Category Archives: Thinking Aloud

Census Day

Did you know that today is Census Day? Yes, I’m aware that it’s also April Fool’s Day although I would propose to you that not many people are in a pranksterish sort of mood at the moment. Most of the usual suspects – Google, for example – have foregone their annual pranks in recognition of the times we’re in. Good job, folks, especially since if last year you had sent around pieces describing how in a year we’re all locked up at home with most businesses either closed or severely affected, you’d be accused of going beyond what’s believable for a joke.

Anyway, have you filled out your census? It is actually the law, you know. More than that, it’s massively important since the census determines how many representatives each state gets in Congress and is used by the federal government to decide how much money to spend on key infrastructure, including roads, hospitals, and schools. You can do it online for the first time. It takes about 5 minutes. If you’ve not completed your form, go ahead and do so.  I’ll wait.

The census is one of the smart things the Founders did when the wrote out the rules by which this country was going to be governed. I look at it as a reality check combined with forced planning. When you think about it, having to adjust reality based on facts is critical to any organization, especially one that claims to represent each and every one of us. It’s not just the government that needs to stop, count, and rethink either.

If there is one silver lining to the current pandemic, it’s that it’s allowing many of us to take a deep breath (6 feet from anyone, please), think about where we are in our professional lives and where we want to go. I’ve spoken with many people over the last month who are looking into business ownership. Some of them are doing so because they’ve lost their jobs and don’t want to be in that situation again. Others are evaluating it because they see an opportunity. Personally, while I think divorce lawyers and midwives will do very well when this is all over, those businesses aren’t exactly something you can jump into (nor are they franchised). I also think businesses involving cleaning, home repair, and remodeling will all do even better than they did when things were sailing along smoothly. You CAN jump into those and they ARE franchised.

My point here isn’t to get you interested in a franchise. It is to get you to use the time you’ve been given to conduct your own personal census. Heck, even if you’re working a full day from home, you’re not commuting to the office as you might have done. Use that time to take stock of what you want to be doing and how you’re going to get there if it’s not what you’re doing now. If this virus has shown us anything it’s that the world can change in a flash and the more we can control our own situation, the better off we’ll be. Make sense?

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Quit Selling

What the heck do you do when everything changes in a couple of weeks? I fell behind reading my daily newspapers and as I was catching up it dawned on me that nearly everything I was reading related to a world that really didn’t exist a week later. The sports sections were previewing games and events that will never take place. Forget the numbers and analysis on the financial pages. Even the front pages dealt with topics that now seem so unimportant.

People can’t travel. You can’t really go out to eat or hang out with friends. Who could ever have imagined that the bars would be closed on St. Patrick’s Day as they were here and in many other places. Those are just a few examples of the devastating impact this pandemic has caused and the businesses that can survive this will be badly damaged. Many others won’t survive at all.

So If you’re a businessperson what can you do? May I offer a radical thought?

Quit selling. I’ve received many emails from companies that are behaving as if nothing is different. They’ve not changed their tactics or messaging at all. Others have done even worse by trying to capitalize on this global tragedy. Not only do I find these messages offensive but I’m making mental notes never to buy from those businesses again.

Everyone is suffering losses of some sort. Some folks are out of work completely with no income at all. Others are trying to work from home while schooling or at least amusing their kids. My parents who are in an assisted living facility can’t leave their room. Meals are sent up and there is no socialization. I think it’s the right course of action but I feel horrible for them and the other residents. People have had to cancel vacations and weddings. Others can’t attend funerals of loved ones. Everything has changed.

So quit selling. Recognize that now isn’t the time. If you give any sort of credence to the notion that you need to love your customers, love them now by asking how you can be helpful. Ask what you can do for them and not what you can sell them. There will be plenty of time for that when things return to whatever normal will become.

Maybe it’s a radical thought but these are times that call for radical thinking, don’t you think?

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Filed under Consulting, Reality checks, Thinking Aloud, What's Going On

One More Chance

Foodie Friday at last! I live in a smallish town. For a town its size, there are actually a lot of dining options and many good examples of different cuisines. Still, it’s always disappointing when one of the places here goes way downhill.

That happened to a place we used to frequent. They arguably had the best burger in town. It was ground in-house and always cooked perfectly (mid-rare, and only because they grind the meat themselves). They had wonderful parmesan truffle fries. When I wrote about this place two years ago I said

They grind the burgers themselves out of a combination of several cuts of beef and they cook it nicely. It’s perfectly seasoned and is served on a bun that absorbs the juices without falling apart. I order mine with bacon and a runny fried egg (why not have breakfast with your burger?) but they offer many other options. It’s a work of art: the Mona Lisa of burgers.

Unfortunately, shortly after I wrote that, things began going downhill. First, our favorite bartender (we always eat at the bar) departed for parts unknown and even texting him didn’t help since he must have got a new phone number (people generally don’t change their numbers just to avoid me). Then something changed in the kitchen. The burger wasn’t the same and it was never cooked right. The fries left the menu. Soon, we left too and haven’t returned.

