Thursday, August 31, 2006

Improving communication with Indian Engineers

"Today, India is one of the most exciting emerging markets in the world. Skilled managerial and technical manpower that match the best available in the world and a middle class whose size exceeds the population of the USA or the European Union, provide India with a distinct cutting edge in global competition." Discover India

Today India dominates the world of IT services. Indian software engineers are now working on various projects for different clients - mostly international clients. Being an engineer myself and having worked in the USA and currently in the UK, I have seen engineers communicate - especially Indian engineers. Based on these experiences here are some tips for foreigners, mainly customers of Indian IT services, to communicate effectively with Indian Engineers.

Tip-1: Be Explicit

Almost all engineers who go abroad have few things in common: They are smart, intelligent and lots on new ideas. They carry considerable experience and have certain assumptions of the host country and its people from their past experience and other sources. If you are dealing with them for the first time, then you will also have certain assumptions and impressions about Indian Engineers.

The first essential step is then to check if those assumptions are correct. Both parties must quickly pick up clues on what aspects of their assumptions are wrong and what needs to be corrected. As a foreigner, the engineer may not be aware that you, as his customer, may be assuming things. It therefore helps to explain rather than imply about what your expectations are.

Remember that you are the customer or the collaborator - and your success is also dependent on their success. This means that you need to be explicit in all your communications with Indian engineers. It helps if you ask the questions:

"What does he understand about the business requirements?"
Engineers in general start working with a set of assumptions & guess works. They may not necessarily have a deep understanding of the customer’s requirements. It is therefore essential to ask the question and listen to the answers - And correct them where ever necessary.Never Assume that the other party understands.

"What do they (Indian engineers) need to be successful?"
Indian Engineers in particular do not have a habit of demanding things - if they do not have access to a particular resource, they will either find a work around or just ignore the problem. Rarely they demand for resources or information. It is therefore to your advantage to explicitly ask them of what they need during all phases of the project.

Document and explain your requirements in plain simple English. Often times I have seen American and British managers send a diplomatic statements. These diplomatic statements maybe misread by Indian engineers - it therefore helps to be straight forward when it comes to setting expectations or establishing the requirements.

Use templates for all reports and communication. As a customer, you can setup the template in which the project reports have to be submitted. I would encourage use of templates for emails as well - especially for routine emails such as weekly status, transfer of responsibilities, change requests, etc.

Tip-2: Time Management

Any visitor to a new country or on a new assignment will initially take more time than the locals to produce the same amount of work. It will be much better if you can tell the important dates and the expected deliverables on those dates. In addition, tell them how they might use your time - Give your office timings, what's the best time to reach you, and how to reach you. In short set the rules as to how your IT engineers can utilize your time.

Tip-3: Increase your cross-cultural sensitivity

Remember that both you & Indian Engineers are likely to start with certain assumptions. Some of these assumptions will be rooted in standard stereotypes based on the person’s nationality, religion & culture. Stereotyping a person tends to lead you into false assumptions - and can be dangerous. While stereotyping has its benefits, it is always better to know about the person’s culture and behavior instead of relying on stereotypes. Asking questions and listening to the answers allows you to check out assumptions and generalizations and to increase your cultural awareness.

Exploring what others think and do will help you to identify your own rules, assumptions and conventions. Because our own cultures are so implicit in all we do and think, we can only become self aware by getting to know how others’ cultures deal with the same matters. This will help you to be explicit in the way described in Tip-1.

Tip-4: Teach ‘Western’ business communication skills

Most Indian engineers that you meet might have been working in your country before - and few will even have substantial work experience as well. But if you are managing a large IT project, you will see several engineers who are either fresh out of college and are traveling abroad for the first time. It is in these situations, you need to play the role of a "teacher" and help them learn the standard business communication techniques when dealing with you, your colleagues and your company.

In my experience, I found it to be mutually beneficial. As a teacher, you will learn their communication styles - and also help you know them better & overcome the drawbacks of stereotyping. And for engineers, they will learn to communicate better - thus saving time & efforts for everyone.

Some of the key points Indian engineers must know are:

  • Expressing their personal opinions
  • Ability to paraphrase and summarize others’ words and ideas
  • Use of referencing rules and conventions in business communication
  • Structure and order an Business/Technical argument
  • Analyze and evaluate different arguments and positions

Note: Do not be over-enthusistic and impose a strict learning regime either. Use your judgment and don the "teacher" role only when required. At the same time do not shy away from teaching others the basics of business communications - as it will cost you in terms of wasted time & wasted efforts due to miscommunications

Closing Thoughts

A normal trend in Indian IT companies is to train their engineers on certain business etiquette before they are sent abroad. But often times, engineers skip these training sessions due to various compulsions. And even when these training are held, the training program is inadequate - Usually a half-day session is provided. So I recommend American & European managers not to assume things and take a proactive role in improving their communication with Indian engineers.

Also See:

Teaching an Engineer how to Write

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Nature of Virtual Teams

In my earlier article I had written about Managing Virtual Project Teams. Few people asked me a question - "What is a virtual team?" , " How do you define a virtual team?". This set me off to write about the nature of virtual team and what are the characteristics of a virtual team.

Virtual team is a recent phenomenon. The mega factor which led to raise of virtual teams is globalization. Globalization meant that companies must coordinate their global activities in order to compete effectively. For example, Accenture developed a globally integrated marketing communication strategy to orchestrate the name change from Anderson Consulting to Accenture. ( Read "Globally Integrated Marketing Communications" )

The need to compete & collaborate globally led to the creation of virtual teams. But with the advent of low cost telecommunication technology, and discount air fares has enabled widespread use of virtual teams in almost all organizations. Companies - both large & small, even startups have virtual teams. ( Read "Global R&D Network ")

In addition, shortage of talent has forced companies distribute their resources globally, and also collaborate with other agencies, companies, individual contractors, consultants etc. This has created a new version of virtual team - which spans across the globe, across cultures, and across multiple organizations. This loosely knit team is also very dynamic in terms of its team members, and even its objectives. ( Read "Virtual Scale - Alliances for Leverage ")

As a result, Virtual teams can be found everywhere. Organizations have learnt to master collaborative work in a dynamic work environment. The new virtual team can be characterized by:

  1. Dynamic Team Membership

    The team members - both in terms of numbers & members are constantly changing. Members move into a team & move out of a team based on the business requirements. Members rarely remain in the same team from the start to finish. In a virtual team, a member is expected to his/her bit of the work for that project/task - and once the task is accomplished, they move on to another team & perform another task.

    Even the team leadership will change hands in the process. A complex project requires different type of leadership skills at different stages of the project. This implies that even team leadership will have to be dynamic.

    All this implies that the team is always in a continuos state of formation. The old theory of team forming, norming, storming, performing, and disbanding do not hold good anymore. Today in a dynamic virtual team - all the stages of team formation (forming, norming, storming, performing, and disbanding) happen simultaneously.

  2. Team members can include people from outside the organization

    Today’s virtual team consists of members from other organizations as well. For example in my earlier company, we had to collaborate with multiple vendors, partners in order to deliver to the client. So the team consisted of members from multiple organizations and from multiple countries.

    In one of the projects, we had members from US, India, Israel, & Taiwan & members were from six different organizations.Today there is an IT project being implemented at BT. For this project, Accenture, Tech Mahindra, Converges, TCS, Siemens, and HP are involved. Members of this team are dispersed in UK, USA, Spain, Germany, and India.

  3. Members of the team are also members of other teams

    In an era of ultra specialization, members of the team need not dedicate all their time on one project. This means that their time will be divided among multiple projects. For example, a DBA ( Database Analyst) would work 1 day a week for team-1, 2 days a week in team-2, 1 day a week for team-3 etc.

    This implies that members of the team will have multiple reporting relationships with different parts of the organizations at the same time. Typically there will be multiple project managers, his line manager, and other managers to whom a person would report to.
  4. Teams are at the center of the organization.

