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Are you publishing stale content?

A question hit me a few years ago after the Flathead Beacon​ brought home yet another armload of Montana journalism awards. The question was “Is the column I publish there of (at least) equivalent quality?” In other words, I’m on the pages of this modern, very successful digital (and weekly print) newspaper with multi-award winning journalists and photographers. Am I bringing down the average?

Only the readers (and perhaps the editor) can answer that, but it stuck in my head as something to consider every time I hovered over the “Post” button for a column.

A better question

I believe a better question to ask yourself these days is this: “Is the content I’m publishing worth consuming right now?

What if they aren’t viewing / reading it right now? Am I producing lame content? Stale content? Both?

You might have metrics saying that your audience is pushing your content to Buffer, Flipboard, Reading List, Pocket, etc – but that doesn’t mean they’re actually reading it. My suspicion is that the majority of URLs pushed to deferred reading platforms never get read and another pile of them aren’t read for days, weeks or months. This GigaOm story about the overall Pocket saved-to-stored ratio for all Pocket users backs that up.

Pocket is like your Getting Things Done method’s inbox of reading material. Once a URL is off an active browser tab and resting comfortably in Pocket, it’s off the “I MUST READ THIS BEFORE DOING ANYTHING ELSE!” list. Every time you click that Pocket button, your mind screams with freedom like a Dave Ramsey debt-free caller because you’ve temporarily deferred the guilt of not reading everything. Because, you know, only the very best and most successful business people read everything and everyone else is a failure, right? (Yes, that was sarcasm)

Think about what you write. If it goes into someone’s Pocket for a month, does it lose its effectiveness and impact? Does it matter a month from now if they do happen to read it later? Do they read it later? The GigaOm link says Pocket confirmed that the average Pocketed-to-actually-read for all Pocket users is about 50%. I’ll bet my percentage is lower than the Pocket average because I use it as a keyword-oriented search tool as well as a read-it-later tool. I file something there with tags and later use those tags to find things I need on those topics.

What provoked this thought process? This “content shock” piece from Christopher Penn, which sat in Pocket for a few days before I actually read it. It escaped becoming stale content for me.

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What your customers don’t know

One of the more dangerous things that can get stuck a writer’s head is the feeling (assumption) that everyone knows or has already read about what you’d like to write about. This usually happens because the writer is so familiar with the material, concept or admonition that they simply assume that everyone knows about it, or has heard it already.

The same thing happens when a business owner considers what to communicate to their prospects and clients.

I’ve heard it all before.

Ever been to an industry conference session where the speaker talked about a fundamental strategy or tactic that you’ve known (and hopefully practiced) for years (or decades)? If so, it might have bothered you that the speaker talked about it as if it was new information. It might also have made you feel as if you’d wasted your time in that session, and that everyone else in the room did too.

Did you think “Everybody knows that“?

Unless the audience was very carefully selected to eliminate all but the “newbies”, it’s a safe bet that the audience breaks down like this:

  • Some of the people in the room are so familiar with that strategy or knowledge that they could be called up to the stage to teach it at a moment’s notice.
  • Some of the people in the room learned that information for the first time.
  • Some of the people in the room had probably heard it before, perhaps decades ago, but forgot about it.
  • Some of the people in the room knew about this fundamental piece of knowledge but have since forgotten to implement it or stopped using it – probably for reasons that would be categorized as “we got busy” or “we forgot about it“.

Everybody knows that” simply isn’t true unless the audience is highly controlled.

Most of the time, there’s a good reason to cover foundational material. Even if the fundamentals of whatever you do haven’t changed, something about how they’re applied probably has changed. Even if they haven’t, a reminder about the things “everyone knows” is usually productive to some of your clientele.

If you first learned whatever you do for a living 10 or 20 years ago, some of the fundamentals have probably changed. There are some fields where this isn’t true, but that doesn’t mean that changes haven’t happened.

Your customers’ knowledge is no different

Your prospects and clients are all on a different place on their lifecycle as a prospect or client with you. This is one of the reasons why you may have read or heard from myself and others that you should segment your message.

When I say “your message”, I mean the things you talk about in your newsletters, emails, website, direct marketing, video, sales pitch and so on.

As an example, someone who has owned two Class A RVs is likely going to be interested in a different conversation than someone in the process of selecting their first bumper pull camper trailer.

