Make Your Voice Heard

IN THE WORLD of business, if you don't have an opinion, one thing is certain: you won't get very far. Whatever your role, be it employee, supplier, service provider or adviser, whoever is paying you will expect value for money and, in their eyes, that will include ideas, suggestions and clear evidence that your grey matter has been fully engaged. Previous business generations largely favoured the command-and-control model. Rigid hierarchies determined which people in an organisation or a working partnership were expected to do the thinking and whose role was more or less just to follow instructions.

But nowadays most enterprises have woken up to the fact that employees and other contacts at every level can draw on diverse experiences and an extensive education. Therefore, they will have valid points of comparison, should have interesting opinions to share and ought to be asked to contribute more broadly to the overall success of a venture.

The best team leaders and senior executives see the wisdom in canvassing a wide cross-section of views on all key aspects of the business.

These moves can be obvious, though not always acted upon, such as seeking comments from customers on customer service standards. Or they can go much further, determinedly pushing staff to re-examine their own roles and interactions on a regular basis as a means of unearthing untapped talent, identifying areas for improvement in the business and being sure to get the best out of everyone.

In taking this approach, the last thing managers want to hear is "the same old stuff". They are looking for insights and original opinions which, when adopted and applied, can genuinely add value to the organisation. Staff providing that kind of feedback stand out from the crowd and put themselves on the fast track for promotion.

The message, of course, is that opinions count and alternative viewpoints, when well expressed, help to drive an enterprise forward. Even so, up-and-coming executives and established decision makers don't always grasp the point as quickly as they should. They forget that every employee should have something to say or that a key part of any manager's job is to blend the best suggestions to formulate policy.

So every now and then it helps to take a step back. The purpose should be to re-evaluate objectives and force oneself to see things anew. And, when looking for fresh perspectives and ways to improve, a good starting point is to reconsider precisely what your business is there to do.

The quick answer is probably "to make a profit", but to be content with that is too simplistic. Of course, businesses, whether publicly listed or privately held, do exist primarily to create returns for the shareholders. At most board meetings, the talk revolves around return on investment, the bottom line, dividends and shareholder equity. Financial performance is taken as the basic indicator of corporate success, and improvements in revenue and profitability are the standard measures of progress.

So, if someone wants to demonstrate an ability to add value, it makes sense to develop opinions and put forward ideas in two key areas that concern all business owners: increasing revenue and controlling expenditure.

Taking them in turn, let's first look at a few ways of increasing revenue. The most common method is simply to up prices. Even in the market conditions now, many companies are resorting to this. For example, in the United States, several big airlines have been adding fees for checked baggage and charging for on-board refreshments. Passengers may protest, but these measures will potentially bring in millions of extra dollars.

An alternative is to add new products or services, possibly through brand extension. Pick up any business magazine or newspaper and you will see examples of this strategy put successfully to work. There is Google launching its latest tool and Apple’s latest device. The trick is to ensure that new products or services generate additional sales and don't erode existing market share.

Another option is to review areas for expansion. That might mean, for example, opening more retail outlets in an established market or planting the flag in a new locations and/or developing markets.

Such schemes require detailed consideration and careful timing. However, virtually every business can find something similar in concept, giving scope for innovation, opinions and new shareholder value.

The other side of that particular coin is to reduce outgoings. Companies may think they analyse every line item and have cut all unnecessary expenses, but there is always something extra to examine. Especially in times like these, when we hear of travel freezes, overtime bans, headcount controls and pared entitlements, it shows that nothing is ever as essential as it might seem.

Successful companies and smart individuals realise that moving ahead depends on striking an appropriate balance. They remember that the effects of small cuts or minor gains can soon multiply and that saving costs is another way of adding value.

Besides driving shareholder value, businesses obviously also need to enhance customer value. In fact, as management expert Peter Drucker once noted: "Neither results nor resources exist inside the business. Both exist outside. The customer is the business."

Consequently, individuals hoping to show their business acumen should think constantly about how to serve customers better. In this respect, they can always focus on two areas - improving the product or service and providing greater value for money.

Various industries have their own version of these tactics. For hi-tech companies, it might be a question of laying on post-sales support, carmakers may throw extra features, and retailers are continually extending their range of online services. In each case, though, the initial idea has come from someone prepared to think hard about customer needs and to venture opinions about making change happen. By doing so, they have been able to add value.

Sometimes it is necessary to achieve the same end with lower prices. That may be a last resort, but companies know it is better to have customers than to lose them. Therefore, they will promote the notion of giving more value for money, using special offers to attract interest and convey this message.

Cosmetics stores know all about the gift with purchase - spend $50 and get a bottle of hand lotion - and the practice is replicated in various forms at duty-free shops, banks and beauty salons. It takes ingenuity to devise a proposition that gives the perception of extra value at little additional cost. Therefore, people who possess that talent plus the self-confidence to capitalise on it have a distinct competitive edge.

They know, though, that the first step to developing such business acumen is to formulate opinions, not to accept the status quo or let everything go unquestioned. By taking an active part, they will see opportunities to create both shareholder and customer value and thereby become instrumental in driving the business forward.