Eliminating complexity. Except when you shouldn’t.

Business people (myself included) seem to have a habit of making projects more complex than they should be. Introducing complexity to a project often seems like the right direction to take because a simple solution can’t cover all the bases, or doesn’t seem so effective. We convince ourselves that “simple can’t do the job” and that’s all it takes to start running down the road to Complexityville.

Consider an extreme example – the recent events in Nice. Far more complicated plans might have failed due to one aspect or another of the plan not going as expected. Perhaps it didn’t go as expected, despite what happened. Complex attacks are likely foiled on a daily basis and we never hear about them because something went wrong they never made it to “implementation”, or an attack started and the various agencies caught it before anything bad happened. Yet a simple plan like “drive a truck into a big crowd and run over people” unfortunately succeeds, in part because it doesn’t require clockwork-like efficiency and accuracy, nor does it require a complex sequence of events to happen in just the right way. Any wacko who can drive can make that happen.

While it’s an awful, terrible example, it makes the point far better than I wish it had.

Constraints

We don’t always need a highly-complex, 32 (or 320) step project to achieve the outcome we want. In fact, the more complex we make a project, the more opportunities we allow suppliers, life, business, employees, clients, prospects and (of course) ourselves to trip over the tiniest of obstacles – any one of which can prevent a project from being successful. There’s a term for this: “The Theory of Constraints“.

Constraints aren’t just things you weren’t expecting. They’re also parts of the project that don’t necessarily turn out like you expected, or when you expected. The tiniest things have a way of turning momentum at the least opportune time. Large or small, your post project reviews should analyze what you can do to prevent a particular type of step from derailing your projects – including considering whether or not these particular steps should be eliminated altogether. Pilots use checklists – and these are regularly refined as support personnel, mechanics, pilots and others learn of things that reduce or eliminate the possibility that a particular item is going to threaten the safety of a flight. Whatever works for you – use it, but eliminate what you can if it isn’t necessary.

The beauty of complexity

Complexity has its positives. Doesn’t align well with what I said above, does it? It has its moments, despite the negatives in most situations.

The beauty of complexity is that it has negative impacts on your clients as well. I don’t mean that it’s good that they have negative impacts. It’s good that you can fix those things. Complexity wastes their time and their money – and if they’re lucky, nothing else. Have you put any thought into how complexity affects them? What sort of complexity can you help them eliminate from their work processes? More often than not, you’ll learn a great deal by watching their workflows. Figure out how to improve them, or eliminate their complexity. They’ll often be more than happy to discuss them, as long as you don’t come off interested in doing little more than closing a sale. Show that you’re interested in their workflow and improving them and the sale will come.

When is complexity OK?

As with most discussions of this nature, there are exceptions. There are appropriate times to use complexity as a tool. One common use is complexity as a barrier to entry to the business you’re in. If the process of consistently delivering your products and services is highly complex, it’s difficult to mimic. If people have come to expect what you do, then replicating it is also difficult, which makes it more difficult to compete with you.

That’s why systems are critical. Complexity without a system to manage and execute it takes us back to the Theory of Constraints, where every little bump in the road, miscalculation, unexpected result, timing problem or material change introduces a chance to fail. If your systems produce consistent execution, the complexity your systems support make it a steeper climb to compete with you. That’s a positive form of complexity.

Nothing happens till you sell something

For two weeks now, I’ve been encouraging about to become newly unemployed CFalls folks to rise up, figure out the value they can deliver and start their own business. Now it’s time to sell something.

This might be the part you’ve been dreading. Sorry, but you need to get over it. Selling the right product to the right person so they can do what they need to do (or get what they want) is honorable work. That sour stomach you get about selling is because you’ve experienced so many bad salespeople inflicting the hard sell on someone who had no interest in their product. That’s not what you’re about to do.

As I stated last week, the process is not easy. One of the things often used in the tech business that can make it easier is a process called “Lean Startup”. Lean Startup uses a process that is perfect for people starting out on their own – the use of the word “Lean” is intentional: This is not a process that requires that you order stationery and business cards, have a sign installed over your newly rented office and start pouring money into furniture, advertising, and so on.