    Organizations have transformed the way they work. Projects have a definitive goals & objectives, which makes it easier to manage. As a result, work in any organization has been divided into series of projects - even routine manufacturing has been split up into projects. This implies that the old pyramid of organizational hierarchy is slowly coming apart. Instead of the earlier hierarchy based command-and-control based management style is being replaced by "collaborate-and-cooperate" management style.

  5. Soft-skills is the key for success of a virtual team

    For a virtual team to succeed, team members should have excellent soft-skills. In a virtual team, members are ever changing, the reporting structures is unclear, members may even be from other organizations, members may have different culture (both work culture & organizational culture), and members may not even have enough time to build a rapport.

    To collaborate in such a dynamic work environment, team members need to have excellent soft-skills: communication skills, persuasion skills, negotiation skills, cross-cultural sensitivity and work etiquette. Technical skills alone are not enough for the team to succeed.

There are several types of virtual teams too.

  1. Executive teams

    Executive teams are made up of managers who are on the team because of their position in the organization. These teams are usually semi-permanent teams with responsibility for specific divisions or functions in the organization. Executive teams do not work on any specific project - instead they will be involved in multiple projects.

  2. Project teams

    Project teams are created for a task. Members of the team are selected based on their role and expertise in relation to that task. Membership of such teams will be dynamic based on the roles the members are expected to play. Once their role is over, members move on to other project teams.

  3. Support Teams

    Members of support teams work on common tasks and support other teams in the organization. The team members are based on skill sets and members are interchangeable i.e., if one is absent on one day, the other can take up his/her tasks. Members in such teams usually have identical skill sets and are in the same professional field. These teams do not have any specific end targets - instead their role is on a continuous ongoing basis. For example, IT support teams, On-call customer support teams, nurses in a hospital, etc.

Closing Thoughts

Virtual teams are everywhere today. Managers of small and large organizations have learnt the importance virtual teams, but most are still grappling with the issues of team facilitation and issues of trying to manage teams that are disconnected by distance, cultures, and time.

Increasing use of modern communications systems (Internet, Intranets, telephone, video conference, groupware , etc) has helped to manage these virtual teams. But the real success of a virtual team depends on soft skills: Communication, negotiation, cross-cultural sensitivity, persuasion, and work etiquette.

PS: This article is all about defining a virtual team. In the coming series of articles, I will talk about various soft skills needed to succeed in a virtual team.

Also See:

  1. Globally Integrated Marketing Communications
  2. Global R&D Network
  3. Virtual Scale - Alliances for Leverage
  4. Managing Virtual Project Teams
  5. Global Product Development Teams
  6. Global Dimension of Project Management
  7. E-Dimensions of Project Management
  8. Role of Leadership in Teambuilding
  9. Managing Outsourced Projects

Motivating Employees when business is down

Recently I read a message on Yahoo groups from a HR professional had posed the following question:

What is the role of HR professional if the organization is not doing well on marketing and sales front, not getting enough projects, work and top performers are not getting enough job satisfaction, challenging work & cant see their career growth? How to maintain the morale of the employees in above situation? How HR professional shall convey the management about this situation?

This question resonated with my earlier writings on retaining employee, branding to attract talent, how marketing can help avoid revenue roller coaster, creating a learning culture, sales funnel etc. Being a marketing professional with deep interests in HR, I decided to put my thoughts on paper right away.

Being an VLSI enginner working at Intel & IDT in Silicon Valley, I have seen a prolonged business downturn, I have worked through the bubble burst, the recession that followed and also worked at a startup where ups & downs in the sales cycle were to be expected. These experiences taught me several important management lessons. And these lessons are what I am writing down below.

Nature of Business

One has to understand that the nature of the business is such that there will be times when orders/sales will be very good and there will be down/slow times as well. The cyclical nature of business should also be accounted in the resource planning. If HR knows that the business will be cyclical, then one must avoid building excessive capacities to meet the peak work load. Instead, try and use contract labor to meet the increased demand. Retail stores (Wal-Mart, Target, Macy's Dillards etc) have long used temporary/part time workers to meet the Christmas rush. Technology companies can use contractors/consultants in the similar manner.

Startups also face this problem of revenue roller coaster and the associated lack of work - overwork cycles. But if this is cyclical in nature, the solution lies in having a better marketing plan to avoid such a roller coaster. (see: Avoid Revenue Roller Coaster Trap )
In addition to cyclical nature of business, startups also face a bigger problem of "Crossing the Chasm". A chasm is period when company suddenly sees a drop in business - and can be a very dangerous trap. Here again the solution has to come from marketing department. I recommend everyone to read the book "Crossing the chasm" By Geoffery A. Moore.

There can also be an industry wide recession. If there are lack or sales due to a recession, then the top management should get involved in the HR issues. I will talk it about later in this article.

What can HR do?

The first task is to understand the nature of the business. Everyone in HR department should have a clear understanding of the nature of business & the business cycles of the company is involved in.

During a down cycle, employee morale is bound to be affected. Therefore HR should take a lead and explain the business cycle to all employees. HR should also involve marketing when reaching out to employees. A part of this exercise has to do with internal marketing, internal brand positioning and a part to keep employees motivated.

First thing HR along with marketing is to explain their sales funnel. Sales funnel is a prediction of the future work. The more prospective customers in the funnel, the more likely that there will be more customers in the future. It is therefore important to see the activities in sales funnel to estimate future work. This implies that if the sales funnel is strong, then share those details with the engineering team. The engineers should see the kind of work and challenges they will see in future. This will motivate them.

A note of caution: Explain the sales funnel only if the funnel is strong. If the funnel is weak, exposing the sales funnel to employees will further demotivate them.

Build for the Future

If the current projects are not enough to keep the employees motivated, then it implies that they have some free time. The plan for HR is then to use that free time to do something useful - i.e., get the employees involved in PCMM/CMM activities to get a better level of PCMM/CMM certification etc. Alternatively, use the free time to train the engineers in new skills: These skills may be technical or managerial - depending on their rank/grade. Project leads/Project mangers may be encouraged to do PMI certification, or CSQA or Six Sigma etc., while engineers may be encouraged to take technical training.

Next thing to do is to use senior engineers & highly skilled engineers in Sales/Marketing activities. This will improve the strength of the sales funnel and will also motivate employees. Organize technical seminars or Webinars targeting potential customers, get people to write white papers, case studies etc. Use people's time to generate additional sales collateral.
The basic idea is that during such down times, use the spare time usefully to build for a better future.

What to do in a true recession?

Lastly, But most importantly HR should know what the top management intends to do in the future in view of the current slow period. If the management thinks that there is a true recession in the industry, then management has two options: Layoff people and operate the business in a smaller scale, or build for a better future. The final decision will be based on the confidence level of the top management.

If the top management has plans to layoff people, then the role of HR must be geared towards identifying the key talent and retaining them. If layoff are being planned, then the top performers must be intimated about the possibility - but given enough assurances that it will not affect their jobs etc. Take steps to prevent attrition of key people.

Another possible reason for employee demotivation may be that the projects they are getting to do may not be challenging enough. This implies that either the employees are being underemployed. In such circumstances, best thing to do is to change the marketing strategy and focus on getting more challenging & high paying challenges. For example, instead of getting application support work, aim to get application development work. In other words: Aim to move up in the value chain.

Note: I have written the above for an IT/ITES company in mind, but similar ideas can be applied to other firms as well.

I have written in detail about the things I mentioned here. If you have time please read the following:

Monday, August 21, 2006

Power of Choice

Hello Everyone,

Let me introduce you to Maria Sortino Gillette. Maria Sortino Gillette is an expert on American Culture and an independent trainer/coach. She trains expat and professionals on American culture, American business, and improving business communication with Americans. To know more about her work, visit: You can read her blog at

Today's article is written by Maria Sortino Gillette. This article gives a deep insight into the American working style and American business culture. In this article, Maria has brought out the need for one to be assertive in order to be successful in the USA.

