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Keeping Score

Last month I attended the three-day CEDIA Management Conference where some of the top dealers in our industry converged in Huntington Beach, California, to discuss their best business practices and to learn new management methods from a group of consultants.

Going into the conference, this objective seemed straightforward enough. But with our industry, most things that should be simple rarely turn out that way. So, just like at the conference two years ago, this year’s attendees were a very tough group to please.

The typical Management Conference attendee is a very busy person leaving behind a small business that doesn’t run too well while he or she is away. Therefore, to be satisfied, most attendees demand a very high return on their investment of time and money. Most participants want straightforward answers to industry-specific management challenges, instead of a lot of vague theories or broad-stroke suggestions.

Unfortunately, based on these exacting standards, the conference got off to a rather rocky start on its first full day. With the exception of Marcus Buckingham’s insightful keynote address the night before and a few roundtable discussions and “networking” coffee breaks and meals during Day 1, most attendees felt “underwhelmed” by the conference’s content at first. One reason was that this year’s group of business owners and managers was a particularly “quick study” when it came to the basic concepts presented the first day.

The Results-Based Leadership agenda–to establish the principles behind their Balanced Scorecard management approach–could have been understood by many of us in two hours, instead of the eight that were provided. The Scorecard technique, while useful to any business, wasn’t particularly complicated for the task-oriented types in attendance at the conference. Once the fundamentals of the concept were understood, I think that most people wanted to move on to other exercises to help them troubleshoot their specific company challenges.

Fortunately, that’s exactly what happened on Day 2 when the conference’s 160-plus attendees broke up into four different groups to participate in facilitated discussions about financial, operations, sales & marketing and human resources challenges. These exercises, to me and to many others with whom I spoke, made up for a lot of lost time. In the two sessions that I attended (we could only choose two, attending each for two hours), I was impressed that almost every person in the room–dealers and sponsoring manufacturers–spoke at some point during each session. This brainstorming process, while generating some basic business concepts, also provided very specific solutions to problems that are unique to a typical custom installation company.

For instance, my “operations” session featured a productive discussion about how best to manage a client’s expectations. Suggestions included creating a “Project Charter” or “Discovery Agreement” at the beginning of a project. This client document would contain a timeline and a system overview, but never a full “laundry list” of products. Most agreed that basic communication, such as e-mail summaries immediately following client meetings, is the key to managing expectations. But before you can manage expectations, it was discussed, you must first establish what those expectations are, document them in writing and establish the client’s primary point of contact for the remainder of the project.

In my “finance” session, the conversation was equally productive, covering such topics as cash flow management, growth strategies and cost control techniques. Opinions differed on deposit sizes and whether or not that money should be spent on products or held in an interest-bearing account to cover unexpected expenses. Everyone agreed, however, that taking “early pay discounts” as often as possible was crucial to increasing a company’s bottomline.

Other financial topics focused on running a lean organization and on trying to get “that extra one percent” increase on the bottomline by controlling costs, getting out of debt and improving profits by maximizing the skills of your employees.

By the third day of the conference, most of us learned new ideas about running our businesses and were reminded about techniques that we had forgotten. Most of all, we realized that there’s still a lot that we can teach each other, just as long as a group like CEDIA provides a forum for us to do so.