Taking initiative… is it risky?

Remember the first time you convinced your kid to jump into the pool? Even though they trust you in a litany of other ways, you might have had to coax, sell, and maybe even coerce them to jump off the side into your arms. The child probably had thoughts like “What if mom or dad doesn’t catch me?“, “What if I go to the bottom?“, and “Everyone will make fun of me if I mess this up“, even if they would, you wouldn’t and they wouldn’t. Sometimes it took a lot of convincing to get them to make that leap. Maybe they were scared, but it’s likely they were more scared of the unknown outcomes they’d dreamed up, or the ones they hadn’t even thought of. The first time they take that leap, they’re simply unsure, despite your assurances that it’ll all be OK. They’ve probably never seen you pretend to miss their brother when he jumps into the pool – even if that’s a game you and the brother actively engage in.

Employees have similar fears, but they learn differently. They learn from the behaviors they see over time and from stories they’ve heard in the past. Perhaps even from stories told during on-boarding and training.

Scared to take initiative?

In some companies, showing initiative is lauded. However, if management says “We love when our teams take initiative!“” but only “show the love” when the initiative succeeds, fewer will risk taking initiative. People take initiative only when they know it’s safe to do so. I don’t mean safe in a “I can’t stand up for myself” way. We’re talking about job security.

If your team members have the tiniest inkling that taking initiative might cost them their job, many will avoid doing so. You might think employees who worry about their job security are snowflakes, wimps, etc. You might never have been called on the carpet for taking initiative and failing. You may never have known the fear of losing a job. Maybe you never had a manager that treated you poorly. Maybe you never had a job and always worked for yourself. What’s the employees’ perspective?

It’s possible your employees need their job so badly that they aren’t willing to risk losing it. Given that 78% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, it’s clear lots of people can’t afford to lose their jobs. All of us probably know at least one person in that situation, and it’s clear that there are far more in that mode than we realize.

What does failure feel like?

How are failures are handled at your company? Do team members get “beat up” verbally, privately or publicly? Are snide comments made in group settings, like “guess we’ll never trust Sharon again“, even if said jokingly? Is the joke truly a joke, or is there some real meaning to those words? People notice when promotions (etc) go to people who perform steadily but never take initiative. If the comfort zone is where promotions & raises come from, would your people leave theirs?

If you want your folks to take initiative, show it. Make it clear who has this sort of leeway (and how much), whether they are “front line” staff members or executives. You may think your execs don’t worry about job security, but some almost certainly do as exec jobs are harder to find. Make sure they know the boundaries (or that there aren’t any) in areas where you want to see initiative taken. Give them examples of successes and failures. Show them how these efforts are handled, win or lose.

Be sure that failed efforts get attention in a way that won’t cause others to pull back on taking initiative. Thank those who stepped out and stepped up, regardless of outcome. Initiative taken with the intent of helping the company is a positive thing. This isn’t a participation trophy. It’s reminding everyone that taking initiative in the context of their roles is a desirable behavior, whether attempts succeed or fail.

After initiative is taken, deconstruct what happened. Let the team help diagnose it and suggest improvements. The failure discussion shouldn’t be about the person, it should be about the work & how to give initiative a better chance next time. Share the lessons learned from the wins *and* the losses so the next initiative has a better chance of success.

Photo by Lavi Perchik on Unsplash

We all need change

Jim Baiar and Thomas Davis never knew each other, yet my experience tells me they were cut from the same cloth. One I barely knew, yet I know much about him because I know his son and grandson. The other I knew well, yet probably didn’t know well enough. Both were the kind of people who are harder to find than they used to be. People with the kind of character that builds families, companies, communities, and in some cases, entire countries.

Marcus Aurelius wrote extensively about how to become this kind of person. Studies of his life and his writings left those who analyzed them with the idea that his writings were intended as reminders about how to live his life. While they may have done so, it appears his writing has become much more – a list of reminders / lessons for the rest of us.

Change demands you make a choice

Based on what makes the news on any randomly chosen day, you might be tempted think there’s a shortage of good people in the world. There isn’t. In most cases, people doing good (even “boring” day-to-day good) are often too engaged in their lives to end up in the news, much less watch or listen to it.

My youngest graduated from law school a few weekends ago. After graduation, we talked a little about his future (conversations that will no doubt continue). I’m sure he’s aware that there are many corrupt, manipulative, evil lawyers in the world. You hear about them in frustrating news stories, both local and national. Likewise, there are corrupt (etc) politicians, programmers, executives, doctors, and so on. It isn’t the job. It’s the person and their choices.