The Power of Choice

I recently read a blog entry from Arun Kottolli about the failed expatriate assignment of one Indian family in America. Here is the story:

T. Subramanian Iyer, a highly successful sales manager from Chennai in India was asked by his company - Prestige products to work as regional sales director in San Antonio, Texas. Prestige regarded T. Subramanian Iyer (TS) as its finest young executives and promoted him to sales director for this new assignment. When offered the opportunity, TS was excited and looked forward for this new assignment and the new challenge. Top management was also confident about its decision of sending TS.

TS is a deeply religious man and had never went abroad. He and his family - wife and two children were exited of this opportunity. On arriving to US, the family's excitement slowly turned into uneasiness. Adjustment to American life proved difficult. His wife was unhappy - and apprehensive of her children education - The public school where TS had enrolled his children had a substantial Hispanic population and the quality of education was not the same as their earlier school in India. Moreover TS & his wife were constantly worried that their children would eat non-vegetrian food at school - which was very much against their religious beliefs. She also found it difficult to run the household without her usual servants.

At work, TS found things to be very difficult. The absence of a personal secretary - cramped his style. He was angry that he had to do all travel arrangements, type his own letters etc. Moreover many of his customers expected him to have lunch with them at a steak house or at a BBQ place. TS being a religious man never ate meat - and desisted eating at places which served meat. The idea of eating beef appalled him. All this had a negative impact on his performance and the company was worried due to his failure to succeed. After 6-months, TS requested to be transferred back to India and was even willing to settle for his earlier role as sales manager - a demotion.

When I read this story, the first question that came to my mind was, "Why didn't TS exercise his power of choice?" When he realized that if he did not speak up about which restaurant he and his customers would eat at, they would always choose a steakhouse, why didn't he suggest a different one?

America, the US, is a land of choices. But if you don't know that you have a right to exercise those choices, what good does it do? In an article I wrote recently for Prudential Relocation entitled "Acculturation: To Stress or Not to Stress", I wrote about the stress involved in relocating internationally. In the article, I talked about self-efficacy:

Self-efficacy is our belief in our personal ability to get things done. It's how well we think we are capable of achieving results. If you believe you have the power to produce results, to make things happen, you are more likely to attempt the required action. In this way, the way you perceive your abilities can lead to lower anxiety, and therefore reduced stress reactions. Self-confidence can positively effect how we view our environment -safety, transportation, housing, social encounters, and all of the potential stressors mentioned above. It's beliefs in our capabilities to exert some control over these potential threats, not the capabilities themselves that determine how we judge changes. With increased self-efficacy, you may judge the negativity of daily life events at a lower level and, therefore, imagine fewer problems. When you view yourself as positively being able to cope with the changes that come with international living, you will find the new environment less potentially hurtful. What was once deemed a fear of the unknown or discomfort with ambiguity has now turned into a feeling of adventure, challenge and fun.

Now, this isn't to say that I am not understanding of someone who has difficulty expressing his or her personal choices when it's obvious that the majority of the group wants a different choice. But, what I am saying is that there are ways to get around this awkwardness. One way is to lead the decision-making by being proactive. Use communication to gather everyone's input and make a decision. If you cannot eat meat and would like to have your next business lunch at a restaurant that offers a variety of vegetarian dishes, send out an email the day before with a list of a few choices of restaurants that offer both meat and non-meat dishes. Gather your responses and make a decision that will satisfy everyone in the group. Maybe instead of a lunch meeting, the meeting could be held at a coffee shop or tea house.

Once you know that you have the power to affect the outcome, you can take control. This doesn't mean you should decide for others without asking them, but you should anticipate the cultural issues and come up with some possible solutions.

Let's return again the story above to deal with another issue TS and his family had difficulty dealing with: dissatisfaction with the education of their children at school. I am assuming that their children were attending a public school, not a private school. There are a variety of private schools in the US that offer a more challenging and comprehensive curriculum. International schools are one of them. TS and his family could have done a little research into local international schools and found that the class sizes are small and that most of the students are from other countries. These schools also used advanced curricula that challenge the current academic level of their students.

Finally, there is the issue of not having a personal secretary or a housekeeper. If these were necessities to TS and his family's happiness, could he not have found a way to have them? Now I know it takes some tact when asking your home-based manager in India to provide you with a secretary, but if you make it clear that it is necessary to your effectiveness, then I believe you can successfully negotiate it. Once again, you can be proactive and initiate communication with your home country boss. In this case, you would need to use the style of communication that is most appropriate in your company and in Indian culture, but whatever that style may be, you can still offer some possible solutions that might relieve you of the everyday tasks. One solution could be to have a secretary from another department take on some of the tasks. Another solution might be to hire a part-time secretary. The point here is that there are always choices and in the US, if you wish to change an outcome, you need to suggest different choices.

Again, I believe that if you understand that, in the US, it is OK to exert your influence and communicate your desires, even if they are different from the cultural norm, you will find more satisfaction in your quality of life. Not only is it 'okay', it is required that international managers be proactive decision makers on all levels.

If you do what is within your personal power, and you still don't have things the way you would like them, then you either need to accept the differences or leave. But I guarantee that over time, with even a few changes implemented, you will feel more comfortable in your new home…at least comfortable enough to stay.

Now, while your personal secretary is sending out emails with restaurant choices for your business lunch with customers, you don't have to stress out -- you can rest easy!

Five Steps to Build a Strong Brand

In today’s highly competitive world, companies are striving hard to beat customer expectations - marketers are at work setting the right level of expectations and shaping the customer experience.

A positive brand value is created if customer experience exceeds his expectations. Over a period of time companies can build a strong brand - one with high brand value. Intel, Cisco, Google, E-bay, Wal-Mart etc., are the classic examples of how companies built a strong brand through customer experience.

Companies mentioned above started small but built a solid reputation with the customer along the way and in the process the name of the company evolved into a strong brands as well. Note that these companies sell several products - and many of these products are also branded, but the company brand is the strongest. For example - Intel’s Pentium processor, Cisco’s Catalyst Router etc., these products are market leaders in their respective segments, but customers remember the company brand more than the product brand.

In this article, I want to highlight the five steps needed to create a strong brand. This article builds on the theory of Customer relationship management & sales, you may want to read the earlier article on Levels of Customer Relationship before reading further.

  1. Clearly articulate your brand identity

    Brand Identity means what the brand means to the customer. Brand identity sets the customer expectations. A classic example is from Wal-Mart’s "Everyday Low prices".
    This statement sets the customer expectation. Customers expect bargain prices at Wal-Mart. Another classic example is ‘Starbucks’ - Starbuck coffee has a special meaning to its customers; to them Starbucks means excellent coffee served in a warm, relaxing and pleasing environment.

    The key is to clearly articulate the brand identity, and that will help you define how customers interpret it. A clear brand identity sets right level of expectations by the customer.

  2. Establish a customer value proposition

    Customer value proposition is the natural outcome of the brand identity. It is what the customers think of your brand. For example, customers think of Wal-Mart as place to get great bargains. Then that message must be communicated to the entire organization so that each department and each individual understands what it means to them. The actions of each department will then be aligned with the customer value proposition.

    For example only if all employees of Starbucks understand the customer value proposition - then they will be able to deliver an excellent cup of coffee in a warm, relaxing and pleasing environment.

  3. Define the optimal customer experience.

    Identify all contact points where customers interact with your company. To create a holistic brand experience, you need to create a consistent and compelling experience at each of these touch points.

    For example, marketer must work as a mystery shopper and see if the customer experience is consistent with the customer value proposition and brand identity. For example, marketer must see if he/she is getting the kind of coffee at Starbucks in the right environment as expected by the customer. Take an outside-in perspective when aligning each department with your customer value proposition and brand identity.

