A friend and mentor, Swede Roskam, passed away last week.
He was in his mid eighties, but lived like he was eternal.
One of his last emails last week was to my son Christian at college, asking him to lunch this week when Christian was home for spring break. I will miss Swede.
Here are 24 Life Lessons from Swede, who was one of the most grateful and most generous people I’ve met:
Travel the world
Keep the end in mind
Push your kids out of the nest
Under-promise and over-deliver
Lead with a firm handshake and a smile
The past is no excuse
Verbalize your love often
Multiply your resources
It’s all about choices
Keep moving forward
Build life-long friendships
Keep your sense of humor
Age doesn’t have to slow you down
Marry well & tell everyone that you did
Encourage your spouse
Equip others for success
Pray without ceasing
It’s only money
A colleague in a networking group recently mentioned that her mother had Alzeimer’s and that she needed full-time care. She said she was overwhelmed with the options and costs of memory care.
I mentioned that my mother-in-law had recently died with the disease, and a conversation ensued about the facility where my mother-in-law had stayed.
I wanted to say, “The facility was great. I totally recommend it. The care was fantastic. Here is the number.”
I couldn’t. Nor could my wife, who spent many hours there over the course of four years.
More than Safe
My mother-in-law was safe. She never complained about the food. But it was clear that the facility had no specialized expertise in memory care. For example, they acted surprised when my mother-in-law (who was the most gentle and sweetest person ever) became stubborn at times. We’d receive phone calls, “Dave, your mother-in-law refused her medication this morning.” Or, “Your mother-in-law hit a staff person this morning.” Come to find out later, this 82-year-old lady had merely resisted being forced to do something and swatted the attendant with her arm.
You would think that a facility promising memory care would know that the personalities of those in their care often change over time, that they’d have strategies in place for when a patient resists care or food, that they would figure out a way not to call the family over trivial things.
While we complained several times to the staff nurse, we never directed our frustration to the executive director of the facility. When Rho passed away, we went away.
Gone but Not Forgotten
In the past year or so, when someone asks about our experience, we begin with a few positive comments, but then direct folks to research a different facility. We don’t want to pan the organization. There were some terrific individuals who cared for Rho. But we wouldn’t refer the entire experience. Memory care is crushingly expense. And if you have the means, you want the best. It’s not about “the best,” such as “I need to be treated royally.”
It’s the best in “We want the kind of care that shows respect for our loved one – and cares for her with sensitivity and a modicum of compassion.”
In this instance, we decided not to storm the Bastille and complain bitterly to senior management. The long death of our beloved mother-in-law, mother, and grandma was hard enough. And the care wasn’t horrific.
But we hesitate when asked about our experience. It’s what we never told the leaders of the facility that directly affects future revenue for the facility.
Word of mouth is still the baseline for building a great business.
Marketing truly is every little thing you do. Or not do.
I’ve flyfished on and off for 35 years, and I’m about as good at it as I was 35 years ago. I’m not the nerd who is brilliantly technical in his casts and knows the intricate mating cycle of mayflies.
I like to fish, though, with a guide who is. If I’m going to pay for guide to float a western river, I want my money’s worth. I want to catch fish. Big fish.
7-Hour Chat and Fish
A friend and I recently floated the Lower Madison near Bozeman, MT, with a flyfishing guide, who was also the owner of a Bozeman flyfishing shop, one of a million in the area, it seems. We had lots of time to chat during our 7-hour float.
“So, how do you position the shop,” I asked, “given that there are so many flyfishing shops in the area?”
“We’re known as the fishy guys,” he said. “We’d rather that you catch fish than sell you a new fly rod or a pair of $400 waders back at the shop.”
The guide said he thought the day was slow. It certainly started out slow, with no strikes the first mile or so.
But he knew the stretch of river like I know my backyard.
He used the word “buckets” to describe the deeper pools where he knew there were fish. Big fish. Later in the day, we simply moved from “bucket to bucket” – there were stretches of the river that we didn’t fish. When we approached a bucket, he kept instructing and chiding us the entire way:
“Throw your line to the left.”
“Out a little farther.”
“Keep it. Keep it. Keep it.”
“Mend your line. Big mend.”
When Reality Matches Words
His truly is the fishy shop. No high pressure to buy a new fly rod (even though I broke one of his when a fish took the line under our drift boat). And lots of big fish. One of my best days ever for the number of big fish.
Competition has never been more fierce, but still there is a place for those who do the hard work of delivering on their promises.
Last fall, I wrote a post about my youngest son’s football team and their surprise attendance at the wake of his grandmother.
These were 12- and 13-year-old boys. They showed up unannounced, and their simple act stayed with our family as the most memorable during our time of grief.
Fast-forward nine months, the season a distant memory.
Last week, I received an email from the football team mom saying that one of the boys had lost his father to a rare brain disease. She wrote that the coach wanted the boys to make the wake, even though they were no longer a team.
Cory said he hated wakes, and we all do, but he felt compelled to go.
Takes Only One
As I heard my 13-year-old son say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” and watched him spend the next 20 minutes catching up with his grieving former teammate, I thought of all the coaches my boys have had through the years.
A lot of them.
With all the years of wrestling, football, baseball, and soccer – the total has to be more than 100. I’ve complained bitterly (to my wife) about many of them: Screamers. Shamers. Passive-aggressive. And the nice ones who simply didn’t know much about the game. (For four years, I’d like to think I was one of the nice ones, but I surely didn’t know anything about baseball.)
We had a great season last year, making it all the way to the Super Bowl of our league and losing the game to a fumble in the last two minutes. Winning creates a great sense of community, happy parents, and friendships among the players.
The emotion of winning fades quickly. But the gratefulness that I feel for what Cory’s coach taught my son will stick with me for a long time.
Cory’s football team canceled practice the day of his grandmother’s wake and took the time to console him in his time of grief.
Every boy (12 to 13 years old) looked me in the eyes, shook my hand, and said, “I’m sorry for your grief.”
That is great coaching. Great leadership. And how you teach boys about what it means to be a man.
I abhor the idea of paying a guide to fish. I grew up on the northern plains and lived in the West until I was 30. I am a do-it-yourself-er.
But during Spring Break, I wanted to take my two boys fishing, so I hired a guide for an afternoon of walleye fishing in central Wisconsin. We fished from a boat just below a dam.
Fishing was slow. I caught 5 or 6, my youngest caught 3 or 4, my oldest son caught none.
Strangely, our guide caught the most fish. He stood in the prime spot of the boat and cast for four hours. The guide didn’t advise. Didn’t say, “Here, take my spot, and here’s what I’d recommend.” He spent no time coaching the boys.
The only thing the guide mentioned early on in the afternoon was that Christian was reeling in his line too fast. His comment was a quasi-criticism: “In the time you’ve cast and reeled in your line five times, I’ve done it only once.”
Who Got the Last Laugh
After a beautiful but chilly day, we loaded up the boat, I paid the guide his fee. And I added a 20% tip.
The realization of the lousy service didn’t really break over me until we were driving the almost three hours back to Chicago.
My boys groused a bit about the day, and I sharply rebuked him. “You are ingrates. It was a beautiful day!”
But they were right. I expected to pay a guide to help us fish. Instead, I paid a guide to fish. He thought he was in the fishing business instead of the customer service business.
It’s the classic entrepreneur’s mistake. You like fishing. So becoming a fishing guide makes perfect sense, an alignment of your gifts with destiny.
But if you love to fish, you should not be a guide. A guide is in the customer service business. The goal is not to outfish the customer. It should be to make his annoying kid love to fish.