The behavior of this group and the PR they attract (or generate) is a significant reason why people generally dislike attorneys. Sometimes it’s because people tend to interact with attorneys only at the “lowest”, most challenging period of their lives, because we observe them from afar as they defend corrupt, unethical, dangerous people, or because they say and do things on camera that are simply unfathomable to the rest of us.

I told him that “They made a choice to be that kind of lawyer, and to behave that way. I believe you will be the kind of lawyer that raises the average, but it’s a choice you’ll be faced on multiple occasions. Make the right choice and help the rest of the good ones raise the average.

While he’s young, idealistic, an Eagle Scout, and a few other things, he still needs reminders like this. We all need them. A brief, well-considered piece of advice to a newly graduated high school, college or post-graduate student is always a good investment. Not a lecture, simply a reminder to consider what they might face in the future. A similar comment to a new employee, a newly promoted employee, an employee who’s leaving, and so on…. all valuable if carefully made.

Change requires movement

Periods of change require people willing to invest in change. When it comes to periods of change, it’s always one decision or one person that starts it. SOMEONE has to start it, even if the motion in the direction of change is the tiniest little thing. Tony Robbins said “Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change” I’m pretty sure he borrowed this from his mentor Jim Rohn, but that doesn’t make it less true.

Tired of the seemingly unending supply of unethical, if not downright evil people you hear about in the news? The movement that’s necessary to make the change needed to get rid of these people is really quite simple. Seek out people entering your line of work. Young, old, doesn’t matter. Make sure bad behavior isn’t rewarded. Get involved in their professional growth. Gain their trust, then teach, mentor, and advise them. Make a point of calling out poor behavior in professional settings and help them understand why that behavior is unacceptable – not just that it is.

If you make this contribution repeatedly, the right people will be ready to take over when someone is fired, convicted, or asked to retire. Hire and interview well. Mentor them. Eventually you’ll have a group of people to promote from whose character cannot and will not be stained. It won’t be easy, but the alternative is simply awful.

Why Business is Personal

14 years ago when this blog got the name “Business is Personal”, you’d occasionally hear “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” I found the idea repulsive, transactional, and most importantly – the opposite of everything I’d been taught. The phrase later became part of pop culture thanks to a TV show. I even had a business partner say this to me back in 2006. Because I never believed it wasn’t personal, it marked a turning point in that business relationship – which soon ended. “Business is Personal” was true when “it’s just business” was said to me in 2006 and it’s still true today, perhaps more than ever.

Sales and marketing is personal

The marketing messages that touch us and do some part to convince us to make a purchase are effective because they touch us. I recently heard of a study of a man who had an operable brain tumor. When the tumor was removed, it required removal (or damaged) a part of the brain that controls emotion. There was speculation that he would be more capable of making decisions than most people, since emotion would no longer cloud his decision making. It turned out quite differently. Without the ability to use emotion, he was unable to make even the simplest of decisions. Unable to decide between salt & pepper, or between red wine & white, he required extensive care, rather than becoming a highly logical decision-making juggernaut.

To excel at sales, we must become experts at listening to prospects. We must “get inside the head” of people to learn what motivates them, how they are thinking, and often, what their deepest wants and needs are. My dad used to tell me to “be a good listener”, a phrase which changed meaning from decade to decade. Today, “listen to understand, rather than to respond” has become the catch phrase of many who are figuring out that listening to respond completely misses the point.

We’ve all been subjected to a salesperson who is focused on their quota, or on their sales process, rather than on our wants and needs. It’s frustrating. Transactional. Many avoid businesses with this type of sales team. Eventually, some businesses figured it out and started using non-commissioned salespeople. Despite that, I still get calls and meet salespeople who start the conversation about their quota and the need to close a deal by some irrelevant date.

The sales our companies make are very personal. They allow us to hire people who support their families, which support schools, charities and entire communities. Those sales fund salaries that are spent at other local businesses, that fund infrastructure and schools, and allow our employees to get their kids into schools, sports, outdoor activities and more. In communities where a business is a substantial employer, the impact of that business ripples across the economy of the entire community.