    Note that the marketer can only test the level of customer experience based on his/her understanding of customer’s expectations. There may be an understanding gap between what the customer wanted and what the marketer understood.
  4. Cultivate relationships with customers

    Relationship with customers must be treated carefully. Never assume anything about what the customer thinks of your company. It pays to be an active listener to learn and respond to the customer needs. Companies need to respond positively to customer feedback and that will turn casual customers into loyal customers, loyal customers into customer champions.In my earlier article I have written in detail about the levels of relationship a firm can enjoy with the customer. Improving the levels of relationship with customer means enhancing customer experience - thus gaining brand value & customer loyalty.

    Here again a classic example will be Starbucks. Customers of starbucks are so loyal that they are even promoting starbucks to others. Starbucks has also responded in kind - by promoting organic farming, ethical purchasing etc. These ideas were given to Starbucks by their customers.

    Another very good example is Intel. Intel sells microprocessors to computer manufacturers, the company releases new products with enhanced features/performance as per its pre-announced product roadmap. The marketing team of Intel is always listening to customer to learn what features are needed in the future products - that information is passed on the R&D teams - so that the new products will have the feature required by the customer. As a result Intel enjoys the highest levels of relationships with its customers - a level at which customers are willing to invest and co-develop new products.

  5. Strengthen your brand over time

    Enhancing the level of customer-brand relationship will have a direct impact on the brand. To build a strong brand, one needs strong customer relationships. To begin with, the first time customer starts at a low level of relationship( I call it level-1 ) and over a period of time, through series of positive interactions with the brand/company, the level of relationship can be increased to a higher level ( Max of level-6) Marketer must have a time bound plan to improve the levels of relationship which the customer enjoys with the company/brand. This will have a direct correlation with the brand value.
Closing thoughts

Customers don't buy products, customers buy relationships - This is a popular phrase in marketing. To build a strong brand, organizations must work on enhancing customer experiences and that results in a higher level of customer relationship. All this will eventually result in a strong brand. If you observe any popular brand today, you will see that company promoting that brand has succeeded in building a strong relationship with its customers.

Also see:

Marketing - Position before you communicate
External Product Positioning - Need for Clarity
Developing a Brand Position
Selecting a specific brand position
Define your Brand and determine its value
Choosing a Value Position for a Brand
Advantages of Niche Positioning
Customer Relationship Management & Sales

Managing Virtual Project Teams

If you were building a dam in the 1930s, you hired people to work exclusively on your project until the dam, or at least their part of it, was done. If you were developing a breakthrough minicomputer in the 1970s, as Tracy Kidder vividly described in his book, The Soul of a New Machine, you brought people together in a basement somewhere to devote themselves to your project 18 hours a day until it was done. But in the early twenty-first century, a typical project manager may be charged with a very different kind of task, such as developing an information management system for an insurance company with nationwide operations. If you are that kind of project manager, you are probably working through a team of people assigned to your project part-time, who represent a range of business interests and are located in offices around the world.

These days the virtual project team is composed of people separated by vast distances who communicate primarily by computer and telephone, and is more the norm than the exception. For them, e-communication is not an alternative to face-to-face, it’s the only way they can operate. They use networks to develop a sense of community among project team members who may be far-flung geographically and to keep channels open to various regional and functional units that can contribute to the project or be impacted by it. Network-enabled project management software helps virtual project teams plan and track progress of widely dispersed project components, keep the various components in sync with each other, manage project change across the board, and deter local scope changes from overwhelming the project. Thanks to such collaborative software, the Internet, cell phones, etc., project development staff can now be in remote places - even as remote as Timbuktu.

In the pre-Internet era, all members of project development staff personally knew all their team mates - by name, face, & their preferences. Now in a virtual team, team mates are more than a UserID or an e-mail address. Although electronic communications is useful for instant messaging and exchanging design documents and files, interpersonal relationships are often sacrificed.

Unfortunately, we have sacrificed the most vital part of any project - interpersonal relationships between team members. If we do not know anything about an individual, then we are less likely to trust and work with them effectively. Consequently, the quality of the project and the team performance suffers.

I have studied the nature of these virtual teams, worked in a cross-country R&D team, and based on my experience, I can offer three suggestions for better management of virtual teams:

  1. Identify your cast of characters.

    At the very beginning of the project, get the entire team together for a face-to-face meeting. In this meeting, define the entire project administrative structure: Reporting relationships for all members of the project team; project management tools, process, responsibility ownership, expected deliverables, important dates etc. Establish a common project website - where along with the project details, setup a space for a personnel roster. Such a roster should identify each person by proper name, nick name, a brief resume - past companies, projects and educational background, and most importantly a photograph of each team member. There should also be contact data (including physical location), the duties and responsibilities of each person. It should also contain all contact information, Phone and/or cell phone numbers, e-mail ID, Instant messaging ID, VoIP phone number, postal address etc. Such a roster is invaluable for promoting understanding and trust between project participants.

    Today, given the popularity of the blogs, it is a good idea for the team to have a project related blog on a secured Intranet. This blog can be used in several ways - such as a bulletin board, tips & tricks, teaching/knowledge sharing, informal information sharing regarding the project etc. Blogs can also be used as a punching bag for engineers to vent their feelings - and project manager can use the blog to gauge the pulse of the team.

  2. Define standard methods, techniques and tools.

    In a virtual team spread all over the globe - there may be conceivably as many interpretations of the requirements as there are project members. It therefore becomes necessary to develop a standard and uniform communication approach that will result in a well understood and consistent understandings between members. This means that requirements, project delivery methodology, implementation processes etc., are defined in terms understood by all, every team member understands the deliverables and review points to substantiate completeness, and standard techniques and tools to be used in the development process.

    Such standardization eliminates confusion and materially assists the project team in communicating on a common level, regardless of where they are geographically located.Standardization of tools used in the project must be done at the initial stage itself. Every team member should know which tool to be used for what purpose and when. Having a standard methodology will help remove any communication regarding the use of tools. In a software world, tools are synonym for development/enterprise software - e.g.: Oracle 7i, Visual Studio 6.0, MS Office 2003, etc.

    The tools have to be common across the geographic locations. Standardization must be applied to internal & external communications as well. E-mail templates, document templates, Web templates are used to create a base standard for communication.

    Communication tools must not be overlooked. In a virtual team, electronic communications is the lifeline of any project. Today, there are a vast plethora of communication tools: Desk phones, voice mails, cell phones, VoIP phones, Blackberry - communicator, PDA, Laptops equipped with video conferencing ability, Internet chat etc. It is the project manager’s responsibility to select the optimum set of communication tools - based on the requirement and the available budget.

  3. Establish standard and routine project reporting cycles.

    A good project reporting system is invaluable. At minimum, project status should be reported on a weekly basis to all the stake holders. In a virtual team it is not possible to hold an project review meeting in person, so as an alternative, try holding an on-line meeting instead.Internet chat sessions and video conferencing have become very effective in this regard. The only problem though is knowing whether the participants are truly paying attention. A private project blog or discussion group can also be helpful for reporting problems and project status, as well as establishing punch lists and providing a clearing house for solutions. In recent times, there has been profusion of web/Intranet based project status tracking system. This system can be used by all the stakeholders to know the current status, the past status, and future trends of the project. Using such a system makes it easier on the team and project manager - as they have access to the most updated information. When you really think about it, there is actually nothing here (in a virtual team) that shouldn't be done under normal operating conditions where all participants are in the same geographic site.

Closing Thoughts

Electronic communications is the lifeline of a virtual project. This means that one has to make intensive of tools such as: Instant messaging, VoIP telephony, online project tracker, blogs, project Intranet, Issue tracker, CVS, Instant messaging, FTP, Intranet, Blogs, etc. These tools just help improve communication - but having a standardized communication via templates, phone etiquette, weekly status reporting, automated status broadcasts etc., will create an organized and a well understood communication between team members.

For a virtual team to succeed, confusion, misunderstandings & chaos must be eliminated. Make the best use of latest communication technologies to coordinate and collaborate with the virtual team members. And that can improve the chances of success of the project.