Stay Hungry

The good news is that it takes advantage of things many hungry, underfunded entrepreneurs would do anyway: Spend as little as possible on stuff you don’t need, focus on a solution customers actually want, refine it quickly with multiple interviews / discussions with your prospective customers and swallow your pride long enough to ask for the sale.

If a “Startup Weekend” happens to pop up somewhere in the area in the meantime – take part in it. These events are often focused on technology-based ideas, but this is NOT a requirement and you don’t have to be a tech person to participate. The things you will learn by starting a business in 54 hours over a weekend will benefit you greatly, as will the relationships you build. The folks that often take part in these events are usually highly connected, entrepreneurial and happy to provide feedback on your idea and make introductions for you.

Nose to nose, toes to toes

Now is not the time to decide you need to take a college course, read the 27 books all entrepreneurs must read before starting a business, produce a detailed pro-forma for your banker, take a Udacity course on Lean Startup, etc. While the free Udacity course is good (for example) and the reading and pro-forma might serve you at some point – now is not the time for that.

Now is the time to get nose-to-nose, toes-to-toes with the people who you think are best suited to take advantage of what you want to do, discuss it with them and ask for the sale. Until you do that, get some feedback, ask for the sale, repeat (often) and start to get some feedback and reaction to your proposed offering,

It’s ok to tell them your business is new – they’ll probably figure that out anyway. They should quickly be able to figure out that you know your stuff based on how you position your offering and how you discuss how you intend to make it worth their investment.

Listen. Really listen.

One of the most valuable things you can hear during these conversations is “No, that’s not what I need.” You can either turn off and move on to the next person, or keep listening and keep asking questions. You know the process, product, solution you’re selling. It’s ok to ask them about the problems they’re having, what keeps them up at night, what makes them worry every day, and so on. If you ask the right questions and truly listen to what they’re telling you, you will find them making comments about things they invest time and money in to solve a problem. It might be a patch, but that’s ok.

They will spend time and money to get through something, solve something and/or perform a workaround simply to get some work done. Their workaround or process to get them by might seem crude or even ridiculous to you – that’s an indication that the problem is important enough for them to spend money on.

How can you make that better? Cheaper? Faster? More efficient? Safer? More dependable?

Sell that.

Independence Day for CFalls

Last week, we talked about the plant closing in Columbia Falls, MT.

This week, I’d like to talk a little more about this part:

Even though we’ve been here before, that doesn’t make it any less scary, worrisome, or frustrating. The pressure to produce cash flow to feed the family and pay the bills is on everyone’s mind.

If you’re targeted for layoff, I’ll bet you have skills, experience and knowledge that you’ve taken for granted for years. They’ve become second nature to you. I could wake you up at 2:00 am and ask you something related to whatever you do or know and without having to think about it, you’d rattle off great advice about how to deal with it, fix it and/or do it.

This is an opportunity to take control, even though you probably don’t feel you have much of that right now. You might have a dream that was always delayed by the “golden handcuffs” of a long-term job. Can you pursue it now?

There is no better time than now to start your own business. There is no better motivation than to create some control over your family’s economic future. It won’t be easy, but it’ll be yours.

It won’t be easy for you…

That paragraph of words is easy to say, but make no mistake about it: It isn’t easy to implement. Something that might make it easier to stick with it during the toughest moments: Never having to face this again – or at least, never having it be someone else’s decision.

The easy part is having the skills. In fact, it’s an advantage over many who want to start a business but aren’t sure what they want to do. If you’re struggling with this despite having marketable skills, don’t let it stop you in your tracks. The business you start today doesn’t have to be the business you’re in next year. Don’t get stuck thinking that whatever you do must be what you do forever.