A few weeks ago, signs went up outside the place that new management was coming. Their Facebook page went into more detail. So the other night, we decided to give it a second chance and went back. We sat at our usual places at the bar and the new owners were sitting there having dinner. We talked about what had changed and they talked a lot about how they were going to make it better. And it was better! The burger was a little different but was ground in house and cooked well. It was back and it was joined by a really good fried chicken sandwich that was new. Woo hoo!

My point today is about second chances. Some people think that there are no second chances in life. As managers, they operate the same way. One employee screw-up and the relationship is never the same. That’s wrong. Giving someone a second chance is giving them the opportunity to improve. Mistakes are learning opportunities.  In general, the only mistakes I wouldn’t tolerate were errors that resulted in destroying trust (you lied to me) or multiple repetitions of the same mistake. That’s either willful or demonstrates that you can’t – or won’t – learn.

Maya Angelou said something that’s always resonated with me on this subject. “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” That’s what I think we all should be after, whether it’s as managers or as people looking for a great burger. Things can change, people can do better. When you see that those changes have happened, I think it’s incumbent on us to give a second chance to see if things have improved. Don’t you?

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Please F Off

Part of the process in the franchise consulting I do is to acquire leads, just as it is in most sales-related businesses. I do that in a number of ways, once of which is through what are called “portal leads.” These are names, phone numbers, and email addresses, among other things, those interested parties have submitted to get more information about a particular franchise or just to speak with someone about franchises generally.

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that some percentage of these leads are submitted by people surfing around late at night. Maybe they’ve been drinking or maybe they’ve had a bad day and are angry with their current job and are thinking about moving on or taking more control by investing in their own business. These folks don’t answer the phone or respond to emails. There is another tiny percentage of leads that have been submitted by people playing jokes on their friends, generally college students.

I got one of those the other day. The lead was in Norman Oklahoma although the phone number was a Dallas area code. Still, Norman is a college town so it wouldn’t be unusual for people to relocate there. Of course, when I dialed the number, the person who answered was not the person whose information I had. That happens sometimes too – often a typo when the person is typing in their number. The email worked, however.

I hadn’t heard back the next day so I sent another email explaining why I wanted to speak to them. This one came back with a curt reply: “please fuck off.” That’s an exact quote including all lower-case letters. It’s our topic today.

I’m from New York so I’m quite used to rude. My issue is that rude seems to be the new normal. If I was, as this fellow is, a senior at the University Of Oklahoma and was going to be entering the job market with my BBA in Finance and another BBA in Venture Management come May, I wouldn’t be cursing anyone out, especially not someone I don’t know. I appreciate the fact that I may have obtained his information through no fault of his own, but the reply and how he handled it is all on him. I realize that he doesn’t know me but I’m also relatively easy to check out. Maybe a contact with 40 years in business could be useful to him even if he’s not interested in a franchise?

The world moves quickly and at times we’re all under a lot of pressure. It’s taken me four years living away from New York to truly appreciate how far nice will get you. The old me would have tracked this kid down as well as forwarded his comments to the heads of his major departments, inquiring if this is how all OU seniors approach the world.  Let’s all remember that privacy is non-existent and people with bad intentions can find you and make your life hell, as sad as that is. Maybe it’s the old hippie in me, but a little more nice in this world would be just fine with me. You?

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Tajine

This Foodie Friday, let’s investigate tajine. Those of you with some knowledge of middle eastern or northern African food and cooking will recognize that a tajine is both a dish and a cooking vessel. You probably aren’t aware that it makes a great business point as well.

The dish, as one might expect, varies quite a bit depending on the location and culture. Generally speaking, a tajine is a stew that’s cooked slowly. Depending on the culture, it can have meats, fish, regional spices and broth. Some cultures add fruit and nuts. In Tunisia, eggs and cheese are common additions, making the stew more like a frittata.

What most of the cultures have in common is that the dish is cooked in a pot with a pyramid-shaped lid that does most of the work for you and produces consistently moist results, condensing and redirecting steam back into the food. Technically you don’t need a tajine to cook a tajine (see what I did there?) but because the pot is made from porous terra cotta, it gets seasoned and infused with flavors over time. Yes, very much like a great cast-iron skillet. Yes, you could use a slow-cooker which develops a similar cooking environment and yes, some tajine pots are enameled so they don’t really absorb flavor, but no matter which way you go, the business point remains the same.

A tajine is very much a product of a specific environment. The flavors reflect the culture and what the pot does so well is to create a condition that keeps the product inside in an optimal state. I think that’s what great corporate cultures do as well. First, they select “ingredients” – people and processes – that reflect who they are as an organization. Next, they create an environment that allows those ingredients to combine while protecting them from burning or overcooking. It’s a slow, gentle braise.