Also See:

Global Product Development Teams
Global Dimension of Project Management
E-Dimensions of Project Management
Role of Leadership in Teambuilding
Managing Outsourced Projects

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Distinguish Yourself As a Culturally Diverse Candidate

United States of America has perhaps the most diverse work force in the world ( I am sure that UK would come a close second). According to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), minorities and women now comprise two-thirds of all new labor force entrants. I have been writing about the need for cultural diversity in companies in this blog and the benefits of cultural diversity.

Having worked in US and UK, I have seen the advantages of being a culturally diverse candidate - they can bring a unique set of talents, cross-cultural communications skills, sensitivity & tolerance towards other cultures, foreign language skills etc. So in this article, I wanted to give a few tips on how an employee can leverage his/her cultural diversity.

Workforce is Diverse, But not the Top Management

Top management -- particularly at the executive level -- haven't changed much with the recent times. In fact, with all the diversity programs and initiatives that companies claim to embrace, the working world's upper echelons still look very much like they did in the 1950s. A whopping "97% of the senior managers of Fortune 1000 Industrial and Fortune 500 companies are white," reports the DOL's Federal Glass Ceiling Commission. Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that promotes women in business, reports that almost half of minority female professionals lack influential mentors and informal networking opportunities with their colleagues. Evidently, Corporate America continues to cling to an employee model that favors "Anglo" and "Anglo-looking" employees.

Does this mean that minority professionals must abandon their unique cultures, values, languages and ideas in order to get ahead? Not at all. Take Indra Noovi, CEO of PepsiCo for example. Indra being a women from Indian origin has been noted for wearing traditional Indian dress - Saree at major business meetings. Projecting one's cultural identity in a positive way can enhance one's career development - Especially in this climate of increasing corporate diversity.

Historically, companies advocated diversity because it was "the right thing to do." Now a stronger motivation has entered into the picture: money. Quite simply, diversity is beginning to make good business sense.

As the U.S. becomes more of a global marketplace, businesses must adapt in order to succeed. According to "Current Status and Future Trends of Diversity Initiatives in the Workplace," a study by the National Center for Research in Vocational Education, the top reasons why companies are embracing diversity are financially-motivated: "to improve productivity and [to] remain competitive."

If money is a such a strong factor, it comes as no surprise that some of the companies are appointing culturally diverse candidates to the top office. Here is a short list of Indians who have made it to the top office:

Rajat Gupta : CEO of McKinsey
Indra Noovi : CEO of PepsiCo
Rono Dutta : President of United Airlines
Rakesh Gangwal: CEO of US Airways
Sanjay Kumar : Former CEO of Computer Associates
Aman Mehta : CEO of HSBC
Arun Sarin : CEO of Vodafone
Desirable Differences

Twenty years ago, many minority employees had to downplay their cultural backgrounds on the job. But now, for perhaps the first time in American history, employers are classifying difference as an advantage. For employees, this is the time to maximize the benefits of cultural identity. The following are personal attributes that may also qualify as business assets:

  • Language skills
    No matter what the industry, chances are that a company's client base is diverse, maybe even international in scope. Fluency, or even proficiency, in different languages is a highly desirable asset. If you have strong foreign-language skills, put that information at the top of your resume, not at the bottom. When employers are choosing between two job applicants, fluency in a foreign language can be a deciding factor. If you are already at a job, or interviewing for a new one, mention how speaking another language is a true asset. Perhaps it enables you to attract new clients, simplify business travel, or communicate more easily with international offices or customer bases.

    While foreign-language skills are in demand, fluency in English is still a business priority. If English is not your first language, consider building stronger literacy skills. Check with local schools about the availability of daytime, evening or weekend classes in English. LINCS, a service of the National Institute for Literacy, provides a great list of updated literacy resources. Perhaps you are already competent in English, but want to shine. You can bolster your skills by enrolling in an English or public-speaking course. In the business world, strong communication skills and persuasiveness are universally valuable.

  • Cultural sensitivity.
    Familiarity with different cultures and peoples is an employment skill. What is proper behavior in one culture may be tactless or even rude in another. If companies expect to broaden their global reach, they must understand and account for these differences. And what better way to do so than to employ workers who have an "inside perspective?"

    As with language skills, it is critical to educate your employer on the benefits of your heritage or background -- benefits that might not be immediately apparent. Perhaps you are an immigrant who has already made major cultural adjustments. This ability to adapt shows resilience and strength, two very favorable business qualities. Maybe you are familiar with Chinese culture and comfortable dealing with clients in this sector. If you are biracial or of mixed background, you may be more flexible, diplomatic and open-minded around a wide range of people. While you don't need to spell out these assets in an interview, a brief but pointed reference to them can certainly work in your favor.

  • Unique talents or perspectives
    At a job interview, you may be asked personally explorative questions: What do you consider your best or worst qualities? Describe an experience that has taught you a valuable life lesson. Who do you consider your role models? While these questions might not seem work-related, they are meant to give the interviewer a sense of who you are, how you work, and whether or not you would fit into the company's atmosphere. In this sense, they are work-related and should be answered carefully.

Traditionally, job seekers have tried to suppress their differences, especially if they were not born in the U.S., spoke different languages or engaged in culturally specific pursuits. But these differences are exactly what make any workplace more dynamic. If you have unique attributes that you owe to your upbringing or heritage, tell your interviewer about them. Perhaps your culture has instilled in you an especially strong work ethic. Maybe your family raised you to be highly self-motivated and driven. This information may not be appropriate in a cover letter, but it is at an interview -- especially if your interviewer is trying to get a sense of what you would contribute as an employee.

A Word of Caution

One's ethnic identity can be advantageous in the workplace, yet it can also be a burden. Too often employees are stereotyped or otherwise typecast into specific roles that are limiting and debilitating. No one wants to be a company's "token" African American or East Asian employee. In view of recent terrorist attacks, it is a career disadvantage to associate culturally with the orthodox Muslim community.

The secret of success is to maintain balance. An employee should never magnify or overplay any one aspect of his or her identity, as this encourages labeling. You may want to belong to a minority networking organization at your company, but this should not be your primary concern. Remember that career success relies upon an array of factors, performance being the most important. While your cultural identity can be an asset, dedication and career development don't necessarily rely upon it.

Closing Thoughts

In today's global economy, companies have realized the value of a culturally diverse workforce. Prospective employees from diverse backgrounds can benefit from this new found corporate awareness. Bring the advantages of your cultural diversity to the table and back it up with excellent performance - And that will be a sure-fire formula for success at work.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Trans-cultural Business Failure: Wal-Mart Exits Germany

In August 2006 Wal-Mart, the worlds largest retailer, announced that it was exiting operations in Germany. Bentonville based retail giant announced it was selling all the 85 of its hypermarkets to Metro (German retail giant). This marks the end of Wal-Mart’s German adventure which began in 1997 with the acquisition of Wertkauf.

I have lived in USA where I shopped, studied and observed Wal-Mart’s business operations. And the news came to me as no surprise. Back in 2003 I had posted a presentation on why Wal-Mart will find it tough to succeed in India. The recent news validated my observation that Wal-Mart’s cultural insensitivity led to its failure in Germany. (The same mistake is being repeated by Wal-Mart in Korea, Japan, China and Mexico)

History of Wal-Mart in Germany

Wal-Mart started with an aggressive global expansion strategy. In 1997, Wal-Mart bought Wertkauf, a leading retail chain. Later it acquired Interspar in 1998. Wal-Mart wanted to jump-start its European presence. In UK, Wal-Mart purchased ASDA, and started talks to buy the German retailing giant Metro. ( Wal-Mart could not acquire Metro - as Metro board rejected the idea. ASDA was acquired by Wal-Mart and is the second largest retailer in the U.K)

Wal-Mart’s Mistakes

The fundamental problem with Wal-Mart’s global expansion plans lies with its core advantages - a fully owned distribution network, standardized store layouts, warm & welcoming employees who greet customers, and standardized ERP systems. These factors enabled Wal-Mart to succeed in United States - but these factors can become a major disadvantage while operating abroad.