Who will your clientele be? Even if you pivot (ie: change what your business does) multiple times, the thing you must have a laser beam focus on is “Who is my customer and why do they pay for what I do?” Far too many businesses seem to be a little lost on this. Knowing them, knowing their needs, knowing what keeps them up at night, knowing what they worry about during the day and what relieves them – all of this is critical. The better you know them, the more likely you are to be able to create a marketing and sales message that gets them nodding their heads and opening their wallets.

You might be tempted to have the best price around. Be careful with this. You probably wouldn’t try to start a business based on competing with Wal-Mart on the price of generic motor oil. Discounts come out of your profit – your pocket. If you can’t make a profit on what you do, you do your clients the disservice of creating a business that they need, but that probably won’t survive. Never forget to show your clients a ladder – a series of steps (good, better, best) that allows them to get more from you, get better this or that, and take even more advantage of what you do.

…but make it easy for them

If you’ve ever struggled to do business with a company, you know where I’m coming from. Some businesses seem determined to make it hard to give them your money. Don’t be one of them. Make it easy to do business with you. Easy to pay. Easy to get what was purchased. Easy to get service. If you don’t make it easy, they will eventually find someone who IS easier to deal with.

Easy to pay is an interesting one. Some clients will prefer a credit or debit card, some a check. Some businesses may want 30, 60 or even 90 day terms and will use that as leverage when closing the deal. Be very careful with these, as some of them like to use small businesses as a free bank. Not a good thing.

Create your own Independence Day

If you do, a decade from now, I promise you that you’ll remember the day you made the decision to take control – no matter how hard you had to work to get there.

Columbia Falls is not a redundant facility

We’ve been here before.

We’ve listened to a major employer who for decades said one thing and often did another. We’ve heard whispers and listened to double talk about what’s in the ground (or isn’t) and about plans to reopen and what the future holds. Our future is not our past.

We’ve seen Plum Creek as a solid community supporter and employer for a long time. Yes, there have been layoffs and temporary closures, but the company continued to support local causes and invest in CFalls – such as the MDF plant and technology infrastructure.

Yet buyouts change things.

We’ve been here before.

No matter what a company says they’ll do after the buyout, companies have a fiduciary obligation to shareholders. No matter what they feel obligated to say, redundant facilities are ALWAYS on the short list for elimination. It’s common sense.

It’s unrealistic, if not wishful thinking to believe that a company says that “closure of (your local) facilities isn’t planned” after buying out a massive competitor.

Columbia Falls knew better. We understand companies have to say those things. The officers have a responsibility to protect the company. That includes not inciting panic, drama or worse by telling staff in that area that “closures are possible but we don’t anticipate closing anything here”.

In this situation, a company’s thought process has to include something like “If we tell them what’s planned (or what we think will happen), people will leave (including some we want to stay), and those who stay will be distracted (or worse). The speculation will negatively impact the attitude and performance of the CFalls team.

When buyouts happen, people worry about feeding their family, much less being able to take care of a house payment, the bills, college expenses, etc. You expect that. Professionals take care of business, even when worried about their families – no matter what the press release said.

I’m losing my job, now what?

Even though we’ve been here before, that doesn’t make it any less scary, worrisome, or frustrating. The pressure to produce cash flow to feed the family and pay the bills is on everyone’s mind.

If you’re targeted for layoff, I’ll bet you have skills, experience and knowledge that you’ve taken for granted for years. They’ve become second nature to you. I could wake you up at 2:00 am and ask you something related to whatever you do or know and without having to think about it, you’d rattle off great advice about how to deal with it, fix it and/or do it.

This is an opportunity to take control, even though you probably don’t feel you have much of that right now. You might have a dream that was always delayed by the “golden handcuffs” of a long-term job. Can you pursue it now?

There is no better time than now to start your own business. There is no better motivation than to create some control over your family’s economic future. It won’t be easy, but it’ll be yours.

Redundant Facilities?

It’s easy to say the phrase “redundant facilities“, isn’t it? Who would want such a thing? Sounds wasteful.