Despite that, if you have regular communications of general information to your clients (and surely you do), fundamental topics like changes in waste disposal and easier ways to winterize are always going to be in context – assuming you send the winterizing information in the month or so before your clients’ first freeze.

The key to getting the right info to the right people is to segment the audience (and thus the information), while not forgetting fundamentals that everyone can use a refresher on now and then.

Segmenting fundamentals

So how would you segment the educational marketing messages you provide to clients and prospects? How about new prospects, new clients and old hands?

For prospects, a “How to buy” series of information is a highly useful, low pressure way to identify the differences between yourself and the rest of your market, without naming anyone. “This is what we do and this is why we feel it’s important, be sure and ask these questions” is a powerful way to set the tone for the purchase process.

For new clients, provide a jump start. This will also give them a “this is reality” view of what ownership is like that can defuse a naturally occurring case of buyer’s remorse.

For old hands, discuss the questions that cause you to say “Hang on, let me go ask someone in the back“.

Speaking of fundamentals, that’s what this was all about.

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How do you know which customers want to be an insider?

Coffee Cupping

This past weekend, I checked off two to-do- list items with one visit to @OnyxCoffeeLab.

First, I was looking for a good locally-owned place to sit, sip and write. A coffee shop.

Second, I was meeting with the founder of a @StartupWeekend-born startup to discuss how it would go forward.

It started off nicely enough with a chat with the baristas about the Northwest (one of them was from Pullman, WA), including some agreement that NWA’s current 18% gray winter sky is right out of a classic Northwest winter.

After some solo writing time, my meeting guy arrived. As we finished our discussion, a group of people entered together, filling the table’s remaining 10 seats. Soon after, the shop’s owner came over and started assembling a mass of small coffee cups, bottled water and other gear.

Turns out that a couple of hours earlier, I had settled into a seat at the Onyx Coffee Lab‘s cupping table.

Lean Customer Development

What I witnessed next was a nice session of customer development.

In addition to enjoying some new-to-me coffees, I watched as the owner exposed already-bought-in customers to new products that he’s considering for their product mix. None of the coffees we tasted are available for sale – the owner was still determining which ones he liked and presumably was using the reaction of this group to refine his opinion.

Later, I found out that the shop does cuppings (think “wine tasting” for coffee) almost every Saturday at 10 am. Sometimes they discuss different brew methods or other coffee geekery – always with a dual focus on education (building a better customer/spokesperson) and the coffee itself. This week, the education component included some help understanding how the coffee business grades coffees, ie: specialty vs run of the mill vs “not-so-specialty” coffee and how the various acids and sugars in the bean result in what we taste and feel when we have a cuppa Joe.

I didn’t discuss this with the owner after the cupping, but I suspect this was not only done in the interest of Lean Startup style customer development, but also to gather some feedback from those bought-in customers – presumably some of their biggest, best-engaged fans – as well as to build on their fanbase while pulling existing fans a bit closer.

I wish these sessions were on YouTube. They’d make a nice series for new fans to review as they choose their next “thirdplace“, much less for fans who missed a Saturday.

Oh yeah, the coffee

Coffee nerds, if you’re wondering what we tasted, we had:

  • Brazil Caturra
  • Burundi Bourbon (pronounced burr-bone, which has nothing to do with Jack Daniels)
  • Guatemala Geisha (no, nothing to do with Japanese bathhouses)
  • Ethiopian Heirloom (this one seemed to be the crowd favorite)

I preferred the last two, but I wonder if the order of their presentation provoked that result.

All in all, it was a great combination of StartupWeekend, coffee and the use of Lean Startup principles. Yet there’s one more lesson you can take from it.

In what position do they see you?

How can you can tweak and use this for your business? By understanding that a cuppings aren’t just about coffee, they’re about positioning.

  • The owner shares his coffee insight, education, expertise and knowledge with a group of customers who appear to be insiders. Almost everyone else in the shop is watching and listening intently since they don’t have a seat at the table (it’s first come, first serve). Some of them want a seat at the table.
  • The owner gets to meet with customers who have raised their hand to show they’re interested at a level beyond the customer norm. These folks will talk about the shop, its coffee, the cupping and anything else they felt was important. These people have other friends with common interests – including coffee. You know it’ll be discussed. In fact, you just read what I shared about it.
  • “Raising their hand” says “I care about, enjoy, have enthusiasm about coffee at a higher level than your average customer.” Just being a customer at a “coffee lab” shows a higher than typical interest in coffee. These guys go beyond that norm. Those are the customers for whom your positioning is most important. They are also the customers whose feedback you want.

