Finish important work this year

With the start of the new year, many will be looking for ways to reboot lives, businesses, and whatever else they’re disappointed about the state or progress of. We’ve all been there. The cure for many of these disappointments is to finish procrastinated, meaningful work as we discussed a few weeks ago. With the new year starting, it’s tempting to put that unfinished work aside and try to start something fresh and exciting to ring in the new year. You might even create (yet another) ginormous list of items to knock off because everything magically changed on January 1st. Or did it?

Important work makes big changes

Everything will not magically change the week of January 1st. It didn’t last year, remember? The only way to make “magical” change happen is to do more important work. Making things happen changes you and your circumstances. That doesn’t mean you have to work 14, 17 or 19 hour days. It’s not complicated. Focus, execute, repeat. Consider this: If, during each month this year, you could identify and complete the most important work on your to do list, would that make this year better than last?

Of all the unfinished things on your to do list, identify the ones that absolutely must be finished. Some of them are busy work. Do you really need to finish them? Can they be cancelled or delegated? Either way, take them off your unfinished list if they aren’t important enough for you to spend time on them instead of doing ANYTHING else you should be doing. Unfinished doesn’t mean important. Important means whatever it means to you and your business. Your time is likely the most valuable time in the business – why waste it on tasks that can be done by someone else? That doesn’t mean that work isn’t valuable. It simply means you don’t have to be the one to do it.

Complete more of the important work no one else can do if you want to make big changes.

Eliminate the unimportant

With all that busy, cancelled, delegated work removed from your unfinished to do list, what’s left? Which of these started, but unfinished important work items is the most important thing that you can finish in January? This shouldn’t be hard. If it is, then you may need to decide if your to do list contains anything important. I mean, come on – it’s early January. I’ve only asked once, so this should be the easiest choice of them all.

Repeat the process. When you’re out of meaningful, unfinished tasks, start the most important new task on your list. Don’t start five or 12. Start one. Now finish it. Maybe this takes you all month, but if this is the most important thing on your plate – it’ll be worth it.

On the other hand, if out of all the not-yet-started and not-yet-finished things you need to do, you can’t identify an important piece of work, two things come to mind. One, all that unfinished work can be delegated. Two, why isn’t there important, business-critical work that no one else can do on your to do list? Are you extricating yourself from the business? If so, great. If not, have you let yourself stop taking on important, business-changing projects because you weren’t getting them done? This process should have freed up a lot of time for that work – including the time needed to conceive it.

What about new tasks?

What about all the new tasks that come up this month? Don’t let them distract you. If something comes up that is super important – more so than your in-progress most important task, then you’ll have to decide whether you’ll hit pause and get that super important item done. Typically these are urgent tasks, not important ones. Know the difference.

For anything else, add them to your list, but only if they are important. Give the rest to someone else, or put them off. If they aren’t important, it’s unlikely that status will change. Put them on a list called “To delegate” and do it during your weekly planning.

Why are we doing this? Because getting more of the important (to you) things done is the most impactful change you can make have a better year than last. Consistently getting important work done builds your confidence and capability. As those two grow, so will you and your work.

A similar view: https://getpocket.com/explore/item/smarter-not-harder-how-to-succeed-at-work

The butterfly effect of a shutdown

This past weekend, my wife & I shared a cold one at a local brewery while discussing the shutdown. Pundits and others wave off the shutdown’s impact as “a small percentage of the Federal workforce”, as if it’s trivial. Trouble is, the headcount of furloughed Federal employees creates a butterfly effect that ripples outward to almost every sector of U.S. business.

Shutdown data & families

800,000 Federal employees are currently going without pay. Slightly fewer than half are furloughed – meaning they aren’t allowed to work. More than half are “essential workers” – required to work during a shutdown. Those working will receive back pay once the shutdown ends, but furloughed employees have no “guarantee” of receiving back pay.

The shutdown affects about 3.2 million employees & family members. My non-scientific extrapolation assumes four members per Federal employee household. There’s income flowing into those households if they have two employed people if one isn’t a Federal employee… maybe. Perhaps the two jobs depend on access to childcare. If one is unpaid, can they still afford childcare? If one employee is “essential”, both still have to work. Result: childcare is necessary. It’s not uncommon for both family wage earners to be Federal employees. I know a number of couples who both work for the USFS or Park Service, having met at work when they were single.

