Wednesday, January 30, 2013

How To Say No and Why You Need to Learn To Do It More

Just Say No.

No.  Two letters.  Takes about a 10th of a second to say it.  (and no, I didn’t time that).  Such a simple thing.  Most children actually learn to say no before they learn to say yes.  So why do we have such a hard time with it?

Make no mistake.  I don’t.  In fact, I’m better at “no” than just about anyone I know.  I don’t know why. Many years ago I think I just figured out that it was easier to say no then to try any of the other strategies our culture has spawned to take its place.  

“Want to go to the polka night at Accordion Dave’s?”
“Can I think about it and call you later?”

“I’ve been thinking about it and I would love to join you in your business!”
“Wow ... that’s a great idea.  I just need to figure out how to fit you in.”

“I know you charge $5,000 for this, let’s just settle on $3500 and be done with it.”
“Uh, well, I mean, that’s hard, but, uh ... well, ok.”

“Did you like my display of bed bug art?”
“Yes!  So much!  I really thought it was amazing.”

It’s true, right?  Funny how many permutations “no” can take, from basic delaying tactics to flat out yeses.  I just think “no” is easier.  I don’t have to think about how I’m going to get out of accordion night later on.  I don’t have to fret about how to let this poor person who has no ability to be in my business but who thinks it would be fun down. I don’t regret selling my services for less than they’re worth.

The problem is that in our present culture, for some reason we have decided that saying no to someone is mean.  Frankly, I think saying yes and meaning no is meaner.  How much does it hurt the bed bug artist to find out that you hung their original artwork on the back of your storage unit?

Try it.  Take a moment.  Take a deep breath.  Form the word in your mind.  Now, slowly and quietly so no one can hear you, say it.  “No.”  Do it again.  Ah.  Don't you feel better?

My friends know that when I say yes I mean yes and when I say no I mean no.  It’s nice.  They don’t have to guess.  They’re used to it.  I think, like good fences make good neighbors, that good noes make good friendships.

In business sometimes it’s harder.  If you say no they may go away.  They may.  But is that really such a bad thing?  

In conversations I hear a lot of people actually talk themselves into yeses from what would have been firm noes.  (and then complaining about it later).  This is because we so fear hurting the person asking that we start out our no with a long "yesy" preamble.  

“Gosh, accordion night sounds so great!  That’s so cool that you do that.  That would be such fun.”  These are all phrases we like to put in front of our noes to soften the blow.  But when the asker interrupts us and says, “Wow, I’ve been looking for someone else who likes the accordion,” and stares longingly into your eyes, well, you’re off to hear three uninterrupted hours of polka.

It is much easier to make your first phrase your no phrase and you can actually do it without being insulting.  “You know what, I’ve never really liked either polka or the accordion and i think you’d have way more fun being there with someone who does.”

“Gosh, I’d love to do $3500 for you but I simply can’t.  The work that goes into what you’re asking for breaks out at $5000 for me and when I do projects at a discount I always resent it in the process.”

“Whatever possessed you to make bedbugs your medium?  I think it’s awesome that you’re doing your own thing and I’d love to see it out of curiosity, but I can promise you that it will give me the creeps.”

Next time someone asks you one of those questions that instantly brings the cold fear of no-ness into your bones try just saying no.  You might surprise yourself.  It’s easier than you think.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

New World Marketing Newsflash. It Isn't All About the Internet.

Whenever I talk with small businesses about marketing in today's environment, the conversation always turns more or less immediately to Facebook.  "I know Jim," a local restauranteur said to me one day, "we've got to get on the Facebook. That's where everybody is these days."

I laughed.  The answer is a little more complex than that.  Yes, everybody is on "the Facebook" (or most are), but everybody is also in your restaurant or your small business.  Every encounter is an opportunity to foster connection and every time this connection is not fostered is an opportunity missed.  This is probably the biggest thing that people don't understand about marketing in the new world.

We live in a culture that has changed dramatically over the last ten years.  We are online more.  We have hundreds of 'friends' in our social media portals.  If we choose to, we can literally chat with different people all day long.  This connectedness has not driven people away from each other as some early sociologists suspected it would.  In fact, if anything it has created a deeper need for real connection and businesses that learn to respond to this need are finding real success and growth (and in surprising ways, a much more rewarding experience then the simple monetary success measures of the past).

The real idea isn't to create an online billboard that someone might see.  It is to provide opportunities for people to connect.  While these opportunities may be extended online, in most situations they start in person.  Savvy businesses are using these opportunities as ways to increase the connection with their clients and in this day and age, connected clients quickly become interested evangelists for the business.

