Category Archives: Helpful Hints

Gurus And Ninjas

Happy Valentine’s Day! I know it’s supposed to be a day for love but I want to focus on something I don’t love: gurus. OK, it’s not just gurus. It’s ninjas, wizards, mavens, and other self-proclaimed experts. I’m sick of them and, more importantly, I’m wary of the damage they cause. Let me explain and maybe I can bring you over to the dark side.

First, let me be clear about whom I speak. Generally, these are people who seem to spend a hell of a lot more time explaining how great they are at something rather than actually doing anything worth noting. Their professional profiles use words like ninja. I did a quick search and came up with over 60,000 results for that word on LinkedIn. Do any of them know what a ninja actually is? According to Wikipedia, it’s a

mercenary in feudal Japan. The functions of the ninja included espionagesabotageinfiltrationassassination and guerrilla warfare.[1] Their covert methods of waging irregular warfare were deemed dishonorable and beneath the samurai, who observed strict rules about honor and combat.

I’m not sure any businessperson wants to hire a dishonorable assassin but I could be wrong. Yes, I get that the meaning of words changes over time but if you mean to say you’re an expert, say it. Maybe they can’t because they’re not really experts at anything other than self-promotion.

Speaking of misused, overused job titles, let’s move on to “maven.” A maven is an expert, actually a “trusted expert in a particular field, who seeks to pass timely and relevant knowledge on to others in the respective field.” The key words here are “trust” and “expert.” I’ve checked out a few “mavens” and when well over 75% of their social followers are fake and they’ve been in their field of practice for under 5 years, I think they’re neither trustworthy nor experts.

We all have personal brands. Some of us work very diligently at getting that brand out there and others of us do great work and hope that work speaks for itself. I’ll admit that I probably should have done more self-promotion over the years although in my defense there weren’t the opportunities to do it on one’s own as there are now. I still rely on clients to bring me other clients and on readers of the screed to do the same. I try to connect with people I know and respect, focusing on quality.

Does any of this make me a guru? A maven? A freakin’ ninja? Nope. I’m just a guy who’s been at this for longer than most of the self-promoters have been alive and who has already made most of the mistakes they’re going to make, probably using someone else’s business to do so. Is it self-promotion to say I’ve already learned from the mistakes they’re going to make so they won’t happen in the first place?

If you’re a guru, act like one. Be the one who dispels the darkness and takes towards the light. Be a counselor and an inspiration. A ninja? Not so much.

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Huh?

Cranky About Commas

Maybe I’ve always had tendencies to be a cranky old man but as I’m turning into one I find great schadenfreude when the universe punishes those who are lax about grammar and spelling. It could just be my history as an English teacher but I find my already elevated blood pressure spiking when I see people misusing punctuation or not particularly caring if they’ve mistaken “your” for “you’re” or “to” for “too.”

It cheered me up, therefore, when I read that a lawsuit over an Oxford comma was settled. An Oxford comma, as I’m sure you recall, is an optional piece of punctuation used just before the coordinating conjunction (such as “and,” “but,” or “or”) in a list of three or more things. I think its use provides clarity and I suspect that parties to this suit – a dairy company in Maine and their delivery drivers – now realize the importance of clarity. The comma was omitted from a list of circumstances which would not qualify for overtime payments. Because of that omission, the drivers argued that they were entitled to overtime since the words “distribution of” were connected, without a comma, to “packing for shipment,” making that a single activity that wasn’t eligible for overtime. The drivers said they were only engaged in distributing the product which is NOT on the list.

I think there is an important point for any of us who provide written communication in any event. It bothers me, probably more than it should, when I read something from one of my connections that misuses language. I’m not talking about the vagueries of punctuating parenthetical statements or comma use for multiple adjectives. I mean simple things such as the examples above or “it’s” as a possessive. It’s worse when a company does it since you know multiple people looked at whatever was being produced as a piece of marketing or a social media post.

The settlement of the suit cost the dairy $5,000,000. That’s a lot of cheese. Sloppy proofreading can cost you just as much in how your customers and others feel about your brand. It’s not just the lawyers who get concerned with vague meanings and incorrect language. There are a lot of cranky old men and women out there who know the difference, and many of us are actually not so old (ask my kids who are bigger sticklers on this point than I am!). Is all that clear?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Reality checks

Back To The Bar

(Only cropped, no other editing.)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s Foodie Friday and this week I’m inspired by something the folks at Bacardi are doing because it’s something every company ought to be doing in some form. In the case of Bacardi, they’ve called it “Back To The Bar” and the reason for what they’re doing is nicely explained by their CEO and reported by MediaPost:

“Back to the Bar is our version of ‘walking the factory floor,’” said Mahesh Madhavan, CEO of Bacardi Limited. “It puts our people in touch with what’s happening in our business in real life and real time — something you can’t truly understand behind a computer screen, sitting through a presentation, or dissecting a spreadsheet.”