You’ll hear some say these people don’t matter and/or that they don’t care if they’re paid. You should. Their economic activity (or change in activity), regardless of their financial condition & habits, is what creates an economic butterfly effect in towns all over the U.S. (Update: 1/9/2019 from the NYTimes based on US Gov data: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/01/09/us/government-shutdown-state-by-state.html?smtyp=cur&smid=tw-nytimes )

The local economic butterfly effect

Federal employee families have mortgages, eat in restaurants & go to bars. They get oil changes, rent movies & purchase medical care. These families own businesses (like a favorite local brewery), buy raw materials, & employ people. They buy gas, clothes, donuts, firewood, cleaning services, plumbing / electrical repairs, groceries, etc.

This economic activity creates revenue for all local businesses. If you run a restaurant, bar, or other business near a Federal building – it’s likely that a lot of your business comes from Federal employees. TSA folks get a coffee/meal at an airport business. I suspect that activity will shrink at every U.S. airport.

Tax refunds often pay for vacations, bills, & down payments on large purchases. Loaning the Feds money at zero interest may seem unwise, but the economic impact is undeniable. The IRS does not pay refunds during shutdowns.

The now-closed IRS income verification service will eventually impact home purchase closings. Mortgage approvals use the service for income verification. Home purchases affect local banks, real estate agents, closing firms, home inspectors, and home repair contractors, among others.

Local breweries that can / bottle beer are stuck in line waiting to release new beers. The Federal agency that processes over 16,600 beer label applications per month is closed. Someone sells them hops, malt, yeast, bottles, cans, labels, & graphic arts. Someone manufactures & delivers them. Some puts that income into investments, savings, tuition, a home, etc.

Closed or limited Federal lands access can more directly affect local businesses. In West Yellowstone, Montana Public Radio reported that Xanterra and 13 other local businesses managed to arrange a temporary deal to pay the park to plow the roads & groom snowmobile trails in Yellowstone. While $7500 a day is expensive, the alternative is a lot of lost revenue & people out of work during winter peak season. There aren’t a lot of open jobs in West Yellowstone, so even one business laying off its entire staff could create a cascading nightmare for a small town and its families. A snowcoach business owner in the area mentioned that the deal keeps his 14 employees working. Businesses in the Mammoth, Cooke City and West Yellowstone areas are likely thrilled about the temporary deal.

That option isn’t available everywhere.

Butterflies & ripples are different

In a pond, ripples get smaller in height as they expand their reach toward the shore. When they reach the water’s edge, they might barely be noticeable. The butterfly effect works in reverse. Each wave is bigger and interactions create more waves.

As each of these economic impacts ripples outward, it affects more and more people & businesses. At first, the impact is small. Over time, these small impacts accumulate and start to push family & business finances over the edge. Not just those of Federal families, but everywhere. Want to help out? Buy local.

This highly scientific diagram is an incomplete and highly simplified representation of a part of this discussion. Note that it doesn’t include every Federal agency, nor does it include cash flow lines between families who own local businesses to other local businesses.

Perspective and progress

As the end of the year approaches, it’s a natural time to look back over the past year’s work. Did you make progress? Was the year a success? The source of our motivation has a big impact on how we perceive the year’s work. Did I achieve a financial milestone? Will I get the leadership position I want? Did we reach our sales goals? These are external motivations. Internal motivations may also drive us – such as a need to learn, achieve, better yourself, make fewer mistakes, etc. Neither driving force is the wrong one. Personally, I think a mix of the two serves us well. As we walk the trail through our careers and personal lives, the source and makeup of what motivates us often changes. About 10 years ago, a mentor‘s comment completely changed how I relate to the things I achieve.

The gap on the way to ideal

When we look at our goals or ToDo list, 100% “perfect” completion of every single one on time and on budget is the ideal “destination”. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s rarely realistic. It’s also rarely necessary – at least on the first completion. 

First completion“? Yes, exactly. Few of us knock off a project and find that it’s perfect and never needs another polish, tweak, or modification. Even if the only customer is you, it’s better to complete the job, gather feedback and make another pass to improve your work.

The trouble with 100% completion is we rarely, if ever, achieve it. If 100% completion of your goals is consistently achieved on time and on budget, it often means the goals were watered down. We might extend a timeline, ignore some portion of the budget or loosen quality standards. Doesn’t matter which one.

Looking back at the Apollo project, NASA was charged with getting men safely to the moon and back by the end of the decade. I remember watching the first steps broadcast on a grainy black and white TV at my grandparents’ farm. That was a late night for a young kid in 1969. Yet Apollo wasn’t 100%. An Apollo I launch rehearsal cost the lives of three astronauts. Apollo 13 almost did the same while traveling between Earth and the Moon. NASA achieved the audacious goal Kennedy laid before them, despite not achieving perfect execution. 

The gap between perfect execution and your actual execution is quite often significant. Having the right perspective is critical. 