Have I lost you yet?  Here are some examples of some of these kinds of opportunities.

  1. A local restaurant that is typically closed on Monday nights has special dinners for regulars only (by invitation) exploring new dishes, wines, etc., about once every three months.  The customers pay to attend, these are not free, although the restaurant's goal is to break even as opposed to turning a profit.  The managers, owners and key wait staff are more free to chat with their customers (and often, even eat with them) and the chef or "wine guy" gets a chance to be out from behind the counter or bar to answer questions, chat about ideas, etc.  The customers who attend feel special and they naturally post their thoughts about these events online.
  2. A friend who is a CPA hosts an evening of wine and cheese for his clients at a local hotel and uses the evening to walk through changes in tax law, healthcare, investing, etc.  Giving his clients a deeper understanding of their options and preparing them in advance for what is ahead.
  3. A quilting service in a small town in Wisconsin hosts events where local enthusiasts can come to the shop to compare notes and techniques with others in their area.
  4. An Alabama based photographer hosts evenings or weekends for clients with cameras, teaching them how to take better pictures.
Wait, what?  Doesn't that last one drive that customer away from the business?  I mean, they'll start taking pictures of their own and decide they don't need the business anymore.  That's crazy talk.

But it's not.  In each of these cases the business is creating opportunities that personalize the interaction between the business and its customers.  This personalization is connection and carrying that connection into online interaction is really effortless, in whatever medium works best.  This is rewarding because these 'customers' are no longer just customers.  They're truly friends.

So effective new world marketing isn't simply a process of establishing a social media presence.  It is a process of giving old, new and regular customers chances to connect with the people in the business and then knowing that with the ease of social media access these connections will naturally turn into advertisement in its purest form, endorsement.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Why Your Business is Dying and What to Do About It.

“I don’t get it Jim.  I’m just not getting the business I used to.  I don’t know if it’s the recession or what but the phone’s just not ringing as much.  I may have to shut down my business.  (and the problem with that is that I just have no idea what I would do next!)”

Over the course of the last four months I’ve heard quotes and comments like this more than I’ve ever heard them before.  Once thriving small businesses are dying.  Proprietors are trying all of the tricks, but nothing seems to work.  Is the business dead, or is there something they haven’t tried?  Can I help?

The first thing I say in any of these situations is pretty simple.  Business is business.  It has to start and end there.  I know, for many, it’s not as simple as that.  Their business isn’t just their business, it’s their life.  Their dream was to pass it on to their kids.  It is their endowment to their world.  The thing is that while it may feel that way to you, to most of the folks who walk through the door it’s a business.  The first step to the next step is to take a deep breath and see the business through their eyes.  The stunning realization that comes after that is, sometimes, that the business in its original form is dead.  The world moved on.  The business did not.  It’s time to move on.  

More often though, to borrow a line from “The Princess Bride,” the business isn’t actually dead, it’s “only mostly dead,”  and as Billy Crystal put it, “there is a big difference!”  Sadly, there isn’t a gigantic pill to swallow to bring it back, but if you had the energy to start the business in the first place, chances are, you’ll have the energy to bring it back.  You just have to be prepared to change.

The most common mistake small businesses make is stagnancy.  The business is started and the founder/owner puts all of their creative energy into growing it and making it a success. Adjustments are made to tailor the business to customers’ needs and wishes.  The business begins to succeed.  The founder/owner continues to serve customers with passion.  It’s fun, a dream fulfilled.

Then one day the business owner realizes that profits are down.  When the world outside is complaining about recession it’s easy to assume that’s the problem.  Of course profits are down.  “It’s the economy stupid.”  But what if it’s not?

In these cases there are two critical things the owner must do to revive their business.  The most important is to interact with customers.  Get in touch with the regulars, or the regulars of the past.  Take them to coffee.  Ask them what they think about the business.  Listen.  Be ready to change.  That all small businesses get the lion’s share of their new customers via word of mouth is axiomatic.  If your ‘regulars’ aren’t excited about your business, you can bet they won’t be talking about it.  If they aren’t excited now, what would they be excited about?  How can you make the business more convenient, more relevant, more inline with what is needed today?  No better person to ask than a customer.  When they begin to see changes, they’ll tell their friends.

