are turning over their fate to someone else.
Ralph Keyes, author of Chancing It: Why We Take Risks, says that among the people he interviewed for his book: “The greatest regrets I heard were not from those who had taken a risk and lost. Invariably, they felt proud to have dared and glad to have learned valuable lessons in defeat. The real regret, bordering on mourning, came from those who hadn’t taken chances they’d wanted to take and now felt it was too late.”
Learn to love change
As individual business people as well as collectively, we need to change our opinion of change. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”—I cringe every time I hear someone utter this cliché, which seems to convey an attitude of complacency and a smugness of being satisfied, just enough to be unwilling to seek improvement. While it’s “human nature” to resist change and attempt to stay in a “comfort zone” of doing things the same way, it's even more true that resistance to change hinders the pursuit of excellence. In short, do you encourage your employees to seek change and embrace it readily? Are you willing to try new ideas and experience innovative approaches? We all need to recognize that and accept that change is an inescapable part of life. Like it or not, change is here to stay.
Consider, for a minute, the incredible changes that have occurred in the water treatment business in the last 20 years. Think about all the acquisitions and consolidation of companies, both large and small. Think about the vast differences in treating water for “health effects” instead of merely “aesthetics” reasons. Think about the impact of new state and federal regulations, and the importance of certification. Think about the new economics of survival as an independent dealer.
Seeking new perspectives
We’ve all seen the pace of change accelerate every year. It won’t slow down. Change is going to occur even more rapidly in the years to come. So how can you make sure you and your people can handle change and the opportunities it inevitably brings? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Start by hanging a new sign in the office—"If it ain’t broke, let’s see what we can do to make it better."
2. Recognize that, when vitality exists, change is inevitable. When change is occurring, growth is possible. When change is impossible, it’s a sure sign of trouble. Don’t ignore it.
3. Try to see situations from a variety of viewpoints, not just your own. Sometimes we get so caught up in our perspective, we don’t make an attempt to thoroughly understand a different approach.
4. Keep your ego in check when it comes to discussing new ideas. Instead, make every effort to listen and really comprehend what the other person is saying. Strive for objectivity at all times.
5. Be enthusiastic and supportive of change, even when you really don’t feel like it. Channel your energy for change and help reassure people with negative attitudes regarding change.
6. Be aware that resisting change usually takes more effort than accepting news ways of doing things. While it's certainly appropriate to challenge and question change, stubborn obstruction must be discouraged with a gentle reminder—when we really make an effort to try new things, we actually find the growth and learning that occurs to be enjoyable.
7. Make change an ongoing process, purposely creating new experiences and avoiding established rigid routines. Even if the changes you create are very small or seemingly insignificant, they will prepare your people to accept and deal effectively with bigger changes to come.
Getting employees on-board
Industrial psychologist Ken Blanchard, cautions about too much, too fast. "People will, at first, feel awkward,” he says. “Change means doing something different and, as such, people will almost always react with some degree of discomfort. In fact, if you don’t feel awkward when you’re trying something new, you’re probably not really doing anything differently.”
Other typical employee reactions to change, according to Blanchard—people will initially focus on what they have to give up. Give them a chance to express their reservations about the change and, if necessary, express their sense of loss. People will feel alone, even if everyone else is going through the same change. Some may feel a sense of individual punishment to learn new ways of working. People can handle only so much change. Too much, too fast and people may become immobilized. Present them with a clear reorganization plan, outlining changes and providing a calendar for implementation. People are at different levels of readiness for change. In other words, some people are more flexible. Try to get the flexible ones to encourage others.
People will be concerned about “having enough resources.” Today, many changes in organizational structures involve the need to “do more with less.” Explain that it has to be this way for the company to be competitive in today’s market. If you take the pressure off, people will often revert back to old ways. For change to be lasting, it must be self-perpetuating. Relapses are normal, but cannot be ignored. Make it clear there will be no going back to the old days.
Why should a marketing column be devoted to organizational change? Because everything you do and change affects your presence in the markets you serve. Indeed, marketing thrives on changes to new niche markets and customer bases. Consider new electronic technologies for creating and sending marketing messages. Change to serve your present customer base more effectively for repeat business and referrals. Change to keep your competitors off balance. What about the risks of change? Let’s focus, instead, on the rewards. When you take the risks necessary to change, you will find that new doors will open. It has worked for me, personally, and for many others I know.
About the author
David H. Martin is president of Lenzi Martin Marketing, of Oak Park, Ill., a firm specializing in water improvement and environmental marketing that integrates old and new media. He can be reached at (708) 848-8404, e-mail: email@example.com or website: www.lenzimartin.com
EXTRA: How dealers deal with change
We asked three water treatment dealers from around the country to share their thoughts on how they cope with change, fed by current market challenges. Two also commented on how they get employees to “buy into” change.
• Jamie Wakem, Atlantic Filter, West Palm Beach, Fla.: “The biggest change that we face is in how we deal with today’s consumers who have tremendous interest in the health aspects of water and in point-of-use drinking water. They demand a lot more information than past water softener customers who were only interested in the aesthetic side of home water improvement.
“Our response is to train and motivate our sales staff to put ‘consumer education’ ahead of equipment when talking with customers. We ask them to invite homeowners to ask questions and to answer these questions fully before proceeding to product-feature presentations. We emphasize training on local water problems as part of this ongoing process. All of our sales people are WQA certified and most have been with us for five to 10 years. Our retail showroom also addresses customers’ changing needs and increased desire to visit our place of business before deciding.”
• Christine Fletcher, Second Wind Water Systems, Manchester, N.H.: “As a premium provider of water treatment products and services, we face ever-increasing competition from ‘big box’ home centers and other mass retailers. We can’t match their low prices, so we’re changing the way we do business by offering more flexibility in our payment terms, including ‘180 days same as cash.’ It’s a value-added proposition that helps remove price objections. I believe that when new problems force change, it is best to get employees’ input and make them part of the solution."
• Jack Lorenzen, Quality Water Service, Lincoln, Neb.: “We keep adapting to changes all round us. While we see increased consumer acceptance and demand for our kinds of products, that doesn’t necessarily translate to more sales in this era of ‘big box’ competition. After an exhaustive analysis of our business, we have determined that our real strength has been, and will be, service. So we are emphasizing new services to our employees and customers through both training and promotion. To emphasize our strong installed product expertise, we now offer ‘Five Years, Free Labor' with all products sold. To reinforce our superior service image, we promote value-added services in advertising and train our staff that they are in the business of servicing people. We even service all brands and we look for ways to keep in touch with our customers, whether through delivered water or salt, programmed filter changes or through a new quarterly newsletter. No matter what changes lie ahead, we are confident that there will always be a market for people who solve water problems and provide superior service.”
• Paul Friot, Friot's Water Treatment Co., Ayer, Mass.: "All progress requires change. When considering change in our organization, we find it is never all good or all bad. It frequently involves a series of trade-offs. So, we try to maximize the positive aspects, while recognizing the negative ones."