On Business & Life: Three risks of relying on low-hanging fruit

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Ken Keller: On Business & Life
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“Go after the low-hanging fruit.” Phrases that get overused as business metaphors as much as this one are worth a closer look, because they contain some essential truths.

In essence, the phrase describes fruit that is easy to reach but might be of lower quality than the hard-to-reach fruit higher up the tree. At least Yahoo’s definition says that.

Taking advantage of quick wins for short-term gains might not be sustainable or have much long-term value, because you’re not taking the best fruit.

In business, there are three areas – sales, hiring, choosing business partners – where you need to be careful of the unintended consequences that can arise when you focus too much on chasing low-hanging fruit.

1. Selling

Of course, you should take advantage of easy opportunities to sell your services or products. When resources are scarce and cash is low, your survival may depend on it.

Here’s the rub: customers at that level often have problems of their own that only surface over time.

They might pay invoices slowly, if at all. That drains your company’s resources and cut into your profits. Such customers might also tend to be pains in the neck, and who needs that?

Don’t be surprised if these customers are less grateful to do business with you than you might expect.

Also, easy sales are like facing a weak pitcher in baseball. They don’t make you better. Making easy sales does nothing to sharpen the skills of those doing the selling.

Your sales team can get lazy when earning easy commissions. No one wants their salespeople to become too comfortable; that leads to complacency. Once the easy pickings are gone, prospects become more challenging. That’s when you want your sales team at its sharpest.

2. Hiring

The second situation relates to hiring people. I’ve seen companies starting out hiring the low-hanging fruit, by which I mean family members, friends, and neighbors. It’s the path of least resistance, and word travels fast when you take that path.

For a time, it works pretty well. Then, as the company grows, things change. Rarely do those early quick hires mature and develop the abilities needed to manage a more complicated business.

The owner becomes frustrated as loyal employees fail to rise to new challenges. Employees are puzzled by this new attitude from the boss. After all, they’re doing what they’ve always done, which has worked well enough up to now.

One of the most difficult responsibilities owners face is having a face-to-face meeting with a long-term employee who is simply not doing the job necessary to stay on the payroll. It is so painful that some owners simply avoid having such conversations. It isn’t fair or right for anyone involved. That’s a consequence of hiring low-hanging fruit.

3. Selecting business partners

Some organizations provide what I call scaffolding to businesses and their owners and the company. This comes in the form of support services like banking, insurance, legal counsel, information technology, book keeping, payroll, taxes and human resources assistance.

The needs of a sole proprietorship change dramatically when the payroll jumps to three. Beyond that, various state and federal rules, regulations, and laws kick in. More sophisticated support and advice become necessary.

H&R Block may be fine for your personal income taxes, but corporate filings require greater sophistication. The insurance agent who handles your personal lines might sell business policies, but likely lacks expertise on subtleties of the Affordable Care Act that your 125-person business requires.

The problem with many of these relationships is that they’re easy to get into than to leave.

When it comes to selling, hiring, and selecting business partners, avoid problems later by choosing carefully up front.

If that train has left the station, take the advice of one of my clients. He told his Strategic Advisory Board peers, “If I want to be a bigger, better company tomorrow, I need to think and act like one today. It may be painful but the results will be worth it.”

Ken Keller is a syndicated business columnist focused on the leadership needs of small and midsize closely held companies. Contact him at [email protected]. Keller’s column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of this media outlet.

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