Reflections on Mary Queen of Shops

Mary PortasI’m not sure if you’ve discovered this programme, but these one hour specials on BBC2 are compelling viewing and provide some terrific insights into business practice (good and bad). Retail guru Mary Portas, the woman credited with transforming the fortunes of Harvey Nichols, is drafted in to revitalise a variety of failing businesses.

This series focuses on the small, independent high street businesses who are disappearing at an alarming rate in the face of competition from the retailing giants. So far she’s turned her attention to a bakery, village store and a greengrocers, all fascinating stories with what appears to be a happy outcome (although one wonders how these stores will be faring in a year’s time, without the Portas touch).

What impressed me was the way Mary challenged these business owners to properly define what they were offering (none was able to). The temptation is to try to please everyone, never turning away business. In the case of the Dorset village store in Episode 2, the two Londoners who’d taken over the shop ended up stocking 4000 lines, their intention being to fulfil every conceivable request by the locals. Paradoxically, when Portas asked the villagers why they avoided shopping there, their response was, “They just don’t stock what we want”!

The answer: strip out most of the stock and start defining your business. What can you offer that the supermarkets can’t? What about fresh, local produce? The supermarkets are constrained by centralised buying rules and their Achilles Heel is their impersonal nature and restrictions on using local suppliers. Mary identified a potential point of difference for the small independent store, something that plays on the ‘local loyalty’ factor, a key consideration in a localised market like Corfe Castle. Get the villagers involved – as suppliers, as helpers, as consumers – and you hit the supermarket giants where it hurts.

So often the key to success in a business is to identify what you’re NOT going to be. It’s through narrowly defining your niche, and servicing it incredibly well (and with confidence) that you’re able to develop a following and really prosper.

FREE Training Showcase Day (Tues 22 June)

I’m delighted to be part of a new initiative by Ashton-Under-Lyne based training company Rubicon Developments, aimed at introducing business people to a fantastic range of training expertise.  This FREE day-long showcase features no fewer than 11 of the region’s leading trainers in their field, everything from learning Japanese and Spanish to essential management and leadership skills.

My own contribution is to explore the concept of Persuasive Presentation, something we focus on in our monthly Speakeasy sessions.

The list of skills showcased on Tues 22nd June is shown below – simply book your place on the session/s of your choice and enjoy some TOTALLY FREE expertise!

The event is backed by Tameside Radio and Rubicon Developments won the National Training Awards (North West) in 2009.

10.00am – IOSH Managing/Working Safety (Pete Callaghan)

10.30am – Intro to Japanese (Tomomi McCormick)

11.00am – Learn Persuasive Presentation Skills (Andrew Thorp)

11.30am – HR Overview (Chris Ellis/Sean Walsh)

12 noon – Customer Service Excellence (Carol Saunders)

12.30pm – Leadership Psychology (Sharon di Mascia)

1.00pm – Unleash your Writing Power (Judi Goodwin)

2.00pm – The Ambition Club – Leadership/Mgt (Mick Seddon)

2.45pm – How to access funding for training (Carol Saunders)

3.00pm – Finances for Non-Financial People (Jill Lomas)

3.30pm – Intro to Spanish (Carol Saunders)

4.00pm – Reiki/Complementary Therapies (Sylvia Broadhead)

Refreshments will be served throughout the day and if you’d like to enjoy any or all of the above sessions, simply contact Carol Saunders on 0161 330 2546 to reserve your FREE place.

It’s great to be typecast

I had an interesting conversation with my Speakeasy associate Darren Gordon last week. Darren runs a wonderful acting school in Manchester and we got on to the topic of typecasting. Pictured here is American actor Glenn Morshower, better known as Secret Service agent Aaron Pierce from the TV series 24.

For me, this is an actor who epitomises typecasting – he’s ALWAYS military, secret service, CIA or some other mid-high ranking government official. It seems that whenever the casting director needs a military type (Black Hawk Down, Air Force Once, Transformers) that name Morshower tops the list each time.

Darren tells me his young acting students hate the prospect of being typecast, preferring instead a more varied range of characters to play. But according to Gordon it’s no bad thing, particularly in the early stages of your acting career. It gives you regular work, and provides the platform from which to widen your portfolio.

But to my mind, typecasting is what we should be aiming for in business. Imagine if someone needed an accountant, web designer, photographer or caterer – and your company came top of the list each time? That’s the benefit of being typecast in your field. Narrow your niche, aim to be the ‘go-to’ guy and you’ll never be out of work!

Presentations – you get what you deserve

Ever experienced ‘death by Powerpoint’? Of course you have, and we heap scorn on the worst perpetrators for stealing precious hours of our time – time we’ll never get back! But perhaps the fault lies elsewhere? Let’s focus on WHO asks them to do it in the first place – and what brief they give.

“Can you do a presentation on…?” That’s how it normally starts, isn’t it? It sets in train the thought process of Powerpoint, graphs, bullet points, etc. The focus is immediately on the MEDIUM.

But imagine what would happen if the initial request was, “Can you persuade an audience to buy into the idea of XYZ?”

That sets us down a different road. The focus is now on the AUDIENCE and how we might CHANGE them in some way, how they feel or think about an issue. It starts with the objective, NOT the medium.

So maybe when we’re sat there enduring another Powerpoint data-fest, we might direct our anger at the organiser instead of the presenter!

What’s your interest rate?

Once again, Kirsty was back in the boardroom, subject to the whim of Lord Sugar’s vicious tongue and pointing finger. I’m hooked on the Junior Apprentice series, at once admiring the willingness of such young people to plunge headlong into ‘cold calling’ situations, yet at the same time horrified at the behaviour of what writer Sam Wollaston describes as ‘little corporate bundles of hatred.” (The Guardian 3/6/2010).

This week the task involved selling art work in some of the trendier parts of London, and Kirsty was dispatched to seek out the most marketable produce. In the event that the two teams chose the same work, the artist had the right to choose who would sell their wares – and that required a bit of schmoozing. Off went Kirsty and…oh, dear.

In the boardroom post-mortem Nick questioned whether she’d spent more than 15 seconds looking at the pictures. It may have been nearer five. I winced, feeling the artist’s bemusement as Kirsty negotiated hard on price, scribbling down figures with scarcely a glance at the walls. Not surprisingly, the artist chose the other team to sell his work.

And for me there’s the lesson for those of us in business, trying to ‘win friends and influence people’. If you’re looking to build relationships, take an interest in people. Ask questions, listen carefully to the answers. Seek clarification. Quite apart from the intelligence you gather, it makes people feel good. And if you leave people in a better place each time you meet them (emotionally, practically), you’ll leave a great legacy wherever you go.

Simple, yes.  Easy?  Well if it was easy we wouldn’t see so many Kirsty-style encounters, would we?