The Stain On Your Back

I’m going to be a little self-serving today, but it’s based on a comment someone made to me the other day. You’ll probably be able to figure out what the comment was as you read on.

Imagine that on your way to an appointment a drop of something – coffee from someone’s cup, condensation from an air conditioner – spills onto your shirt. You’d see it and deal with it immediately if it was on the front of your shirt. If it spills onto the back, you’d probably not even notice it until some kind-hearted soul mentions it. That, dear readers, is why you need people like me.

When I grew up in the business world, I had a lot of people coaching me. My immediate boss and his boss were always ready to encourage me (and not always in the nicest of tones) and help me to grow. They let me know where the less-visible (to me) stains were. That situation is less common today in a world where there are a million corporations of one as opposed to a large company. Today’s smaller companies have much less institutional memory from which they can draw as well as less personal experience on the part of the founders and employees.

Part of what I do is to coach. I’ve run into some potential clients who tell me that they don’t need coaching, just more hands to do the work. While the latter half of that statement is assuredly true, they also need someone to point out the stains on their backs. Most consultants I know don’t have a political agenda. We’re not after your job nor are we burdened with your past or present. We are charged with helping you and your business to grow. No, you can’t do the latter without doing the former. A business is only as good as the people managing it. My peers and I are there to look at your situation and to help you reach your goals.

I’ve been doing “business” for almost 40 years (yikes!). In that time I’ve made a lot of mistakes and I’ve seen a lot of others do the same. I’ve seen great managers and horrible managers. Part of what clients pay me for is an insurance policy of sorts. My experience ensures them that they won’t have to make the same mistakes I did. They get the benefit of the learning without the pain of the experience. What I and my peers bring is why football teams have coaches up high in the stadium – to get a broader perspective.

Most professional golfers have swing coaches. All sports teams do too. The coaches aren’t caught up in the second to second physical involvement that sport requires. They can see and protect your back. I can do that too, by seeing the parts of you and your business that you can’t or won’t see and by letting you know what’s going on in those blind spots. Call me?

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Filed under Reality checks, Consulting

Asked And Answered

I’m constantly advocating that we listen to our customers. One of the ways that we can do that is through surveys. The problem with many surveys is that we don’t ask the right questions, or we ask the right questions in the wrong way. Let me explain.

Suppose I were to ask about Obamacare. I might ask if you approve or disapprove of the law. Simple question, right? Unfortunately, wrong. To someone on the right, the “disapprove” answer might come from a disagreement with the mandate that we all have health insurance. To someone on the left, the “disapprove” response might come from feeling that the law doesn’t go far enough and a single payer system is what we need. Same answers, very different perspectives.

We often make that same mistake by not digging deeply enough. We’re told to avoid open-ended questions in survey design (they’re not computer friendly, after all), but in so doing we end up with data which is ambivalent at best and useless at worst. We also make the mistake of asking both new and returning customers the same things. Their perspectives are different and one group should have better, different insights from which we can learn.

Try to remember that consumers get hit up with surveys everywhere these days. You can’t make a customer service call without being prompted to stay on the line after you hang up to complete a survey. Many websites will pop up a user-experience survey while you’re in the midst of trying to find some important information. We need to survey but we need to be judicious. We need to be as personal as we can and to be respectful of our consumer’s time by not asking 30 questions (3 or 4 are optimal).

As with anything in business, put yourself in the customer’s position first. If what you’re asking is vague, repetitive, burdensome, or impersonal, you’ve already got your answer. It’s in your low response rates.

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Filed under Consulting, Helpful Hints

Those Who Aren’t Watching

It’s the Foodie Friday before the Super Bowl. It’s hard for me to imagine The Big Game without food. If I’m invited to a party there is usually an assortment of chips, dips, and snacks to get us through until halftime, when some sort of “main” is brought out. It could be a six-foot deli sandwich or a pot of chili – no self-respecting fan wants to be hovering over a grill or a stove during the Ultimate Game (which, as Hollywood Henderson once pondered, if it’s really the ultimate game, why will they play it again next year?). Many years I stay home and watch the game with someone else who is there TO WATCH THE DAMN GAME and not make idle conversation.