When you say “redundant facilities“, you don’t have to think about 200 families who are wondering how they’ll pay their bills. It lets you sidestep the economic effect the job losses could have on the community. Say it, and you don’t have to wonder about the impact of families who leave the valley in order to meet their employment / financial needs. Saying “redundant facilities” allows you to ignore the impact on the CFalls real estate market, schools, charities and businesses.

If you’re wondering who will come riding into town on a white horse and rescue Columbia Falls, don’t. We know that no one will do that, and that’s OK. Columbia Falls doesn’t need someone to rescue it.

Columbia Falls is not a redundant facility.

As always, the people of Columbia Falls will make do, find or create new careers, recognize market opportunities, and find a way to manage the economic risks we all face. When you see a new business pop up in town, take a chance on them – and keep visiting our existing businesses. They feed Montana families right here in town.

Columbia Falls is open for business. It’s a great community with awesome, welcoming, kind people and to me, the only place that feels like home. Come see us.

Are you battling complacency?

One of the most serious challenges that a company can face is complacency. Whether it takes root among the leadership, the team or even their clientele, it can create permanent damage.

Complacency in leadership

You may have heard comments like these if your company’s leaders have become complacent:

  • We’re doing ok. I don’t see any need to change anything.
  • Our competition will never catch us.
  • We don’t need to invest in new tooling.
  • That new startup in our market is doomed. I’m not worried about them.
  • Our staff doesn’t need training.

Complacent leadership can produce fear, a lack of confidence and complacency among the staff. Fixing your company’s leadership, including their complacency, is part of your job as a business owner – and that includes your own leadership.

Complacency among the staff

There are at least two kinds of complacency that can creep in here: career complacency and job complacency. They’re often interconnected since someone complacent about the job may also all but given up on career growth. Not everyone has big plans for their career, so don’t assume that someone who isn’t pushing, pushing, pushing isn’t doing a good job – they may simply lack the drive, ambition or need to be your next senior leader.

If someone used to have that drive and ambition and no longer seems to, it’s possible that they’ve checked out and have succumbed to job complacency, which has more context with performance, much less with going the extra mile.

Job complacency, as noted previously, may relate back to leadership, but it may also be the person’s day to day mindset and overall quality of life will affect these things. The conditions of their life and lifestyle affect how they view life, how they work and the nature of their career aspirations. Your staff don’t become new people when they walk in the door.

Anything you can do to help them restore confidence in themselves will impact their job performance. Likewise, fixing things related to their job duties, environment, accountability and responsibility is likely to raise their self-worth outside your walls, not just inside them.

Many people take their jobs quite personally. When they’re in a situation where they don’t have the authority to do their job, or the environment works against them, it can infect their entire lives – enough to make them feel the need to move on, even though the thing you can fix seems trivial.

Complacent service

We’ve all seen it. Someone waiting on you, helping you in a store, helping you over the phone, or even on Twitter. They’re going through the motions. “Your call is important to us“, right?

What creates the complacency that gets a customer support team to that point? Their leadership, certainly. What’s the focus of the customer support manager? What metrics are important? What tools and authority to “make things right” does the team have? These are the things that make a support team vested in the solutions they provide.

A lack of these things can create a seed of cynicism, doubt or negativity that complacency can grab onto. In your service department, you simply can’t afford that.

Complacent products

It’s impossible for a product to be complacent – it doesn’t have a soul of its own.

That said, if those who design and build your products are infected with complacency, your products are quite likely to have it designed and/or built in.

This can happen whether they are “knowledge workers” or the folks in your wood or metal shop. What they design and create isn’t the point – that they have a customer-centric, long-term viability mindset when designing and building things is the key.

Leadership can affect this as well, since products might be designed and built with a strategic goal as well as a revenue goal. Cash flow and sales are important, but does that new product target a new market, a new lead source or does it increase your conversion rate? Does it serve a new tier of customers? Does it encourage the sale of services or increase the lifetime investment of the client?

Products that are not conceived, designed and built with a strategic purpose can create complacency if those who design and build them wonder “Why are we doing this?

As a leader, your job is to root out complacency at all levels.