The second critical thing is to gain an understanding of how the new world of marketing works.  Wait - don’t jump ship.  This doesn’t mean you have to establish a Pinterest page or learn to tweet (though you may), but it does mean that if you are still relying on that yellow pages ad then you’re in trouble, even if it comes with a “free web listing” and “listings on all of the major search engines.”  The new world of marketing isn’t about the internet.  The internet is just a tool.  The new world of marketing is about connection.  There are many ways that you can drive connection without ever logging on.  

Let’s talk about that tomorrow.

Friday, December 21, 2012

What's Next is What's Important

Many people have asked what the next thing may be for me.  While I am not yet ready to name it specifically I will say that I’ve made some pretty big decisions and that it’s time to return to my roots in serving small business and rather than taking over an existing company, this time I am working with some like-minded friends to found our own.

We had a long meeting a few days ago and those who know me know that if I am going to stick around for a long meeting the subject matter will be something that is near and dear to my heart.  It is true.  I have a deeply rooted respect for the folks with the courage to found and stick with small businesses of all kinds and have successfully built companies whose specific focus is to find ways to help these businesses succeed.  This new company will capitalize on what I and the folks who are partnering with me have learned along the way.

In our meeting we came up with several core assumptions describing why we are doing what we’re doing.  These assumptions are:

  1. The choice to start a small business is not due to failure in a large one, but rather vision and drive to pursue one’s individual dream.
  2. The pursuit of that dream is a lonely one and success is rooted in an effective support system.
  3. Small business people are visionary experts in their chosen field of practice.
  4. The only effective way to serve small business is through connection and collaboration.
  5. Small business people don’t need tools, they need solutions.
  6. The internet creates leverage-able crossroads for efficient communication.
  7. Readily available, best-of-breed solutions are more than sufficient to serve most small business needs.
  8. Time is any small business person's most important asset.

The business built around these assumptions will leverage today’s workforce in ways that directly address the characteristics of the emerging working generation.  The founders understand and respect the desire for flexibility and the opportunity to pursue one’s own dreams while at the same time creating meaningful value for the company and its customers through focused and efficient contribution at work.  Rather than having to change an existing culture to address these needs we have the benefit of establishing a culture that leverages them.

The business built around these assumptions understands that it’s path to success is directly tied to the success of its customers.  It is built to leverage the recommendations of its existing customers as its primary new customer acquisition channel.  It is built to be responsive to customer feedback, with an understanding that our customers know their needs better than we ever will.  It is built with ears to hear and eyes to see these challenges as opportunities for the creation of new and better solutions and it is built with a core belief that relentless refinement, invention and reinvention will pave the way to success.

I am excited about the coming year.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

When the good things come to an end ...

If there are good reasons why some people die and others live I would love to know what they are.  Too often in my experience it isn’t just the good people, but the best people who seem to go young.  With too much of life before them they’re gone.  I have to admit, it makes me wonder.

Don Rhymer is such a man.  Giving without needing thanks.  Funny, but always in a self effacing way.  I wish I’d known him longer.  Knowing him made me a better person.  He’d hate hearing that.  It’s how he was wired.  It was never about him.

Just a day ago or so my friend Don lost his battle with cancer.  In the end he was with his family and his closest friends.  Everyone says it is better that he is gone.  In one sense it is.  His suffering is ended.  In another sense it isn’t.  Death is so final.

Don would say we’ll see him again and I believe that.  He was that good a man.  If there is a heaven Don is there.  No question about it.  I think though that somehow he’s probably still thinking about us.  Looking down and wanting to give, help, laugh, touch, listen, live.  That's the way Don lived his life.  If there is a way to help, Don will find it.  That’s how he is.

Sadly, the power of life and death was not bestowed on me.  Mine is simply to wonder.  I know though that if I am to truly honor Don then what I need to do is stop focusing on this thing that I can’t change and start finding the things I can.  Don found humor in the worst of circumstances.  From the depths of his pain he also found and exhibited real love.  There are lessons in that and, perhaps, it is these lessons that I am meant to ponder.

I nearly always say at the end of these things that what’s next is what’s important.  Today I don’t think that’s the case.  Just for now, what’s past is what’s important.  I can leave what’s next for tomorrow.

Goodbye my friend and thank you for the time we shared.  I’ll miss you along the way and will love and help those you loved as best I can.  It’s what I know you would have done for me and, I guess, that’s going to have to be enough.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

An Update for Don's friends.

My friend Don is battling cancer.  Many of you know him and many only know him through the blog he keeps, “Let’s Radiate Don,” a sometimes hilarious, always poignant account of his battle.