Employment is personal

For many people, their job or their chosen field of work is a part of their identity. It may be what motivated them to go to college or trade school. It might be what got them to spend Gladwell’s perhaps-discredited 10000 hours to achieve mastery, and/or to seek out the mentor who would teach them the ropes. For some it’s a bit bigger piece. Ever spoken with someone who’s unemployed? Would you even begin to tell them that experience isn’t deeply personal? For some, it digs at them to their core and they might never forget it. It might even drive decisions they make for the rest of their lives, simply because they never want to be in that situation again. “It’s just business” doesn’t begin to describe it.

It’s personal when you get the job you’ve worked years to be qualified for. When you get the job of your dreams, it’s personal. It’s personal to take out massive student loans while becoming a doctor, lawyer, engineer, teacher, etc. When someone tells you that you aren’t good enough at a job and fires you, it’s personal. It’s personal when you come home and explain to your family that you were laid off or fired. When you have one of the greatest business successes of your life, it’s personal. If you have to humble yourself in front of friends, peers, and the people you love because you were fired, it’s personal. When tough times threaten the faith they put in you and tarnish the promises you’ve made to them… it’s personal.

Ownership is personal

That business you built from scratch, the one that almost now one knows how much time, mental strain, money and work you invested in, it’s personal to you. The sacrifices you made, the jobs and financial opportunities you gave up to build your dream, they’re personal too. The dream is personal. It pushes you to work, sacrifice, get your life out of balance, struggle to get it back in balance, only to work harder the following month to keep it that way. Your business is personal to you, no matter how it feels or appears to someone else.

You chose who you wanted to be a hero to. It was a personal choice. There’s probably a reason for it. I think back to how I advise people to take care of their customers, and it surely goes back to watching my grandmother make butter and riding around in my granddaddy’s truck to deliver eggs, milk, butter, and chickens. Even though the world had all those things at the corner grocery store, people paid still paid them to deliver these items to their door. My grandmother’s butter wasn’t simply a round of butter. She milked the cows. She churned the butter. She hand-formed the rounds and then personalized them with a design she hand embossed on the top with a wooden spatula that someone had carved for her.

How is your craft any different from that? How is it “just business”? Please.

For some, it’s who they are

Like it or not, what we do and how we earn a living is quite personal to most of us. Even if you’ve arrived at a point where “it’s what I do, it’s not who I am“, the fact that you had to do some introspection to get to that point is evidence that your business is personal. It doesn’t matter what you do. If you deliver firewood that you carefully chose, cut and had the patience to season before selling it, do you toss it over the fence and leave the pile for the owner? Or do you neatly stack it where they asked and cover it with a tarp so it’s dry and ready to warm their home? If you do the latter, is it really “just business”?

Taking your business personally doesn’t mean you’re emotionally fragile. It doesn’t mean you hate your competitors, or that you’re angry at someone who decides not to buy your product. It means your customers’ success is important to you. It means the work is important to you. How you help them achieve success, how you deliver the work, how you care for them over the years. These things tell people what kind of person you are. The people you rescue and the effort necessary to rescue them is important to you – no matter what form that rescue takes. If it’s “just business”, it shows. If it’s “just business”, you’re just a vendor that can be replaced by the next lower priced option. There will always be a vendor that’s cheaper – and it shows. There will always be someone who takes their work personally. That shows too.

If your business is personal to you, that’s OK. It’s your choice. Don’t let someone else take that away from you.

Photo by Benjamin Suter on Unsplash

What’s your company really worth?

25 years ago, I was writing some software for my father in law. Sometime during the process, my computer locked up and lost a bunch of work. The first time this happens, the experience is seared into your brain. I had to redo a bunch of work. Recoverable, but annoying. The painful process was made a bit worse because it was work I was doing for family.

The cost of lost data

Last week, a client of an acquaintance was struggling thru a ransomware attack. After discussing his options, it sounded like his client’s data is gone, not “just” encrypted. How would the rest of your week go if you found out right now that all of your company’s data is gone?

Think about what “all your data is gone” really means for your company. We’re talking about losing all of your data. Gone.

If you have a staff of people with a shared company calendar with appointments with clients – what would the impact be if the calendar was empty?

You might lose all of your accounting data. Imagine getting your books and taxes in order after a loss like that. While much of that data could be recovered from your bank’s records, you’ll still be missing important details.

Any activity that hasn’t yet created all of its financial transactions wouldn’t appear. The complexities of such transactions make it more difficult to reassemble the pieces, even from a bank statement. Imagine the invoices that don’t go out. Who has paid? Who hasn’t? The same thing affects invoices that come in for payment. Which ones have been paid? Which ones haven’t? Your customers who get invoices they’ve already paid will soon wonder what else you’re struggling with.