Then again, maybe our guide was smarter than I thought. He got me to pay him for a half day of what he loved to do.
“The longer I am in science, the more skeptical I am.”
That line came from my brother, a pharmacogenomist in breast cancer research.
I had just sent him a link to a post by Mike Loukides on the importance of a healthy dose of skepticism of Big Data.
“Big Data” refers to the collection of data sets “so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using on-hand database management tools or traditional data processing applications” (Wikipedia).
Three years ago at a technology conference, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt popped off that every two days now we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003.
We are dog-paddling in a sea of complexity.
One human tendency is to trust data, as if it is the source of all truth. But increasingly, the role of the skeptic is crucial to connecting data to insights that make a difference in human beings.
My brother grapples with the complexity of the genome (and genome of the tumor) of patients in clinical trials. No matter the biometric tools, making sense of such huge data sets is one of the most vexing assignments of scientists.
Matt says the big challenge of so much data is to get to what the science community calls “actionable items” – insights from the research (data) that translate into patient care, that make a difference in the life of a cancer patient.
One of the chief tasks, then, of the leader is to force the issue of simplicity and keep asking, “So what? What difference does it make?”
I don’t see that role diminishing anytime soon.
Market research is often criticized and for good reason. People don’t intend to lie, but the recall of their experience with you is often distorted.
Yet there are some basic questions that every organization should be asking its customers regularly. Here are just five:
Would you refer us to another person? I love the simple yes/no of this. Perhaps this is the ultimate metric.
If you were to refer us to a colleague, how would you describe us? This is obviously a verbatim, and the use of language and how customers/clients/constitutents describe what you do is the Holy Grail. It reveals how you are currently perceived.
What are we the best at? This is the truth-telling by customers that is often hard to digest. All sorts of services firms (professional services, for example, and nonprofits like universities) want to be experts in all things. But alas, you are not. You’re lucky if you’re truly an expert in one. What muddies the water is that customers will view your expertise differently. You don’t have one kind of customer. You have multiple profiles within your database.
How did you first hear about us? The answer to this question will always be (at least 87.9999% of the time) some form of a referral. Or if your firm is truly a thought leader, some of the response will be connected to your blog or books, whitepapers, or conferences etc. But it’s good to ask the question, because it helps senior management not to do stupid things with their marketing dollars.
What other firms (conferences, schools, etc) did you consider before engaging us? This helps identify those in your conference of competitors. Knowing the positioning of your competitors will help you stay focused and on message. You’ll avoid using the same language to describe yourself as do your closest competitors.
What other questions have you found to be insightful?
We’re all headed there.
Or at least more women than men are.
My mother-in-law resides in a memory unit at a retirement village. The other day I counted 11 folks in wheel chairs in the lounge, sleeping, mumbling, or staring blankly into the TV screen.
Only two out of the 11 were men. Basically 18%.
I guess there are advantages of dying of a massive heart attack while shoveling the heavy spring snow off your driveway when you are 57.
My mother-in-law is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. And although she is paying about $5,000 a month, and anted up about $150,000 six years ago simply to enter the community, the place smells.
You know the smell.
Ronnie was right
I am reminded of one of my favorite Southern Rock bands, Lynyrd Skynrd, and its song “That Smell”: “Can’t you smell that smell, Ooooh that smell, The smell of death surrounds you.”
Only Ronnie Van Zant was really singing about “blow” (cocaine).
The smell of retirement communities, though, is really the smell of death. And it does surround you, whenever you visit your loved one.
With as many Baby Boomers who will see ____________ (Jesus, Buddha, Allah, Light, Darkness, Nothing) in the next 30 years, you’d think someone or some firm would come up with a solution for the smell of death.
The nursing home smell certainly doesn’t rank in the top ten, or even top one hundred, of the world’s problems. But if my mobile device knows which store I am walking by and which deals would interest only me, then I think it’s time we solved the smell.
Sometimes the thing to innovate is in plain sight. So what is it that smells?
One of my goals for 2013 is to expand my network.
So late in 2012, I joined Trout Unlimited, a national educational and conservation nonprofit for fly fishermen/fisherwomen.
I have fly fished for 35 years, but had never joined.
It might help me achieve my goals for 2013.
The Parallel Universe
The first event I attended was the Christmas party for the area chapter. It was held at The Bank, a well-known restaurant in our ‘burb.
I expected to see some familiar faces.
My wife grew up here. Members of her family are local sports icons (professional baseball and professional basketball). Several of my in laws attended the local college. We attend church the next ‘burb over. I’ve lived in the area for 22 years. My business address has been Wheaton for 13 years. And my wife is a nurse for two of the most favorite family practice doctors in the community.
Yes, this is the Chicagoland area with 10 MM folks (and 100,000 gang bangers), but Wheaton is quasi-Mayberry.
Yet, that night, in MY town, I recognized no familiar face. At a party of, say, a hundred members of Trout Unlimited from the area, I was alone. I partied in a parallel universe.
Friends’ Friends’ Friends
About the same time, I began to read Connected: How your friends’ friends’ friends affect everything you do, written by a couple of social scientists.
The book is wonderfully nuanced and jammed with insight, but one governing idea is that while the human race may be separated by only six degrees, it’s the Three Degrees of Influence Rule that affects us most.
“Everything we say or do tends to ripple through our network, having an impact on our friends (one degree), our friends’ friends (two degrees), and even our friends’ friends’ friends (three degrees).”
Beyond that, there is a “decay in the fidelity of information” and our influence wanes. Our influence is, of course, not unlimited.
One other quote from the book: “Social networks, it turns out, tend to magnify whatever they are seeded with.”
The core idea of the book is that happiness, depression, violence, suicide, sexual partners, and wealth (among other positive and negative elements) – all are connected to our Three Degrees of Influence.
Start with What You Have
It’s no party standing alone with a cocktail at a Christmas soiree.
But creating new relationships requires jumping from one network of Three Degrees to a new one. That always takes time. Especially in the Midwest where everyone seems to have played together on the high school football team. (And no one has even met someone who is from North Dakota, my home state, though it makes for a wonderful conversation piece!)
And it always requires a modicum of personal risk. In such settings, my goal is simple: quality, not quantity. Even one significant conversation beats 13 three-sentence formalities.
I was also reminded, however, of the power of a simple referral from someone in my existing spheres of influence. And that I rarely go three degrees deep into the network I already have.
Perhaps that’s the place to start in 2013.
There’s nothing like a great quote or cultural insight to buzz the mind … here are three from the past two weeks:
Remember Coach G?
I recently wrote about the wrestling coach at my son’s middle school: http://www.czstrategy.com/2012/11/13/saying-it-like-it-is/
We celebrated the end of the wrestling season the other night at Pay Joey’s, one of the great pizza places in the Chicagoland area. All the boys were there. The varsity never lost a meet. The third year in a row. Coach G said something that stuck:
“It’s not what you teach the kids. It’s what you make the boys believe.”
Every Inch of the World Will Be Wired
I cut my early professional teeth in the publishing world, so I still track what’s going in the space. Two mentors sent me this link to an interview with former Borders president Tami Hein. The interview is lengthy, but her notion that the uttermost parts of the world will be wired in 15 years is powerful: http://ethix.org/2012/01/26/tami-heim-the-business-of-books-in-a-digital-era.
“There are predictions that between the growth of mobile devices and satellite placement every inch of the earth will be wired in 15 years. Now, to put that in perspective today, there are 7 billion people in the world and only about 1.9 billion are wired and online. That’s a lot of growth and the opportunity for more people to join the worldwide Internet conversation is immense.”
