Learn from the CEOs, marketers and other folks contributing to the success of many of the nation's fastest-growing companies. They were among the speakers at the ThInc Out Loud conference, sponsored by Inc Events, in mid-October in San Diego.

Links to related articles in Inc magazine follow most of the best practices speakers at the conference recommended.

1. Delight Your Customers - and Treat the Best Ones Very Well
"Don't measure 'Are you (the customer) happy?" Ask 'Did we exceed your expectations?' When you move that number, business will come flowing in," said Doug Hall, former Procter & Gamble marketing whiz, professional "idea man," and author of Jump Start Your Business Brain.

Steven S. Little, who has been president of three fast-growth companies, said retaining customers is key to building a business. Think about how much you can improve your bottom line by hanging onto your customers for longer.

Instead of offering a rebate to everyone when you're faced with excess inventory, offer a rebate only to your best customers, suggested James Taylor, former head of global marketing for Gateway 2000 and author of The Visionary's Handbook.

"The All New Customer Service Economy," Inc, April 2001

2. Hold onto Great Employees
Executive lunches have been a huge success at BORN, a Minnesota-based IT consulting firm that has been on the Inc 500list five times and has been named one of the nation's Best Places to Work by Fortune. Executives routinely have lunch with 10 to 15 employees so the employees can get to know company leaders and share their thoughts about the future of the company. Tracey Drakulich of BORN says one of the best ways to make your employees feel valued is to have your executives meet with them.

"Managing One-to-One," Inc, October 2001

3. Stimulate Your Brain
Read 50 magazines a month -- that's less than two a day -- and you'll start seeing the big trends that will affect your business in the future. (Newspapers and Web surfing count, too.) You're too busy? "Get over it," Little said.

Get a little help with your reading list in the new Inc feature, "Search," which features recommendations from corporate librarians.

4. Spell out the Benefits of Your Product or Service
In advertisements, don't list the features of your product or service. List the benefits - but not too many -- and give your customers a reason to believe you. Then tell them what dramatic difference your product or service can make. "Customers love news and hope," Doug Hall said. "All of the money is in uniqueness."

"The Idea Guru," Inc, May 2001

5. Join Forces for Mutual Benefit
Forming alliances is an increasingly important way to accelerate growth, access new competencies, and enter new markets, according to Marc S. Margulis, managing director of the corporate alliances group at the investment banking services firm of Houlihan Lokey Howard & Zukin in Los Angeles. "The question is no longer, 'Should I consider an alliance?' Now the questions are much more interesting than that. They include, 'What form should the alliance take?' and 'How do I find the right partner?"
Do choose your partner carefully because Inc 500 CEOs surveyed about failed alliances said their biggest mistake was choosing the first partner who came along. "Dating is the best way to find out who's the best partner," Margulis said.

"The Declaration of Independents," Inc, September 2001

6. Get Back to the Future
"Ask yourself at the beginning of every week, 'What can I do that will matter three years from now?"That's the suggestion of Mark Helow, founder of The CEO Project. After conducting 200 interviews of CEOs of successful companies, including some Inc 500 and Fortune 500 companies, he concluded that too many CEOs spend most of their time working "in" the business, rather than spending time on big-picture issues.

Stephen C. Harper, a management professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and author of The Forward-Focused Organization, also underscored the importance of long-range planning. "In the short run, all you can do is deal with what you have. If you have two to three years, you have the lead time to retool," he said. He recommended spending 30 to 60 minutes a week with your staff talking about plans for 2003 and 2004.

7. Appreciate the Power -- and Profits -- in Information
Look through the records you have on old customers and come up with one great idea for each of them. Do the same for your top 25 customers. It's an easier way to get new business than looking for new customers, said Patrick Morrissey, a marketing director for Business Objects, a business intelligence provider.

Don't just mine your data -- market it, too. How valuable is your information? If you have a landscaping business, you probably know which trees and shrubs grow best in different environments. Sell that information to your suppliers and sell it to potential customers who are looking for landscaping ideas. Some companies have spun off information businesses that have become orders of magnitude bigger than the original business.

8. Hire the Right People
Southwest Airlines tests job applicants' knowledge of the company and looks for people who are compassionate and able to laugh at themselves, said Anastasia Albanese-O'Neill, the company's district manager for Southern California. In 2000, the company reviewed 216,000 resumes and hired about 5,000 employees. Group interviews help speed the winnowing process and provide a more candid look at applicants than the traditional one-on-one job interview. Frequent fliers participate in the group interviews. After all, they know what they're looking for in a new employee, Albanese-O'Neill said. One more bit of advice: "It's 10 times better to wait to hire the right person," she said.

"Zero Defect Hiring," Inc, March 1998

9. Generate Free -- and Fun -- Marketing
Set yourself apart from the competition with creative low-budget marketing, Albanese-O'Neill suggested. Among Southwest Airline's most successful efforts: an Elvis impersonator contest when it introduced service to Las Vegas, and an arm wrestling contest between CEO Herb Kelleher and the CEO of another aviation company with the same slogan, "Just plane smart." The winner got to keep the slogan. (Kelleher lost.)

"Real Men Don't Litigate," Inc, May 1992

10. Hike Your Prices -- for Good Reason
Are your sales falling? Don't even think about lowering your prices, Morrissey said. Figure out how you can provide more value - and double or triple your prices.

"The Right Price," Inc, April 2001

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