You might lose all of your sales and order data. That’d make it tough to calculate commissions, pay vendors, deliver orders and so on. What about your data used or created by manufacturing and shipping applications?

Losing all of your company’s data could be crippling, yet it happens regularly. You don’t often hear about it because no one wants to publicize such situations. It’s the same attitude that makes companies keep data breaches and hacks secret. These losses happen simply because not enough effort is put into making backups AND checking to make sure they work.

What does ransomware do?

Normally a ransomware event results from running a malware application or clicking on a link (or opening an email) that leads to installation of the ransomware. The bad part is that the ransomware encrypts all of your data and you can’t do anything with it unless you pay the ransom. In the case of my acquaintance, the loss was even worse – it didn’t encrypt the data, it erased it.

While ransomware (and charging a ransom) isn’t legal, companies with insufficient security, staff training, and/or inattentive users are victimized by ransomware every day. Few instances are reported because it’s embarrassing.

All it takes is one errant click on a legitimate looking website or email. The next thing you know, every computer on your company network could be encrypted (or just one).

Small price to pay

The company that lost their data had no backups. That’s right. NONE. The last time their data was backed up and stored off-premises 11 months earlier.

Fortunately, this backup was made by their developer or they’d have no backup at all. Ironically, the developer recently offered to setup backups for the client, but the offer was refused. Now he’s working to help them try and recover their data from the backup he made that will probably be the best shot they have to save their company.

If making backups and taking them off-premises sounds like hassle / cost you don’t need, I suggest you consider what your company’s worth. What’s it worth if all the data is gone?

My guess is the difference between those two numbers are worth the time / price of backing up your data. Maybe that’s the price of a monthly online backup service. Maybe it’s the price of an external hard drive or two. Either way, this small investment beats losing all of your business data.

Backup, take your backups offsite, educate your team on how to identify sketchy emails and websites – and help your staff with security software that can intervene to protect your assets. Your company’s worth it.

Do they know they work for an airline?

A recent graduation had both sets of grandparents, an aunt, and an uncle flying from the Midwest into two different airports, converging on Spokane. On the morning of my mother’s flight through Dallas, a thunderstorm with a tornado-like attitude stretched from Austin to Missouri. My mother’s flight to Dallas took a circuitous path around New Orleans, past Houston, into Austin. After an hour in Austin, her flight left for Dallas and landed there too late to allow her to catch her connecting flight to Missoula. A re-route through Seattle changed her arrival in Missoula from 11am to midnight, making a 22 hour travel day. Her baggage was a different story.

We all have baggage

After all that, Mom’s bag didn’t make it to Missoula. Given that her rerouted flight terminated on a different airline & was booked to Kalispell by the original airline (later corrected by Alaska in Seattle), it wasn’t surprising.

I called Alaska baggage in Seattle the next morning. The data said the bag was in Missoula the night before, but that didn’t seem right. Even so, it required a visit to the airport – and that’s where the magic started.

Shawna (an Alaska gate agent) in Missoula took my details & filed a claim. She said the bag was en-route to Kalispell. Shawna sent instructions to return the bag to Seattle on the next flight, then forward it to Spokane since we were heading there to meet the rest of the family. Then Shawna took the first of several unexpected steps. She gave me her direct number in Missoula, telling me she’d be off in a few hours but someone else (whose name I forget) would help me if I called after she left for the day. She also wrote them a note to make sure they checked on the bag. Then she gave me the direct number for her peer in Spokane’s Alaska baggage office and the direct number for the Seattle office, just in case.

Expectations

My expectations were mixed. I’d had re-routed luggage before. Eventually, it finds me. The process is frustrating until the bag arrives. This was different. About noon, my phone rang. Trevor (Alaska baggage) said the bag was en-route to Spokane. He asked if I wanted to pick it up or have it delivered. He took my delivery address and said “Call me if it doesn’t arrive by seven” then he texted me an additional number as a fall back.

About six pm, I received a call from Alaska’s Spokane baggage office. The woman said the bag was out for delivery and would be delivered soon. About 15 minutes later, it arrived.

My bag delivery expectations were met. Despite having flown a good bit, I’ve never lost a bag. Today, a bag’s barcode is scanned so often that it would take odd circumstances to make one disappear without a trace.