“Gimme a high five. You’re a babe!”
This falls under the category of social whackiness. I ran into an acquaintance last night. Young fella. Early thirties. He was anxious to tell me that he was in love.
Yes, he met her online. On a Christian dating site. He lives in Chicago, she lives in the next state east of Chicago. After a few months of online romance, they just had to meet!
They did. Right before Christmas.
In online dating (which I’ve never experienced), the first physical viewing of the body is where, of course, fantasy meets reality.
He told me, “I was coming out of the restroom when she walked into the restaurant. We introduced ourselves, and she politely excused herself to go to the washroom. When she returned, we were seated. I looked at her, and the first thing I said was, ‘Man, you are a babe!’ And then I high-fived her.”
He told me that with a flushed, triumphal face. Apparently, such flattery worked.
So much for social evolution.
Two of our four kids are boys. Both wrestle. One is 17, the other 12. Both recently won their bracket in tournaments the same weekend.
Neither is, or likely will be, wrestling royalty.
(Should I really write that as a father?)
To win his bracket, Cory, my youngest, beat a kid who was at least 20 pounds heavier. The previous day, Christian, my oldest, stuck his first guy in 20 seconds and won his second match in double overtime. For the championship, he pinned a strong kid late in the third. I honestly thought the kid was better than Christian, but my son prevailed.
After the tournament, a father of one of the wrestlers on the team said to me, “Of all the kids I’ve seen wrestle with my son through the years, Christian has improved the most.”
I beamed. However, he didn’t say Christian was the best wrestler he has seen. Christian has lost a lot of matches the past five years.
Losses = Winning
In wrestling, there is you. And there is your opponent. There are no coach’s favorites. That is, you can’t win the Varsity position because your father went to high school 25 years ago with the wrestling coach or goes to church with him on Sunday.
There’s never any doubt who will wrestle Varsity:
You either win the wrestle-off for your weight class. Or you don’t. If you win, you wrestle Varsity. If you don’t, you wrestle JV. Matter over. And if you lose the wrestle-off for the JV spot, you wrestle JV2.
At our schools, wrestling is a no-cut sport. And you always get matches, even if you wrestle third string.
In the sport, a wrestler improves only by, well, wrestling. More and more matches.
That’s obviously true in every other sport (you improve by playing the sport), but especially in wrestling, experience, especially losing, is imperative.
You need to lose, in fact, because winning doesn’t teach you much. Every loss is a chance to learn a better way to escape or how to stand up when you’re on the bottom. For some reason, the mind seems more active, and more receptive to instruction, after a loss.
I’ve noticed, also, that immediately after a match, coaches don’t have much to say to a wrestler if he wins. There’s way more instruction if he loses. And both my boys ruminate for at least a day after they lose. Yet they rarely say much about a win.
Of course, the value is not really about the act of losing but the instruction from the loss and how that affects what comes next.
The culture of developing wrestlers is a model for encouraging younger leaders.
And no matter how old I am, as an older leader and especially at the start of a New Year, I still need the promise of another match.
I try my best to avoid branding books.
I tire of all the standard Coke vs. Pepsi, Apple vs. Microsoft illustrations. Same illustrations, same basic point.
Be like Coke. Don’t be like Pepsi.
How helpful is that, truly?
Trapped inside a gym with a couple hundred smelly mat rats for 6 hours, I turned on my ebook reader and dipped into Visual Hammer.
Two in Tandem
Yes, Coke vs Pepsi was one of the illustrations. One of the first, in fact, in the book. I almost didn’t read on. Yawn. Wait, I have another two hours before my son wrestles again? Good grief.
But Laura’s thesis is strong: You need both a visual hammer and a verbal nail to build a brand. But the visual trumps the verbal. And color is important. I think the formula is: simple image that evokes emotion + unique color + message = Brand Nirvana.
Here are some winners:
1. Susan B. Komen’s ribbon (and the color pink)
2. Lance Armstrong’s bracelet (and the color yellow)
3. The cross of the Red Cross (and the color red)
4. The Marlboro Cowboy (and the color red)
5. Coke’s visual contour (the shape of the bottle and the color red)
Quotes to Noodle On
Laura is the master of the one-liners:
“Marketing is essentially a long-term discipline. Marketing is more like a tree farm than a vegetable garden.”
“Exaggeration works in visuals, but seldom works in verbals.”
“In marketing, everything is secondary to getting into the consumer’s mind.”
“You need two things to build a brand. A visual hammer and a verbal nail. And the nail comes first.”
“A visual hammer doesn’t just repeat your brand name; it hammers a specific word in the mind.”
It’s All about Emotion
Laura’s thesis builds on the growing field of brain research, which the branding community has seized upon in the past 10 years. Emotion drives pretty much everything. If you want to become top of mind, build a brand that taps into a deep emotion.
My main gripe with the book is the assumption that branding was the single driver to that organization’s success. What about strategy? What about being capitalized? What about smart people at the top and throughout? What about market timing?
So, noodle on the thesis, audit your brand image, and then digest the one-liners.
And then read Visual Hammer again before you relaunch your next product or service.
Years ago, I interviewed Zig Ziglar, the motivational speaker who recently died at 86.
I still remember his gracious, handwritten note on a letter that I had sent to him, asking his approval for the galley of the interview. I had misspelled the name of his deceased daughter.
His most well known book, See You at the Top, was first published when he was 49. Zig’s success came later, in the second half of his life, contrary to how success often works. In American culture, if you’re not at the top of the heap by 35, you are, as literary giant John Updike said before he died, a “failed youth.”
I was skeptical before meeting Zig for the interview. I wasn’t in the mood for someone to pump sunshine for a couple hours. I had him stereotyped.
At the time, Zig was in his early seventies, still running hard. I remember thinking when he walked into the conference room at Chicago’s O’Hare Hilton that he looked a bit tired. Now that I’m 50, I can only hope to have the energy that he did at 70.
The Discipline of Gratitude
The interview surprised me.
Instead of spewing motivational cliches, Zig talked honestly and openly. He brought up the death of his adult daughter to cancer, and how the tragedy shaped his life. I came away from the conversation overwhelmed at his sense of gratitude. He wasn’t shallow. He wasn’t bitter. He wasn’t in person something different than he was on stage. He was authentic, real. He was someone I wanted to be like when (and if) I hit 70.
I have an entire playbook of goals and objectives for 2013, but my top commitment is to be more like Zig – grateful, authentic, and real. His sense of gratitude communicated an optimism that was contagious. I want more of that.
Be like Zig.
A friend is a senior veep at one of the world’s largest publishing houses. He and I met twenty years ago when I was still in publishing. We often kavetch about the future of book publishing, now that almost 70% of all books are sold on Amazon.
Bookstores have vanished, like wolves in the Great American West. Now everyone is a self-published writer. And every company or organization can be a publisher. The world is flooded with words: books, ebooks, magazines, newsletter, videos, apps, and an almost unlimited number of other “content containers.”
Even the 140 characters of Twitter is “content.”
The Power of Followership
The new word (the past 15 years, especially) is “platform.”
The phrase is often used by editors at publishing houses when evaluating a book manuscript: Does she or he have a platform? What editors mean is, “Does she have 200,000 followers on Twitter and 100,000 email addresses? Does she speak 40 times a year to large audiences on diet and exercise?”
In short, publishers want to profit from someone else’s marketing platform.The writer gets the prestige of publishing with a renown publisher, and the publisher is guaranteed that the revenue goals are met.
