Monthly Archives: October 2018

Going Negative

It’s a bit less than a week before Election Day and I, for one, can’t wait for the elections to be over. That will mean that the political ads will end too, and that can’t happen soon enough.

Putting aside politics, the vast bulk of these ads are horrible marketing. One thing that marketers learned long ago doesn’t work is badmouthing your competition; yet damn near every ad I see across the multitude of channels I watch and stream is 30 seconds of negativity. These folks spend their allotted time distorting positions, taking things out of context, and flat-out lying in many cases. The candidate-produced ads are bad and the PAC-produced ads are even worse. You’d think they’d stop. In 2007, the Journal Of Politics did a study of negative ads. They found:

…that negative ads tended to be more memorable than positive ones but that they did not affect voter choice. People were no less likely to turn out to the polls or to decide against voting for a candidate who was attacked in an ad.

While campaign consultants seem to think that these ads work, science proves otherwise. Of course, there are many folks out there who don’t believe in science but that’s another screed…

It’s bad marketing. Going negative makes you look petty and unprofessional. Playing up your strengths always works better than bashing a competitor’s weaknesses. Good marketers explain how they are going to solve your problems. I think good politicians should do that too. I don’t want “small” people representing me. If you can’t run on your positions and your solutions, then how am I to trust that you can outperform the one running against you?

This applies to your business as well, obviously. Do you see a lot of non-political negative ads? No, you don’t. There are many good reasons for that. Do you see a lot of false claims in non-political ads? You sure don’t – there are laws against it. The FTC Act prohibits unfair or deceptive advertising in any medium. That is, advertising must tell the truth and not mislead consumers. A claim can be misleading if relevant information is left out or if the claim implies something that’s not true. It seems to me that many political ads do just that, unfortunately.

Politicians may be brands, but they sure don’t advertise as if they were. Going negative isn’t particularly helpful in non-political marketing and it’s just as bad in politics. That’s one man’s opinion. What’s yours?

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Filed under Consulting, Huh?, Thinking Aloud

He’s Due

The World Series just concluded. Congratulations, Red Sox fans and boy, how it pains me to say that as a life-long Yankees fan. Watching baseball reminded me of something we used to say back when I played baseball. When a guy was in a hitting slump we’d often say “he’s due.” What we meant was that according to his batting average he had taken enough at-bats that it was time for a hit. After all, if his average shows he gets 3 hits every 10 times at bat and he hadn’t had a hit in 15 plate appearances, statistically he should get one now. We were convinced he was due.

That, dear readers, was our youthful display of The Gambler’s Fallacy. We were laboring under the misconception that what has recently occurred will affect what occurs next even if the two events are unrelated. For example, if flipping a coin nine times results in nine instances of “heads,” you might think “tails” is due. Sorry – probability still applies and there’s a 50 percent chance the tenth flip will be heads regardless of what has happened before.

Stop and think about how often you or someone you know in business makes the mistake that if something happens more frequently than normal during a given period, it will happen less frequently in the future (or vice versa). Salespeople refuse to accept higher quotas after a good year, holding back revenue projections which holds back hiring and spending which results in a missed opportunity.  Marketers keep spending against historically good targets after a few campaigns don’t result in the expected results rather than acknowledging that the market may have shifted. Financial people let their insurance lapse after a disaster figuring that if they had a hurricane hit in their area which rarely gets hurricanes, the likelihood of another one hitting is very low. As someone pointed out, the term “100-year flood” doesn’t mean a flood happens every hundred years; it means there is a 1% chance of it hitting during ANY year.

The odds of a disaster happening might be very low but we buy insurance and, more importantly, we make disaster plans. The failure to hit a revenue target after three bad quarters doesn’t mean “you’re due” to have a huge fourth quarter. It means you need to make adjustments. There is no question that luck plays some role in business success and failure but that’s not a business plan.

