The Power of a Simple Phone Call

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Before my daughter departed for college she received a flyer from a company offering to have her belongings waiting in her room for $35 per box.  They even supplied the box.  Great deal I thought; saves me having to lug her stuff through the airport. I read through the information several times, just to make sure the process was clear.

So, her mother took her shopping to buy all of the necessities: bedding, hangers, laundry bag, desk lamp, and so on.  We brought it home and prepared to pack it all up for shipping.  My daughter went on-line and signed up for the service, paid the $70 for shipping two boxes and we thought we were all set.  One small problem – the company then informed her we would have to ship the items to their warehouse at our expense.  Quick, re-read all the promotional material.  No, nowhere did it say anything about having to arrange and pay to have the items shipped to them first.  We both felt like we had been taken, swindled, bamboozled.  So we called to cancel. Guess what? The only way the company could refund her money was after the scheduled delivery date, when the company could reconcile the fact we did not ship anything with them.  Things seemed to get shadier every minute, but after a call to the university we were assured they were a reputable company and the program was endorsed by the university so there was no need to worry.

The cost of shipping her stuff with any of the major carriers would cost $300, so we opted for the $60 in extra baggage fees, returned everything we could to the store so we could re-purchase the items near the university.

The big day arrived and Mother and Daughter flew from Connecticut to Chicago with 3 huge suitcases in tow.  I’ll spare you trauma associated with sending an 18 year old girl off to college – suffice to say they and all of the belongings arrived safely.  Move in was as smooth as could be expected at a major Big 10 school.

Sometimes as a consultant, you feel the need to help – even when someone doesn’t ask.  So, I decided to help the school better understand how the exclusion of information can create a negative experience for a new student and her family.  I dashed off an e-mail to the Executive Director of Residential Services saying something like “the flyer was misleading” and “Next year… I would humbly suggest the flyer provide a little more transparency in regard to the process and the costs involved. ”  Well, as you can image there was much more to the e-mail than this, but you get the idea.  Now I felt better having bestowed my infinite marketing and advertising wisdom upon the university.

Here is where the story takes a unforeseen turn.  Most times when unsolicited feedback is provided it usually marks the end of the story.  At the very least, one might receive an automated e-mail reply or some pre-written response.  I was thoroughly impressed when I received a voice mail from the Executive Director of Residential Services thanking me for taking the time to write, providing such insightful feedback, and for sharing our experience.  He was meeting with the company this week and was very glad to have the opportunity to improve how the program is introduced and communicated.  Keep in mind, he just moved in 19,000 students over a 4 day period and took the time to personally call and express his gratitude. He even apologized for not having called sooner.  (As it turns out, the service is designed to alleviate traffic congestion on moving day as much as it is designed to help incoming students.  Imagine dozens of package delivery trucks trying to maneuver among thousands of cars, students and helpers. Logistical nightmare.)

My faith is now restored in academic administration, and I feel completely comfortable my daughter made the right decision to attend Northwestern University. Do I really care if Mr. Riel ever discusses my suggestions?  Not really.  I took the time to voice my concerns and I believe I was heard and someone listened.  From my perspective, we all just want to know that what we think and do matters.  From Northwestern’s perspective they should know they embody a customer service mentality and approach that helps them stand out far and above other higher education institutions and most corporations.  One simple act, one short phone call, one timely response can solidify the image of an organization and help to build the brand.  We can all learn something from a university, and we don’t necessarily need to be in the classroom.  Thank you Northwestern and Paul Riel.

And, yes, my daughter did receive her refund.

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Competition is Overrated

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Sellers spend too much wasted time, energy, and effort worrying about what the competition is doing and how to beat them in the market.  My advice – stop worrying about your competition and focus on being the best you can be.  How can I best serve my customers? How can I be the best provider for the market?  What do my clients say they need and want?  You didn’t start your business because you woke up one morning and said, “I’m going into business to be better than this other guy.”  You aren’t successful because you say “All I want to do is win versus the other guy.”  You are in business and successful because you believe in what you do, you believe your product or service is the best choice for your customers or clients, you believe you have hired the best people, and you know you provide tremendous value in exchange for just compensation.