It’s like catching starving trout in an over-stocked trout pond.
Even my 4 year old could succeed at that!
What If You Have No Platform?
What would you rather have?
- 100,000 Twitter followers? or
- the opportunity to advertise on a web site with 100,000 monthly visitors?
Silly question. The 100,000 Twitter followers, right?
They chose to follow you. But what did it cost you to attract 100,000 Twitter followers? And how long did it take?
In 1999, years before the launch of Twitter, Seth Godin made a simple point in Permission Marketing: Create a following. Build something so good that people will seek you out and give you permission to market to them.
If someone comes to you, then you have permission to schlepp your product or service.
Sales chases after leads, permission marketing arrests the attention of your prospects, no? Doesn’t permission marketing generate leads?
However, permission marketing is NOT like catching stocked fish in a stagnant pond.
Platform, a book by Michael Hyatt, gives the practical definition: “Very simply, a platform is the thing you have to stand on to get heard…. Today’s platform is made of people. Contacts. Connections. Followers.”
Today, building a platform requires fresh, creative thinking. It demands arresting ideas and content, no matter the form.
Most of all, it requires patience. And the willingness to invest time and resources. What can you do or say that will be so compelling that someone will:
1. Give you an email address,
2. Follow you on Twitter,
3. Request to join your network on Linkedin,
4. Accept your request on Linkedin,
6. Register at your next conference,
7. Hand you a business card at the Christmas networking luncheon, or
8. Show up at the meet-and-greet at your next trade show?
There may be a hundred or more ways someone can give you tacit or explicit permission.
Do you really have the patience to build a platform for your business or organization?
We are now in the Connection Society. The Information Age is dead or dying.
At least that is what the pundits keep saying.
The last decade, with the rise of Facebook and all social platforms, the notion that corporations (and all businesses and organizations) can push their brands and information out to the world seems quaint.
No shift happens overnight, of course. And it’s not that information is no longer important. (Today, the conversation around information is all about “Big Data.”)
But what does the “Connection Society” mean? For me? For you?
6 Priorities of Engagement
About a week ago I attended an event for marketing executives. The presenters, both brilliant, hailed from two Chicago agencies (RazorFish and Leadhead).
The novelty was how to create a heat map of your brand. The challenge was to do it from your customer’s perspective.
A bit hard to do sitting in a meeting.
The presenters had conducted extensive research of a consumer product and created a grid of what they called “6 Priorities of Engagement.”
And here’s the list, from highest priority to least:
1. Valued. “I feel valued.”
2. Efficiency. “My time is respected.”
3. Trust. “The product or service is credible.”
4. Consistency. “The messaging is consistent with the experience.”
5. Relevance. “The brand is applicable to me.”
6. Control. “The brand allows me control over when to engage.”
Again, those were from the customer’s perspective, not the brand’s.
So all of us began work on a heat map of our organization’s touch-points (web site, enewsletter, advertising, social, etc). From hot to cool, we created and colored a brand grid (based on how we thought our customers would color it).
Look at #1 – Valued.
Note, the word is not “Value.” Ergo, do we deliver value?
No, the customers said “Valued”: Does the brand (or service) make me feel valued?
The researchers had sliced and analyzed the data every which way, but “Valued” always rose to the top.
I suppose that should come as no surprise. But what is crazy is that a product brand is an inanimate object. Yet what consumers wanted most was for the inanimate object to make them feel valued.
It’s perplexing to think about that if you’re schlepping a product like a car battery or toilet paper.
But what if you’re selling more of a service? A university? A nonprofit? A wealth management firm?
How does what you do (and how that is visually expressed and messaged across your touch-points) make your constituents or clients feel valued?
Final, Nonlinear Thoughts
1. Maybe the more things change, the more things stay the same. Haven’t customers always wanted to feel valued?
2. Maybe successful organizations have always made their clients feel valued – whether intuitively or strategically.
3. Maybe we’re not really living in the Connection Society.
4. Maybe it’s the Quasi-Connection Society, where people are connected digitally (and thus artificially) but not really personally, which is what we crave, and
5. Maybe that’s why “Valued” is an important element to weigh as it relates to your brand.
There’s an age-old principle that to grow, an organization must first change or begin to change its culture.
The word culture is a fuzzy, hard-to-define term … until you experience the culture of the wrestling program at my son’s middle school.
Coach G runs a landscaping business by day, and by afternoon, he coaches middle-school wrestling.
Thirty years ago, he was a Pan American Games gold medalist, and he won state as a high-schooler.
He has street cred. He is gruff. Short. Yells a lot. And his Spanish accent creates even more urgency when he barks an order. He is your Alpha Male’s older brother.
The other day, I picked up my son after a 7 AM Saturday morning practice. My son didn’t have to be at the practice. He doesn’t wrestle varsity; he is only a sixth grader.
But when Cory showed up, the coach apologized that his varsity wrestler wasn’t there so Cory could wrestle him.
“The next time I see him, I’m going kick his mother- _______ ___.”
Yes, that phrase. To my 12 year old. Like the fathers and mothers of all wrestlers at the school, I coughed lightly and almost chortled when Cory relayed the story to me. I shrugged my shoulders.
Coach G is not your typical suburban authority figure. The other day he held a short, matter-of-fact parent meeting.
About half-way through, an 18-month-old began to cry. Coach G stopped his address to the parents, walked over to child and, in front of his mother, demanded that he stop crying. “You don’t cry when I’m talking.”
We all laughed uneasily. The kid stopped crying. And we felt thankful that Coach G is our coach. “That’s just Coach G.”
Everything is black and white
In no other suburban context would Coach G’s language, attitude, dictatorial stye of leadership work. And no full-time, District 200 coach/teacher could apply even one of Coach G’s motivational techniques.
But his teams win. The last two years the middle school varsity wrestling team did not lose a dual meet or tournament.
The boys both love and fear him. The parents see the experience as a kind of boy-to-man passage for their sons.
That is (one kind) of culture: Clear expectations, a loud voice, a dash of fear, and what a parent might call a “potty mouth.”
I wouldn’t like a steady diet of “Coach G culture.” And his approach, of course, would never work in two of my life spheres – business and marriage.
But Coach G is an effective parenting tool: When I’m exasperated with Cory, I now pull out the big stick:
“I’m going to tell Coach G.”
We now have a results-driven culture. At home.
Almost every conversation these days centers around business development.
How do we grow in this environment?
It’s not only the slow-growth environment. It’s also that every industry is filled with what Jack Trout (Positioning) called the “me too.”
One of our clients was the first in their space to develop practice management cloud software. Within a year or two, a bunch of start-ups crowded the space with similar cloud-based apps. Even the leader touted that its traditional server software had a cloud feature. It really didn’t. At least not at first.
That’s the me-too at work. The trade shows just keep getting bigger. More booths. More competitors. More of what’s new.
The apple pie never really gets larger (more prospects), it is just sliced up more thinly.
Often, an organization can fix this or that, and can solve the growth problem in the short-term.
But if the problem is survival (and not merely incremental growth), the firm may need more draconian action.
The Unfiltered Leader
Recently I bumped into a friend who works for a small organization on the West Coast that is bleeding at a rate of about $1MM a year. That, of course, is unsustainable. After you cut staff, cut marketing, cut travel, and cut morale, what’s next?
You could cut the bevy of vice presidents, but for family-owned businesses and nonprofits, that is usually not on the table.
But what if the ship is actually at risk.
In the October issue of the Harvard Business Review, the magazine interviewed Gautam Mukunda, who is a professor at Harvard Business School, and the author of Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter.
