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Great Business Development Skills

When it comes to business development, there is no substitute for great customer service, which is based on employees’ communication skills and can-do attitudes.

Many people have business acumen, financial expertise and marketing capability – business development building blocks – but the qualities that will win the day are strong communication capabilities and a winning attitude.

I led Hiawatha Broadband Communications (HBC), Winona, Minnesota, through its startup and early maturity metamorphosis. HBC was one of the very first alternative entrants in the land of mass communications giants. As we sought to survive, we realized early on that the two qualities that most predicted to success were the two listed above.

HBC was one of a handful of companies that sprang up in the wake of communications deregulation, and its birth was anything but typical.

In 1992 when Fastenal Company founder Bob Kierlin and Winona’s Mediawerks CEO Bud Baechler thought about a new communications medium: fiber-optic cable, the result was a not-for-profit initiative called Luminet that connected Winona’s educational institutions with fiber optics.

As Luminet began operations, Baechler and I, as volunteers, steered the development of the initiative. Almost immediately, a clamor grew out of one of the user groups we created, this one the data-Internet group.

The initiative probably sounds unimportant today, but in the early 1990s, most of the city’s individual Internet customers were accessing the net through a toll call to America On-Line in Chicago. Toll calls then were much more expensive than they are today.

After its first meeting, Data Internet Group leader Dan Pecarina, now the CEO of HBC, came to us saying the group wanted Luminet to become an Internet service provider so Winonans could connect without worrying about toll calls. Luminet became the first small-town ISP in Minnesota, and soon more than 80 percent of the Winona area’s 35,000 residents had email addresses. The appetite for connectivity put enormous strain on that early dial-up service, but users were at work again, urging Luminet take on cable giant TCI, making Winona one of the first communities in the nation to offer its residents a choice of cable providers.

Luminet officially morphed into a for-profit company in 1997 and HBC was born. Neither Baechler nor I knew then the struggle that lay ahead, but we quickly found out. As we sought to build a new fiber-rich network, there wasn’t a known communications contractor in the nation that would respond to our requests for proposals. They all were afraid of being blackballed by companies like TCI, Comcast, Time Warner and the newly created Charter.

We found a company in Ipswich, South Dakota, comprised of a rough-looking group of hard workers and we used a local landscape firm to do immediate restoration. But as we hired for operations, we were striking out about 50 percent of the time. We’d make a good hire followed by a bad hire.

And then one day, following a planning session, we hit upon the Disney Institute home page and took the short quiz. The following question stopped me short: My company hires for attitude not aptitude? It was like being hit in the head. We were a technology firm and almost all our hires were based aptitude. Then we spent six months training new employees in our technology and methods. And six months later, half of them were gone.

As I thought about that, I realized that the hires that succeeded were almost always those with pleasing personalities, can-do attitudes and good communications skills.

We did one thing more, sending half our employees to Disney, Orlando, to learn more about Disney methods in hiring and customer service. It was an amazingly educational trip and while there we developed our plan to make sure we were hiring “right-fit talent” in Disney speak.

We found out about the need for good communications skills and attitude and we learned how quickly Disney can determine who will be good and who won’t.

We came back from Orlando enthused and while we didn’t achieved perfection, we got much, much better. Soon we were functioning on all cylinders and HBC customer counts were growing exponentially. We quickly noticed the power of good communications skills and attitude.

I recommend a bit of soul-searching to determine whether those are components in your hiring strategies. If they aren’t, look at them closely. There are lots of exercises out there to determine good communication skills, and your eyes and ears will help, too. Attitude is a bit harder, but pay attention to dress, manners, habits and language. All of these predict to your right-fit equation.

In today’s world of slumping non-on-line retails sales, I am amazed at the standard response: cut expenses, starting with reducing the number of employees. I would do just the opposite, doubling down on staff that interacts with customers. Today’s response simply hastens extinction.

You already know most of what you need to know to change your strategy. But if you need help or just want an immersion experience to hone those skills you might try www.disneyinstitute.com.