Most of the sales education I have received (some of my training comes from the Big Blue selling machine, IBM) and the seminars ICompetition Triangle have attended describe the business development process as a triangle between your company, the customer or client, and the competition.  I prefer to use a simpler business development model where all I need to do is focus on the potential customer/client.  Business, products, services, markets, selling, marketing, distribution are not getting simpler.  Why complicate your development process more than necessary?

Jeffery J. Fox in his book, “How to Become a Rainmaker” makes a valid point.  When faced with a competitive situation, it’s always best to say “Yes, that is a good company, would you like to know our points of difference?1”  Mr. Fox also encourages sellers not to disparage a prospect’s previous buying decision.  It’s acceptable to reinforce a previous decision, because now you are going to give your prospect new information so they can make an even better decision. No need to even mention the competitor by name; just move the conversation right to your points of difference.  Highlighting someone else’s deficiencies is a sign of weakness or insecurity.  When we don’t have the best thing to say about ourselves, our product, or our company we revert to a strategy of deflection; look at what they can’t do, or how terribly they completed that project, or watch out for companies who can’t do whatever.  If you find yourself knocking your competition, this should be a red flag to improve whatever it is you don’t want to talk about.  If something is important to your client or customer, than it should be important to you.

MoneyballDo you hate to lose?  I hope so, because I know I do.  To paraphrase Brad Pitt’s character Billy Beane in the movie “Moneyball” and as Jimmy Connors said before that “I hate to lose more than I love to win.”  I think losing is one of the best motivators for success.  Losing is also one of life’s great educators, if we let it.  After a loss, it’s important to understand what you can do better next time and then quickly move on.  Competition can be beneficial because it sometimes make us think deeper, try harder, be more creative, and most importantly pay more attention to our clients, customers and prospects.  You can’t make the competition worse; you can only make yourself better.  So do that.  Make yourself better.

Last week I had a meeting with the General Manager of a luxury boutique hotel and while I was waiting I overheard someone from the marketing department “shopping” their competition.  When they were finished pumping the other front desk agent for information, they triumphantly announced that the competition’s room rate did not include breakfast and their rate did.  I had news for the General Manager; if their differentiation is breakfast, they are in trouble.  Rather than spending precious time on small insignificant details about their competition, they should be spending their time honing the points of difference that really matter to their guests and then training guest services on how to best communicate that difference. Paying closer attention to a potential guest’s need will easily negate a “free” breakfast.  (Oh, and news flash, there is no such thing as a free breakfast.  It’s already calculated into the cost of the room.)

I would be remiss if I did not use my favorite vacation analogy.  When you are on vacation, you want to have the best time you can with your family, friends, and/or significant other, doing whatever makes you happy, re-energized, or relaxed.  You are not on vacation focusing you efforts on having a better time than your friends or neighbors had on their vacations.  It’s not about who spent the most, was gone the longest, did the cooler activities.  A vacation is about relaxation, exploration, education; not about doing something, so you can compare your adventure to your friend’s outing.  It’s a fulfillment activity shared between you and a small group.  Bring that same approach to your sales process.

Buying is a comparative process.  Be so good at what you do so your client or customer will be comparing everyone to you.  This view of competition may seem counter-intuitive to you; but forget about the competition.  Simply focus on what you do best.

1 Jeffrey J. Fox, How to Become a Rainmaker: The Rules for Getting and Keeping Customers and Clients (New York: Hyperion, 2000), 55.

A Swing and a Miss

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There it was again today.  Two words so un-descriptive of what really happens during the sales process; the “sales pitch.”  I cringe every time I hear someone use the term.  The sales process is the furthest thing from a “pitch.”

The object of pitching is to throw a baseball and make the batter miss.  So does that mean the object of a sales pitch is to make your prospect swing and miss? If the prospect misses, do you get the sale? If yoRADickeyur sales pitch is a hit, does that mean your prospect has accomplished something negative toward your goals? Even worse, if the client “hits one out of the park,” do you go home the loser? And when do you intentionally walk your prospect or use your brush back pitch?