Based on his research, he says that you can put leaders into two buckets: filtered leaders and unfiltered leaders. Filtered leaders are groomed by the so-called succession plan and do all the perfect things to climb the corporate ladder. They listen to their executive coaches and package themselves for the next move up.
Mukunda says that such leaders “might be good, but they probably won’t be brilliant” (Harvard Business Review, October 2012, p. 30) And most of the time, these filtered, perfect-resume leaders won’t perform any better than the other four candidates who didn’t get the job. In short, they’re good at taking something successful and polishing the apple a bit.
It’s the unfiltered leaders, says Mukunda, that tend to excel. They are also huge risks. They tend not to have the perfect education or the experience for the job but either through fluke circumstances or being at the right place at the right time – they land the leadership role.
It’s one possible solution, right?
Mukunda says that experience and knowledge are “precisely what prevent you from approaching situations any differently than other experienced people would.” He says that filtered leaders make basically the same decisions: “Even if they’re good decisions, their leadership doesn’t have impact.”
Mukunda’s provocative quote is about Thomas Jefferson, a filtered leader: “He did a great job as president; he just didn’t matter that much.” (p. 30). Mukunda goes on to say that Madison or Adams could have been just as effective.
Abraham Lincoln, to state the obvious, was an unfiltered leader.
The boards of most organizations, of course, will never countenance an unfiltered leader. But in an environment of slow growth, decline, and unlimited competitors, or if the blood is gushing, it might be time to bring in the Philistine.
Heads may still need to roll, but reality might change for the good.
The Holy Grail for professional services firms and other organizations is the referral.
The answer to the question, “How do we land our next client, customer, or constituent?” is most often “Through a referral.”
The marketing question is “How do our marketing activities create the right perception for a referral?”
Here are some ways referrals happen:
1. An existing client refers you to a prospect.
2. A past client refers you to a prospect.
3. An executive from an existing client moves to a new firm and refers you to his or her new firm.
4. An executive from a past client moves to a new firm and refers you to his or her new firm.
5. A person who is an influencer in your channel but not an existing or past client refers you.
6. A person who is only vaguely familiar with your firm refers you, “I’ve heard good things about this firm.”
7. A competitor refers you to a prospect because the firm is not an expert in your specialty.
8. A person discovers your “ad” and contacts your organization. Most often, of course, the ad does not work in isolation. The ad was part of what is often called “brand awareness”; the ad simply triggered the response.
The “I Saw Your Ad” Referral
Just last week, I was in North Dakota and wanted to find a taxidermist. A friend had shot a pair of mallards; he wanted them mounted.
I grew up in North Dakota, but haven’t lived there for 25 years. My father didn’t have a referral.
But my father had a copy of The Yellow Pages in his truck, so I thumbed through it and called three taxidermists. No one picked up the phone at the first two, but the third call sounded promising.
(For starters, someone picked up the phone!)
We drove to the home of the taxidermist, he gave us a tour of his work, and my friend made the decision to use his services.
So, does that mean you should advertise in The Yellow Pages?
(“The Yellow Pages” is a metaphor for channel advertising.)
If you’re executing on the basics well, and you have some budget left, then yes. The ad is part of your overall story.
But if you’re muddled on your basic messaging strategy, if you’re not educating your pool (see above) of potential referral sources well, if you’re not publishing in your industry rags or speaking to your existing database with thoughtful content, then no.
In the “Hierarchy of Marketing Needs,” advertising is not at the bottom of the pyramid, not the basic building block. (There may be exceptions to this, of course, but certainly not the pattern.) Advertising is at the top of the pyramid. It’s at the top not because it’s top priority.
Do the basics well. Then see if advertising is necessary.
Indiscriminate advertising is the luxury of organizations that don’t need to measure results..
Final thought: If you decide to advertise, make sure you push people back to a landing page on your site to capture their data. Give them a reason to join your cause or service.
With four kids still in the house, I should have George on retainer.
George, our plumber, looks like a cross between cartoon character Bluto, Popeye’s nemesis, and an aging Harley rider.
George’s all-white hair is tied back behind his head in a pony tail. He looks like a “rode hard 55-year-old.”
My Free Consult
I was writing my second check to George in the month of September when he asked, “Should I spend money on advertising?”
He wanted some free marketing advice. While I had to pay for his services.
I asked a few questions. George said he is as busy as he wants to be, after 30 years in the business.
“Are you advertising now?”
“Yes, I’m on Angie’s List, and I take out ads in The Yellow Pages and joined the Better Business Bureau. But that is expensive.”
The Yellow Pages? I thought. Is that still in existence?
“How big is your database of customers?” I asked.
“Thousands. And we have all their information.”
“Are you doing anything for them on a monthly basis?”
His response was classic. He had thirty-years worth of satisfied customers and referral sources. His business is 100% referrals and repeat customers.
And he is advertising in The Yellow Pages?
While doing nothing for the hundreds (thousands?) of folks who love and refer him.
Bottom of the Pyramid
I often find George’s response typical of companies, whether large or small, profit or nonprofit.
Organizations agonize over what I call “channel presence” marketing (booths at trade shows, advertising in trade pubs, billboards, social and web advertising, and public relations). No doubt building a channel presence is mission critical.
There are only two marketing questions, “What percentage of our budget should we be spending on marketing?” and “What should we spend it on for the best results?”
Most marketing strategy is like a pyramid. At the very bottom is the ongoing messaging to your “database”: customers/clients, prospects, media, and other industry leaders.
Because if you’re not doing that well, you’re missing out on the one marketing activity that costs you the least and generates the most results. Especially for professional services firms (consulting, financial services, accounting, legal, healthcare, software-as-services companies, etc).
Every other metric of marketing is one percent.
Direct mail, print and web advertising, and almost every other kind of advertising has a one percent or less result. All your money is spent trying to arrest the attention of new people in your channel.
At a one percent hit rate.
Here was my advice:
“Begin small. Design a simple postcard or other creative print piece. On one side, add some helpful content. For example, ‘3 Signs That Your Water Heater Needs to Be Replaced.’ On the other side simply say, ‘Thank you for your business. And thank you for your referrals. We would love a referral from you.’
“Then, after someone writes you a check for your service, say thanks, and hand him or her the card.
“Every couple months, change the helpful tip on the back of the card.”
I thought about recommending a system to track referrals. Adding a discount offer for referrals. But didn’t. Too complicated. George needed a baby step. George didn’t even have a web site.
I thought George would be so grateful for my brilliant consulting that he would at least give me a discount.
He seemed grateful.
But there was no discount.
I wandered in the desert professionally during my twenties. I started out on the road to becoming Clergy.
Then I took a hard right.
I landed my first professional editorial job when I was 29. I started out as an assistant editor at a magazine, and I learned quickly the humility that comes from a colleague’s redline. In professional publishing, all egos submit to the Editor (and his or her ego).
I once heard the editor from the Texas Monthly say, “In our office, even with all our staff, there are really only two positions: The Editor. And “Not the Editor.”
In short, the Editor is Deity.
And there’s nothing like learning editorial judgment and writing skills directly from the Deity Himself. (In my case, the Deity was male.)
Your writing gets slashed and burned. And you like it. Or you learn to like it. In time, you begin to disabuse yourself of the notion that you can write.
That is the beginning of wisdom.
Can you stomach a little criticism?
Writing is a craft, and it requires many years as an apprentice. No matter your rank, a stiff redline from a colleague keeps your prose honest. It is a gift that, if ignored, puts the reader in peril.