Firstly, Wal-Mart is not experienced in the game of acquisitions and mergers. Wal-Mart was built ground up in the USA and Canada. The lack of managerial skills needed to bring out the related synergy between itself and Wertkauf led to employee frustration. Moreover, the top management refused to acknowledge the differences in customer behavior in Germany when compared to its US customers, and the top management failed to listen to the feedback from its employees.

Wal-Mart stores are designed for customers who are willing to spend lot of time shopping. But in Germany, the shopping hours are shorter: Shops close by 5 PM on weekdays, and no shopping on Sundays. This meant that customers don’t have the habit of spending lots of time in a store - wandering around for the things they need. Coupled with this problem, German customers do not like to be assisted by Wal-Mart’s friendly store assistants. Germans prefer to do their own search for bargains.

Wal-Mart got its store merchandising wrong: Germans like to see the advertised discount products upfront - without having to ask the store assistant. This implies that the discount products must be placed at the eye level. Instead Wal-Mart chose to use its US style merchandise display strategy - where premium priced products are kept at eye level and discount products are kept at higher shelf or in the bottom racks. This irritated the German shoppers. Wal-Mart also got its store inventory wrong, Wal-Mart stocked its store with clothes, hardware, electronics and other non-food products were given much bigger floor space than food products, as a result more than 50% of the revenue was from non-food products. But other German retailers stock more of food products. For example for Metro, food products constitute more than 75% of the revenue.

Wal-Mart also failed to achieve the required economies of scale. To implement its US style hypermarkets, Wal-Mart invested in a robust distribution system with three warehouses and logistics centers - this implied higher cost. To be efficient Wal-Mart needed about 400+ stores, but it had only 85 stores.

The biggest mistake of Wal-Mart was to ignore the local culture, local buying habits and impose an American boss on its German operations. The first head of German operations was an expat from the USA - who did not understand Germany or its culture and insisted that all business operations be carried out in English language. I have not met him in person or even interacted with him - but from what I hear and understand, it is clear to me that the cultural insensitivity started right at the top.

Closing Thoughts

Cross-border, Cross-cultural business is a challenge even for the biggest companies. Companies have to be sensitive to the local cultures and tailor their offerings to local market. To localize their offerings, companies must carry out cultural assessment before acquisitions, maintain an ongoing cultural assessment of its foreign operations. This will help companies measure the effectiveness of its localization efforts and make adequate changes in local strategy & tactics.

The Wal-Mart example tells us that even the biggest of the companies are not immune to failures. Companies need to understand the local culture in order to capitalize on the local market.

The lessons learned from Wal-Mart’s experience in Germany, Korea and Japan can be applied by other retailers who are planning on expanding in India & China. Large retail chains such as Tesco, Metro, Carrefour, Home Depot, etc., have to be very careful when they plan to invest in countries outside their home markets. Indian market offers tremendous opportunities for these organized retailers - but it also comes with tremendous challenges. Indian consumers have deep rooted cultural biases which must be understood and overcome in order to succeed in India.

Also See:

Keep Overseas Staff Focused on the Right Goals
Cultural Assessment - Prerequisite for successful Mergers
Promoting Organizational Change Through Communication

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Encourage Diversity to attract top talent

In my previous articles I had written on the importance of diversity in an organization, how diversity in top leadership is beneficial and how to convert diverse teams into a high performance teams. In addition to these benefits, there is another benefit of encouraging diversity - The ability to attract high quality talent.

Universities have embraced diversity

To understand this concept - take a look at any top ranked University, either in USA, UK, Canada and even in India. One would find that a substantial number of students who belong to ethnic/cultural minority groups. For example, at University of Texas at Austin, more than 70% of the students are Asians. At Red McCombs School of business, about 50% of students are Asians. In Cambridge University, about 60% of the engineering students are non-Caucasian (Asians & African). In Indian universities too there is a high level of regional diversity and the percentage of foreign students is growing. At Symbiosis Institute in Pune, more than 30% of students are from outside India.

All this means that the future work force will be diverse - and to attract the top quality talent, firms need to advertise their current workforce diversity. For example:

"Chantelle Streete hopes to find a finance job after she obtains her master's in business administration at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in Philadelphia next spring. As an African-American and co-president of the Wharton Women in Business club, she says, it is important to her that her future employer is committed to diversity." - From

People like Streete are not alone. Most women and people from culturally minority group are making diversity as an important element in their job searches. I remember that when I was a student at Texas A&M university, Students from India were reluctant to join USAA - an Insurance giant, the company had a reputation of being a "Red Neck" organization. This automatically meant that USAA cannot hire the best students.

Companies Thrive in Diversity

Most of the large MNC’s have understood the need for diversity. Companies in Silicon Valley are probably the most culturally diverse. And that may be one of the reasons why Silicon Valley continues to thrive and weather the economic downturn.

Most of the Fortune-100 firms today have become culturally diverse - and they also advertise their diversity in subtle ways: Images in their web pages, having diversity in their top leadership, having culturally diverse people as company spokesmen, publishing survey reports on their cultural diversity, and prominently displaying that the company is an equal opportunity employer.

Accenture provides a very good example of this subtle messaging. Accenture uses Tiger Woods in all its advertisements - thus sending a subtle message of cultural diversity in their organization.

Implications to Indian Firms

Being an Indian citizen and having worked in India, I want to share my thoughts on this subject.

India has become a part of the global economy. Indian firms are now competing globally - and few firms have become truly global. And in the process - Indian firms are slowly becoming diverse. The best examples of cultural diversity in Indian organizations can be seen in the IT sector. Infosys, TCS and Wipro are actively recruiting foreign nationals. Indian aviation industry has more number of foreign pilots than Indian pilots. Even some of the family owned businesses are slowly getting on to this bandwagon. A recent report from the Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs shows that there are about 37,000 Britishers working in India.

Despite all the high profile news of hiring from foreign universities; hiring foreign nationals, Indian business organizations have not yet whole heartedly embraced the need for cultural diversity. A vast majority of Indian firms (I guess about >99% of the Indian firms) are cultural mono types. They hire people from the same background - usually the same religion, religious subgroups (castes), and those who speak the language.

Not having a culturally diverse workforce will create a serious handicap for Indian companies when they plan to expand overseas - or even when they have to compete with foreign imports or MNCs. For example, at an Indian IT major which provides services to British Telecom - the entire marketing team consists of only Indians! I was surprised that there is not even one Britisher in the marketing team - and they are selling IT services to a British firm. This implies that the Indian IT company is working with a serious competitive disadvantage - when compared to Accenture, where the marketing is handled by a mixed team of British, Spanish, Indian and American nationals.

The only way to overcome this disadvantage is to have a proactive diversity policy based on meritocracy. This will ensure that the best talent is hired and makes it comfortable for people from different cultural background to work in that company.

Closing Thoughts

In a "flat-world", the organization must be just as culturally diverse as the market it serves. Only then the company can compete effectively on a global scale and succeed. This implies that the cultural distribution within the company.

Also See:

Successful Marketing for a Mid-sized Organization

In the previous blogs I had written on how marketing can avoid a revenue swings in startups and how marketing can drive revenue growth in mature companies. Continuing on the same line, I want to talk about some of the successful practices in mid-sized firms.

Success in Mid-sized firms

Startups and small consulting companies will eventually grow into mid-sized firms if they overcome the revenue swings and achieve a stable growth. Once companies become larger, the marketing management must also change. The marketing chief must now take on a strategic role and have a well defined marketing plan to take the company to greater heights. Having studied several mid-sized companies, I have identified three steps that are common and necessary for success of a firm:

  1. Have an planned budget for a marketing plan

  2. Identify and secure resources for implementing the marketing plan

  3. Define the metrics by which the success of marketing efforts are measured

I have seen that successful companies have incorporated these three steps into their marketing plan. To get a better understanding, lets take a closer look at each of these steps.