How you can accomplish these things for your business?

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Who needs a mentor? Not me!

Note: I am blogging on behalf of Visa Business and received compensation for my time from Visa for sharing my views in this post, but the views expressed here are solely mine, not Visa’s. See full disclosure at the bottom of this post.

Thanks to the kindness of a few people and a good mix of intent and luck, I’ve been fortunate to meet a number of people that I consider mentors or significant influencers.

In several cases, I’ve managed to work with them in person, via email or phone calls.

More often than not, I meet them at conferences – but not at conferences related to the industries I work (or have worked) in. That’s where the intent and luck take over.

Who are mine?

For me, the list is easy: Jim Rohn, Dan Kennedy, Peter Drucker, Tom Peters, Dan Sullivan and Chet Holmes.

Each of them have something in common: Without hesitation, they can name a mentor who was instrumental in getting them on the right path in their earlier years. They all struggled, and in some cases, did so mightily and more than once in their lives.

At their level of achievement, the fact that they can point to a mentor who was instrumental in their success is a critical lesson. It’s one each of us should take away from observing what makes high-achieving people tick.

None of them claim to “figure it out” on their own – even though they specialize in a particular area of business and have substantially raised the level of “play” in their respective specialty.

If these people managed to find and learn from mentors, shouldn’t all of us?

Why do entrepreneurs need mentors?

You might be wondering why you even need a mentor.

A few reasons…

  • We can all use a dose of clarity now and then. Sometimes more often.
  • We need to hear a perspective that we don’t have about our challenges .
  • We need a fresh set of eyes on something we’re about to do, already doing or failed at doing.
  • We need someone to be honest with us when no one else will.
  • We need advice from someone whose experience and knowledge is far beyond on own.
  • We need to be asked the question that will transform what we do.
  • We need the counsel of someone who will provide a stern correction before we make a ridiculous mistake.

Where do you get these things now?

How do I choose mine?

I’ve found that you don’t often choose them. In fact, sometimes they happen to you or someone brings them to you. There’s a lot of “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear” going on when it comes to mentors.

It can take serious effort to find a mentor. You might have to pay them. Don’t cheat yourself on this – the results from working with the right mentor can (and should) be worth at least 10 times your investment – hopefully more.

Here’s the things I look for:

  • A history of success that’s 10-100 times beyond where I’ve been – in any field. Recurring success, preferably.
  • Someone who can see through me and isn’t shy about doing it.
  • An ability to ask simple questions or make simple suggestions that floor me or make me rethink my angle on something. You can find this most often through their writing (books, blogs, etc).
  • Someone who asks questions about myself or my work that I can’t immediately answer.

What would you look for?

What about other influences?

Other influencers come from outside the business world, or their influence has little (if anything) to do with business. For example, Hildy Gottlieb has a habit of making comments that provoke me to think differently and before long, that thought bubbles up and provokes some of my sharpest clarity in discussions that end up helping her. While our relationship is not at all about business, business tends to be the context where I process our conversations – at least initially.

What about you?

You might think you don’t have any business mentoring someone, but that just isn’t true. There are always people who need advice, a little wisdom, some clarity and an occasional poke in the ribs. Make yourself available to someone – it’s likely to improve far more than their life. More often than not, it’ll make you reconsider some of your own struggles, even if they are worlds apart from the person you’re mentoring.

Mentorship and influence isn’t just about dollars and cents. It’s about dollars and sense – and a lot more.


DISCLOSURE: I am blogging on behalf of Visa Business and received compensation for my time from Visa for sharing my views in this post, but the views expressed here are solely mine, not Visa’s. Visit to take a look at the reinvented Facebook Page: Well Sourced by Visa Business.

The Page serves as a space where small business owners can access educational resources, read success stories from other business owners, engage with peers, and find tips to help businesses run more efficiently.

Every month, the Page will introduce a new theme that will focus on a topic important to a small business owner’s success. For additional tips and advice, and information about Visa’s small business solutions, follow @VisaSmallBiz and visit

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The woman with the Jay Leno chin

While I doubt it was their intent, the soap makers at Dove created something that perfectly illustrates the power of one of the best sales and marketing tools you can use.