Fear and Limiting Thoughts

Limiting thoughts had my software company stuck on a sales plateau.

Everything else was going well. Clients loved our software and our support. We could count the number of refunds per year on one hand and still have fingers left over. I was fortunate to have a few minutes with a mentor to discuss the issue. I summarized the situation and asked for his suggestions. He zeroed in on my comment about being able to count the number of refunds on one hand and asked me what seemed like a rather disconnected question.

“What are you afraid of?”

The question surprised me, because I didn’t think I was afraid of much at the time. In the last few years, I’d bought the assets of a now-dead software company, left an exceptionally comfortable job, turned the product and client base around, moved the family and the business to Montana, hired people to grow the company, and the business continued to achieve what I expected of it… except for that rate of sales growth thing. There wasn’t much that I thought I couldn’t do, so I was a little surprised by the question.

He said “Look, you act like that number of refunds is a badge of honor, and it tells me is that you’re afraid to hear ‘No’, or ‘Sorry, this isn’t a good fit for my needs, I want my money back’ from a prospect. You need to go home and sell harder. Stop focusing on refunds.

He wasn’t suggesting that we become that high pressure sales company that no one wants to deal with. Instead, he was suggesting that we take steps to attract and sell to a broader range of people – without limiting ourselves only to those at the top of the ideal prospect list. In other words, we were (perhaps implicitly) trying to sell only to the best possible prospects because we knew they’d buy and never ask for a refund. In retrospect, it seems dumb, but businesses sometimes do dumb stuff that seems like the right thing to do at the time. Put another way, we were taking away prospect’s opportunity to succeed with our product at a time when they were barely beginning to realize what they really needed.

Think of it as the sales equivalent of “the teacher will appear when the student is ready“, yet the teacher is hiding.

Limiting thoughts = Focusing on the wrong thing

In part, we were focused on refunds because there was an investment in time to get these prospects rolled out and working (only to have them decide the software wasn’t for them). In part, it was an ego thing. Our retention rate year over year was in the 90+% range. Refunds were almost unheard of and we were too proud of that.

We started selling harder, looking for those people who were starting to realize they might need what we made, rather than limiting ourselves to the people who needed it or else simply so we could point to a lack of refunds.

That’s the real reason for this discussion: Identifying limiting thoughts that hurt your business.

We saw the refunds-per-year as something to minimize, not realizing what it was doing to our sales. You might have a similar limitation about sales bonuses, for example. Imagine that you pay a one percent bonus for every dollar over $75k in sales/month, and the average monthly sales your salespeople produce is $80k. Yet there’s this one “troublemaker” who always hits $130k, with regular jumps to $140k or $150k. Your bonus structure is capped at $120k and you refuse to pay bonuses for the amounts over $120k in an effort to keep costs down, or because the cap has “always been that way”. You think you’re saving money, but the reality is that you’re doing what I was: Losing sales due to an artificial limitation.

The salesperson who never sees a bonus on sales over $120k is going to stop working when they hit $120k, or take their sales skills where they are appreciated/paid for. How many dollar bills would you put into a machine that returns $100 each time you insert a dollar? I suspect your answer would be “As many as I can”, unless “saving money” is your limiting thought. Bonuses on sales work like that machine.

Is your business limited by fear-based artificial barriers you’ve created?

New project idea? Do this first

A new project idea is always exciting. You think you have a great idea that’s going to take off in your market like gangbusters and you can’t wait to get started. In fact, the gravitational pull of this new bright, shiny object might be so compelling, you might discard all encounters with reality and start without doing any sort of market research, perhaps even setting aside real paid work that has stacked up.

As you might expect, I have another suggestion: use a concept called the minimum viable product (MVP), which is part of process called “Lean Startup“. While this originated in the software world, the process of developing a MVP can be used in ANY business.

Let’s talk about what usually happens to a new project idea.

New project idea development

While the minimum viable product concept took root in the software business, it can be used ANYWHERE.