Have an planned budget for a marketing plan

This is the first step. Recall that in a startup, most of the marketing efforts was towards lead generation, lead qualification and closure. But as the company grows, the sales pipeline will become longer and wider - i.e., marketers will be able to identify more prospects and many of these prospects will have a longer time frame to buy from you.

Managing a large number of prospects will involve greater level of planning: Divide the market into finer segments, and then manage these prospects with on a long term basis till the sale is closed. Managing a long sales cycle will need a clear plan to move the customer closer towards closure in stages and identifying the key conditions to promote the prospect within the sales funnel or to drop the prospect from the sales funnel.

Prospects must be measured with a certain milestones - if the prospective customer achieves the milestone - then that account moves forward in the sales funnel, else it may get dropped or remains there or is moved backward in the sales funnel.

Selling to a long term prospect also involves proper positioning of the product/services to the customer. Small/Mid-sized firms often opt for multiple-positioning strategies based on customer profile and needs. The marketing plan must incorporate the positioning strategy which clarifies why customers should buy from you and how your offering is better and different from the competitors.

Developing this market positioning requires a good understanding of your target customer, their problems and needs, and then purposefully position your offer specifically to meet those needs. In short be Customer - centric.

This detailed marketing plan will need an approved budget. Longer sales cycle implies more marketing expenses: Travel, socializing, meetings with customer. These activities must be budgeted in the marketing plan. It is important to remember that longer sales funnel or longer sales cycle is impossible to sustain without a detailed marketing plan and the associated marketing budget. Having an approved budget will remove adhoc expenses and enables marketing to operate on a long term basis. Approved budget is essential for managing a long sales cycles. Remember: "Winners have a budgeted plan".

Secure Resources needed for marketing

In addition to a budget and plan, what other types of resources are needed? - People to support marketing & sales. In addition, one will need marketing tools - software & systems.

Marketing in small firms are usually handled by a lean staff - mostly of 2-3 people and in most cases non-marketers (or those without formal education in marketing or previous experience in marketing). Marketing staff are often supported by engineering, manufacturing, operations, logistics & other groups within the organization. This implies that the marketing head cannot be sure of the number of people he can count on. Added to this problem is attrition. Therefore head counts may be unstable - thus put the marketing plan at risk.

To overcome this problem, the marketing plan must cover the human resource issue. Attrition must be managed with better knowledge transfer and hiring plans. To manage the risk of attrition, the marketing head must share his marketing plan with his marketing team - including supporting members from other groups. This will create a situation that employees won’t quit during critical times - if they know the criticality of the issue.

Software & systems are critical in today’s e-Economy. When the organization was small Microsoft Office served the organization well. But as the company grew, new software tools are needed: CRM software, Sales management software, business contact managers, Web analytics tools, knowledge portals, pricing calculators, revision control software etc. These tools improve productivity and act as ‘force multiplier’. Software will help marketing department manage the wide and long sales funnels, help improve customer relationships and bring down the cost of lead generation, lead qualification and customer acquisition. Though the overall marketing expense increases, the marketing ROI increases.

Successful mid-sized organizations rely on IT systems too. Companies need to use Telecom conference, video conference, Podcasts, meetings transcription system, E-mail news letters, Intranets, secured Internet portals - for customers to interact with the firm, online training programs for sales representatives, etc. The use of such systems has to be carefully planned. Marketing systems may have to be deployed in a planned manner - based on the company’s unique needs, marketing budget and marketing plan.

Define Metrics to measure success

Marketing head in a mid-Sized firm need to have a marketing plan, an approved budget to implement the marketing plan, and resources to implement the marketing plan. All this is possible only if the marketing head can convince the top management that all these investments are really needed to achieve the business goals.

A good way to convince the management is to have a predefined metrics which will measure the success of the marketing plan. These metrics can then be used for making suitable corrections in the marketing strategy and plan - which can have substantial impact on the future marketing expenses (budgeted or not).

In other words, the success of marketing efforts must be monitored constantly and the marketing plans be changed accordingly. This can be done by having a clear and well defined metrics to measure the success of marketing efforts.

Common metrics to measure are:

  • Number of new leads generated & number of qualified leads
  • Number of RFQ/RFP received
  • Market Share
  • Number of quotations sent to customers
  • Number deals closed in that quater
  • Revenue realized & Bookings
  • Number of new customers acquired
  • Percentage of customer retention
  • Customer satisfaction levels

Metrics chosen must be based on the marketing plan and must be directly linked to the marketing objectives, strategies and tactics. These metrics must be easily measurable, reported to the management leadership. These metrics help the marketing department make adequate changes in strategy, tactics and resources used - if needed to achieve the marketing goals. These metrics also help the top management make budgetary decisions on the future marketing plans. For example if a marketing promotion is not yielding the desired increase in revenue, then the management can shut it down.

Closing Thoughts

Marketing head and top management in a mid sized companies must realize that marketing is critical to their success and they have a responsibility to develop a workable marketing plan, allocate a marketing budget, dedicate the required resources and make the necessary investments. Marketing investments must be measured for its effectiveness and future investments must be planned based on the need and its ROI - and that can be done only by measuring the effectiveness of its marketing efforts.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Keep Overseas Staff Focused on the Right Goals

In my previous articles I had written about Importance of International experience, The need for Global Managers, and Global careers and culture shock. Continuing in the same series, this article is all about managing people who are working abroad. Particularly when their manager works at the head office thousands of miles away.

Keeping track of the work done by expats has been a tough challenge for managers. In today’s global economy, companies cannot afford to lose out to competition - so when expat managers are sent abroad the issue of expat accountability becomes very important. The risk of failure of a foreign subsidiary and the associated loss of investments forces the company management to carefully manage expat employees who are working abroad.

People Management Challenges

Managing people who are working abroad is always a challenge. Different time zones and higher cost of communications make it difficult to communicate effectively with expat managers.

Another problem managers face while dealing with expat employees is the human nature - "Out-of-sight, Out-of-mind" attitude. Since the manager does not see his expat employees, he tends not to think about them. This attitude has serious implications: Expats may feel isolated or cutoff, Expats will start working in their own direction - but that may not be inline with that of the company’s direction, and even Expats may take undue advantage of this lack of employee monitoring.

Knowing the problems people management helps recommend a suitable solutions. There are few things I would recommend:

  1. Give clear instructions and set the goals for expat managers before they leave

    Once a person is selected to go abroad, his/her manager must openly discuss the objectives of the foreign assignment, how to achieve it, the do’s and don’t etc. The outcome of this discussion must be a clearly documented goals/objectives for the expat during his/her stint abroad.

    The goals/objectives must be well defined. If not there will be room for interpretation and misinterpretation. Some companies even have a "letter of assignment" which states - "This is your assignment, these are the goals, and this is how your performance will be measured during the next appraisal cycle".

    If objectives and expectations are well-established from the outset, managers at headquarters can more easily assess progress toward those goals during the assignment without constantly checking up on the employee. This results in better organizational control.

  2. Communicate effectively and continuously with the expat employee

    In today’s fast paced global economy goals are set and then reset. The new goals/objectives must be effectively communicated to the expat employees in a timely manner. To accomplish this, managers must communication effectively and continuously with his/her expat subordinates. Fortunately the cost of International communication has come down to the point that money spent on communication is not a concern anymore. Communication tools such as E-mail, Intranet, Internet, Cell phones, video conferencing etc are now affordable by all companies. Managers should have one-on-one calls or conference calls with expat employees on regular basis.

    In addition to electronic communications, managers must setup face-to-face meetings with his/her expat employees frequently - at least once a quarter. Managers must take the extra effort (of travel & time) to meet his/her expat employees face-to-face. These direct meetings are very important for expat’s morale and gives them the assurance of support from their leaders. They get a better idea of what is going on in their home office or head office during these face-to-face meetings. Remember that there is no such thing as "over communicating".
  3. Make Expats report to Local Managers

    Expats must also have a local manager when working overseas. These local managers are local nationals who help expats settle down in the new country, help them deal with culture shocks, mentor them, teach them how to work effectively in that country, and act as communication hotline between the expat and the headquarters. Local managers are important for expats - they can voice their concerns about local issues and also seek career advice.