It might be the best demonstration of that tool I’ve ever seen.

The experiment

The Dove “Real Beauty” experiment has three parts:

  • First, an experienced police artist draws a woman’s face based solely on her features, as she verbally describes them to the artist. He asks her about hair, eyes, chin, nose etc and she provides what she thinks the world sees in her own words.
  • Second, a stranger describes that same woman to the police artist and again, he draws her face based solely on the verbal description.
  • Third, the woman compares the portrait drawn from her verbal self-image to the one drawn based on the stranger’s description.

I suspect the results are obvious: The stranger thinks the woman is more attractive and/or less “flawed” than the woman views herself.

The reveal

When the woman compares the two portraits, they describe what each one looks like to them: Emotions, looks, age, features, mood, and so on. In each case, the woman sees a more attractive, happier, friendlier face in the portrait based on the stranger’s description. If you look at the drawings, you’ll likely see the same trend.

What I found interesting was that the stranger did a better job of providing details that resulted in a realistic portrait – whether that realism was flattering or not. You knew that drawing went with that woman while some of the original ones were a bit off the mark due to the woman’s self-described facial characteristics. Some of them clearly felt much worse about themselves than they really looked.

Obviously, the experiment has quite an impact on the women, but what does this have to do with your small business?

The experiment describes a situation that plays out in sales every day: the stranger’s drawing acts just like a powerful, believable testimonial.

A believable pitch

If you listen to the women describe themselves, you’ll hear one of them say something about her big chin. While she didn’t say it, it was hard not to wonder if she was thinking “I’m ugly, because I have a chin like Jay Leno.”  Later, the stranger says she has a nice normal chin and moves on without commenting further – and the stranger is right. The portrait’s chin matches hers.

When the women viewed their portrait based on the stranger’s description, it might have been their first chance in years to honestly see themselves through someone else’s eyes. You didn’t hear a single one say “Oh, that’s not what I look like. This is all wrong.” None of them appeared to need convincing that the drawings accurately portray how the world sees them.

They believed the story that the second drawing tells because it came from someone who had nothing to gain from describing it that way – just like a testimonial should.

Suddenly, they were the friendlier, more attractive, happier woman – and it was possible to believe it by hearing it from someone else.

What’s in a chin?

“I couldn’t use that system. It’s too hard to learn” sounds quite similar to “I’m ugly, because I have a chin like Jay Leno.”

For the woman who thinks she could be Jay’s chin sister, a single stranger’s unbiased view changes everything.

For the prospect worried that it’ll take months to learn a new system, a comment like “I expected it to take months to learn how to use their system, but I got started on my own in about 30 minutes. A few days later, I felt like an expert.”  has the same effect on a buyer that “She has a normal chin” has on a woman.

So how do you get the perfect testimonial for the person who is worried about learning to use what you sell?

Ask good questions

You’ve probably been asked a meaningless question like “Rate your buying experience from one to ten.”

It’s meaningless because numbers mean nothing except at the extremes. Even then, a ten doesn’t help others decide even if they share the same pre-purchase concerns.

The right answer to the right questions can help many make the right buying decision.

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Giving away what you do – strategically

While looking for new post fodder in my drafts folder, I found this unpublished post from 2009. I hope you enjoy looking back over it, while considering how things have changed with “free” since that time and how those things affect your business today. Note that four years later, the Beacon is bigger and stronger than ever and the news business has continued to react to the things this post talks about. Enjoy. – Mark

Before I got around to listening to Free a few weeks ago, I’d tossed some thoughts together in my Beacon column about ESPNChicago and (soon), partly in response to a local writer’s consternation about ESPN’s entry into the local sports/newspaper scene.

As you might expect, I segued into how that relates directly to what you do, but I had other motives as well.

Those other motives? I wanted to stir the pot at the Beacon a little bit.

In 2007, the Flathead Beacon was the new media darling (news-wise) in Northwest Montana.

Primarily, it had 3 things going for it.

  • A new coherently-designed website, driven by a modern content management system.
  • Up to the minute news and opinion written by news professionals (myself excluded) who were exclusively educated at the U of Montana journalism school (hometown rep), earned their reputations at places like CNN, then became “comebackers” by returning to the Flathead to work for the Beacon
  • Content published in its entirety online, with a subset published in print on a weekly basis.
  • Free. The Beacon is advertiser supported (and 2 years later, solvent).
  • It offered an alternative voice to the media-conglomerate-owned, long-time daily in town, whose site was little more than an afterthought of their business.