In the great baseball movie “Major League”, the manager brings in a pitcher to face a batter that has gotten many hits off of him in the past. When the catcher questions his choice, the manager says “I know he hasn’t done very well against this guy but I got a hunch he’s due.” That might be how you want to run your baseball team but it is NOT the way you want to run your business. It worked out in the movies but that’s not real life.

Make sense?

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Country Omelets

It’s Foodie Friday and for some reason, I’ve got omelets on the brain. I’m not talking about the egg concoctions they’d serve you at the local greasy spoon although as you’ll see I’m a fan of those. No, I’m thinking about the French Omelet and as it turns out, there is a business point that comes along with it.

If you’re not familiar, a classic French omelet (or omelette) has, as Serious Eats put it,  a smooth, silky exterior with little to no browning that cradles a tender, moist, soft-scrambled interior. It is a dish that relies almost exclusively on technique. As with any dish, you want the best ingredients, but unlike many of the foods about which I’ve written over the years in this space, this dish is a fussy little thing and without knowing the proper technique, producing the unblemished golden-yellow eggs with an ultra-creamy texture is almost impossible.

There is no person better equipped to explain the proper technique than the great Jacques Pepin. Here is a video in which he makes a country omelet (what you or I would make at home) and the classic French omelet:

With the first one, a competent 6 year old could handle the technique (or lack thereof). I’m pretty sure that the second technique would involve a fairly large mess.  So what does this have to do with business?

I’m not going to deny that there are “techniques” in business. Where we see them most often is in the sales area. I recall going through various sales training sessions years ago where I was taught closing techniques, questioning techniques, objection handling techniques, and so on. The problem is that many of these techniques are used without an ethical overlay. Salespeople often look at them as ways to trick people. Obviously, if you have the right customer, you’re selling them something that will solve a problem they’re having. Why would tricking them be necessary?

I’m more of a country omelet businessperson. Sure, there are skills involved in what I do and you need to understand how to use the tools at your disposal. I’m far less concerned, however, with technique and more concerned with putting out a product that satisfies the basic need: someone is hungry! Is the ability to turn out a perfect French omelet impressive? It is, but it’s also way more fraught with risk. Minimizing risk while producing a great solution to a customer’s problem works for me every time. You?

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Ethics And Profits

A bit of a rant today. Suppose you had a friend who lied about things. Maybe they told you that they had a great way to help your business when, in fact, their plan was to use your money to build up their own business. Maybe you gave them money to invest and they lied about the returns. Maybe you tell them information about yourself that you don’t really want public and they tell people anyway. Maybe you let them use your phone or your computer for a few minutes and they installed malware that spied on your constantly. Some friend, right?

Welcome to doing business with Facebook.

Now before you accuse me of hyperbole, let me remind you of the incredible breaches of trust that Facebook has committed over the years. If you look up “Facebook apologizes,” you get over 17 million results. They, like many companies, seem to be focused on one thing: shareholders. As one person put it in speaking about the fall of Sears:

“What’s happened is that shareholders’ interests have squeezed out other stakeholders,” said Arthur C. Martinez, who ran Sears during the 1990s and was credited with a turnaround. “The mantra is shareholders above all else.”

What happens to workers doesn’t matter. Amazon gave raises with one hand and took away stock grants with the other. What happens to partners doesn’t matter. Facebook begged marketers to use their platform to distribute content and then, once the platform had grown to an unimaginable size, cut off marketers who didn’t pay them from access to their audience. What happens to users doesn’t matter. Alphabet, Google’s parent, has over 88% of mobile apps gathering data for them whether users know it or not. Ever wonder how the ads Google serves you with a search seem to tie to something you were doing on a news or productivity app that had nothing to do with Google or search or even ads? Here’s a study that will explain it.

