The 5 Most Important Questions you will ever ask.

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

I recently copied this extract from an edition of Business Day:

"November 2009 marked the centenary of Peter Drucker’s birth – he died in 2005 just short of his 96th birthday – and the anniversary was celebrated in a series of events held round the world. He is widely regarded as the father of modern management thought, and debate centered on his views and legacy. What would he be advising us to do now? And what would be his response to the great financial and economic crisis the world is facing?
In fact, Drucker’s greatest virtues were his plain-spoken insights and practicality. If one word was mentioned more than any other at the conference, it was "purpose".
Drucker’s "five most important questions you will ever ask" should help any manager ensure that he or she leads a purpose-driven enterprise. Those questions are: What is our business (or mission)? Who is our customer? What does the customer value? What are our results? What is our plan? "

In reading through the article again, I was struck by those words: "The five most important questions you will ever ask", and by what they are:

  • What is our business (or mission)?
  • Who is our customer?
  • What does the customer value?
  • What are our results?
  • What is our plan? "

As we launch into 2010 – and most of January is already over – I believe most small business owners need to take some quiet time aside, and answer these questions, about their own businesses.

Many of us will have grown stale. It may be business as usual, but it may also be that we shouldn’t have business as usual – because it wasn’t that great anyway! If we think that we’re going to make money in the same way we’ve always done, selling the same old products or services, with the same old technology – and sometimes the same old people, we really need to think again. Don’t just fade back into your business with a sigh! Grab it by the scruff of the neck and give it a good shake.

In an article entitled "Rethink Your Strategy: An Urgent Memo to the CEO" by Branstad, Jackson, and Banerji, they say this:

"As of October 2008, your job has changed. (The article was written a few months after the 2008 meltdown.) You need to readjust your mind-set for a future that looks very different than it did just a few months ago. These are extraordinary times to be in business. It is human nature to wait and hope that your company will emerge relatively unscathed from the downturn. But waiting is not an option. Nor is hoping! Instead, you must look objectively at your business and decide: Can you survive? Then swiftly and decisively pursue the course of action determined by the answer.
The weaker players should be scared. If your company is positioned poorly right now, it is time to face the facts. You are probably going to the wall – or, at best, your business will be much reduced. The most precious thing you have is time – and you may not have much. Figure out how to best position your assets and your people to give every piece of your company its best chance to succeed, even if under different ownership."

I have recently seen a few clients of ours "go to the wall"! And it has really saddened me. Most of my business focus is on helping businesses to grow from strength to strength, not in seeing them go down the proverbial slippery slope. What is worse is that I do not believe it was necessary for that to happen. Steps could have been taken to prevent it. So, why did it happen? Well, Captain Hindsight never lost a battle, but if we’re prepared to confront reality, the issue was one of poor management – in a variety of forms. Not making decisions when they needed to be made; not making decisions at all; making wrong decisions and then blaming someone else for them when they failed – all of these and more. In many ways, though, they did not go back to basics when they needed to.

Whenever I’ve been faced with making some tough business decisions, I always go "back to basics" first. And for me, those basics have been enshrined, if you like, in Drucker’s five questions. So, let’s unpack these a bit more:

  • WHAT IS OUR BUSINESS?

Face up to it! Who are we? What do we sell? Do we need to change any of it? Is our product or service good? Is there a need in the market for it? Are we better than our competition? Is there another way we can do it? Does the market know us? This question is really at the heart of purpose, and right now, we need to be very clear on what the purpose or mission of our business is.

And now is not the time to come up with some boring, trite mission statement about your business – it needs to be bold, compelling – even passionate. If you’re an athletic shoes company like NIKE, there is very little purpose in a statement like: "To make and sell athletics shoes on a worldwide basis." That’s boring – and about as passionate as a piece of steak! Come up with something like they actually did – "Crush Reebok!" It may not sound very ‘nice’ but man, it certainly does have purpose!

This kind of corporate reflection is good for the business soul. It will help you to see what your business should be and could be. Then, once you’ve got that picture in mind, line it up with what you’ve got. The difference between the two pictures is what you’re going to have to pay attention to in the weeks ahead.

For my money – our businesses need to be relevant to the time and the place. There’s no point in trying to sell grandfather clocks and other collectables in an informal settlement – you need to be selling basic food and clothing.
And, be sure the focus is right! One client of mine has just made the discovery that it isn’t the product he sells, but the solutions he provides that’s important. His customers would buy any product from him, because they trust him. This changes his entire marketing strategy, even though the product he sells is unlikely to change too much.

  • WHO IS OUR CUSTOMER?

Are they the ones who place small variable orders and expect you to jump for them? And do you? Are they the ones who make you wait for payment, – even if it’s only ten days over term – and then still expect their settlement discount? And is he your customer, or your salesman’s customer? Do you know him personally? If not, if your salesman leaves, your customer could leave with him. Where is this customer? Is he nearby or is the cost of transporting goods to him ravaging your profits? And there are a host of other questions which spring to mind under this heading.

Do some statistical research from your business data base. Analyze your sales per customer over the past two years? Analyze your profit per customer over the same period. What are the trends? If sales have been dropping off, it’s possible that two scenarios could be developing – the customer is buying elsewhere, or he’s going out of business. Either option needs your attention.

  • WHAT DOES THE CUSTOMER VALUE?

In answering this question, I think sometimes we need to ask ourselves this: "How would I feel about buying from my business?" Would it be a pleasing experience? Would the products be of a suitably high quality and reasonably priced enough to keep me coming back? Would I be willing to refer the business to my best friends?

  • WHAT ARE OUR RESULTS?

This is probably the most important question to answer in these days. You will be surprised how few small business owners actually know how well they are doing? Inevitably, a business is only as good as its cash flow, never mind the profit. If your cash flow is positive – and growing – you’re making a profit. If its negative, you’re not only making a loss but its likely you’re in debt and that’s growing.
It never ceases to amaze me how many small business owners think they can continue indefinitely trading at a loss, and still take the same personal drawings every month. Losses have to be funded. They’re either funded by the owner or by his creditors .

It’s also good to know your results so that you can find ways to improve on them. Just because you’re making a profit, doesn’t mean you’re doing well – you could be doing a hell of a lot better!

  • WHAT IS OUR PLAN?

Once you’ve answered the other four questions, it will become obvious that you need a new plan – your business plan! Without getting into a whole lot of detail about who you are and what you’ve accomplished, make sure the plan simply states what your intent is, and how you expect to achieve it. I like to follow the pattern used by Jim Collins in his book "Beyond Entrepreneurship" because it keeps things simple. It should cover the following:

  • An overview of where you’ll be heading.
  • Comments on the products/services you will be providing.
  • The kind of customer you will be supplying.
  • The cash you’re going to need to fund this ‘new’ business.
  • The people and organisation you’re going to need.

When this is all done, you’ll likely find that you’re feeling more motivated and energized about your business, and it will really take off.