Let’s take a brief look at the old way. I’ll discuss it in the context of the development of a software project, but this can happen during the development of any new project idea in any business.

The Lean Startup world relates primarily to software startups. Lean Startup recognizes the history of software project development over the decades and that it’s had a high failure rate. This failure rate quite often happened because software development often looks like this:

  • Software people get an idea
  • They determine what they believe to be the perfect solution and fall madly in love with it.
  • They run into a room for two years (or longer) to develop it, and work incredibly hard to produce this perfect solution to fit their idea or problem they’ve identified.
  • After years, they emerge, sweaty and victorious, having completed some portion of this perfect solution

These developers might emerge from their self-imposed development exile having become chest-bumpingly-giddy about their victory, only to find that they built something in a vacuum of customer feedback and the customer finds the solution misses the mark – often by a wide margin. Either it solves a problem the customers don’t care about, or it addresses a problem in a way that makes little sense to the customer, or the customer thinks it’s workable, if only the software people can make these 247 changes to how it works.

Making those 247 changes might take longer than the initial development, might cost more than the initial development, may not have management support, and idea doesn’t do much for a team of software people who became quite misty-eyed over the baby they worked on for the last few years.

Minimum viable product does away with running into a room for two years, and with creating what has universally become recognized as a danger to new and existing businesses: a vacuum of customer feedback.

Test, gather feedback, repeat

The Minimum Viable Product process is a rather efficient, mostly emotionless process for getting to the root of the problem and to the solution that best fits the customer. It looks something like this:

  • Talk to clients.
  • Build what you think they want – but build the smallest possible solution that emerged from the conversation about the problem or idea.
  • Place it in the client’s hands as soon as possible. If you can make this happen in two weeks or less, do so.
  • Watch them use it, ask them how they feel about it, ask them what they like, don’t like, hate, love, etc.
  • Go back to work, leverage their feedback and quickly make changes based on the discussions you had.
  • Repeat as necessary.

During your feedback sessions, ask them if they would pay real money for your solution and let them do so if they say yes. If they won’t pay for what you’ve shown them, you need to reconsider further investment in (or the direction of) the project.

Rather than two years (or some other long, expensive period) of product/service development, you might have two to four weeks invested. It’s better to find out that you’re on the wrong track earlier, rather than later.

Want to learn more about this process? There’s a free course at Udacity that will take you through the process and teach you how to do it yourself. https://www.udacity.com/course/how-to-build-a-startup–ep245 

You don’t have to be a startup to use this process. It works for any project.

Assumptions are dangerous

For the last month or so, I’ve been working on an all-consuming project. Yesterday, during a conversation with the recipient of this work, it became obvious that both of us had made some assumptions about the work that overcomplicated the project in the short term. In the long term, no time was wasted on this large, multi-phase project but in the short term – the assumptions were stunning.

Despite hours of phone conversations and emails, detailed technical specifications (geeks: think WSDL but newer), we still managed to have a rather large gap in the workflow of this project. Fortunately, there wasn’t any damage done and the situation merely juggles the position of a few tasks on the timeline, but we didn’t have to be that lucky.

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” – Isaac Asimov

The root of assumptions

The root of assumptions, at least in this case, was both groups of people thinking they had properly and completely described the project. Bear in mind that there are mindmaps and API calls and a bunch of other technobabble. Still, this happened.

But why?

Not enough questions?
Not enough diagrams?
Not enough workflow description?
Not enough conversation?

Perhaps all of those, but there have been plenty. What ultimately caused this was quite simple: there was a fundamental asset involved in this project that I was unaware of. They knew it would be used. I didn’t know it existed, so I was planning to use a similar asset under my control.

I speak vaguely about these things because the details really don’t matter and I don’t want the technical jargon to distract from the meat of the discussion: assumptions are dangerous.

The project will come in on time and it’ll be good for both parties, but it might not have worked out as well had this discovery happened a week later. It wouldn’t have broken anything, but it would have wasted some time, or at least caused work to be done that won’t be needed for a month or more and that would delay work needed soon.