Perspective and the gap

When we look at the ideal outcome, we’re almost certain to come away disappointed. We expect perfection.  You won’t be happy or satisfied with your efforts when you assess where you are against where you expected to be when everything went perfectly. That space will be filled with regrets about incomplete tasks, tasks that weren’t started, things that didn’t go as planned, etc.

The comment from my mentor paraphrases like this: If you look forward to the difference between what you did and the ideal outcome, there will always be a gap. That gap will always bother you – and it destroys the ambition in some. However, if you look back from where you are to where you started, you’ll find great satisfaction and motivation to charge forward when seeing how far you’ve progressed.

This change in perspective completely changed how I felt about the incomplete / untouched items taunting me from their comfortable home on my Trello board. Strive for 100%. Celebrate your progress, however imperfect. Use your progress as motivation. Keep improving. 

Perspective destruction

When a team’s original goal appears to be within reach, managers often trot out “stretch goals”. Is this done to create a failure that can be held over a team? Stretch goals usually create morale failure from significant progress. Motivation is rarely the outcome. Managers should focus on the 90% your team achieved, rather than the 10% that didn’t get done. It seems natural to do this when you’re a software guy – since we often focus on what’s broken. As a leader, it seems like a great way to repeatedly chip away at the morale of your team by never letting them celebrate or acknowledge accomplishments. The time to focus on the 10% will come soon enough. 

Feedback, checkboxes, curation

Not managing people (even if you have managers) is a common operations problem. How would you feel if you were hired and months later fired or disciplined with little feedback? Whether you deserved it or not (sometimes, the fired do deserve it) – most people would like to know what they did wrong.

In a good company, there’s a process for work quality feedback. A good manager would make sure you had the opportunity to correct your faults / failures before it got to the point of getting you fired. In the worst environments, it comes out of the blue, even if you think you’re paying attention. Imagine how you’d feel if you were never told what expectations were or what measurements would be used to assess the quality of your work? Not only is this unfair to the fired / disciplined employee, your company pays the price too. 

Checkboxes aren’t enough

When you hire someone, the work starts when they show up. At many companies, the work of hiring seems to end once the offer is made. The employee shows up, is pointed at a desk, given a pile of work to do, and is expected to fill “hit the ground running” expectations. Their resume had all the checkboxes filled for this role. Shouldn’t they be able to show up and just git-r-dun? 

Sometimes people figure it out, sometimes they don’t. At some companies, “I’m used to doing this, this and that – and doing it like this” will get the answers you need to produce work the way the company needs it. At others, it can signal that you aren’t the right fit. You know, because every company does everything the same way, right?

In some cases, the experience you thought you were hiring is different, even if it looks the same on paper. When that happens, what’s next? It might have taken four to six months to figure this out. Perhaps your company’s mentoring is weak, or non-existent. Maybe you don’t have the right work measurement / evaluation tools in place to detect that poor work, the wrong work, or “the right work someone else’s way” is being done. 

Employees need more than regular feedback. We touched on that a little bit last week. Feedback, mentoring, training (including “this is how we do a-b-c here“) is all part of employee curation. 

What is employee curation?

Visual art is made “better” by the right lighting, frame, etc. Curation puts the content in its best light, providing the consumer with an experience that’s richer than “Here it is.” Your people and their careers need the same sort of consideration.

Back when you were an employee, you may recall that people showed up & figured it out – even if that isn’t what really happened. You may not remember evaluations, training or mentoring you received (or maybe you didn’t get any). As a result, you might expect people to “just figure it out”. That’s great, until they figure out the wrong things, the wrong way, etc. 

I don’t recall too many reviews, but I sure remember when companies made sure I had a mentor. At one company in particular, I think they intentionally skipped performance reviews with managers – but in a positive way. They used mentoring & small teams with hands-on leadership to set the example, train, mentor & model what they wanted. Yes, I’m talking about you, Randall and Kim.

Employee curation includes working with someone to help them grow career-wise, both for them & the company. When you need to fill critical roles with people who already work for you, they should be ready. The last thing most companies need these days is someone with 20 years of experience – and all 20 are from 1998. 

Guesswork is bad

Even experienced people in senior roles need to know your expectations. Why make them guess? Senior people need to know what their boundaries are – and when to cross them. They need to know how you make decisions so that you know that they know what’s important to you when you delegate things to them. 

In junior roles, your mentors & managers will spend more time on how-to-do vs. what-to-do. That will change over time.

Without explicit, detailed duties, expectations and specifics about “this is how you know you’re doing your job well”, guessing is what they’ll do. This may seem OK for a entry or junior level person learning your business (it isn’t). It’s a terrible choice for a new SVP. Be crystal clear about your expectations with everyone. You benefit as much as anyone when your entire team is doing what you hired them for. 