Using the term “sales pitch” gives people the impression that there will be an instant result, you throw the ball and something happens.  In baseball, either someone hits your pitch (which is not good for a pitcher) and is either safe or out; swings and misses; swings and fouls one off; or does nothing and the umpire determines if your pitch is ball or a strike.  It takes on average 292 pitches1,2, 146 from each side to complete a game.  Imagine if your success for one sale was based on giving 146 “pitches.”  That’s exhausting.  If you gave one pitch per day, and each pitch took you an hour, you would need 146 hours and make a sale every 29 weeks.  But I digress.

There are no instant results during most of today’s sales processes.  Selling is not a competition. It is not an “us versus them” arena. It is not a let me throw the ball 95 miles per hour at you and see if your piece of sugar maple can hit it. Not even close.  Sales is the process of asking questions, gathering information, understanding needs, and offering a solution that helps better your client’s or customer’s condition.  Selling is a win-win agreement.  You don’t get a win-win outcome by throwing a ball at someone.  Success in achieved through obtaining knowledge, thought and consideration, education, and the true desire to help.

I say we Pete Rose the term “sales pitch” and ban it for life from our conversations about selling.  What do you say?

Next I will complain about writers who put too many things in quotes.  Wait, that’s me.  Nevermind.

And yes, I know R.A. Dickey now throws his knuckleball for the Toronto Blue Jays, but he will always be a Met in my mind.

1Andy K, July 23, 2010, The average number of pitches thrown per game is rising, Retrieved from http://www.baseball-reference.com/blog/archives/7533

2 Steve Treder, August 03, 2004, What Pitch Counts Hath Wrought, Retrieved from http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/what-pitch-counts-hath-wrought/

The Station Agent

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One of my favorite movies is “The Station Agent,” not only because it is good film making, but also because it provides unique material to draw lessons in business.  The film was shot mostly in New Jersey during a 20 day span, costing $500,000.  It grossed $5.5 million.  I’d like that return on my investmentStation Agent, wouldn’t you?

Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage) is a man, suffering from dwarfism, looking only to be left alone in the small town, train depot bequeathed to him by his late good friend.  He soon meets up with Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), a forty-year-old artist struggling with the breakup of her marriage and the death of her son, and a thirty-year-old Cuban with a talent for cooking, Joe (Bobby Cannavale) who is painfully gregarious.

The STATION AGENT is about three people with nothing in common, except their shared solitude.  Through this wonderful character study written and directed by Tom McCarthy (no relation, although my father’s name is actually Tom) this odd threesome, although each craving solitude in some form or another, eventually discover what they really need is each other. The movie’s tag line is “Sometimes even isolation is better shared.”

Sometimes in life, as in business, the best outcomes are achieved by doing what seems counter-intuitive.  In a larger context, we tend to run away from things in our lives that we should be running toward.  Now, I am not advocating running into the path of an oncoming train, but there are events, happening, and situations we can run toward, or face head on.

This movie reminds me a great deal of how businesses sometimes choose to face adversity.  Whether the economy is dragging the business down, or the competition is stealing market share, or our customers and revenues are diminishing, most times business leaders start trying to reduce costs in an effort to maintain profitability or keep the company running.  There seems to be a general acceptance to circle the wagons or hunker down in an effort to get the train back on the tracks.  Wall Street thinks they understand this.  Watch what happens to a company’s stock price when they announce layoffs as part of a cost saving initiative.

In The Station Agent, when the characters have embarrassed themselves, or are feeling overwhelmed by loss, they retreat to the solitude of their homes, order groceries to be delivered, and refuse to answer the door or the phone.  In the end they discover the better strategy is to get even more involved socially, take the risk to share the pain and embarrassment, because it’s the hard work we put into our friendships that can truly make us feel better.

So it is true in business.  Case studies1 are filled with examples of how companies continued to take strategic risks, invest in marketing and sales initiatives, design new products or services, and redeploy resources when faced with adversity.  Rather than hiding from the market, they run to embrace any new opportunity.  Rather than trimming marketing and sales departments, they find ways to invest in their people, increasing their skills, streamlining processes, or designing a more lucrative compensation plan.