Lately things haven’t gone as well as anyone would like.  Most especially Don, and right next to him Kate, his lovely and amazing wife and of course, right behind them their equally wonderful children.  Don and Kate and their kids are known to many, many people and we all want to help.

It’s hard isn’t it?  At least it is for me.  What can I do?  How can I help?  It’s especially hard when the fact is that there isn’t much to do.  I am not equipped to give the help that is needed.  

For those who want to know how Don is doing I will tell you that he is resting comfortably and he has been with the people he loves the most, his family and his very close friends.  He isn’t in much pain and he is able to converse at times and not as much at others.  I don’t think he would want to share much more than that.  It’s funny.  When we really think about it, we don’t need to know much more than that do we?

Kate is also with her family and with her closest friends, including, much of the time, Don.  Classically, one of her big points of stress is an inability to answer all of the loving offers of help she gets via text, voicemail and email.  I think she wants those who know her to know that she knows you are there and she is grateful and she needs time and space, if for nothing else than just to give as much of both to Don at this point as she can.

We never know quite what to do in these times do we?  Prayer seems such a hapless pastime.  Is God really there?  Does He really care?  Don would say yes.  Perhaps that should be enough for all of us.  What His response will be is, as in all things, up to Him.  That is not a reason not to pray.

I also know Don well enough to know that the last thing he would want is for everyone he knows to be sitting around worrying about him.  If you truly want to help I think he would say, find an excuse to laugh.  Hug someone you love extra hard.  If you need a little encouragement read one of his classic blog posts about his oncologist who hated him (but turned out ok) or swallow therapy.  

Don’s not gone.  He’s here among us.  He’s fighting. What tomorrow will bring is tomorrow’s business.  For today I choose to celebrate my friend and to say a prayer and focus love and strength on Kate and Dave and Kathy... And it’s my birthday, I should get at least one special wish.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Using Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. to Grow Your Small Business

Understanding the options and uses of the various social media channels is a challenge for any small business.  In this area pretty much anyone from my generation (those over 35 to be sure) would strongly agree that younger folks have an advantage.   Those (damn) kids grew up with Facebook so they know how to use it.  For anyone who’s a little older, no matter how long we’ve been on we always feel a little like we’re visitors in a foreign land.  (this is actually good, and I’ll get to why in a minute).  Here’s the thing.  The biggest mistake any small business can make is to ignore this important new channel.

If the bridge to success in new world marketing is connection with customers, social media channels are the elements on which these bridges are built and sustained.  Most of today’s small businesses get this.  The problem is figuring out how to pull the strings to get the results you seek.  Many make the mistake of simply putting up a quasi promotional Facebook fan page and establishing a pithy twitter ID and then wonder why no one cares.  

The biggest thing to understand is that the connection that occurs when social media is used best is not a connection between a customer and a business.  It is a connection between people.  Businesses post quasi advertisements on Twitter all the time promoting specials, new products, etc.  While in very rare cases these announcements may have an impact, in most they won’t and so the business decides that Twitter doesn’t work.  That’s a little like deciding a cordless drill doesn’t work when you try to use it with a dead battery.  You did nothing to ‘charge’ the audience and so the audience doesn’t respond when you attempt to connect.

To build an initial following it is a much better idea to enlist highly connected customers as your allies.  If you are releasing a new product, release it to them first.  Get them to tweet about it if they love it and then re-tweet their love for your product.  These ‘tweets’ (after while you get used to the vocabulary) will inevitably spawn questions from others and the power of your social web increases dramatically if you are vigilant and transparent in responding to those tweets, not as THE COMPANY, but as an individual connected with the company.

Some restaurants are beginning to learn how to use this to their advantage.  Imagine a customer’s surprise and pleasure when after tweeting that they are headed to the restaurant that night for dinner, the restaurant responds and lets them know that their favorite table has been reserved for them.  (and imagine what that says to everyone who follows either the restaurant or the individual).  The same can be managed in a connected world of Facebook where an image of a newly purchased pair of shoes from a local store can be followed up with a comment from the store letting the customer know how much they loved seeing the customer.  

Note that in neither case would I recommend following up the initial comment with a promotional offer of any kind. Doing so is a pretty major violation of the unwritten etiquette of social media.  You are essentially hijacking their comment and that’s a no no.  However, dropping them a note on their thread as any friend might changes the dynamic of your relationship.  You are no longer a faceless business.  You are their friend.  It is on these connections that social media gains its real strength.

In my next post I’ll give you some tips on effective ways to manage all of this (so you have time to actually run your business).