Operations problems

A good bit of what we discuss here relates to day-to-day operations. While a lot of operations probably seems simple and obvious, it’s the number one issue I see in companies. I suspect you’ve experienced, owned or worked at a company whose operations are a disorganized mess. Common problems shouldn’t be common at all, right? Let’s see if we can chip away at a few of these and get your operations polished up.

The under-performer

Somewhere in your company, there’s someone who is “under performing”. Not doing their job, not doing it well, It might be that they’re not doing the work in what their peers would consider a normal amount of time. IE: They’re slow. Slow can be OK for some work, but sometimes it isn’t.

As managers / leaders, this is your responsibility. The cause doesn’t matter. If they aren’t doing their job, it’s because their direct manager isn’t finding out why, attempting to fix it and circling back to hold them accountable. Is their direct manager isn’t doing those things? Ultimately, that manager’s performance is your responsibility. Does the under performer work directly for you? If you aren’t finding out why this is happening and you aren’t holding them accountable, it’s your responsibility. While this may seem like a difficult source of hand-wringing and drama, it doesn’t have to be. 

Sometimes, an employee doesn’t know what is expected of them. Not kidding. You might find this surprising, but a list of duties, deliverables and responsibilities is useful to an employee. Nothing says “This is what you are responsible for. I will be looking these things when I assess the quality of your work.” better than a list. 

Maybe they need training. When you discuss that list of responsibilities with the employee, make sure they are confident that they can achieve those things and have the right skills to make them happen. If they can’t, find training for them.

Training didn’t help. Nothing did.

If training doesn’t improve their performance, a new role might. They might hate some aspect of their work – work that someone else might love to do. Guess who’ll do it better?

Find them a new role that fits who they are, what they can do, what you need, etc. If you can’t do any of that, help them find a role somewhere else. Few “bad hires” are bad people that you’d never recommend to someone else, but they do exist. It takes too long to find and hire a good candidate to simply discard them because you put them in the wrong role, or didn’t train them well. 

EVERYONE else in the department (probably in the company), already knows this person needs a new role, more training, or a different job at a different place. They know you aren’t doing anything about it and they’re not happy about that. They know it affects the security of their job, among other things. They’re right to be disappointed.

Disasters in advance

We’ve all seen these. A big project is coming. There are obvious bumps in the road. No one says a word because predicting disaster is “not being a team player” or similar. To a point, that’s correct. Predicting disaster is of no value, but preventing them is huge. 

There’s a better way. Ask everyone: “What could go wrong? What could cause this project to fail?” Make it clear that it’s a positive thing to produce this list, as you want to avoid the “team player” baggage. Discuss this for each step of the planning, creation, deployment, and ongoing (if any) operational stages. 

Once you have that list, discuss each one. Not only will you be better prepared (and perhaps plug a hole), but you may end up figuring out an issue no one saw when the conversation started. You’ll also help everyone think about hardening their part of the project, no matter what that means. You may find that items on the “What could go wrong?” list end up as a standard task in that kind of project. Would your company benefit if everyone was thinking about these things earlier in the project timeline? 

You may get some responses that make no sense, or that seem silly. Don’t let the crowd shout them down. Imagine that delivering a product is critical to your process and someone suggests that a possible fail point is “MegaSuperBigCo can’t deliver our packages“. Something like this might seem a waste of time, but give them their due. Look back far enough and you’ll find instances where shippers or customs people went on strike. When that happens, packages sit in limbo for weeks or months. If your shipping is international, it can get complex in a hurry. 

Don’t ignore the smallest items on the “What could go wrong?” list. History has proven that the tiniest thing can create a small failure that cascades to a massive one. We don’t always know which tiny thing will disrupt operations, but we can review each one, make note of what prevents that item from causing problems and move on. If it isn’t handled, the affected team should be expected to take care of it and report back when it’s been handled.

Follow through. Few do. 

Have you ever noticed that you get a bunch of work done just before leaving on vacation? Obvious hint: Deadline. Or that your “do this before leaving on vacation” list is essential to making sure that you pack your swimsuit, turn off the stove, and take the dog to the kennel? Obvious hint: Checklist.

Follow through works the same way. You have to be careful that it doesn’t become micro-management, which no one appreciates. 

If someone knows they’re expected to provide a status report every Thursday afternoon, they’re more likely to make better progress on the work involved. Work is a funny thing, it expands to fill the container provided. As Stephen Covey made famous with his four quadrants, it’s easy for urgent and unimportant work to fill the day and displace important work. 

Source: Stephen Covey – 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

It isn’t that this work shouldn’t be done, it’s simply that it isn’t as important as a team has agreed to previously. Otherwise, why would you be expected to provide a project status report next Thursday?