The smartest of companies strategize.  What are the consumer trends, where is the market headed, how can we get ahead, do we have the right people, processes and tools, what should we do with the money we have?  These companies then align their resources around those new initiatives, rather than simply reduce headcount. This is hard work and it’s risky work, but the odds of building a stronger company are far greater than simply trying to reduce costs.

Take your lesson from Fin, Olivia, and Joe.  The easy path in hard times leads to isolation and loneliness.  The hard work of strategy, investment, and redeploying assets in difficult times, like building friendships, leads to an easy future.

1 Dr. Toshi Shibano, “Back to Basics: How world class companies will survive and thrive in hard times,” Strategic Financial Literacy, (2010) 1-4

Be Prepared

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Are You ReadySpring is around the corner, daylight savings time is here, the temperature will be warming, and the weather will turn milder as life begins to bloom.  Thinking back on our previous seasons here in New England, they were filled with hurricanes, blizzards, and nor’easters.

One lesson we learned from all of the fun weather, was how to be better prepared.  Here is how the thought process goes.  What could go wrong?  The electricity could go out.  Then we will need to see at night, so we will need candles, matches, flashlights and batteries.  If you are lucky enough to own a generator, it needs gas.  Not that you need a lesson in home maintenance, but electricity powers the refrigerator, so we will need coolers with ice to keep the food from spoiling.  No electricity means the water pump will not work so we need to stock up on water.  If we can’t leave the house we will need food for a week, and please something to occupy the kids that doesn’t involve an “X” or a “boy” or a “we.”  I think you get the idea.  There is a significant amount of thought and planning that goes into preparing for a storm.

The same is true for any sales meeting; a tremendous amount of planning and preparation should take place before the storm.  We need to continuously ask ourselves, “What could go wrong?”  Then, we need to think what we will do if it actually does go awry.

Sometimes it’s easier to think about the physical and logistical needs of the meeting separately from the substance of the meeting. Logistically, we think about who will attend the meeting, how do we get there, what will we use to present? The list goes on.  Next we think through what happens if the car breaks down, or the flight is delayed? What if the presentation laptop gets dropped into a fish tank?  What do we do if the booklets get shipped to the wrong address?  You get the idea.  I have always tried to deal with the physical aspects of the meeting first to get them out of the way so I can focus more clearly on the important content of the sales meeting.

With the physical needs of the meeting designed, now the team can focus on the real substance of the meeting.  Maybe the most important question to answer will be what do you want as the outcome of the meeting?  What will be the next step with your prospect?  What are your closing strategies to get your prospect to that step?  What questions will you ask the prospect to obtain the necessary information to move the process forward?  There are many things to consider, debate, and plan.  We plan for demonstrations and objections; conversations about competitors, differentiation, benefits, and value.  Lastly, we try to plan for the unexpected.  What will you do or say if your client reacts differently than you expect?  What could possibly go wrong, how will you react, what will you say or do, what is your strategy?

Sales meeting planning assures you are prepared to be your best.  It helps you demonstrate your ability to be thorough, sharp, and attentive.  Planning should continually reinforce your focus on the prospect and in turn gives your best effort for the prospect.  Prospects want to know they are special and important. Being prepared shows your prospect they are important to you.  Planning also provides an additional benefit for you and the team.  Preparation gives you confidence.  If you are prepared, you will be poised and assured.  This confidence can put your prospect at ease, creating a comfortable atmosphere and put you in a better position to win business.

What is true for meeting a storm is true for a sales meeting – preparation is the key.  Let’s hope for calm weather and easy wins.

A Business Plan? Really?

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Business PlanEvery business needs a plan. Although trying to convince an owner of a successful, 30-year-old business, who has never had a formal plan is not easy.  Here are four ideas to help you understand the benefits of a business plan using my favorite “going on holiday” analogy.