Think about the best places in which you worked. I’ll bet it was a “braise” environment and not “broiling”. I’ve worked in the latter and the staff tended to be overcooked quite quickly.  It’s like one lovely description of tajine cooking says:

Fill the pot with your layered ingredients before it has fully heated, either at room temperature or when barely warm. This helps to mediate overall temperature and prevent any scorching. There’s no sautéing necessary—simply layer ingredients and add liquid all in one go. A moist and saucy tagine comes from the trapped steam, not pre-cooking.

As you’re creating your corporate tajine, think about both the dish and the pot. Keep the staff from scorching and the environment so it creates optimal conditions for success. It’s probably simpler than you think if you have the right tools!

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Dumplings

This Foodie Friday, ask yourself why it is that every culture has a dumpling of some sort. When I say the word, your mind might initially flash to Chinese dumplings. After all, nearly every Chinese menu offers a dumpling or two (and often many more). You can usually get mandu at a Korean place. Italian ravioli, Spanish empanadas, Polish pierogi, Puerto Rican pasteles, Indian guija – heck, even Jewish Kreplach – are all members of the dumpling club along with dozens of others.

At the most basic level, dumplings are a wrapper filled with something. Generally, it’s meat or vegetables (or both) but it can be soup or it can be something sweet. They almost always can be eaten with one or two bites. I think they’re an apt metaphor for your business or your brand.

There is a core element. That’s your “why.” It’s not a “why” based on how you see yourself but on how your customers see you. What problem are you solving for them? How do you interact with them? It’s the messages you send and the reality that you provide (and those things had better be aligned and consistent!).

Dumplings have wrappers. I suspect many of us don’t pay much attention to the wrapper but let’s remember that the wrapper holds the whole thing together. The wrapper makes the dumpling possible. Your business has a wrapper. It’s your staff, your partners, and your suppliers. A great dumpling’s wrapper complements the filling. It’s of appropriate thickness and texture. It can be fancy or plain, but in every case, it is complete – without holes so the filling stays intact. Your team needs to be that way – without holes, appropriate to the essence. If the dumpling is broken, the odds are that the product that lies within is not optimal either.

I think every dumpling began with the filling, just as your business should. I am unaware, however, of any dishes that are just “dumpling filling”, despite having a child who would remove the wrappers and only consume the filling every time we had Chinese food.  The dish isn’t complete without the wrapper, the filling, and often the broth within that brings everything together. You need to pay attention to all the parts of your business as well – the entire experience – and not just focus on the filling. It’s just one part of the dumpling!

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Do You Really Want The Real Deal?

Happy Foodie Friday! I was asked to give some restaurant recommendations to a friend who will be traveling in a month or two. They’re going to a couple of cities I know pretty well and wanted me to tell them where they could get “authentic” cuisine. That got me thinking about the whole authenticity thing and I realized that maybe what many of us say we want isn’t really exactly what we mean.

They wanted to see NYC’s Chinatown and I told them about one of my favorite places there. It’s been there forever (always a good sign) and serves authentic Chinese food. Oh sure, you can get the American/Chinese stuff that’s available elsewhere but you can find things here like snails that you won’t find at P.F. Chang’s. They serve 24 different soups – I’m pretty sure your local place might serve 5 or 6. A lot of the “good” stuff isn’t even on the menu.

Of course, to try some of these “authentic” dishes, you have to put aside your preconceptions. Even some of the standards – Kung Pao Chicken, for example (known as Gung Bo Gai Ding here) – are different from what you’re used to. Authentic, yes, but is that really what you’re after?

They also asked for some recommendations in Rome. I am pulling together a list of places I like there but cautioned them to stay away from places that offer a tourist menu. They inevitably dumb down the food and in some cases, Olive Garden would be an upgrade. Of course, one place I love has no English menu and the last time I was there my friend ordered a plate of what I told him translated to “guts”. That was exactly what it was – liver, kidneys, etc. It was delicious and very authentic but is that really what most people want? Sanguinaccio isn’t exactly on the tourist menu (it’s a blood sausage).

InterContinental Hotels did a survey asking travelers in major destinations to select the sights, sounds, tastes, touches, and scents from a selection that provide the best experience for a traveler visiting their city. The answer for New York was fresh bagels from a West Village shop and summer rays while sunbathing in Central Park on a Sunday. I can tell you that while that may be true, most visitors would have a hard time dealing with Central Park on a Sunday and there are endless arguments in my hometown about where the best bagel can be found. Personally, I’d opt for a bodega bacon egg and cheese as being authentic, along with the lesser-known chop cheese. Good luck finding tourists who are wanting those authentic gut bombs (they’re SO good!).

Authenticity may not always be what we want. Honesty, yes. Transparency, of course. But authenticity can be something altogether disturbing. It can precipitate a massive attack of cognitive dissonance (I want the real thing but the real thing is not what I want!). Careful what you wish for!

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Filed under food, Reality checks, Thinking Aloud