There are many ways that assumptions can endanger your projects. The key is to have a process that does as much as possible to eliminate them.

Eliminating assumptions with a third party

The most dangerous assumption I made was that the technical documentation and the mindmaps would effectively communicate the project’s details to a technical audience. At a granular level that was true. Where this assumption got me was at the 10,000 foot level – the level where you break down a ton of technical workflow to 10 sentences (step 1, step 2, step 3…) in plain old English that anyone would understand.

Didn’t happen. Six weeks went by without this critical message climbing out of the technical documentation – and even then, it didn’t. It came out when those 10 sentences were written to clarify something that suddenly became confusing.

Many years ago, I was involved in an exercise along these lines where two people with experience in a field had to explain something to each other. Once they reached agreement, they had to explain it to a third person who had no background in the subject.

A fascinating thing happened.

The two people who thought they were describing the same thing were still far apart. When each of them described the project to the third party, they were stunned at the assumptions each of them had made – not big ones, not project killing ones, but differences that could create drama, friction, additional cost and so on.

Watching these two people realize they were not talking about the same thing was illuminating and stunning at the same time because the audience was made up of people with similar experience to the two ‘explainers’.

Of course, the exercise was designed to set them up to some extent and the whole idea was communicate to all involved that communication is real work and that it is breathtakingly easy to make a few small assumptions that can take two parties on substantially different paths even though they think they are talking about the same thing.

Getting two people (or two groups) to understand each other and agree that they are talking about the same thing requires great care.

Next time you have a project to deliver, involve a third party with much different skills. Describe the project to them and see where the conversation goes. Maybe you can avoid dangerous and potentially costly assumptions.

Hat tip to @ClayForsberg for the Asimov quote.

One sentence can make or break a campaign

As we’ve discussed before, I still believe that well written direct mail works when it is done properly because I see the results. While much of it is “junk”, there are folks out there producing high-producing mail pieces. What do I mean by “high-producing”? I mean mail that survives a trip from the PO Box or the mail box to the kitchen table, then gets opened, then gets read, then prompts the recipient to take action.

If it works, keep doing it. If it doesn’t work, fix it, or stop doing it unless you’re willing to fix it. Many have taken the second option, believing that it no longer works.

Each of those steps must be successful for a piece to be high-producing. Otherwise, the piece gets tossed at the post office, or on the way home, or on the way from the street-side mailbox to the house, and so on. Even if it does make it to the kitchen table, it has to meet the smell test to get opened, and then again to get read and so on.

About that one sentence

That one sentence occurs in your mail piece multiple times. Anything that appears on the face of a mail piece can be the one sentence that either provokes someone to keep the mail or toss it. This same cycle occurs for the face of the mail piece, the back of the envelope, the headline and salutation on the letter inside, and every sentence thereafter.

Too many mail pieces (and emails) ignore this simple progression. It’s a conversation. If you’re standing in front of someone talking with them to both understand what their needs are and help them understand how you can help them, you’re doing the same thing. If you say something that breaks the trust you’re building with the prospect / client you’re speaking with, the conversation is effectively over – which is the equivalent of your mail piece going into the trash.

Remember, your email or your mail piece is no more than a proxy for you standing there. It needs to be in your voice, while reflecting your perspective and expertise. I find that reading these things aloud before sending helps me write them in my voice. When I read something written in a way that doesn’t sound like my voice, it feels terribly obvious as soon as I say it out loud.

Do your emails sound like your voice? Do the things you put in the mail sound like your voice? Sounding like you, i.e.: using the words and sentence structure you use is the easy part. It’s crucial to convey your message with your personal credibility and desire to help the client. Perfect it one sentence at a time.

What about the one sentence that can break it?

There’s always a risk that a mail piece will go down in flames at any point between the PO Box / mailbox and the kitchen table. The aforementioned smell test isn’t a one time thing – it has to be passed at every step of the way.

The one sentence that can break it and make all the effort and expense of sending that piece is the one that destroys your credibility.