2 years later, despite numerous ongoing improvements and definite success, I have concerns that it could slide back into the comfort of old media and compete with the newspapers who don’t get it, such as those publishing news online only after it has gone to press.

Myers’ story about and the ensuing move into NYC, Dallas and LA was the perfect opportunity to talk about it and get a column on the books as well. Two birds.

Meanwhile, as yet unreleased post that uses the newspaper biz as an example while focusing on changes in technology and their impact on your business continues to languish at 4000-5000 words (note: that turns out to be this post).

Seth v. Malcolm

To that end, I recently got around to reading what Seth said about the whole Free thing and particularly what he said about Malcolm Gladwell’s comments about Free (these 3 make an interesting triad of ‘arguing’).

While in the middle of reading the dustup between Malcolm, Chris and Seth, Seth says this: “People will not pay for yesterday’s news, driven to our house, delivered a day late, static, without connection or comments or relevance.”

When you describe a newspaper that way, it sure sounds quaint and outdated. And that’s exactly what many of them have become.

While “people will not pay” might not be 100% true today, that day is rapidly approaching as my parents’ generation ages. Take one look at the financials of the newspapers across the U.S. if you need evidence.

It’s obvious to state that people may not pay for it online either, but figuring out how to make it work is the premise of Chris Anderson’s Free. If you’re asking “Who is Chris?“, there’s your answer. It’s worth doing your homework on this topic, so have a listen (or read) Free and consider how it might reinvent your business.

One thing is certain: When my parents’ generation is gone, the news business is in for yet another shakeup.

Paging Mr. Cialdini

Beyond the financial obviousness, an awful lot of this Free thing goes back to what Robert Cialdini talked about in Influence.

Reciprocity. Guilt. Call it what you will.

Meanwhile, as you read/listen to Free, you almost get the idea that all of this is somewhat new fangled and currently relates primarily if not exclusively to (as Anderson puts it) products “made from pixels rather than atoms”. Obviously that’s not the case.

Who hasn’t accepted a tasty snack-sized nugget from a nice grandmotherly type, enjoyed it and ended up tossing a box of that item in the cart? Sam’s Club and Costco sure didn’t invent that strategy, but they use it.

Meanwhile, how exactly do you get home with a box of deep-fried, fudge-coated wookie bars that you’d never buy intentionally? Reciprocity? Guilt? Or is it about that nice grandmotherly person?

Should you give it away?

If you have trouble with ideas on this, think about what would be most painful if your strongest competitor started giving it away. Likewise, what would pain that competitor the most if you gave it away? It’s a place to start the thought process and might even identify a new value proposition for your business.

All of this is about finding a way to reinvent your business more so than just that Free thing. Not necessarily because your business is broken, but because reinvention forces you to improve strategically rather than being forced into it in an attempt to survive.

That’s what Free (as a tool, rather than book) did to the record companies, some newspapers and many other businesses. Better to act strategically than to react to someone else’s.

It’s interesting that the book “Free” isn’t free.

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Is your work important? Meaningful?

Like a lot of people, I was drawn to this TED talk by the death of Roger Ebert.

As you watch it, imagine how it must’ve felt to see that as a member of the speech synthesis team at Apple. Hearing Roger appreciate what they have done and describe how meaningful their work is to him, his life and his work must have been incredibly rewarding.

What a gift such validation must be for that team, in return for the gift that their work clearly gave Roger. Not just because validation was delivered at TED, but because it came from someone whose life was so intertwined in the ability to communicate.

Find meaning

Depending on what we do and perhaps because of where we do it, our work may never get validated in that way. It’s even less likely to be validated on the TED stage. I think that’s OK. After all, if your work is all about waiting for validation, maybe it’s the wrong work for you.

What isn’t OK is to spend a substantial portion of your life doing work that has little meaning to you. Is that what you want to tell stories to your grandkids about 30 years from now? I suspect not.

That doesn’t mean your work is meaningless unless you cure that terrible disease or rescue people in burning buildings. While there’s little doubt that kind of work is meaningful, but it may not be what gives *your* life meaning. That’s the difference.

