The final question is the mirror of No. 2 – do you review your divisions, locations, product lines, and services regularly and "prune" those that underperform? One famous management author, Michael Porter, said that "strategy is deciding what not to do." Too often, we add and add and add, and never take a look at what we should quit doing. We can always find reasons for not dropping a product line (three customers still use it), not closing a location (what if our competitor bought it?), etc. However, great managers have to be objective here and decide when the gain will be greater than the pain.
Marketing (See Fig. 2) is the next area where we ask you to grade yourself, and it is another topic we have written about numerous times in this column. Questions 1 and 2 are "general" marketing questions and the "Manager's Notebook" columns (column title, followed by the issue) that follow might be good places to start: "Market Segmentation: "Making It Work in Your World" - October/November 2007; "Bigger Profits Through Targeted Sales" — January 2007; "Taking a Fresh Look at Your Marketing Strategy" — January 2006; all available at: http://www.feedandgrain.com/publication/archives.jsp?pubId=1
Question 3 focuses on a couple of marketing tactics that many businesses do not do — customer surveys and focus groups. The idea here is to be proactive and gather data directly from both customers and noncustomers. You can ask these groups broad questions about long-range product offerings or services that you might offer; or you can be more specific and focus on day-to-day operations and what survey respondents find both good and bad about your business.
Gathering this data might be as simple as including a self-addressed, stamped postcard with six questions in your customers' bills three to four times a year. Or, you might go to the time and effort to develop a more comprehensive mailed survey. A quick and inexpensive option to consider is an online survey service such as Survey Monkey (http://www.surveymonkey.com) which allows you to customize a website or e-mail with questions. The data is then easily compiled into usable statistics or narrative bullets which can be used for future planning session or in communication vehicles like statement stuffers or e-mails.
A final method of collecting this type of data is through focus groups. Meeting face-to-face with customers and prospects sometimes gives you more direct insight into their thinking. A list of closed (yes/no) and open (discussion type) questions can get them going and help direct the conversation. If you precede or follow this with a small meal (breakfast or lunch), you will be amazed at the useful information you will uncover — and how much these people will tell you!
Related to question 4 — a quality control program starts with your commitment promise, followed by an outline of how your program is to be carried out. In the feed and grain industry, we often rely on inbound ingredient testing to determine grain/feedstuff quality (and thus value). On the product sale side, most grain merchandisers feel that the determination of the quality of grain is addressed either in the grade or more specifically by the contract of sale. This is probably a fair statement of the market workings for both buyer and seller. However, on the "feed" side there are perhaps larger quality control issues that feed manufacturers are forced to address.
Depending on how you graded this question, you may want to consider a stronger quality or service guarantee. Guarantees of this sort indicate both a promise and a commitment on your part to handle issues that may arise. Most management gurus would argue that you will get more benefit from such a guarantee than it will actually cost you. In the book Extraordinary Guarantees: A New Way to Build Quality Throughout Your Company and Ensure Satisfaction for Your Customers, (Amacom Books, 1993) author Christopher Hart argues that "by translating every element of customer dissatisfaction into pain for the company, an extraordinary guarantee cuts through bureaucracy, breaks down barriers, creates a sense of shared mission, and sharply refocuses corporate priorities on those elements that most need fixing."