I received a letter like this last week. Someone tried to be clever on the face of the envelope and trick the reader into opening the envelope. While it probably worked on some people, it will destroy the credibility of the sender with many other readers. At best, that piece will go straight to the trash, which is how I handled it. With others, it could create some blowback to the organization who mailed it. With some, it could make that organization all but dead to the reader.

You obviously don’t want any of these things to happen. It may seem like a waste to spend a couple of paragraphs to remind you of this possibility, and I simply do so to make it clear that every step in the process of reviewing, opening and reading the mail is an opportunity to both provoke interest and lose it.

These same challenges affect your email pieces, blog posts and any other materials you place in front of clients. In fact, the same can be said for a face to face conversation you have with a client or prospect.

Teamwork means… what?

Teamwork has been on my mind a bit lately, so I thought I’d organize a few thoughts along those lines.

Trust is leadership is influence

Every day of your life, people are doing a credit check on you…your trust
– Rick Warren

People learn to trust you when you are predictable. When they can predict how you will handle a situation, how you will care for a client, how you will advise or comfort an employee, how you will discipline an employee – as well as when or where, and how you will call out an employee for a solid or above the call effort.

Think about that not only regarding your service to clients, but your service to your team. What example do you set for other employees? How do you talk about clients when clients aren’t around? How do you talk about other employees when they aren’t around?

People trust those who are loyal to them. Loyalty demonstrated in others is often assumed to be the same loyalty one thinks they’re getting when they aren’t around. Loyalty doesn’t mean being soft. It means being consistent, predictable and thinking of everyone – including but not solely the company and its owner(s) in every decision and action.

Life’s battery isn’t self-sustaining

Remember, the employee’s job is one of many things attached to their “life battery”. Work, home, kids, spouse and many other things compete for and/or charge/consume the energy in that battery.

If everything is taking energy from the battery and no investment is made in recharging the battery, how long will it last?

I don’t have the right to be tired” – reality show producer Mark Burnett, meaning that he doesn’t have the right not to take care of himself.

You can probably identify things that drain your battery. Can you also point to the things done daily or weekly that recharge it? What helps your team recharge? Does your team know what saps your battery? Let them know. For me, drama and the inability to get focus time are major battery leaks.

Teamwork, motivation and ownership

Don’t expect every staff member to work at the same level all the time. Different work motivates at different levels. Energy levels swell and fade. You and other team members can impact the performance of others more easily than you think.

Don’t expect employees to care as much as you do, work as long as you do, work as hard as you do, or live and breathe your business like you do. Some will, but most won’t because they don’t own the place. For you, it’s an investment in your lifetime financial future. What is it for them? What have you done to make it more than a paycheck for them? Perhaps you have some sort of employee ownership program, but it has to be real or it may as well not exist. Employee owners have a skin in the game and they will view things differently as a result, just as you did before you were a business owner. Don’t expect people to act like an owner if they aren’t.

When team members show an interest in learning new things or deepening their expertise or skills, it’s not enough to get out of the way. Do what you can to help them get a running start. You can pay for the education, reimburse upon success, make time in their day for it, and find other ways to leverage their enthusiasm and interest. No matter what you do, don’t discourage it.

Affirmation and Appreciation

Management of mistakes is important. Perseverance, determination and endurance combine to create wins, but mistakes teach us what doesn’t work. How we recognize, debrief and analyze them to avoid repeat episodes is critical.

Make at least weekly contact with everyone. I don’t mean a wave or a smile in the shop, but a few moments or a pre-arranged chat, email or text conversation about the Weekly Four:

  1. I’ve made progress on …
  2. I’m having a problem with ….
  3. I need a decision from you about ….
  4. My goal(s) this week is ….

Keep in mind that presumption isn’t communication. Assuming that an employee knows that their long/late hours lately are appreciated isn’t appreciation. Be explicit to them and their family. A short handwritten note to the family to recognize their effort and the family’s sacrifice is more than a thank you.

What does teamwork look like to you?