    Many companies make their expat managers report to the local General Manager. The general manager is mostly incharge of people/facilities issues and is removed from the line functions. The role of local managers is very important in the success of the expats foreign assignment. Many companies have realized the importance of a local leader - who also helps smooth out regulatory/political issues also. And have often appointed a General Manager or a VP at the local office (VP of Indian operations, GM of Malaysian Operations etc.)

    Often times this aspect of local managers is overlooked - mostly because the manager at the head office does not know the local managers or he/she does not know how to make use of these local managers. It is therefore recommended that the manager from the head office must visit the foreign offices and meet with managers in that foreign office.

  4. Give it a personal Touch

    Managers who send their employees aboard need to get involved a bit more personally with the employee. Despite all electronic communications, it is important to meet face-to-face atleast twice a year and ideally once a quarter. Managers must treat their expat employees as their trusted friends who have been sent to foreign location. This implies that the manager takes personal responsibility for the success for the expat. And at head office, manager must actively campaign for recognition and rewards of the expat employee - and share that news with the expat employee.

    Another important thing to improve personal relations with the employee will be to talk to spouse & family of the expat employee and if possible build a friendship. This will help the manager know how the expat’s family is coping with their relocation and the associated culture shock. Interacting with expat’s family will also give a feel for the local culture and local work environment. A good practice for managers to do is to meet the employee atleast once a quarter and also meet the family/spouse during that visit. A senior manager at Intel used to take out the employee and his family for dinner every time he visited Bangalore - this gave him an opportunity to feel the pulse of happenings in the local office.

Closing Thoughts

In today’s global economy, employees are being sent aboard on important assignments - expat’s success or failure aboard has a direct impact on the success or failure of the company. Given the high levels of investments needed to succeed abroad, managers must ensure that they have taken all the necessary steps to help their employees succeed aboard.

Marketing - Avoid Revenue Roller coaster Trap

As a marketing professional at a small startup, I have seen the danger of fluctuating revenue - For few months the company is raking in revenue - and for next few months there is no cash coming in. This revenue roller coaster ride can wreak financial planning thus making difficult - if not impossible to make long term investments. The problem becomes even more acute in small consulting /services/Technology companies - particularly in firms with less than 50 people.

I have worked in Fortune-20 size firms and also at a startup and at a IT consulting company. The revenue roller coaster is particularly devastating on small firms than big firms. So I decided to write on how marketing department can prevent a revenue roller coaster ride. ( The CEO of the startup where I once worked used to laughingly call this phenomenon as "Dolphin-in-the-water & Dolphin-out-of-water)

Root Cause

Having studied the marketing activities of the companies doing this roller coaster ride, analyzed the root cause and fount that the main reason for this is that:

There is no dedicated marketing department or marketing department is also involved in other activities - Business negotiations, contract negotiations, billing & delivering.

This implies that when there are no customers (dry phase), marketing department is heavily in lead generation, qualification and sales closure. But once the company receives the contract, the marketing department gets involved in delivery or other activities. And they forget to carry forward the momentum which was built by their previous marketing efforts. As a result the sales funnel, has a vacuum in-between. My observation is that many of the small time consulting companies do not even track their future orders - and have no sales funnel to talk about.

This types of swings in revenue makes it difficult for financial planning and investments - Therefore companies do not make long term investment commitments and that results in a growth trap - i.e., the company cannot grow without the necessary investments.

Avoiding the Trap

The main role of the marketing department in consulting companies (or startups) is to generate a healthy flow of leads, build & support a steady sales funnel, and work towards closure of these leads. This will generate a sustainable flow of revenue. ( For more details on the sales funnel and the marketing functions associated with it read: Marketing & Sales Funnel)

Avoiding this revenue roller coaster ride is possible if one were to follow certain guidelines:

  1. Choose to Avoid the revenue roller coaster:

    The first step is to acknowledge that the revenue roller coaster exists and overtly declare it as a danger. "We are going to maintain a steadily increasing revenue and maintain the marketing momentum in lead generation. We will avoid the pitfalls of revenue roller coaster".This open statement by the leaders of the firm will energize the rest of the organization to look at this problem and take adequate steps within their abilities to avoid the revenue roller coaster.

  2. Build a balance between Billable and Non-Billable Resources

    The pressure to increase the revenue during good times forces small consulting companies to deploy all its resources on a project - this includes marketing folks too. In many cases, engineers & other technical people who are not full time marketers are given additional marketing responsibility during a project - and once the project is over, these people concentrate on marketing activities: Lead generation, qualification, closure etc.

    In both cases, there are no dedicated marketing teams who are looking at new business opportunities. The idea of dual role for engineers/consultants sounds too tempting for a small firm. The temptation for having the highest billable ratios is not easy to resist, but this is not viable on the long run. A dedicated marketing team, which is a non-billable resource is essential for a healthy sales growth and revenue flows. Few members in the engineering/consulting teams may still have dual roles - but their role must be limited to technical pre-sales or providing pre-sales support to marketing teams. Senior consultants can co-define the sales strategy - but should not be involved in sales strategy implementation.

  3. Marketing must be lead by person who understands Marketing

    The person who leads the organization’s marketing efforts need not be the industry expert, but he needs to understand marketing. For example, the marketing head of a CPA consulting company need not be a CPA - but he needs to know all about marketing: CRM, Branding, Lead generation, Customer negotiations, customer retention etc.

  4. Senior Management must support Marketing efforts

    This may sound too banal, but often times top management at startups or at small firms are technical people who do not understand marketing. As a result the marketing efforts lack direction and ends up being limited to doing some advertisements, maintaining a web site, develop brochures and sending some emails.

    Senior Management or the Marketing head must make revenue growth as the cental focus of the organization and then drive all marketing efforts towards achieving revenue growth. Revenue growth also depends on the level of involvement on senior consultants or managers in marketing activities. These are top billable resources - but their contribution in sales, pre-sales and maintaining customer relationships are of vital importance. Without this support there will be no revenue growth.

  5. Reward Business Development Success

    To get a senior consultant or other billable resource involved in marketing activity, they must be adequately rewarded. The compensation structure for these dual-role employees must be based on business development success and the % billability time. This dual incentive will help them balance their dual roles - generating and delivering business simultaneously. This balance between these two roles is essential to smooth out the revenue roller coaster.

    A good example of using billable resources to support marketing can be seen in Indian IT companies. The business development manager has to work in tandem with a delivery manager. The delivery manager is a senior billable resource - whose time & energy is distributed between two activities: Pre-sales support and project delivery. The compensation structure for delivery manager includes business development success.

  6. Maintain Customer Satisfaction

    Customer satisfaction and loyalty is essential for repeat business. In case of small firms, majority of business is derived from repeat customers. This implies that the marketing efforts must be aimed at improving customer relationships. ( In an earlier article I had written about Levels of Customer Relationships and its Impact on Sales) Even a small increase - say 5% in customer loyalty can increase profits from 25% to 80%. (See Customer Life Time Value) Maintaining a high level of customer loyalty will ensure a steady repeat business and smoothen the revenue roller coaster.

Customer satisfaction drives customer loyalty. To enable this, marketing department must train all employees to think in terms of customer satisfaction. This is called as Internal Marketing

Closing Thoughts

For continuous revenue growth and to avoid revenue roller coaster, a healthy sales funnel is necessary. Building a healthy sales funnel takes time, focus, energy, funding and (most importantly) organizational change.

Once a healthy sales funnel is built, it will not only eliminate the wild swings in revenue, but also become an engine of growth for the company. A sustained marketing efforts tend to build a momentum needed for success. And that success breeds greater success - and that success is measured in terms of consistency of leads and growth in revenue and profits for the firm.