The tables were turned on Tom Stimson at InfoComm this year. Instead of Tom teaching his usual Best Practices or Business Strategy courses, fifty-five business leaders from all over the globe took him to school in a two-hour discussion.
The Rental & Staging Business Exchange was a workshop at InfoComm where Live Event executives exchanged ideas on a variety of topics. Tom Stimson, President of Stimson Group LLC acted as Host and Moderator. The topics were derived from a recent business survey and from the attendees themselves. Here is Tom’s first-hand report on the event:
I have never had so many folks show up early for a seminar in my life! I hope it was a sign of enthusiasm and not just the need to sit down. My goal was to introduce topics that were timely and relevant, allow the participants to give the subject an airing, then share their observations with the room. Not trusting myself to be able to wing this one, I conducted a brief survey of my blog readers to see what sorts of things were on their minds. That report could easily be summarized by three words: Differentiation, Customers, and Costs.
We managed to drill into four topics during the workshop. While the audience would surely have enjoyed spending hours on each item, the point of the session was touch a variety of topics then exchange business cards and continue the conversation afterwards. As many of you know, I am a huge proponent of business networking and the important of management getting outside their bubble and talking to peers. I hope I at least convinced a few folks to expand their networks. For everyone that attended and those that wish they could, here are the subjects we talked about:
What Do You Hope To Learn Today?
I thought this was a good question and one we can all learn to use better when we meet clients, employees, suppliers, and peers. The list of responses from attendees was unsurprising, but it demonstrated how much everyone has in common.
The most popular item on the list was Differentiation. I consider this to be a huge moral victory because only one year ago, the response would have centered on Commoditization. In other words, we have finally moved away from the problem: shrinking margins, towards the solution: how to be worth more. Additionally, a large amount of the ensuing discussion revolved around the Customer and how to better meet her expectations.
What Are Customers Asking For Today?
What are customers asking for today as compared to two years ago? This discussion wandered onto three tracks. First were the technical requests such as live streaming, twitter feeds, and digital signage. The second track highlighted how customers are requesting more soft services including design, production, content development, and other mobile apps. And the third track was a clear trend of customers demanding better proposals: fewer line items, summarized services, and no surprises.
This third trend is of particular interest to me as I have been encouraging my clients and followers to abandon old-school, line-item, rental style quotes – for years (check out this short blog post from 2009). Much of the resistance I face has been based on the supposition that clients would not like the change. While there is certainly a class of customer that continues to favor detailed, lengthy quotes, these are not the customers that most rental-stagers are trying to woo.
What do your employees need/want in terms of training?
This topic really stumped the attendees to the point where I became concerned about whether we could make any inroads on this subject. There was a lot of discussion on the nature of employees, but it took some prodding to discover what training could be applied to develop better employees and thereby improve retention.
Project Management is a standard go-to response for training. The problem is that I don’t believe there is much agreement on what the scope of project management actually is in the Live Events world. And while Sales came up second in the word cloud, Customer Service is clearly an emerging need. This is a really good trend in my opinion. Taken along with the customer’s demand for simpler proposals and broader services in general, customer service will become increasingly important.
The highlight in this discussion for me was the importance retaining employees and how expensive it becomes when you need to replace personnel. We needed to understand the reasons why employers are not providing the training we all agree is needed: Time and Cost. The time the employee has to be away from productive (read: billable) work and the cost associated with that time, the training itself, and related expenses. The group agreed that the cost of replacing an employee was calculable, and that that cost far outweighed the net expense of training. Add to that the cost of losing a customer because an employee wasn’t properly trained and you have a pretty compelling case to make education a priority.
Top Priorities for Management
What are the top five priorities that Management should focus on? An excellent question if I do say so myself. People, specifically employees was the most popular response. This was closely followed by Customers and Products. Profit made a brief appearance, but I got the sense that the room was more focused on sales and growth than making money. I feel in general that discussions about making money are not popular in most small businesses. The reasons are many but mostly stem from the fact the profit is rarely shared and the mechanics of how to generate profit are often misunderstood.
My current favorite reality TV host is Marcus Lemonis on The Profit and he will tell you that People, Process, and Product are the most important things. His formula is simple: get the right people into the right jobs, make sure the process can deliver consistent and efficient results, and focus on the right products. If you get these things right, profit should take care of itself. However, the title of the show is The Profit and it is very clear that making money is the most important item on his list. I believe that small businesses need an injection of this simple, profit-focused logic in order to overcome distractions and self-delusions.
I truly did learn far more than I expected in this session. Foremost, I discovered that the industry as a whole has matured beyond the tiresome “technology for technology’s sake” and “we make money from rental, services are a distraction” mentalities. This group was very much in touch with customer needs and trends. Soft services such as content development and creative design were comfortable concepts and already a major part of many business models. Perhaps most surprising was the sense that the industry is changing and there didn’t seem to be anyone advocating a status quo. Alternative approaches and customer-solutions were quickly embraced.
In summary, I felt gratified and perhaps vindicated that the customer and business trends I have observed for the past several years have also been seen in many companies around the world. To all of those that could not attend this excellent discussion, reach out to your peers and ask the questions that are on your mind. Explore ideas from outside your bubble and embrace the change.
Tom Stimson, MBA, CTS, is president of Stimson Group LLC, a Dallas-based management consulting firm specializing in strategy, process improvement, and market research for the Audiovisual Industry. Tom is a Past-President of InfoComm International and a current member of InfoComm’s Adjunct Faculty.