Effective writing is not the purview of an Ivy League pedigree. Think of these high school graduates only: Hemingway and Faulkner.
Writing is learned. And arrogant, temperamental people cannot learn how to write well. (Okay, so it worked for Hemingway, but …)
Most writers (executives, blogging housewives, would-be authors) struggle with what I call “voice.” That is, their writing has none. The prose has no cadence. No rhythm. A monotone voice throughout. Long sentence after long sentence. Sure, it may be grammatically correct, but who cares?
Maybe only your high school teacher. Who couldn’t write either.
A new book called Several Short Sentences about Writing (Verlyn Klinkenborg) strips back all the advice about writing to the bone: how to write a short sentence. Klinkenborg is a member of the editorial board of the New York Times and has a Ph.D. from Princeton. Here is an excerpt:
Why short sentences?
They’ll sound strange for a while until you can learn what they’re capable of.
But they carry you back to prose you can control,
To a stage in your education when your diction – your vocabulary – was under control, too.
Short sentences make it easier to examine the properties of a sentence.
(Learn to diagram sentences. It’s easy.)
They help eliminate transitions.
They make ambiguity less likely and easier to detect.
If you are looking to improve your writing, practice creating shorter sentences.
Take one long sentence and create two.
Your fellow executives or clients or employees may not thank you, but they’ll read you.
Of course you should.
But everyone now wants to be like Steve Jobs. Build a company on brand values – what Steve wants. And they will come.
There is some nuanced thinking on this, and the Harvard Business Review recently published a great quote from one of the executives of the Cirque du Soleil.
“Any innovative company struggles with how much to listen to customers,” wrote Marlo D’Amico, senior vice president of marketing at Cirque du Soleil. “Most realize that you can’t trust them to tell you what your new product will be …
“But companies that want to grow as they innovate often need to change the way they do things. When you’re small and local, you don’t worry about getting to know your customers better. When you need to sell 100,000 tickets a week and market to people who don’t know you or your product, it’s a different story.
“When I joined Cirque de Soleil, we had seven shows Now we have 21. Our scale requires that we know our audience.” (Harvard Business Review, September 2012, p. 132.)
D’Amico goes on to say that they use research to “brief the creative team, to help them understand who’s applauding when the curtain goes down.”
Final line: “We want them [the creative team] to be innovative while still ensuring that our product lives up to its promise.”
Neil Armstrong died last week, and his passing reminded me of something I heard him say several years back.
Armstrong was, of course, the first person to set foot on the moon. After the landing, Armstrong retreated into the cultural background.
Several years ago, I attended a conference at which he was the keynote. Apparently, it was one of his first public appearances in years.
One of the big unknowns, he said, was the moon dust: No one knew how deep it was.
One fear was that when the Lunar Module landed, it might disappear into the dust. Was the dust on the surface of the moon an inch deep or 100 feet deep?
Of course, it turned out that the dust was an inch or less. And the landing went off as planned.
In every new venture, there is the “How deep is the dust?” question. It is the unanswerable question.
It’s important to know the question. And to design contingencies for what might go wrong.
But just know that the question cannot be answered until the Lunar Module touches down.
Consumers can make brands do good. Or even do the right thing.
That is at the heart of Consumer Republic, the recent book by Bruce Philp, co-author of The Orange Code.
In this brief interview, Bruce touches on the promise of the social world that grants new powers to consumers. You can read Philp’s blog at http://brandcowboy.blogspot.com/ or purchase his new book or ebook at http://tinyurl.com/8ublx5u.
Brand & Strategy: Do brands really have power through story to persuade consumers?
I resist the simple idea of storytelling, because it seems backward. From my perspective, storytelling is more of a scattering of evidence that the consumer finds on his or her journey to the decision.
So what is storytelling?
What we call engagement really has to do with the journey the consumer is on and where they are on that journey—and how we, as marketers, can be useful to them. We need to consider the principle of a purchase decision, which is not an event but a culmination of a process.
A lot of the time, that process begins with desire.
Take, for instance, buying a car.
There’s the moment when you realize your lease is up in six months. You start thinking of what you want to drive next; then comes the point when the lease is actually up, and you start your homework. Then it’s time to shop around, then test drive, and then sign the papers and drive the car off the lot.
At each of those phases, a consumer’s attitude shifts. You become more judgmental as you progress, building in more of a filter. At each step along the way, media radically changes and influences the consumer uniquely. At the beginning of that process, a consumer may be wide open to an awesome TV commercial with rolling footage of a beautiful car on rolling California highway. Much later in the process, the consumer may be attentive to newspaper ads that have lease rates highlighted, where previously she wouldn’t have noticed.
When I talk about story, I’m talking about making sure there is something discoverable and relevant in every step of that process.
What is the crossover to the social space?
It has to do with encountering the story right away.
That, in part, is determined by how many others have encountered the story in the past and how critical they found that story to be. When Google serves up the answer to your question, “How fast is a Honda Civic?” the first answers that pop up are going to be influenced by commercial tactics (display ads), but also by people like you who were looking for that information, too.
So a lot that is happening socially is a consequence of our behavior versus something we can direct tactically.
We have to fight the faddish tendency to think that social media is going to take over from advertising. It’s not. It’s going to let us carry the ball further down the field
This all ties back to data. Can data quantify who I am as a human being and how I relate to a brand?
I have a two-part response to this question.
Really, since the late 1990s we’ve subscribed to the fantasy that if we have enough data and if we know how to use it, then we will be able to send signals to individual consumers that are so personalized customers will find us irresistible.
It turns out humans don’t really work that way. It turns out the Internet may not always be the best means to do it, especially if it is meant to create desire. The Internet is a brilliant tool for monetizing desire, but it doesn’t do an effective job of creating it in the first place.
Market reach, I predict, is going to make a comeback and create an opportunity for traditional media to deliver. And this goes back to buyer behavior modeling: There’s no business without desire and that is still usually a passively acquired thing.
The second part of it?
Since the 80s we’ve been drifting away from brands that built themselves on what consumers need and towards those that define themselves in accordance with a set of values they hope consumers will find attractive.
That’s a vectoring idea!
I see it swinging toward the corporation being more attractive to the consumer as opposed to the corporation pandering to the consumer.
Isn’t it values that we are attracted to?
Yes, I think it is. Maybe I’m just older than today’s marketing exec, but I can remember thinking, If we listen really hard to consumers, we can figure out what they want and they will come.
But if you look at a lot of the brands that we love, admire, and bring up as examples to follow, they are totally values-driven brands. Apple doesn’t give a damn who you are. They implicitly say, “This is our belief system regarding computers. If you share that belief system, then you are one of us.”
I’d argue that Nike at their height was the same way. Quietly, Proctor & Gamble has gone this way. P&G was built entirely on functional superiority at a product level, but since the mid 1990s they have fought to define their brand around a mission statement rather than function.
Value creation is not happening at product innovation or by carefully listening to consumer needs. It’s happening at the hands of organizations purposing themselves towards making people’s lives better.
I recently purchased a few shares of Facebook for $28, and two weeks later the stock was at $20. As I write, the stock is at $21.
Facebook’s sagging stock symbolizes the social industry’s continued quest for a financial model.
In contrast, the hubbub about NBC and how it won’t stream Olympic events live because of the ad dollars during prime time confirms that the so-called “old world advertising model” is still very much alive.
TV content + big brand advertising dollars = a business model.
Many organizations are still trying to integrate social (with no revenue connection) with their overall marketing. They’ve added staff (mostly likely twentysomethings) or outsourced the activity, and ask, “So what?”