Strategy and a Road Map:  Would you wake up tomorrow and say to the family, “OK, let’s all get in the car for our vacation” without having chosen a destination, made a reservation, arranged transportation, lodging, meals, and gotten the cash ready?  Then why on earth would you wake up every morning and run a business without a plan?  Sounds a little scary to me, and frankly, a little stupid.  A business plan helps you determine what you want to accomplish and how you will do it.  It gives you “business clarity” and helps shape your future.  It helps you identify potential problems and how to handle them.  A business plan also helps you see new opportunities and how to take advantage of those. It can also help you avoid big mistakes that cost you time and money, and if you’re unlucky, the business.

Reduce decision time and increase decision certainty:  Your week-long vacation by the ocean suddenly runs into a few days of rain.  Do you panic? No.  You have planned your vacation and being the smart traveler you know you cannot control the weather.  Before you left you found a few nearby, local museums, brought along a few board games, and even found an indoor miniature golf and arcade.  No panic, no gathering the family together to discuss and decide, and no worries.  Miniature golf it is.  The same is true with your business. The planning process causes you to think through various scenarios, attempt to account for changes that can affect your business, and then map out the possible solutions.  Having a plan saves you time and money, giving you additional confidence in what you are doing and whatever gets thrown in your direction.

Succession Planning:  Most business owners do not know the end game.  How will they know they are finished and what do they do next?  A business plan helps owners think through possible exit strategies.  Should we just walk away, do we find someone to run the business and remain on as an advisor, or should we just sell it outright?  What triggers should we define or look for to know the end is near? Vacations are over when you are out of time, or maybe when the money has run out.  How will you know when your business is over?  Unfortunately, even most companies with a plan forget to write a succession plan.

Money:  If you need to borrow money or raise capital, you will need to communicate why and how you will be successful.  “I have been successful for 30 years” is not the kind of statement that gets people to open up their wallets.  Investors want to know what you sell, why you are successful, and how you plan to be successful tomorrow and the next day.  They want to know you have minimized risk by thinking through potential opportunities and threats and if anything were to happen, you are prepared to take corrective action.  Would you spend $5,000 or $10,000 on a vacation without knowing where you were going, where you were staying, and what you were going to do?  If you didn’t plan out your vacation, seems to me it would not be very relaxing or fun.

The internet is filled with guides on how to write a business plan, what to include, how to organize it, and how long it should be.  You can find sample plans and use any number of software packages to help you assemble a plan.  Take time away from the day-to-day operations to think about your business and think through a plan.  Your business, your confidence, and your vacation plans will thank you.  Has anyone developed vacation planning software?  Just a thought, but don’t start writing code until you have a plan.

Why I Love Great Customer Service

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Button the crisp, white shirt.  Tie the Brooks Brothers tie.  Buckle the Ralph Lauren belt.  Almost ready for the journey into New York City for the big presentation. Tie the black, Peal and Company shoes. Snap.  Broken shoe lace.  Rats. Unfortunately there is not enough time to change into the cordovan shoes, and then put on a different suit to match the shoes and still catch the train.

With Blackberry in hand (yes, BlackBerry, at the mortification of my iPhone equipped children) I use my train time to find a Brooks Brothers store. Believing this to be a futile effort because as everyone knows, most retailers don’t open until 10:00 am, I press on.  What do you know; Brooks Brothers by Grand Central Terminal opens at 8:00 am.  That gives me enough time to buy shoe laces and still make the meeting.

Rosa, my new Brooks Brother Associate friend was delightful.  She found the best shoe laces, insisting on lacing them for me.  We talked about how long our shoes have lasted; mine only ten years, hers 14 and both pairs looking like new.  I reached for my wallet and she proudly informed me, much to my surprise, the laces are complimentary.

Now I realize it’s just a pair of $5 shoe laces, but most retailers don’t understand how providing small benefits add up to a phenomenal positive experience and the perception of a brand that truly cares and understands their customers.  Rather than nickel and diming me to death, Brooks Brothers knows the $5 is not lost revenue, but an investment in my future purchases.  They understand it is important to show customers like me they value my business.  Great customer service is about making people feel special, and there is no difference between someone who walks into the store for a $5 pair of shoe laces or a $700 suit.  Brooks Brothers understand how to treat people, and how to provide great customer service.  I’ll be back for the $700 suit.

By the way, being able to tell the story of Rosa and Brooks Brothers helped me crush the presentation.