What’s even better than a status report that you ask someone to provide? The status report they provide without being asked.

When you provide a project update to your manager / leader / owner without being asked, you make it clear that you know that work is important AND that you know it’s important that the manager / leader / owner knows how things are progressing. Most managers / leaders / owners don’t want to nag – they simply have to because no one is volunteering the information. Result: They don’t know the status of the operations they’re trying to manage. 

Unknowns make people nervous, especially as deadlines approach. Make sure your team understands that and that you appreciate follow ups so that you can do the work they expect of you.

Post-mortem your disasters

One of the best times to prevent something from happening again is by taking some notes while it’s happening. An in-disaster post-mortem, for lack of a better term.

Oh, I know. You’re too busy wrestling the fire hoses to stop and take a note for 30 seconds. Really though, you’re not.

If this bad thing happens regularly, put a recurring reminder in your calendar for a few days / weeks / months before the event. A simple reminder to deal with that one little thing that defuses a minor disaster is pretty valuable. Example: Before a trade show or big marketing push, contact your credit card company (merchant card processor) and alert them that you might be processing (much?) higher volume than usual. A five minute call is much less hassle than having your merchant account temporarily disabled in the middle of the business day. 

Perry Marshall once mentioned a question his company uses – and I love it: “What system, if fixed or implemented, would have prevented this problem in the first place?” Important for leaders: Don’t ask this question after stating your answer to the question. If you do, you’ll likely miss out on some good ideas that you probably didn’t have. Let someone else get this win – one of them is likely to have the same idea. Listening to the discussion will be far more valuable than showing how smart you are.

What a post-mortem isn’t: A process for assigning blame. Blame has zero ROI, at best. Improvement has a massive ROI, particularly when it prevents future disasters, even minor ones. We can’t always see the future well enough to avoid disaster, but we can convert them into a positive by learning from them. Make disaster avoidance part of your creation, operations, deployment process. 

Where subscribers hide: Pt 2

We talked last week about the benefit of being a little flexible with subscription offerings. The payoff is adding subscribers who might otherwise fall into the gaps between your offers. A key to increasing your subscribers are making it easy to buy. 

You want to make it super easy to buy. I mean E-A-S-Y. An example would help. Let’s talk about the wine store I mentioned last week. 

When resubscribing to the monthly wine selection, we had to re-enter every bit of personal info and card info. It’s tedious. It’s annoying when you know that info is already in their system. It isn’t E-A-S-Y.

How would you improve the process? Examine each step.

Re-entering the email address should have given us the opportunity to restart the subscription, or at least avoid re-entering a bunch of info. It’s possible the system was capable of this, but the salesperson pressed us to fill out the whole thing again. Thanks to a prompt on the screen, my wife asked about logging into an existing account in their system. She was told to ignore the prompt. Unfortunately, the CRM allowed her to create a new account with the same email address – without any warning like “we found an account for this email”.

Sidebar: Credit card data is very rarely stored locally in small retail these days, so re-entering that info isn’t terribly surprising. It should have been swiped or inserted into a chip reader – but that wasn’t an option. That there are still businesses taking cards without chip readers is disappointing – particularly given that this business has a reasonably new CRM / POS system. Security is important. Think about how you feel every time you hear of another credit card data breach. Now think about how you’d feel if the next breach happened at your business. Finally, consider how your customers would feel about you and your business after that event. 

The pause that refreshes 

One key to retaining subscribers is making it easy to resume. Resume? You can’t resume without the ability to pause. Few subscription plans have a pause button. 

A limited number of subscription plans provide the ability to pause your subscription. In plans where there is a consumable and/or deliverable product, like wine plans or subscription boxes, having a pause button can prevent losing a subscriber. Once you lose one, getting them back is real work. 

As an example, Audible (the audio book division of Amazon) allows you to pause your subscription. Sometimes, life doesn’t let you consume all the audio that your subscription provides each month (sounds like wine, eh?). Even before Amazon bought them, Audible recognized this and allowed you to temporarily pause your account. They understand that life happens or that their plans may not fit every person’s consumption model all the time.  

Don’t sell junk subscriptions

While not every business can be focused on subscriptions as their primary revenue source / sales mechanism – quite a few can be. Even if you sell something that doesn’t lend itself to a subscription model, it’s pretty likely that there is some component of the business that is ideal for subscriptions.

Subscriptions are great for businesses for a number of reasons. One of the best reasons is that they fill in the dips caused by things like seasonal markets & unexpected dips in sales. They add a certainty component to cash flow that many businesses have never had.