What every employee is being encouraged to do is to go hang around bars. In fact, they’re shutting down the company to allow employees to do so. While they’re in those bars, they’re to connect with customers and encourage them to try cocktails made with Bacardi. I imagine they’ll also get a lot of feedback on the product, consumer approaches to drink selection and other information which, as the CEO says, you can’t get behind a computer screen. It’s a fantastic idea.

Think about your own business. First, I hope you’re eating your own dog food – that you’re a regular user of your own product or service. If not, why not? As an example, over the years I’ve worked in sports with a few people who didn’t really watch sports or know a heck of a lot about it. How they got hired baffled me. I also worked with a TV executive who said he didn’t ever watch some very popular shows because he “wasn’t the demo.” I get that but I think if your job entails marketing to a particular target you need to understand the target and that includes their likes and dislikes even if they don’t mirror your own.

Next, Barcardi is getting first-hand feedback. They’re talking to people who are in a relaxed environment, probably a cocktail or two down the road, and the chances of getting uncensored feedback are excellent. It’s not a written survey or a focus group. It’s way better than those. Most importantly, it’s first hand. I have always loved the old United Airlines commercial from the late 1980’s in which Ben, a senior executive whose company lost a long-term client that morning, is handing out airline tickets to his managers and tells them to go visit clients. Ben himself is going “to visit that old friend who fired us this morning.” It’s a spectacular reminder not to lose touch with people. Don’t rely solely on email and telephone. You probably see this issue even in how your own office works if you still work in one. People don’t visit – they communicate via email or Slack or some other messaging service, even with the person in the next cubicle.

People thrive when they connect with other people. Your business thrives when it really connects with customers. When was the last time you went back to the bar?

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Filed under Consulting, food, Helpful Hints

My Uncle’s Poetry

My uncle passed away last week. He was married to my mother’s sister and, obviously, wasn’t a young man. Still, a loved one’s death is never easy and due to a lengthy illness, this one was especially hard. I flew to Florida to attend his funeral and to offer love and support to my aunt and cousins. If you’ve ever sat with folks who’ve experienced a loss, maybe you’ve had a similar experience to what went on. There was much talking and reminiscing about my uncle and many old family memories were shared with a mixture of laughter and sadness.

My uncle was a man I’d known my entire life and yet during the time spent chatting I learned something I’d never known. There was a book on my aunt’s table. In it were poems that my uncle had written over the years, mostly to her. It turned out he had also written a play. I was very surprised by this since my uncle was a rather vocal prognosticator on whatever topic happened to be at hand. Sports, in particular, was something about which he was never at a loss for an opinion. He was in an odd way a less knowledgeable Howard Cosell and although he was frequently wrong he was never deterred from speaking his mind. The fact that he had written love poetry to his wife was not exactly something that I thought he’d be doing.

The point of this is to remind each of us that no matter how well we think we know a topic or a person we need to keep an open mind and a readiness to be surprised. If someone had told me that my uncle was a playwright I’d have thought they were joking. That fact that I saw his poetry reminded me how little I really knew or understood about him.

Be willing to be wrong. Accept that there are things you don’t know and seek them out. Get as many facts as you can. Oddly, my uncle would often opine without having some key facts at hand. Even so, it’s his last message to me as expressed through the existence of his poetry that was probably the best thing he ever said to me. Does it resonate with you too?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Thinking Aloud

Building A Better Filter

I came across something this past week that I knew immediately would have to be our Foodie Friday topic because in a flash my reaction went from “duh” to “brilliant” to “life-changing.” It is a coffee filter. That’s right: the thing into which you put the coffee as you prepare your morning cup. It actually can remind us a lot about business.

I was visiting my sister and went to make the morning coffee. As I opened up a filter to place it into the conical thing that holds the ground coffee, I saw something on the white paper of the filter that I’d never seen before: lines. That’s right – pre-measured markings to delineate the levels of ground coffee, much as you probably have on the coffee pot itself for water. I literally giggled with glee. No measuring spoon to wash nor losing track of how many scoops I’d counted out. Just hit the same line each day with the water in the pot and the coffee in the filter and get the same brew, no matter how sleepy I was as I made the pot.

What does this have to do with business? A few things. First, coffee filters are commodity items. Not much distinguishes one filter from another and anything which can do so will remove price as the only variable. In this case, I don’t see evidence that these filters even cost any more than those without lines.