My expectations of the people were a different story. I had never experienced such attention to detail and effort to make sure I always had a local phone number and a name to ask for when tracking down a bag. I was never on hold where “my call was important yet they were experiencing unexpectedly high call volumes” repeated incessantly. Instead, my calls were answered in a ring or two & always handled well.

Uncle!

The uncle arrived at midnight on the evening of the arrival of my mom’s bag. He came in on a different airline (not Alaska) but his bag didn’t. He spent much of the next day on hold with his airline’s central baggage office. They didn’t seem to know where his bag was or when it’d arrive. After dinner, I suggested he call Alaska’s Spokane baggage office. What could it hurt? He was skeptical, but called them anyway and, unlike my experience, had to leave a message.

Five minutes later, he received a return call from Alaska baggage. Even though his airline was unsure where his bag was, the woman said she had his bag. He could come pick it up or she would have it delivered. He’d have clean clothes for graduation in the morning.

I don’t know what Alaska does differently, but their people don’t seem to know they work for an airline. Does your team act like they work in your industry, or do they provide service to a higher standard?

PS: the Monday after all this happened, Mom received a discount code for a future flight “for her trouble”.

Photo by Calle Macarone on Unsplash

Pay your future first

Many of the company owners I know are “one person shows”. IE: The owner does it all. Sales, marketing, product development, customer service, finance, toilet cleaning, you name it. Having been there, I know “The Struggle”. Too many things to do, and they never stop coming. How do I automate and free up some time? How do I free up time to do more important work?

It feels to them as if every moment they spend trying to improve the business takes away from the work they need to get done on products, or from sales calls, or from the ever-present demands of customer service. Thing is, those things are infinite in nature.

An infinite agenda

Sales calls will always be on your agenda. Customer support will always demand someone’s time. There will always been a todo list or an agenda of self-replicating tasks like service and sales calls. It’s like swimming in all of the ocean or walking to the horizon… it’s not possible to do them all and never have more. Meanwhile, those things can easily consume a day, a week, or frankly, a lifetime.

Meanwhile, if you let this infinite agenda rule your business life, there are tasks you’ll never get done. That manual monthly task that must be done every third of the month that takes an afternoon still comes back. You have to do it. It pre-empts even sales calls and customer service. There’s probably a way to delegate, outsource, or maybe even automate it. Trouble is, it feels like you’re too busy to take an hour to do that – even though you might never have to do that work again.

The result is the overwhelm and feeling of being trapped. You feel there’s no room for improvement because there’s no time to improve such things. What you’d find is that each small effort to improve these things is what creates room for the next small effort.

Time works a lot like profit

Time works a lot like profit, meaning that if you don’t set some aside at first, you may never have any.

Remember years ago when someone told you to pay yourself first. Even though it’s a simple idea, it may have seemed transformational at the time. Carve off an amount of your take home each month into a separate account before you pay your bills. Even if you start out at $10 a month, it’s only $10, you can figure out how to survive financially without it. Over time, it’ll grow, particularly if you manage to eventually carve out a little more and a little more before paying the bills. You get better at it.

It works just as well for businesses. Carve the profit out first – before you pay anyone else, including yourself. Even if the profit from your operations is tiny and is actually invented by this intentional act in the early days, take it out. You’ll find that your business will find a way to survive without that tiny amount one way or another. As your business improves, you’ll figure out a way to make that number larger.

Oddly enough, the time required to improve your business (working ON it, rather than FOR / IN it) can be carved out exactly the same way. You’ve probably noticed that if you start your day by digging into email, sometimes you’ll “wake up” from digging through and handling email only to find it’s suddenly early afternoon. Email has magically consumed a chunk of your day. You learned through such sessions never to start your day with email, but instead to “pay your todo list first” by doing the most important work first.

Pay the future first, time-wise

You already know this.

That’s why most days you probably try to get the most important item on today’s agenda done first, then you can deal with the rest. No matter how chaotic the rest of the day is, at least you got the single most important thing completed.

Even one day a month, make the most important task that day be an effort to improve the future. Like paying yourself first (or carving off even the tiniest bit of profit first), carve off an hour at the top of your day and do something that will pay dividends for months.

Even if only for an hour this month, pay your future productivity first.

Photo by Jesse Bowser on Unsplash

Take Friday off all summer? Crazy like a fox.