I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like the idea of stable / consistent /  dependable / predictable cash flow. Most folks are keen to the idea of subscriptions when discussed in that context.

The thing is, they have to mean something to your customer. Watch a few commercials over the weekend and you’ll be inundated with offers for frivolous “monthly boxes of stuff”. Most of it is, quite frankly, crap no one needs. 

That’s what I mean by “don’t sell junk subscriptions”.  Sure, many of these companies are making big money selling them right now. Will they be around in five or ten years? Doubtful. Are they essential to their subscribers? No, they’re frivolous luxury purchases. They have many thousands of subscribers but their subscription base is fragile because of the nature of the product.

Make it meaningful & simplifying

Create your subscriptions from something your customers already need or want from you. A subscription should simplify their life, whether you sell to consumers or businesses. Sell them something they don’t want to forget, or that they should keep up with – but it’s tedious or a hassle to do so. It may not make sense for yours to be weekly, monthly, etc – but it may. Figure out what works and make becoming a subscriber a no-brainer purchase. 

Where subscribers hide: Pt 1

Watching my wife shop / interact with salespeople is always a refresher course. Gaps in customer service & sales training / tactics always reveal themselves. This is the missing piece of “Secret Shopper” type services – no audio / video. The report is fine, but you don’t get to see and hear what happened – that’s where the gold lies. We’re going to go over an experience we had while shopping in a local retail business that has a subscription model. Yes, a local retail business (a wine store) with subscribers. All too rare, but I see more of them than I used to. Bear in mind that there have been wine subscriptions by mail / via internet for decades. 

My wife is an intermittent repeat shopper at this store. They have a good selection. The sales people know their wines – and at least one of them is a standout in that department. She’s the one who really knows their point of sale / CRM (customer relationship manager) system. Isn’t it interesting that the product expert also happens to be the CRM expert – and she isn’t the owner. She’s “just an employee”, right? 

Working with the expert

A couple of weeks ago, the Mrs. sent me to pick up a white wine to go with some smoked fish sent to us by a friend in Michigan. She didn’t remember the brand name, but she did say that it was the white she thought she’d bought most often. So, being the CRM nerd that I am, I asked the salesperson “My wife wants a white wine but I don’t know the name. Can you tell me which one she’s bought most often?

In some stores, I might get a shrug or a “We don’t collect that info.” In this store, I got exactly what I came for.

Turns out that I was fortunate to be working with the standout salesperson there. She knew their CRM like a pro. She quickly found my wife’s purchase history, identified the most frequently purchased item, grabbed a bottle, and I was out the door in less than five minutes. That’s my kind of shopping.

Not working with the expert

Yesterday, we went back to this store. The expert had moved out of state, apparently for a new opportunity. My wife asked basically the same question I had asked two weeks earlier. Our salesperson, who was in the store when I was there two weeks ago, didn’t know how to find purchase history.

A promo sheet at the checkout counter mentions their monthly subscription program. Two bottles, four bottles, etc. My wife was in the four a month program a year or so ago. She quit because bottles were piling up. Four a month is too many for her.

The selection in the four month program fits her tastes better than the two month program, so backing off to two per month didn’t work. The promo sheet prompted her to ask if she could get the four bottle program every other month. 

The response: “No.”

There are plenty of possible answers to that – and most of them are questions. “No” ends the sales conversation. 

The owner questions

The owner overheard the conversation from the backroom. He steps out asks why the four per month every other month works better than the two per month. The point of curiosity is obvious – it’s the same number of bottles. She explained that high tannin wines make her feel bad, so she likes the four-per-month subscription’s selections. 

The owner says “We can handle that. Let us know when you pick up your monthly selection. We’ll be happy to swap out wines that’ll bother you.” He continues, saying that they can do an every other month plan, but will need to look into the details to make sure she isn’t charged every month.

This flexibility matters because it gets them a subscriber. She liked the previous plan she was on, but it wasn’t clear there were substitution options. Result: She cancelled. There was no follow up to ask why. Knowing why helps you keep more subscribers longer and learn about gaps in your plans.

Obvious reminder: Subscribers are sales you make every month, often with little sales / marketing effort. You have to fulfill well, regardless of tannin, to keep them. More next week. 

Finish more. Then start.

Seems that everyone has a book in them. How many of these books actually escape the mind of their author? I’ve had several percolating in different stages for years. Outline. Concept. Key points. I wrote a very rough draft (isn’t that what drafts are?) years ago – for one of them. I need to get back to them, but other things are (or seem) more important. The same goes for that project you need to get done. Or that new product you want to develop. Maybe even that new company you’ve considered starting. There’s a key to all of this: finish the task. Simple, right?