Enter “content marketing.” One of the means to leverage your social presence.
Content marketing is defined as the “technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”
Most organizations have been doing that for years with print publications, newsletters, and enewsletters. Think: McKinsey Quarterly, the publication of McKinsey & Company.
The Content Continuum
Content, though, is not limited to articles: it may be a thought (Twitter’s 140 characters), a video (short and long), a book, an e-book, whitepapers, a conference, or even images (photography).
I have observed recently quite a few organizations investing in creating (not just sponsoring) educational conferences. That is, instead of putting up big bucks to sponsor or advertise at an industry conference, they create their own.
The fox is putting on a conference for the hens at the hen house.
We all know that there is a big difference between marketing and sales, and that the sale (the decision to attend a college, purchase executive coaching services, engage a wealth management firm, or buy software) happens within a context, a story, a longer conversation.
Marketing is all about creating the context (the “narrative”) for the sale (the membership, the donation, the visit, the purchase).
Now, of course, with social, the appetite for fresh content is even more voracious. So many of those I follow on Twitter wind up tweeting the same story or versions of the same story.
There is a need for fresh, engaging content.
What expertise do you have that could be packaged and distributed to your prospects?
My only advice: Be original.
One of my best friends has two boys (and two daughters). All in their late teens or twenties. The boys are big. One plays Division 1 football. He is really Big.
Plus, my friend who has Big Boys also has a brother (also Big) with a Big Boy. It’s a Clan of Bigness. I am not Big.
So, last week, while vacationing together in Colorado, the Big Family of Boys visited a tourist town.
They stopped by a store that specializes in knives – hunting knives, carving knives, pocket knives. Several years earlier, one of the Big Boys had purchased a knife from the store. So, you could say, the Big Boys were customers, or at least past customers.
My Flashers Are On
The Big Boys visited the knife store on a Thursday, and the next day as they drove through the small town, they pulled up at a stop sign on a side street behind the store. The only car on the side street was a parked SUV with its flashers on.
My friend was driving.
At the stop sign, my friend waited until the other Big Boys piled out of the car to walk to a malt shop next to the knife store.
Almost immediately, the SUV flashed its headlights and roared up beside the my friend’s car after all the Big Boys had jumped out and crossed to the other side of the intersection.
Maybe 30 seconds had passed.
Instead of speaking to my friend in the car, the Man in the SUV rolled down the window and spoke to one of the young Big Boys:
“Don’t you know you can’t park there?”
“My Dad isn’t parking there. He just stopped at the stop sign and waited for us to get out of the car.”
“You can’t park there,” the now Angry Man in the SUV said.
The Big Boy repeated his answer.
“What do you think you are, some kind of smart guy?” said the Angry Man in the SUV.
The Big Boy said, “No, I’m just telling you that he wasn’t parked there.”
Another of the Big Boys (in the group of Big Boys) said, “Lighten up, sir. We were just unloading passengers.”
Then the Angry Man in the SUV used a four letter-word that started with the sixth letter of the alphabet. He then sped away.
Point of the Story: If you have the Big Logo of your store on your SUV, be kind to the people within 20 yards of your store.
They may be customers.
Maybe he was the ne’er-do-well son of the owner.
I grew up in the Dakotas. Both North and South Dakota. My grandfather homesteaded more than 75 years ago in north central South Dakota. I graduated from high school in South Dakota.
So what comes to mind when I think of the town, Sturgis, South Dakota?
Sturgis, of course, is known for bikers. Not bicyclers. Bikers. Harley Dudes. And Harley Dudettes. One summer weekend a year, thousands and thousands still pilgrimage to the desolate stretch of real estate in the southwestern part of the state.
Where and when I grew up, bikers symbolized lasciviousness, wretched excess, and danger. Yes, danger.
My fear is immortalized in one of the scenes in the movie Wild Hogs – I accidentally push over a row of Harley Davidson’s in front of a biker bar.
The day before the Fourth of July, I was at Panera Bread. Power was out at home and office. It was about 100 degrees.
Next to my table was a man in his mid to late fifties, with a Harley Davidson tee shirt and red, white, and blue bandana around his head. I’m sure he was bald. His paunch was larger than mine. And he was eating a salad: the Strawberry Poppyseed and Chicken Salad.
I tried not to stare. And not to chortle, thinking about my ’70s and early ’80s image of bikers.
The only thing that scared me about this biker was that he might clutch his heart while taking a bite on a strawberry and I might have to revive him.
The story of Harley Davidson and its ability to create a tribe, a sense of identity among its customers, is legendary and almost a cliche in marketing literature.
I certainly can’t add to the insights, other than to say that when a conversion occurs, the identity takes on a life of its own. One of the tribe ends up wearing the tribal tee shirt and bandana while eating a foo-foo salad in an upscale suburb. Once you go tribal, I guess, you never go back.
I thought quite a bit about the tribes to which I belong … I like the Fender Stratocaster®. I like Mesa Boogie amps. I like Taylor acoustic guitars. I like Orvis fly-fishing rods. I like Benelli shotguns. I like Hondas.
I might wear the tee shirt, but never the bandana. Just saying. Maybe not every customer is Tribe material.
Summer means ice cream. Or, in my case, more ice cream.
However, I just discovered that our downtown ice cream shop was sold in the off season. New owners.
A few weeks ago (early June) my son and I drove home from his baseball game and made the ice cream pilgrimage near Main Street.
But when we arrived, a note on the door of the business said the family was on a mission trip and would be back in a few days.
Early June. And the new owners are gone on a mission trip. During baseball season.
A friend told me he thought that it was so cool that the family was on a mission trip.
I thought more selfishly.
A few days later, I headed back to pick up some ice cream for my kids. My wife was in Sweden at the time, and I was desperate for an emotional lift in the house. I needed a win. The inmates were scaling the walls.
This time, there was no Blue Moon ice cream, what my youngest son had requested. He groused about the sherbert I brought home for him: “I hate sherbert!”
Such an ingrate!
The next time, a few days ago, there was still no Blue Moon ice cream. Out of it. Check back in a few days.
New owners. Same store. New set of values.
I recently heard a great quote from an executive who consults with family businesses: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast every day.”
That is, the culture (invisible, squishy, often so undefined for many organizations) is the single biggest determiner in shaping how your organization is perceived.
No matter what you say on your web site and in your advertising, or in the social-phere, your customer always experiences the Truth of what you say is important.
However, I’m still cheering for the home-town ice cream shop.
He published a book called Shooting in the Wild that exposed some of the environmental film industry’s secrets. Palmer is a professor at American University and an environmental filmmaker.
Published by Sierra Club Books, Shooting in the Wild makes you think twice about the moving image of the grizzly bear splashing across the mountain stream.
According to Palmer, most likely the filming crew captured the sound of the water dripping from the bear’s claws by miking a water basin and recording splashing sounds made by the director himself.
In contrast, wildlife watching is boring, and frequently, nothing happens. And certainly the audio is not crisp. I once had an elk calf saunter up to me on a high mountain ridge, curious at the intruder. I could have touched its nose with my hand. But there was no audio. Or at least none that I remember. I was more worried about its mother, wondering if I was about to be blindsided.
Perhaps Palmer’s most devastating quote: “If you see a bear feeding on a deer carcass in a film, it is almost certainly a tame bear searching for jelly beans in the entrails of the deer’s stomach.”
Needless to say, some of Palmer’s industry colleagues were not amused at his depiction of the Truth.
One said, “It’s always real behavior and real biology. Our goal is to tell a true story.”
