Six Keys to Succeeding in Business

"There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure."

General Colin Powell


Passing by the shops, storefronts, and warehouses that once housed thriving businesses that are now closed, I always think of those that failed unnecessarily. Given the business I’m in, it always bothers me when I see yet another tragic failure, because I know that many of these can be averted by the systematic and diligent application of known principles. 

Alexander Pope’s adage, “Too err is to be human” certainly applies to the world of business. The rates of failure are astounding, some estimates placing it as high as 90 percent in the small business sector. Even those that consistently make money suffer from arrays of inefficiencies that keep them from thriving to the extent that they might.  In a difficult and unforgiving economy, owners are especially in need of an arsenal of special weapons and tactics to give themselves their best shot.

Minimizing the fiascos, maximizing success

I am surprised at the numbers of managers who leave much more to chance than they need to and suffer the consequences. Some seem to invent problems, engaging in behaviors that appear self-defeating to outside observers. While none of us will ever achieve perfection in this life, we can maximize the likelihood of success, regardless of what business we happen to be in. What follows is a short list of things that those who wish to thrive during our trying times can apply to themselves and their enterprises to help them get through these difficult times.   

I’ll limit my current discussion to five categories of activity that just about anyone can apply to improve their results, and these are all interrelated to some degree. The five keys to success I’ll focus on are: (1) making personal growth a priority; (2) the active use of goals; (3) knowing your market; (4) understanding the sales process; and (5) developing your emotional intelligence.

Key #1:  Make personal growth a priority

If you’re not growing as a person, you’re probably backsliding. Behavioral science, the history of business, and the Bible all agree on this point. It takes an active and deliberate effort to avoid the trap of complacency. My experiences with many business owners have shown that many do fall prey to this, which makes them susceptible to two destructive tendencies:

• Forgetting what they know: As people slip into routines, they increasingly run on “autopilot,” and become prone to oversights and errors. Attention to detail often deteriorates, they get sloppy, and miss opportunities. Meanwhile, their competitors, who are more aggressive and attentive to their businesses claim market share that could have been theirs. 

• Failures to anticipate and keep up with change: Increasing complexity and rapid change characterize virtually every business that I am aware of. If you’re not attuned to those inevitabilities, you’ll find your business well adapted to the past, but unprepared for the present and the future.

If you take a look, you’ll note that the most effective professionals never stop trying to better themselves. Continuous improvement is essential no matter what business you are in. Effective leaders seem to never cease reading, attending seminars, and enlisting the services of executive coaches. 

Key #2: Active strategizing and goal setting

I am continuously struck by the numbers of businesses that are run independently of clearly identified strategic plans and goals. In no cases are these running as effectively as they could be, nor are they as profitable as they could be. They may survive and in some cases generate at least some wealth, but they are certainly not what they would be if their owners were more goal driven.

I recently met with the owner of a small firm makes and sells signs, logos, and t-shirts.  He admitted that he doesn’t have a strategic plan, nor does he consciously set goals that determine his business activities. His goods are of high quality, but he doesn’t orchestrate the growth of his enterprise— he just sells as much as he can and hopes for the best. Right now it’s keeping him afloat, but he could (and will) be doing even better as he gets his goals in place.

Strategy and goals need to be carefully considered, written out, consulted regularly, and revised as conditions change. Commercial lenders insist on the inclusion of a written plan as part of any loan application, so it only makes sense to master and get used to this important activity.

Key #3:  Sound market analysis

Essential to sound planning is knowing who you’ll be able to sell to. Far too many businesses fail to achieve success because they don’t do the research necessary to identify market trends, understand their competition, and seriously analyze their potential for generating revenues. This step tells you what and how much you’ll be able to sell. Far too many start-ups suffer because their owners operate in an informational vacuum.

The oldest principle in economics is “supply and demand.” Without assessing the demand for your goods or services, you are literally turning your potential for survival over to something akin to a roll of the dice.  General Motors’ long slide toward near-bankruptcy started with a failure of market analysis. Among other things, they weren’t prepared for the shifts in buying behavior that were occurring in plain sight.

Key #4:  Understanding the sales process

The old approach to selling— that is, coming at people with slick talk designed to corner them into buying decisions— is long dead. And yet many vendors of goods and services continue to apply obsolete psychological trickery. Today’s buyers are more sophisticated and have more options than ever before, not to mention being more tight with their money.

The truth remains however, that in business nothing happens unless somebody sells something. But the focus is no longer on the seller— it has to be all about the buyer.  Rather than selling, the more functional approach is “helping people to buy” rather than selling in the old sense of the word. There is actually a “buying process” that operates in the mind of most potential customers, that if violated ruins the seller’s chance of closing a deal.

Many people fail in the domain of sales because they attempt to rush through the process. The evidence is clear however, that when it comes to serious purchases, particularly those involving services, today’s buyers make decisions based on the following sequence, which must be respected:

• They first must buy you: business really is about relationships, so you must be credible, civil, genuine, and interesting. Failure to establish the good first impression is deadly.

• If they first buy you, then they might just trust your company enough to want to hear more.

• If the first two steps go well, they’ll give your product or service serious consideration.

• Surprisingly, the price only becomes an issue if you’ve managed yourself well throughout the prior three phases. So many sales people think that price needs to be discussed way earlier than is generally appropriate—this is common mistake.

Timing: A common error is a failure to respect the potential buyer’s readiness to purchase. Trying to get them to buy on your timetable is bad business practice. It turns out that 85 percent of business to business sales are closed after an average of five social encounters between salespeople and buyers.

Respecting the buyer’s wants and needs is a crucial element in sales. One expert on sales, the late Linda Martin, was always careful to advise her trainees that “People hate to be sold, but they love to buy.”

Key #5:  Develop your emotional intelligence

Again, business is all about relationships. The old days of the ruthless, cutthroat business owner ruled by self-interest are long past. There may still be some limited areas of enterprise where that style can be gotten away with, but it’s a bad bet here in the 21st Century. The keys to long term success in the times in which we live lie in generating “win-win” relationships as opposed to the “zero sum game” approaches of the past. 

Those that succeed over the long haul do so by placing the needs of others ahead of their own and making themselves of service to others. The most successful leaders as well as salespeople tend to seek to understand others first, and then to be understood afterwards. Far too many people put themselves at a disadvantage by talking too much and listening too little.

In a world in which self-centeredness and insensitivity are common, those that take the time to cultivate an empathetic nature in themselves reap benefits of various kinds.  This leads us right back to the notion of continuous personal growth, which makes the other aspects possible. Emotional intelligence has been associated with good self-regulatory skills as well as positive social relationships.

Choosing to succeed

Restating an earlier point, a lot of business failures can be averted through systematic and diligent applications of known principles. I am by no means suggesting that success is simple or easy— in fact, it’s neither. But by understanding markets, the sales process, the importance of goals, and most of all, people, you can make a lot of good, hard work pay off.

While it’s true that there will always be economic instability and upheavals, keep an eye out— in the midst of the worst circumstances there will also always be those that figure ways to make the best of bad situations. We saw this even in the worst of times, such as the Great Depression, and we’re seeing it now despite the current economic troubles. It’s a matter of choosing success. According to the late Vince Lombardi, "The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather in a lack of will."