Why is it so hard to follow a moral compass to profitability for many companies? If the bulk of non-tech people truly understood how their data is gathered and used, they’d go back to flip phones. Why not put your customers first and treat them as you’d expect to be treated as a customer? Why not reward employees so that they’re doing better as you’re doing better? Why not put partners’ interests on a level footing with your own so that deals are equitable and profitable for you both? Why not allow vendors to make an honest profit? Without those four things – customers, employees, partners, and vendors – what the shareholders have will be worthless pieces of paper and not an interest in a profitable, growing enterprise.

My friends don’t lie to me and I don’t lie to them. We’ve had our share of messy moments because of that but we’re still friends because of that honesty. We need ethical standards in business every bit as much as we need profits; probably more so. OK, rant over, but do me a favor and think about that, won’t you?

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By The Numbers

Foodie Friday at last! I went out for breakfast this morning and as I watched my server typing my order into the Point Of Sale system, I wondered what was coming out the other end. No, not if my order had been captured correctly or if the ticket would print out correctly. I wondered if the owners of the place actually used the data that had just been gathered. Restaurants generate a phenomenal amount of data although I’d be willing to wager that a minority of them actually look at, analyze, and employ it to improve their business. Then again, I’d be willing to bet that many non-food businesses suffer from the same omission.

Think about it. A restaurant gets information from their POS system – what’s selling and how much does it cost. They see if something is more popular at lunch than at dinner. They can look at their reservation system to know when they’ll be busy and their seating record to know how many covers they’re selling. Smart ones look at how many parties of which size were kept waiting (maybe we should turn the 6-top into a 4- and a 2?). They know what drinks have been ordered. Their suppliers have data for them – what’s available and what does it cost? Then they have their own internal accounting – labor costs, etc. Each of those things relates to the other. But there’s more.

What’s posted on social media? Whats the most-photographed dish? What’s liked and shared? How many reviews and are they positive? What are they about? There’s a lot of data to collect from a multitude of sources – OpenTable, Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, TripAdvisor, Foursquare, Urbanspoon or Instagram. All of the former data is very structured and it tells you “what.” The social stuff, along with any loyalty data you might have is unstructured and it can help you to understand “why”.

Maybe if you overlay the daily weather during service hours you can infer a causal effect on any of the above. You can adjust what’s displaying on your drive-thru board when it’s busy to show the menu items that may be lower-margin but quicker to prepare in order to speed the line. If you collect emails (your reservation system does!), you can use Facebook or some other data provider to build out profiles so you can know your customer and better target your marketing.

My point is that every business has a similar capability these days. We might not have reservation systems but we do have online commerce or websites or apps. We need to be less intimidated by big data and more proactive with respect to learning about our customers and how they interact with our offerings. Does that make sense?

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Phones Up!

I went to a startup conference yesterday and something that I saw going on made me feel…well…old. But it also got me thinking.

I don’t know about you, but I like to take notes at these sorts of things. I’ve always done it, even before my brain stopped remembering what is was I had wanted when I’d walked into the kitchen to get something. When you’re getting hit up with a lot of interesting stuff on various topics all at once, I find that notes read later after the heat of battle had subsided help with context and perspective.

So there I sat, pen in hand, paper on lap. I didn’t bring a laptop although, in retrospect, that should probably be my habit in the future since my handwriting gets so little use that it’s deteriorated. It’s now less legible than most physicians’. Maybe that’s because I do use my laptop for notes when I’m in the office.

On came the keynote speaker. Several folks in the crowd looked as I did – pen, paper, and open ears. Other had their laptops fired up. In general, they were younger and geekier than the pen/paper crowd. But then came the phone folks.

As I surveyed the room, each time a slide changed, up went dozens of phones. They were taking pictures of the slides, not of the speaker. In fact, note-taking via photograph seemed to be more the mode than the way I was doing things. Combine those photos with some notes (there are apps that let you annotate the photos with notes!) and you’re all set.