Why spend your life doing work that doesn’t interest or motivate you? Why work at a place that doesn’t value what you do?

Yeah, but…

Almost everyone has had the opportunity to do what they might consider “less than meaningful” work because they have obligations to fulfill. Things like mouths to feed and bills to pay tend to trump finding meaning in people’s work, at least in the short term.

Even if you’re in that mode – and particularly if you expect to be there a while – find a way to make that work meaningful to you until another opportunity presents itself.

The speech synthesis team at Apple didn’t likely start their programming careers on that work, but something from their past that they found meaning in probably led them to it. Some of them likely had rather winding journeys to that team, so don’t feel like you have to be doing the work of the next Jonas Salk on day one. If you are, that’s great – but it might not work out that way when you start.

What are you working on? Where is it leading you?

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Have you forgotten how to get better?

trust snape
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Recently I had a tech conversation with someone I’ve known for at least a decade and have great respect for.

During a dumb conversation we didn’t even start, we disagreed about spaces in file names and software that doesn’t support them.

My friend is like the NORAD of user interface look and feel.

His work is beautiful and well-tested. If there’s a pixel off, he can see it at 100 yards and it’ll make him crazy until fixed. He noted that every language has syntax rules and if you disobey them, you get bit. The programmer side of me is rather well aware of that, but that wasn’t the side doing the talking.

What concerns me is the ever-present support for what once was in an industry that should be supporting what is, much less what will be.

Defense of the dark arts

It’s so easy to be trained to have low expectations.

Once folks are trained to accept less, some will defend it because it’s their normal.

The guy who started the space conversation was scolded by some of his peers for not playing by outdated rules and for making note of the shortcoming.

That’s why the space in the file name is such a good example. Spaces have been appearing in file names on Windows since Windows NT 3.5 arrived in 1994. For most Windows users, the first experience with these file names came with Windows 95. Worst case, the public has had access to software that can use file names with embedded spaces since at least August 24, 1995.

That’s 17 years,  one month and 12 days (and counting). Yet we’re still defending the inability to deal with it.

Why it’s important

When you turn the left faucet on a sink in the U.S., you expect hot water to appear. It’s an expectation set by standard behavior on almost every sink you’ve used.

Once you encounter a faucet that’s installed backwards (hot on the right), you automatically distrust the next one. And how many more?

Users become accustomed to the behavior of the products they use whether they’re using software or a screwdriver. When the failure to support common industry behaviors shows up in your product, it makes some of your customers wonder what other expectation failures should they be looking for.

Just like that, expectations are lowered and with some, the opinion of everything you do.

Are you willing to risk that?

Reinvention gone wrong

At odds with this risk is reinvention.

Hipster effect” aside, Apple products sell well in part because almost anyone can figure out how to use them. They’ve reinvented common products that by “conventional wisdom” couldn’t be improved.

Yet their iTunes software is the exception to that – illustrating the risk I mentioned.

Of all Apple products, iTunes is the least favorite among Windows users. iTunes has a knack for ticking off users in no time because it doesn’t “work like other Windows apps”, particularly where user feedback is concerned. Many Windows users won’t buy Apple products because of their experience with iTunes. Even Apple “fanbois” have trouble apologizing for it.

Unless you reinvent in a way that’s “Wow, so obvious, where has this been all my life?”, your reinvention (or lack of it) reflects on everything you do.

Expectations are powerful but fragile. Those who star at reinvention know they’re at risk, but the risk of standing still is far higher.

Inbox, railcar, udder, backlog

Where does that leave you? Your day is focused on emptying that inbox, railcar, udder or product backlog.

As you grind through day’s tasks, you’re likely focused on producing today’s revenue built on the last century’s expectations. Rightly so, since bills and payroll loom. Yet that daily effort is no more important in the big picture than carving out quality time to plan and produce for tomorrow’s customers and their expectations.

The type of change I’m speaking of goes well beyond the essential task of continuously improving day to day processes and outcomes.

Look hard at your advances in the last two years. Are they substantial or marginal?

Let’s define substantial: What would have to happen to your business to enable your products/services to produce 10 times more high-quality results for your customers?

Have you forgotten how to improve?

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Are you a partner or just a vendor?

Get out! This is my garden!
Creative Commons License photo credit: foxypar4

Last week, we discussed a big reason why clients won’t take your advice.