Start, then finish. Then start another something. You could get tangled up in “finish the already started stuff first“. Maybe, but that might ignore the priorities you’ve already been ignoring. Decide what’s important. Do that. If you happen to wander back into some unfinished task that’s become important, great. If you don’t, and that project languishes for years – it probably wasn’t important anyway. 

We prioritize what we can finish

Prioritization is a lot of this. Trouble is, prioritization is tainted by ego and courage and all those touchy-feely things we claim to be irrelevant. We start things we know we can finish by the end of the day, week, or month. We don’t like to fail. Leaving things unfinished feels like failure, even though it isn’t.

Not all work fits conveniently into a day, week or month. We know this. Still, we use that to prioritize work. If there’s no chance of finishing a task by Friday EOD, it’s likely that task will be put off. It’s easy to skip that task in lieu of one we can finish. It’s a built-in confidence builder that our brain uses to “protect” us. 

The irony is that this “protection” system is exactly what causes us to fail at important things.

Remember that Federal law that says you have to have tasks completely finished by the end of this week? Neither do I.

Procrastination as leverage

In the last few months I’ve incorporated procrastination into how I schedule tasks. It’s painfully easy, and the rewards are addictive.

Here’s how it works: When you schedule your tomorrow or next week, identify at least one thing you’ve been putting off. Make sure it’s part of your agenda for the day / week. It doesn’t matter why you’re procrastinating on the chosen task. Just choose one. Pick an easy one, if you wish. Make that thing happen. Repeat. Maybe add two of those items next week. Do what works.

You might be thinking “I’m not procrastinating on anything.” Uh, yeah. Sure.

Stop anyone on the street and ask them “What are you putting off that you know you should get done?” and they’ll have an answer instantly. They don’t have to think about it, or look at their phone, or pull out their planner. They know. 

So do you. Really. 

If the “lizard brain” in your amygdala is hiding these things from you, ask a peer, friend or significant other. They’re bound to have a suggestion. 

You may not be able to schedule your entire day / week like this. That’s OK. You decide how much time you can allocate to those procrastinated items. The key is to keep making progress. Finish them. Finish another. Repeat.

“Finish him!!!”

Our brains love to finish things. Have you ever put an item on a checklist simply so you could check it off? While it seems silly, checking off completed tasks is a cheap way to release dopamine.  Finishing stuff “takes weight off our shoulders”. Mental weight. Cognitive load. “Stressed out” or overwhelmed. Call it whatever you like – it’s there. 

Ever been on a diet? There’s a constant food-related cognitive load on your mind. Do you encounter more food-related ads when you’re on a diet than when you aren’t? Probably not, but it feels like they’re everywhere.

Cognitive load is a weight your mind bears every moment. Sometimes you notice it, sometimes you don’t – but it’s always there. A five pound bag of flour doesn’t seem heavy unless you already have two armloads of heavy groceries. 

Unfinished, procrastinated tasks have the same effect as that bag of flour. Finish something today. Check that box. 

Compelling reasons to buy

One of the vendors I’ve used for the last 20 years or so recently shipped a new release. With that comes a close-to-$1000 invoice. As always, the discussion in the community of users of this tool is “Should I upgrade?” Some will upgrade because they think their failure to buy will somehow cause the company go out of business. Others buy because there’s something important in the new release that they need. The bottom line to me is: “What’s the compelling reason to buy?” I mention this because YOU need to give your buyers a compelling reason to buy. 

Whether you sell software, cars, gaskets, chainsaws, yachts, bow ties, or meat & meat by-products. Your chances of success are better when you meet someone’s needs and/or wants with a compelling offer. If you don’t, they’re as likely to do nothing as they are to buy what you sell. 

I tend to talk about software – or at least use it for context. Don’t let that throw you. Think about your product / market when I mention software.

What does compelling mean?

When trying to figure out what’s compelling about your product or service, try these angles:

  • What improvement will repeatedly save money / pay for itself?
  • What will save a substantial amount of time? An hour a week? 15 minutes a day? 5 minutes a day?
  • Does this new thing protect my work, make it harder for me to make mistakes, or streamline a process? 
  • Will it transform a particular outcome in a way that makes it faster, more dependable, or otherwise “better”? 
  • Is it smaller, bigger, faster, slower, or more efficient?
  • Has a long-standing flaw been fixed?
  • On a 38 degree evening in the middle of a blustery rainstorm, will it get you off the couch & into the car to go buy “the thing”, despite the fact that you’re watching the last 10 minutes of a close ballgame or your favorite movie?

If you aren’t sure what your customers find compelling about your product, ask. Even if you think you’re sure, ask. Every conversation you have with your customers about where they see the value is golden. They’ll tell you what others like them need & want. Best of all, they’ll use language that’ll resonate with those people.