So here are a few random thoughts:

  • How many speakers are optimizing their slides for photo note taking? Very few, I’ll bet, yet that was by far the preferred method of note taking in the room yesterday.
  • Has anyone studied the differences in remembering and/or understanding when you don’t actually write the notes? To this day, if I want to remember something I write it down. Not because I want to refer to the note but because the act of writing it down makes me remember it.
  • Not one speaker offered to email their deck to the room. Obviously, that’s not a big deal if it’s a panel discussion, but there were several presentations. That’s a great way to gather a lot of data – who was there, for example – that might help you sell, hire, or find new connections. Maybe a missed opportunity.
  • Kids in schools use computers almost exclusively in some places. I know the schools will sometimes teach Word and Excel (or their non-MS counterparts) but are they teaching One Note/Evernote/etc.? Learning how to learn is awfully important, right?
  • Our brains are wired differently here in the digital age than they were 30 years ago. Like everything else, notetaking has evolved, and maybe not for the better. What do you think? How do you take notes?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Thinking Aloud

Woebuck

Sad news about Sears today. An American institution, they filed for bankruptcy in order to restructure the company. They will close 142 unprofitable stores near the end of the year. Liquidation sales at these stores are expected to begin shortly. This is in addition to the previously announced closure of 46 unprofitable stores that is expected to be completed by next month.

The press release says that “The Chapter 11 process will give Holdings the flexibility to strengthen its balance sheet, enabling the Company to accelerate its strategic transformation, continue right-sizing its operating model, and return to profitability.” I guess the question I’d ask is what the heck has taken so long? When I was a kid, the Sears catalog was a 500-page wish book. Everything from clothing to tools to appliances and damn near anything else was in the catalog or the store. At one point you could even buy a prefabricated house kit. They sold great appliances (built by Whirlpool) and even better tools (also built by others). They did very smart things like label grades of product “good” “better” and “best” using brand names.  They were Amazon long before Amazon was a gleam in Jeff Bezos’ eye.

So what happened? Well, technology did but that’s only part of the story. This is a perfect example of what can happen when any of us fail to recognize the fundamental changes happening in business – all business. Obviously, online commerce happened but Sears was in decline in the early 1990’s as Walmart took over the title of largest US retailer. Then the little wave became a tsunami, as consumers fundamentally changed their behavior, becoming more price sensitive, doing more research and shopping online, and the shift away from the mall sped up.

You might not remember this, but Sears was an investor in Prodigy, one of the original online services. They jumped out of the digital service in 1996, however. One can only wonder what might have been had they stuck with it and learned from it. Even though walled-garden services died as the internet grew, there was a lot to learn. Remember that Amazon didn’t begin to sell beyond books until around 2000. Why did they bail? To get back to what they knew best – retail (they also sold off their interest in brokerages and real estate companies they owned).

This is an excellent summary from Investopedia:

It would be easy to read this story as a triumph of e-commerce, or to reflect on the irony that Sears was a first-mover when it came to online shopping, with its proto-internet joint venture Prodigy. But even recently, Sears has been ahead of the curve in that area. According to Bloomberg, Lampert “showered” the online division with resources while the rest meleed over a shrinking pie.

Nor did competition with Amazon alone precipitate Sears’ decline. When sales and profits began to fade, in the mid-2000s, other big box retailers—particularly Walmart—were thriving. In 2011, the year Sears lost over $3.1 billion, Walmart made $17.1 billion.

Perhaps the might-have-been next Warren Buffett should have listened to the original, who told University of Kansas students in 2005, “Eddie is a very smart guy, but putting Kmart and Sears together is a tough hand. Turning around a retailer that has been slipping for a long time would be very difficult. Can you think of an example of a retailer that was successfully turned around?”

This is a story of a series of failures. It’s also a cautionary tale to any of us who live and work in these changing times. Brick and mortar stores still make up the vast majority of retail sales in this country yet the country’s largest retailers failed. Greed? Ignorance? Stupidity? What are your thoughts?

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