As summer approaches, we’re all itching to get out on the river, lake, trail, beach or whatever and take even the briefest vacation day. But, there’s that work thing. And for those who work in the restaurant or hospitality business, few owners even consider taking a day off, much less a Friday. Yet that is exactly what I’m encouraging you to do for the long term health of your business (much less yourself).

Yes, even during tourist season. You can roll your eyes and complain that you can’t leave the business alone on the (perhaps) busiest day of the week, or you can take steps so that you can actually do it without damaging your business. You know you need the vacation time, even if only a day at a time. What’s it take to make these days painless? Read on.

What happened last time?

Think back to the last time you took a vacation day. What went wrong? “Well, so-and-so did this incorrectly, and this customer was mad because we couldn’t do x, y and z – and it was all because I was out fly fishing.

It isn’t because you were gone. It’s because the team wasn’t prepared well enough. Fortunately, you’re in charge of fixing that.

I’m guessing you learned some problem areas the last time you took a vacation day. You probably made some process changes, documented some workflow, made a checklist or two, and maybe trained someone a little better. You might even have discussed among your team how they should (and are expected to) handle different kinds of situations when you’re gone.

If you didn’t do those things, it’s time to start. If you did do them, it’s still worthwhile to review this.

Prepare for next time

Think back to the topics / reasons that caused your team to call or email you while you were out. Document the processes that were involved. Train someone how to do them. Best solution: both documentation and training. Decide who will make decisions in your absence. Discuss that process with your team so they know who the go-to person is.

That go-to person needs a little extra care. First, discuss with them how you make different types of decisions. “I decided this” isn’t as useful to your go-to person as“I decided this, and this is why and how I got there.” Include the information that you gather before making a decision. Describe what your thought process looks like. For now, you want them to make the decision like you would – to the best of their ability, based on how you’ve trained them. To do that, they need these details. Ask them to write down decisions they make while you’re out, so you can discuss what happened &improve upon it.

When you return, assess how it went. If they did well, give them a little more latitude (and training for new areas of decision-making). Repeat the process. You’ll soon know if you chose the right person. If you didn’t, pick someone else. If you chose well, keep at it and have them train someone else in the same manner. Your current “decider” won’t always be around, or might be sick, or on vacation. You don’t want to be completely dependent on one person.

What would happen now?

Again, take Friday off. When you return, adjust, discuss, document, and (re-)train as discussed above. A few weeks later, take two consecutive Fridays off.

What happened? What systems, documented processes, and resources are required to let your team handle what happened and let you actually enjoy those Fridays? Again, adjust, discuss, document and (re-)train.

Soon you’ll know who you can depend on & who needs help. You’ll get a handle on the state of your checklists, process documentation, workflow, and checks &balances. You’ll have stronger People Fu (it’s like Kung Fu, but about knowing your team).

Next… Monday.

Now take Monday AND Friday off. Even if you work those days, your team needs the processes, checklists, decision making thought processes and advice that came out of your previous days off. As a result, they won’t need to interrupt you all day. They’ll know what to do, how to do it, and why you do it the way you do it. You’ll get more of the really important work done. Sure, you can work Monday & Friday if you like, but you don’t have to. Own the business instead of letting it own you.

Photo by Kyle Hanson on Unsplash

Make life easier on sales with time travel marketing

Ever have someone visit your store curious about buying a non-impulse item, get all their questions answered, only to have them turn around and leave without buying? Maybe they’re going out into the parking lot to check the Amazon price. Or maybe they simply drive off. Some might even order from Amazon while standing in your store. Most won’t. Even more mysteriously, the same person will return a few days (or hours) later and buy on the spot without asking a single question. Your sales team wonders what changed. If the buyer made the purchase from a different salesperson than the one who answered their questions, everyone else wonders what magic phrase the salesperson used to close the sale. In reality, they simply took the order and did no selling at all, at least for that person. Why does this happen?

I’m ready now.

Almost all of us have done this. We’re making a sizable and/or important purchase. We’ve done some research, made a few calls, searched a few websites and have more or less made a short list of what might work, what won’t, and why. But… we’re just not ready to pull the trigger. We have a few more questions (salespeople might call them objections) before we make a final decision. We go to the store, but not prepared to buy. We’re prepared to get answers. Two totally different intents.

On the other hand, the store’s sales team is prepared to sell. Sure, they’re prepared to answer questions, but really, they want to close a deal. We enter the store and even if the salesperson answers our questions perfectly, we leave. We say things like “Thanks, but I need to discuss this with my wife / husband / SO / dog / cat / boss, etc.” In some cases that might be true, but really, most need to convince themselves now that they have complete information.