What isn’t compelling? Guilt.

I don’t want them to go out of business.” or “I haven’t sent them any money in a while.

Did you ever make a sale because one of your customers worried that you’d close without them buying something? Has one of your customers sent you a check because they hadn’t sent you money in a few months or years?

Look, I get it. I find it hard to walk past the older Eastern European grandmas selling veggies at the Farmer’s Market without buying something. Call me a sucker for grandmas. Guilty as charged. Of course, then it’s back to the car to get the bag. Then you have to fill the bag… but I digress.

And sure, I’ll buy popcorn, candy, or coffee from a kid who comes to the door and musters up more nerve than many adult salespeople have in the last year – mostly because they’ll explain WHY they’re selling. Otherwise, buying out of obligation or guilt doesn’t resonate with me.

You might wonder why I feel that way in the context of all the things I write here about creating a community of your customers, building a relationship with them, if not a co-dependency, etc.

Easy.

Long-term customer success

Those things are focused on creating a better long-term experience for the customer. ALL of it is about serving the customer. Making things easy for the customer. Helping them find others like them so that together they can do more than they could individually.

While such things make life better for the company once they get momentum / critical mass, there’s a dichotomy. Until the customers get more value, meaning, fulfillment, productivity, etc – the company creating those relationships, community, etc gets little or nothing. Loving your customers and their success is an important part of such efforts. The long term benefits to your company come from curating that success of your customers. 

It isn’t that you’re making your customers become successful. You’re simply creating an environment where the ones doing the right things can find the people and tools they need to get more from their efforts. 

Politics in the workplace

Politics and work – do they mix well? As political communication seems to approach something resembling “say nothing or go psycho“, politics can become tougher at work. I love intelligent conversations with people I don’t (and do) agree with. But finger poking, red-faced, screaming rants? I’m gone. I’d rather watch hot dogs being made.

That politics and work don’t mix well does not mean that the mix is unavoidable or unmanageable. Employees whose politics are a mix of “us and them and them” can get along & be productive as a team. That doesn’t mean the company isn’t going to have to deal with conflicts. Avoiding these problems requires some care when hiring, and that still won’t guarantee you’ll avoid problems related to political differences between employees. 

The mission is rarely politics

You may prefer to hire people who are very serious about their political views, particularly if they match your views. That’s OK.  No matter where your team members align themselves politically, they need to understand what really aligns them as employees. There’s a single thing to align with when they’re at work and/or when representing your business. That they’re “invested in delivering upon the mission of their employer in the service of the employer’s customers.” 

Every business has a culture, whether it’s intentional or not. If you hire people who are incapable or unwilling to adopt that culture, they probably won’t be around long. How politics is handled in the work environment is a part of a company’s culture. Part of delivering upon the employer’s mission is taking care of their customers in a way that is defined by the employer. Some employers are better at defining this than others. All companies define this by example & through their culture, if not via training.

Leading by example

You’ve probably heard about people being fired because of public actions / statements. Sometimes these are political in nature, sometimes the person is simply being a jerk (or worse). I wrote a few weeks ago about an executive chosen for a job who lost it the next day. Online posts that were incongruent with the role of being a senior leader in that industry were costly.

While everyone has a right to their views, how they are communicated in public may reflect upon their employer. It isn’t always that simple. Our political views tend to define how we work, in whole or in part. They can be at the core of who we are & how we got there. Still, we must lead by example. 

What leaders say

Imagine hearing the CEO of a national fast food chain publicly stating “Our food is gross. I can’t believe our employees make it, much less have the gall to serve it. What kind of people are they?” Who at that company would feel motivated by their work after hearing that? If that person was named CEO at a different company, how would the new company’s staff react?

Would you expect that CEO to have your back in a situation where a CEO should have your back? How would you like to be one of that company’s salespeople after hearing that quote? What would your response be when a prospect repeated the quote to you after you finished your highly-polished sales pitch? 

How does that situation not become all about that leader?

Losing sight of the mission

Politics creates problems in the workplace when someone has not only chosen a political viewpoint, but defines themselves by it. It ceases to be about issues and candidates. It won’t be about how they should respond based on their experience / training. It could become about how someone with their views should respond to work situations. 

When an employee’s actions are no longer about the business or the customer, you have a problem. At that point, you get to decide what’s more important: that employee’s views, or your business. It won’t be easy, particularly if you share their politics.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I want the person who did / said / wrote these things to manage the people I’ve put in place to care for my customers and the future of my business?
  • Do I want them interacting with my customers?
  • Do I want them representing me and my business in public in this manner?

Whether the answers are yes or no, make sure your people know.