English: American-style pigs in blankets.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, I do need sustenance for my fandom. It’s not football without weenies (pigs in a blanket, hot dogs in puff pastry, whatever you call them) or jalapeño poppers (they look like little footballs!). This year I’ll throw a pork shoulder in either the pressure cooker or the slow cooker for some pulled pork at the half. That will be done long before kickoff.

I rarely go to a sports bar to watch the game. The big advantage is that the food is made for me and there are more choices than I’d have at home or at most parties. The noise level, however, is a big minus, not to mention the cost. Still, this is a choice for a lot of fans as well.

But there is one other segment of people that are instructive for us today. Even the most widely-watched Super Bowls aren’t watched by everyone. There are just some people who aren’t sports fans (the horror!). And they are an opportunity. I’m willing to bet it’s a great Sunday evening to get into almost any restaurant you’d like, and therein lies our business thought.

There are almost always opportunities available if you dig deeply enough. The availability of highly-targeted, one to one media has made it possible to identify the niche audiences that can be aggregated into a great business. That restaurant that might otherwise be empty on Super Bowl Sunday? How about calling or emailing your wait-list or the people who left phone numbers in the event of a cancellation? Maybe seat some folks earlier than usual, promising to have them out by the end of the first half so they can hit a bar or a party or home to watch the second half (the first half of these games tend to be dull anyway).

You take my point. This is the biggest event of every year and yet not everyone cares. Find them – there’s a good business opportunity there. Even the big guys in your category have people who aren’t fans. How are you going to seek them out? The rest of you – enjoy the game!

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Filed under food, Thinking Aloud

Smoke And Mirrors

I wrote last week about magic and distractions. Another magically-themed post today about the smoke and mirrors magicians use in their acts. That expression has come to mean something that’s deceptive or fraudulent, and a couple of pieces about the marketing business got me thinking about that term today. Even if you’re not a marketer (but who isn’t!), there’s something to take away.

One piece on Digiday dealt with ad-buying technology. You’re probably aware that the majority of digital ad buying (which will soon cover TV as well!) is done programmatically. No humans are involved other than to create the platforms on the vending end and choosing the ones to use on the buying end. The Digiday piece contains the following statements from an ad tech software developer:

I can say from first-hand experience that a lot of it is taped together stuff and nowhere near the sophistication that’s talked about…It is really easy to put up a website and mention “algorithms,” “machine learning” and a bunch of buzzwords. Nobody knows how that works. You can’t actually look into it, it is all just black boxes. But underneath, there is no real special sauce for a lot of these companies.

In other words, smoke and mirrors. Billions of dollars are spent this way and marketers are (finally) demanding to know how their money is really being spent. They’re turning on the lights and blowing away the smoke. Which leads to the second piece from MediaPost. It mentions “the terrible murky waters of rebates and contracts” and the same lack of transparency to which the other piece alludes. P&G is demanding more transparency, insisting that media agencies show that they are using providers that apply industry standards in measuring viewability and fraud. Ogilvy and Mather is reorganizing under a single P&L accounting structures for clients and thereby boosting transparency. Both of these moves are sending the magicians home.

We all need to ask ourselves about smoke and mirrors in our businesses. We need to challenge sources behind reports and assure ourselves that what we’re reading or hearing is rooted in fact and not someone’s fiction. A good practice outside of business too, don’t you think?

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Filed under Huh?, What's Going On

The Cobra Effect

If you heard any news this weekend, you probably are aware of the Executive Order banning folks from certain countries from entering the United States. I expect that the folks who issued the order felt that they were doing something pretty straightforward. Instead, they ended up preventing workers with visas, legal residents with green cards, and a host of others who have all their legal certifications in order from traveling here.

English: Indian Spectacled Cobra, Naja Naja Fa...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since we’re not a political blog, I’m going to put aside humanitarian concerns and politics and instead focus on what one must assume are unintended consequences of the order. It’s the “Cobra Effect” come to life yet again. Unfamiliar with that? It got its name based on what happened when the Indian government offered rewards for dead cobras in an effort to cure a plague of them. Rather than decreasing the number of cobras, people began breeding them and killing them for the reward money. When the government figured this out they stopped paying for them. People released the cobras they no longer needed. Net effect? More cobras and lots of wasted money. Unintended consequences personified!