Despite removing all those “Nope, this isn’t the right purchase” objections, they simply haven’t had enough time to sell themselves on the purchase. One of the things we sometimes forget when selling to people is the conversation already going on in their minds. They head to your store (or your website) to get answers, not to buy. At that time, they were not convinced to make the purchase, or at least not that particular purchase. Your staff or sales team answered all their questions and were trying to make the close, yet the person left without buying. You’re left wondering what you did wrong, what your salesperson missed, and maybe wondered if they used the “wrong close”. The salesperson probably did nothing wrong.

Time travel catches us as we think

Have you ever decided to buy a new home, looked for, and purchased one all in the same day? Probably not. You had to think about it, consider your options, weigh alternatives, gather information, and…. think about it even more. It’s no different with that car, rototiller, snowcat, four-wheeler, year of lawn service, or backhoe. This is the customer’s system for selling. It rarely matches up with store’s ideal system for selling (if they have one). Thing is, if you don’t have a system for selling, then you end up dealing with the customer’s system for buying.

People sell themselves to make sure they’re making the right decision. At that point, they’re *ready to buy* and move on. That’s why they often return & buy from the first salesperson who approaches them.

That’s where “time travel” marketing becomes important to the sales process. Marketing that considers the decision making process “goes back in time” from the upcoming visit to the store where you’d be answering questions but not making a sale. Ideally, it arrives in time to become a part of the buyer’s thought process. It answers questions before they get to your store, giving them time to consider their decision. Your materials (and your selling system) must consider the customer’s mindset and the conversation they’re having with themselves about that purchase. Knowing how your prospects make a purchase decision helps you create marketing materials that help people make a decision *before* they get to your store. It’s the same reason why pizza coupons tend to arrive on Thursday or Friday.

PS: Be sure to remind your customers that you can deliver *now*. Amazon can’t provide instant gratification like you can (at least not yet). Once we’ve made a decision, most of us want it now.

Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash

What signals does your business send?

As our body ages & changes, it sends signals. We gain or lose weight. Our appetite changes. Fatigue comes quicker, and sometimes during activities that didn’t cause it in the past. Doing things we’ve always done without difficulty now creates pain, either during or after the activity. Businesses also display symptoms, though I prefer to see them a signals of something that’s changing.

Over the last few months, a business that I’ve frequented for more than a year has started showing signs that it’s having difficulties. Does your business show signs like that? Maybe some examples will help you see what your customers might perceive as signals.

Financial signals

I spend about 12 hours a week at this place. I suspect this is far more than most customers are in your business, so I may notice more than your customers do. Maybe. We all notice different things at different rates. My wife tells me my sense of smell isn’t very well developed, for example.

Over the last few months, I’ve seen signs of financial stress when visiting this business. Many of them have been maintenance related. For example, the only two water fountains in the building have broken twice in the first year they were open. The first time, it took almost a month to repair them. The second time, it took a day. They’re adjacent to each other and fail at the same time, interestingly. One of the men’s toilets has been disconnected from the wall of the bathroom for months. It still works, but there’s an almost inch wide gap between the back of the tank-less fixture and the wall.

Paper towels & toilet paper are present some days & scarce on others. The staff often has to be told that TP is empty. Paper towels are replaced by cloth towels. These towels are used to wipe down sweaty workout machines, so cloth towels that remain out in the facility for reuse aren’t a good solution. These things send messages to customers. Some notice, some don’t. Some care, some don’t. Do you ask your customers if they see any maintenance issues that you might have missed? Familiarity makes some of these things harder to see.

Management signals

If expectations haven’t been set for attention to details and follow up on repairs, these signals could be the result. However, this might also be a case of weak or absentee management. Sometimes, there’s one staffer. Other times, five or six, at the same time of day on different weekdays. While it feels like inattention, it could be the result of using staffing-level management tools used by major retailers. They tell you how many people to have in the store based on same day, prior year foot traffic/sales, etc.

Currently, one of the 16 televisions on the walls has been displaying the same still image for the last two weeks. It’s not unusual to find trash littering the floor in public areas. This business is a locally owned franchise. I’d never seen a manager around, so sometime last year I asked the national company about the broken water fountains that had been down for several weeks. They suggested I ask the local manager. Amazing that I hadn’t thought of that, right? The water fountains were broken again this week.