One temptation in telling your organization’s story is to fudge a bit. Be bigger than you are. Over-promise on what you actually deliver.
I get that. I understand that. Sell the sizzle. That’s 101.
But there is something powerful in the true Truth. And only your clients or customers can vouch for the veracity of your story.
It’s always much harder to live out an authentic story than it is to tell one.
A week ago, one of the neighbor’s two athletic pit bulls bounded over the three-and-half foot fence in our backyard.
I was on my computer in our dining room facing the window to the backyard. I heard some commotion.
I looked up to see the pit bull with its jaws around the throat of our Golden Retriever. I screamed something forgettable as I darted for the back door, looking for something to club the pit bull. I meant to kill the dog. I grabbed a folder chair sitting against the wall in the kitchen and headed out the door. Our dog Zoey would have been dead in minutes.
Fortunately, just as I bolted through the door, the pit bull’s owner grabbed the collar of her dog. The owner also had hopped the fence in pursuit of her wayward dog.
Then, I realized that our three-and-half-year-old daughter was also in the back yard. She was safe.
I can’t remember another time in my recent past when I’ve been so amped up. Blood from our dog’s lip, eye, and ear streaked her coat and stained our hands.
I stormed back into the house and called 911. The neighbor was fined $25, but the police said, essentially, that unless the pit bull draws blood from a human, not much would happen.
The incident led me to confront the veterinarian who had cared for one of our other dogs, which had died about a year and a half earlier.
Like a Really Bad Habit
By noon of the next day, Zoey’s eye was draining and started to swell. The eye was infected. The pit-bull attack had punctured her left eyelid. I also realized that I had let Zoey’s rabies and distemper shots lapse.
The reason was because I had been so angry with the veterinarian clinic to which we had taken our dogs for almost 14 years. I had not been to the (or any) clinic since.
When our other golden (Cassidy) died, the doctors did the unforgivable: Instead of telling us the truth (that our dog needed to be put down), they took our money.
The vet recommended keeping Cassidy on IVs in the animal hospital for three days. I picked up the dog at 4, and she died two hours later at 6. The bill was about $650.
I was done with the clinic.
But here I was. I needed a vet to examine Zoey. I had not researched another clinic, and now I was in crisis mode.
Like the compulsion that makes me reach for a second bowl of ice cream, I picked up the phone and made the appointment. To the same veterinarian clinic.
What Telling the Truth Will Get You
On the drive over, I justified to myself why I was off the wagon. I steeled myself, determined I would tell the truth to one of the veterinarians. I’d tell him or her my reason for not being a customer for a year and half.
So, after the vet looked over Zoey, I said, “We haven’t brought Zoey back since Cassidy died.”
No comment. Nothing. Silence. I expected, “Really? Why’s that?”
So I proceeded.
“We brought Cassidy in right before she died,” I said. “You put her on IVs for several days, but when I took her home, we had to call a visiting veterinarian to our house to put her down. I wished you had been more honest with us, instead of taking our money.”
Again, only silence. This time, it was an awkward silence.
The next thing I know, the vet says, “Zoey looks good. You can pick her up in a couple hours.”
That was it.
I took away three principles from that conversation:
1) You can run a business for a long time and not really listen to your clients/customers. And get away with it, contrary to conventional “the customer is always right” wisdom.
2) A long-term customer will often give you several chances to make amends. All you have to do is listen. (And maybe grunt even once to acknowledge the frustration.)
3) I am a slug. Though I would never refer the clinic, I may stay simply because I am a lazy.
(By the way, we now have a baseball bat sitting in the corner by our back door.)
Every organization has at least two stories playing out on different planes.
The first is the daily story of landing new customers or clients, and keeping the promises made in the sales process.
It’s a somewhat mundane story. Simple blocking and tackling. Make promises. Deliver.
I liken it to the predictability of TV crime shows. The first movement of every episode begins with a murder. The second movement parades the list of possible suspects. And the one who always looks the most suspicious in this movement is never the criminal.
The third movement is the set of circumstances that lead to solving the crime. Voila!
The Other Narrative
Often, though, there is a larger story, played out on a meta-level. And it’s this narrative that can disrupt the other story.
In both Person of Interest and The Mentalist on CBS, for example, there is not merely one storyline: preventing a murder or solving a murder.
There are two.
The local narrative always is the trouble at hand – solving the crime.
The other, larger narrative creates ongoing tension, which is not fully resolved in individual episodes. The meta-tension ebbs and flows throughout the season.
For example, in The Mentalist, the larger narrative is the ongoing duel between the serial killer Red John, and the main character of the show, Patrick Jane. He is an independent consultant for a fictionalized version of the California Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Years earlier, Red John allegedly murdered Patrick Jane’s wife and daughter, and Patrick’s work with the CBI is in part a way to work out his grief while also being able to pursue Red John.
The tension is heightened in some episodes when Red John kills again and paints a smiley face in blood at the scene, taunting Patrick.
Red John is the greater evil that drives Patrick to do what he does – and ties together the episodes, even if Red John is not mentioned in an episode.
Red John is invisible. Never seen. And creates another layer of tension to the episodes.
What’s Your Larger Narrative?
For some organizations, the larger narrative creates the wrong kind of tension, disrupting the so-called smaller story.
In fact, the smaller story should be the driving narrative – the customer narrative.
Many of the problems in the customer narrative are solvable with a modicum of strategy and execution.
But when the larger organizational story makes executing on the other story impossible, then most efforts to grow, to stop the bleeding, or to move in a new direction fail.
I suppose the wrong kind of tension is always created when the leader fails to lead in one way or another, and tolerates a culture of fear or sinecure to flourish. That is classic.
But I’ve been wondering about the good kind of tension, which helps to move along the customer narrative. What is that?
It’s an ugly, six syllable word. It does not roll off the tongue. It contorts the mouth even to say it.
Its definition is intuitively obvious: of or pertaining to, or arising through the action of many factors.
In plain English: “It’s more complicated than originally thought.”
Pharmacogenetics for Cro-Magnons
I heard my younger brother Matt, a research oncologist, use the word in a sentence to explain to me why cancer research is so complex. He specializes in pharmacogenetics.
(Which, to my Cro-Magnon brain, sounds awfully close to the word Walgreens, where I pick up my family’s medications. But I digress.)
In genetics, multifactorial refers to the many factors that cause a disease, including the interaction of genes as well as environmental factors.
One of the assumptions of early cancer research was that, ultimately, a single cure (read: drug) would be found. I don’t know that any scientist believes that anymore. Instead, there eventually may be as many drug variations as there are humans. Each human is unique and seems to respond to the toxicity or efficacy of drugs uniquely. There’s no one drug for everyone. It may end up that everyone with cancer needs a Drug for One.
Silver bullet myth
The word is also relevant when thinking about growth.
Just recently, my firm completed a project for a client with the goal of creating a plan to increase attendance at one of its conferences by 20 percent. We looked at retention data for the previous 10 years, conducted an online study of constituents, and then interviewed both recent and long-term attenders. We even located some retention data from a competitor conference.
The results of the research confirmed once again the deep truth that rarely is there “one thing,” especially for an already successful conference. There was no silver bullet.
Instead, there were several reasons why growth had plateaued. Multifactorial.
Thus, what creates new branches of growth is almost always more complicated than originally thought. It’s a snap if there is only one obvious lever to pull.
But multiple levers create complexity. And a 20 percent increase is a big number.
Generally, marketing can contribute only a little to that big of a bump in growth. Something needs to change fundamentally within the organization for a 20 percent rise in attendance.