So how do we avoid the Cobra Effect in our businesses? Not by preserving the status quo since that’s rarely an option. It’s actually as simple as taking the time to think through what possible effects a particular action might have. “If we do this, that might happen.” Don’t be bashful about throwing out absurd conclusions, either. There are many examples those absurdities becoming reality (you gain more weight when you skip meals? Really?).

I guess my thinking is to go fast but do so slowly. Push for change and evolve your products, services, and business, but do so in a manner that thinks through as many of the potential effects those changes could bring about as you can imagine and avoid the Cobra Effect. Make sense?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Huh?

Adding Umami To The Business

This Foodie Friday we’re going to talk about basic flavors. If you’ve done any cooking, you know that there are five basic tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and something called “umami,” which is often mentioned as “savoriness.” It’s a Japanese word that means “delicious taste. It’s actually built on three types of amino acids:

japanese soy sauce, it contains more salt than...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some examples of the amino acids associated with umami are glutamates in kombu or soy sauce; iosinates found in fermented fish, shellfish and meats; and guanylates, which are present in mushrooms like shiitake.These different types of amino acids can be combined to increase the umami taste in your dishes.

Got it? As with all the flavors, the trick is to use umami to balance out and enhance the other flavors present in a dish. If you add soy sauce (umami), for example, you’d want to reduce the salt (salty). If you’re using fish sauce (an umami bomb often found in Asian food) you’d add acid to balance it out (citrus juice, for example.). Got it?

Let’s think about umami in business terms. You have the basic building “flavors” of solving a customer’s problem, the enterprise’s financial goals, customer service, producing the product or service, and supporting your team. What distinguishes great businesses from good businesses is the umami added to the mix of those building blocks. Just as adding a rind of parmesan cheese into a soup or stock boosts umami, teaching everyone in an organization to be customer-centric while pursuing clear goals boosts the coherence and performance of the team. It’s possible to offer decent customer service via email but the umami of a caring human to deal with customer issues makes a lot of difference.

A long time ago, someone told me to add red wine vinegar to the clarified butter into which I was dipping a lobster. I know now that the sour and pungent vinegar was balancing the fat of the butter and took the lobster to another level. Balancing all the elements of either a dish or your business and making sure that balance includes something that boosts umami is the key, both in the kitchen and in the boardroom. You with me?

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Filed under Consulting, food, Helpful Hints

Misdirection (It’s Magic!)

When I was a kid I became fascinated with magic. As I attempted to learn trick after trick, what became clear to me was that the primary skill of the magician wasn’t so much manual dexterity as it was the ability to draw the audience’s attention to something very specific. One magician called it “the manipulation of interest”. I think of it as misdirection and as it turns out there is a really business point to it as well.

Top hat as an icon for magic

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What a magician is trying to do is one of two things: either to get you to look away from what he is really doing for a split second or to reframe your perception so that you focus on a different reality, thinking that something has a lot to do with what’s going on when in fact it has nothing to do with it.

We see this in business all the time. Sometimes it’s benign, as when we’re distracted by a phone buzzing during a meeting. Sometimes it’s not so benign, as when the fine print of a deal is overshadowed by a blaring headline and attention-grabbing photo. I’ve been in meetings in which someone was completely unprepared for the topic of the meeting but managed to get the group distracted onto a side issue and he was never found out. You’ve probably witnessed something similar.

We can’t let distractions draw our attention away from what’s really going on. We can’t look at the obvious while the real business is going on elsewhere. More importantly, we can’t let others draw our attention away from something they’re doing that might have an impact on our business. We can’t let a nice suit distract us into thinking someone is successful – look at their track record. We can’t let someone’s ridiculous initial offer draw us away from our negotiating plan – maybe they’re trying to distract us through the misdirection of anger. We can’t let someone tell a lie as a distraction without correcting it but that also means we need to have facts at hand to avoid the misdirection.

Some folks are masters of controlling how others feel about and deal with them by controlling others’ focus. Don’t fall for it.

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Filed under Reality checks, Helpful Hints