I hadn’t discussed the issue with a manager only because I wasn’t sure who it was – despite visiting this facility almost daily for a year. There’s no indication of who the manager is (by name, sign, uniform, badge, etc) or how to contact them. All the folks working the facility and the front counter seem to share the same responsibilities. The obvious solution was to finally get around to asking who the manager is and when they were on site. Does your company make it easy to identify on-site management?

Is your business sending signals?

The business used in the example isn’t the point. In your case, the signals could be that you never have parts in stock, or that your team is untrained (or under trained).

A couple of times a day, you might ask your customers if they notice anything that needs attention. That’s vague enough that it won’t taint their response and it gives them plenty of leeway to mention a top of mind situation. Take the responses as a gift – as most feedback of this nature is exactly that.

Photo by Xipu Li on Unsplash

Thinking about your thinking

Last week, we discussed single points of failure, noting that eliminating them from critical systems is a management responsibility. How managers think about critical systems (and everything else) directly impacts outcomes. It isn’t about being more sophisticated or smarter than others. It’s often as simple as asking a question that no one else has the nerve to ask, like “What (else) can go wrong?“. The TV station issue discussed last week re: the NCAA broadcast might have been avoided if someone had asked “What happens if our primary internet connection goes down during a critical broadcast?

The problem isn’t the problem. The problem is how you’re thinking about the problem.” – Dan Sullivan

Thinking “What can go wrong?”

It’s impossible to eliminate every threat to your infrastructure, systems, processes, supply chain, people, facilities, etc. It’s obvious to think about infrastructure (water, power, internet, health care, food, transportation). Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes will quickly divert your thoughts to infrastructure.

What if we can’t ship our products for three weeks?” or “What if we can’t get (normally JIT-shipped) raw material for two weeks?” seem like ridiculous questions until mudslides or avalanches wipe out your shipper’s critical rail route, or spring floods destroy critical roads / bridges near you.

Ask “What else can go wrong?” & “What can go wrong with things out of our control?” Prioritize these risks & start toward eliminating or minimizing the most important / likely ones. What workaround processes will you need if mitigation plans missed something? Should you should document these plans? (Yes) Should you rehearse the workarounds?

How has the business changed?

Asking how things have changed can alter your thinking.

20 years ago, a Fortune 500 company might’ve had 20, 200, or 2000 locations. Today, they might have 20-50% fewer locations. Those locations might be larger, smaller, in more/fewer countries. Management at those companies are used to those changes. What’s different from 30 years ago (much less 10) is the potential added complexity of having thousands of remote workers across the globe. For that population, connectivity and power are still critical, and the risk is better distributed. Damage to a single facility shouldn’t sideline thousands of remote workers as it once would have.

Our customers, products, services, facilities, and people change all the time. While the pace and nature of this change varies, it happens to all of us. Our mindset and our history is a big part of it. When it comes to thinking about how our company has changed, our mindset and worldview about our past is a huge influence.

The best advice I’ve ever gotten about this is: “Look at your (and your company’s) past, decide what you want to take into the future, and forget the rest.” That doesn’t mean you forget the lessons or the history. It simply means you don’t let them come along as baggage that weighs down your thinking.

What are we assuming?

When doing a review of a “disaster” (whatever that means for you), it’s pretty easy to see the mistakes that cascaded into disaster. Imagine the value of seeing these mistakes in advance. By default, we make assumptions. Lots of them.

When driving from Billings to Cheyenne in the winter, we know to top off in Sheridan or Casper (or both) because we can’t assume that the drive will be uneventful. Running out of fuel because you had to sit still with the car running for four hours at -10F can be a life-threatening oversight. An assumption like “We have enough fuel” could be your last if things don’t go smoothly.

What conditions, supplies, staffing do we assume will be in place? If your top three salespeople get an ugly case of stomach flu the night before the biggest trade show of the year, what’s tomorrow look like? While unlikely, you need a plan.

If boxes of materials don’t show up at the show, you usually find out the day before the show. Even if the show staff finds them, it might take a couple days. By then, the show will be over. What’s your plan? Do your people have the info / means to find substitutes on a Sunday afternoon in a city they aren’t familiar with?

What did we ignore / forget?

Is maintenance up to date? Is the condition of equipment, people, vehicles, etc what we think? Dashboards and checklists save us from simple oversights / mistakes that can cascade into something you’d rather avoid.