Reader David was kind enough to share an experience about a fairly common situation:

Interesting concept but whenever I have tried to apply it (which has been many times before reading this post) I find the client still wont listen and will ignore my advice.

This leaves me with two options ignore them back and refuse to implement their bad ideas which means I lose what has become a frustrated client or do it their way and feel even more frustrated myself at the poor work I have had no choice but to do.

Business owners don’t wake up thinking “I’m going to buy some crap today” or “Let’s pay someone to do poor work and implement their bad ideas.”

So why won’t they listen?

Why they won’t

If you’re left with no alternative but to “ignore them back” or “implement their bad ideas”, it’s possible there are relationship problems.

Clients typically ask for help because they lack the time, resources and/or experience to do important work. They want your answers to be exactly what they need, so if they aren’t taking your advice, you need to find out why.


Four possibilities:

  • You lack some information that somehow causes your advice to be off target in their eyes. Why doesn’t matter. Dig deeper.
  • There’s an authority / credibility problem. Either you’ve damaged it or you’ve never established it.
  • They don’t trust you. They might think you’re just trying to sell them something. Trust and credibility are different. Credibility can convey enough trust to start a relationship, but trust must be earned and then repeatedly reinforced with each customer.
  • They need to be able to depend on you to help them analyze the situation and advise them. If they feel unable to depend on your advice, it will chip away at their trust in your abilities, even if your work is simply evaluating their plans. That’s dangerous territory.
Each of these are client relationship issues that can impact a project. However, I don’t think they’re causing what David described. That the client is “frustrated” is what concerns me.

Why they might

Be sure to discuss all possible options (and their outcome) with your customer. If you don’t, it may tell the client that you haven’t fully considered their situation.

If clients agree with your predicted outcome for each approach, they can select the desired outcome rather than “taking your advice” (or discarding it). They get to own the choice made with your help, setting you up to deliver great work to those predetermined expectations.

But what if their choice of outcome is “poor work”?  Does your ability to explain the undesirability of poor work’s outcome need some polish?

Do you regularly hear comments like “We hadn’t thought of that, good thing we asked for your help”? Are you working that hard? They need to see that you are a valued partner in their work, not simply their vendor.


“Take my advice” isn’t a one-way deliverable that says “Do this or else”. If you position your recommendations that way, you should expect pushback.

“Advice” is just a word. It isn’t “words from on high” or one-way, take it or leave it communication, so please don’t get tangled up in that because of the word I chose.

Whether you are putting out a fire or designing a long-term strategic plan by reverse engineering a desired state that will occur years in the future, it’s still “advice” for lack of a better term. The goal is to work together with your client as a valued partner to fulfill, if not exceed, their needs.

The obvious choice

You can only work with clients from a position of authority if you have earned that position. Again, I don’t mean “authority” as if you have a throne, but from a “that’s THE business to ask about this stuff in our market” perspective. In other words, the obvious choice.

Start earning that position right away. Do one thing every day to improve your credibility in your market. Write, speak and most of all – repeatedly deliver exactly what they need. It isn’t always what they think they want – but it’s your job to explain the difference.

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Every customer listens differently. Can they hear you?

In the TED talk “The danger of a single story“, Chimamanda Adichie shares some powerful lessons about stories, their environments and how they form our assumptions. It’s notable that she sees this from two sides: both, assumptions she and her family made and those made about her and her country/continent.

Once you’ve watched this, and yes, I realize you’re investing 18 minutes+ into this post, you’ll be much better prepared to consider the point of this post – that your business’ story is multi-faceted and the risk of telling just one story is shortchanging your business.

To put it in terms that fit the election season’s political rhetoric: If you are a fervent member of the blue party, when someone from the red party talks – I suspect you probably dont accept that the point that they’re making is worth listening to. Likewise, if you are a fervent member of the red party, when someone from the blue party tries to make a point, the situation is likely the same.

Are you “Talking to the hand”?

The stories your customers listen to might not be quite as highly charged as political conversation, but they still might be ineffective because your customer might feel you aren’t speaking to the problems/concerns they have.

The moment they think you aren’t talking about their problem, you may as well not be talking to them. It doesn’t matter if they are wrong / misguided / misinterpreting your story. It’s over as far as that conversation is concerned.

This is what makes it critical to know your ideal customers inside and out. Their needs, wants, fears and more. Every one of those requires you to tell a different story.