Second, this is clearly a change made with the consumer in mind. After all, it must cost a little something extra to print the lines on the filters as well as to implement a step in manufacturing that wasn’t there before. Based on the filters without measure lines, I don’t think anything had ever been printed on them, so this might even have involved purchasing new equipment to provide a customer benefit. It would have been very easy to say let’s charge more to maintain our margins or to forget the “new” product altogether but some smart manager didn’t.

Finally, it shows us that even something as simple as a coffee filter – literally a folded piece of paper – can provide room for innovation and a better product. All that’s required is to keep the focus on customer benefit and to think outside of the box (or inside the filter!). Those are things any of can and should do.

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints

Getting The Message

You may have read about a missile alert issued in Hawaii a couple of weeks ago. A worker mistakenly believed that there was an incoming missile attack and issued an alarm. The initial report was that he had hit the wrong button on a drop-down menu. As it turns out, he had missed the part of the incoming alert message that said it was an exercise. The message itself also included the words “this is not a drill” (it shouldn’t have) which proved to be confusing at best and terrifying at worst.

As I read about this, I thought about how many times employees don’t hear the messages we send them. This particular employee had a track record, according to reports, of confusing real-world events and drills several times over the last decade. While I’m not sure this is the individual I would want in a critical role, that fact that he was should have reminded his management to be absolutely clear when giving him instructions.

You don’t think this kind of miscommunication could happen in your business? Well, maybe not, but let me ask you a few questions.

  • Do you ever tell your staff that it’s OK to fail and yet punish people who do so at review time?
  • Do you ever tell people to innovate and yet get mad when they don’t follow protocols you’ve established?
  • Do you ever tell anyone to work carefully and yet push them to make an unrealistic deadline?
  • Do you ever refuse to prioritize their work with them and instead tell them that “everything is a big priority”?

Those are the same type of confusing, conflicting messages as the guy heard in Hawaii, and just as in that situation the chances are good that the recipient will mishear and push the wrong button (or, as in this case, the right button at the wrong time). Putting aside the fact that the Hawaiians did themselves no favors by allowing one individual to issue an alert (they’ve remedied that – it now takes two to do so), or that the individual in question had made similar mistakes in the past,  the fault lies just as much with the supervisor who issued conflicting instructions (This is an exercise/this is not a drill). It’s a mistake no supervisor can afford to make unless they enjoy creating terror in their businesses. Now, who wants that?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Consulting, Huh?

Retraining For Retaining

As usual, I have golf on the brain this morning. It’s probably because I’m in the midst of planning the annual soiree to Myrtle Beach that has been the highlight of my year for the last 23. I’ve written about how it’s my annual Board Of Advisors meeting and I highly recommend a similar trip – whether golf-related or not – to each of you.

With this much golf on my brain, I got to thinking about what’s going on in the golf world these days. As it turns out, it has a lot to do with what’s going on in nearly every business. If you have read anything at all about the golf industry over the last few years, you keep reading about the need to grow the game. According to the latest from the National Golf Foundation, interest in playing the game continues to grow but actual on-course participation has been flat at best. Much ink has been spilled over the need to make the game more accessible, lower the cost and speed up play so that new people will become regular participants. I suspect your business spends some time thinking about how to attract new customers too.

What some folks in the golf industry are beginning to realize is that they don’t spend enough time on customer retention rather than customer capture. You might have heard (you certainly could have read it on this screed!) that it costs five times more to get a new customer than to retain an old one. Why not focus on something that is 80% less expensive?

Let me put it in golf terms and I think you’ll see the parallels. If you go to some courses, particularly the high-end courses, you’re often treated like they’re doing you a favor for letting you play. It’s almost like the customer is a distraction rather than the sole reason for the business to exist. The course does nothing to help speed up play. If conditions are poor (shabby greens, standing water in fairways, etc.), that’s never said before you pay or even acknowledged after your round is done. How about stating that you’re sorry for the course not being in top shape and offering to buy a drink or lunch at the end of the round? How about a coupon to come back at half price when the course is in better condition?

You’d be shocked if you encountered some of the rude employees I’ve met in my years of golfing. There clearly hasn’t been an emphasis on customer service at some places. Instead, the emphasis is on holding their hands out for a tip. All they want to do in the shop is to sell you overpriced shirts, hats, and balls with their logo on it. None of that aids customer retention.

What they – and you – need to be asking yourself is what can I do to improve the customer experience? How can I get this customer to come back? Little things go a long way – it can be as simple as a towel on a cart or ice in the cooler or enough sand to fix divots. I’m sure you can think of little amenities you can offer – it can be as simple as a bottle of water on a hot day to customers entering your store or a personalized thank you note for a past purchase. What are the things that will help retention?

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Filed under Consulting, Helpful Hints