Everyone has heard the phrase “follow the money”. There’s a reason for this – it leaves a trail to the truth. Similarly, business processes reveal themselves and who is involved when you follow the paper.
Yep, I’m referring to software estimates. Software people are generally terrible at creating estimates. Or at least, creating accurate estimates. Software people know this, of course. You’ll hear “double or triple it and add four” as a joke. Except it’s not a joke when you’re paying the bill.
Do you have a process?
Software people need a process for creating estimates – but most don’t have one. Typical result: Estimates that are often inaccurate.
“Do you have a consistent process for creating estimates?” is a good question to ask someone you’re considering for such work.
Estimates created using a consistent process may still be wrong. A process lends a consistency to them. Over time, an attentive team will notice the consistent inaccuracy and work to fix it.
When we don’t have a process for coming up with an estimate, our estimates will lack consistency. A consistent process should create consistent estimates, even if they’re inaccurate. That consistency allows us to learn over time how to adjust them to make them more realistic.
Bad estimates have other roots.
I say “lie” because you hear this from software people, but that isn’t what they mean. They mean that what customers tell them isn’t what they need, but the customer doesn’t know that.
Customers unwilling to provide a detailed description of the problem cause bad estimates. Being unable to describe what you need produces the same result.
The right software people can make this process easy. Those who do this make it clear they understand the importance of this part of the process.
Signs of trouble
A bad process sends signals. Someone makes assumptions. Things get glossed over or ignored with comments like “Oh, don’t worry about that, we’ll take care of it later.” There’s a resistance to digging into the details.
Would you hire a drill press operator who says “Oh, I know where the holes belong”?
Would you hire a loan officer who says “I can tell who pays their bills by looking at them”?
I doubt it.
If they won’t take the time to immerse themselves, they won’t understand the work you do. They won’t know what questions to ask. They won’t “find out where the bodies are buried.” (ie: essential knowledge)
A bad process results in more work after project completion.
We’re not talking about good ideas discovered. I mean the original work isn’t what you needed.
If I’m McDonald’s software guy and all I know is that they sell burgers, what I create will have gaps.
What’s a good process look like?
I like to follow the paper, or in today’s world, the paper’s surrogate.
When the phone rings, a piece of paper appears.
When a customer walks in the door, a piece of paper appears.
When you get a lead or a sale online, more paper appears.
Of course, there might not be an actual piece of paper, but there will be something. It might be a new record in your CRM. An email. A text message. An order on your system that needs pick and pack. A PO appears.
Something provokes the next action you and your staff take – and it leaves a trail.
Do they follow the paper trail?
Your software people should be asking about these things. They should be following the paper trail – at least those pertinent to the project. They should be asking about things tangential to the assets and processes involved.
Everything touches something else – including things we may not consider important.
Describing the reality of your business workflow requires following the trail. In businesses with no paper, something leaves a trail.
Following it will help you explain the roles your new software must fill. It will show the gaps that software must bridge. It will tell the software people things you don’t know to tell them.
Whose responsibility is this?
It’s yours. And sure, to some extent, it’s theirs.
If their actions don’t make it clear they’re the right team, you have to be strong enough to look elsewhere. The last thing you want is the wrong people on the bus.
Jack Stack, of “The Great Game of Business” (GGOB) fame has a saying: “Share the insomnia”. In other words, if something is keeping you up at night, why not share that concern with your team?
To be clear, Stack does not mean that you should share something simply to scare or worry your team and provide them with no other information. He also isn’t suggestion you share the cause of your insomnia only when things are bad.
Instead, he advises that you not only share the concern you have, but also educate your staff (leaders and -all- front line employees) on why something is a concern, what drives that concern, which activities in the business drive the outcome you’re concerned about, what market activities impact this outcome, and so on.
This is the primary strategy that drives the GGOB. Imagine how it could change your business if everyone on the team truly understood how their work affected the company’s balance sheet and income statement – regardless of their role.
This isn’t as simple as handing someone a balance sheet and an income statement and expecting them to simply figure it out. Remember, I said “truly understood how their work affected” those documents.
GGOB isn’t a free lunch. Using it involves taking the time to educate your people regardless of their role about why these reports are important and how their department and their job directly impacts one or more lines on those reports.
I’ll bet a lot of owners don’t have that level of understanding about each individual role within their departments. Some may get it at a higher (departmental) level, but most don’t if you asked role-by-role.
As owners, we understand a team member’s role and why their work is important, but understanding specifically how each person’s work drops to the bottom line is another thing entirely.
Time and time again, I hear owners talk about how they want their people to think like an owner, despite their people having no skin in the game other than keeping their job. Sure, they may not be risking what you are, but they also have no shot at a piece of the reward. What should spur them to do anything other than what you told them?
Remember what you told them? “Just do your job.”
Some of us expect our team members to be internally driven like we are. While some are, many owners seem to expect it from everyone. If that’s you, you may wonder what motivates the rest of your team. A better question is “What motivates me?” Is it the possible return combined with the fear of the risk we’re aware of? Maybe it’s the sleepless nights (there’s that insomnia thing again).
If a team member is unaware (or not participating in) the risk, and they aren’t participating in the possible rewards, and they’re unaware of the reason why you have business-related insomnia, how can you expect them to act like an owner?
How can you expect them to think like owners if you haven’t told them how you think and how you make decisions? They aren’t mind readers.
Your people don’t know what you know (mostly) & they haven’t been asked to think about those things – and this often includes things that relate to their role.
When you grumble “Just do your job”, how can you wonder why you can’t get them to understand why the company’s scrap rate matters? Have you bothered to explain in detail how scrap rate affects your COGS, profit margin, etc.?
They can’t unless you explain it.
When you say “just do your job”, are you surprised that’s what you get? You didn’t tell them to “act like an owner” and explain what you think that means. Unspoken expectations are poisonous.
Explain how their work falls directly to the balance sheet and how that impacts the company’s ability to keep them employed, improve their pay and benefits, regardless of role.
Once a part timer sweeping the shop understands that the 39 bolts they tossed in the trash each day cost $1000 a month (at $0.86 each), they understand why it’s important to the company to pick the bolts out of the dust pan. $12000 a year important.
With that education, no job feels meaningless, regardless of role. That’s when people start to think like an owner.
There are two trains of thought on what you should work to improve about yourself and your business: strength vs weakness. Some say you should work on your strengths. Others recommend working on your weaknesses. As you might expect, this isn’t a binary choice – and there’s something missing.
Work on your strengths
The work on your strengths folks, which I am mostly on the side of, describe the tendency for each of us to have a specific skill or competency that is notably better than everything else we do.
This isn’t to imply that we’re bad at every other thing we do. Instead, the idea is that we’re much better at a specific type of work than most people. Because of our skill in this area, we should focus exclusively (or as much as possible) on those tasks.
There is speculation that the work we’re really good at happens to be the work we really enjoy. Naturally, there are exceptions, ie: some of us are good at work we really don’t enjoy.
You might be tempted to think that you don’t need to work on your strengths because you’re the best in your industry, or at your company. Sometimes you can get away with that. Other times, you’re asking for it.
If you’re the best quarterback on Tampa Bay Bucs team, and decide not to work on your strengths, what happens to you when the Bucs sign Tom Brady? If you’re so good, why did the team sign him?
Work on your weaknesses
In contrast to the “work on your strengths” proponents, there are some who advise that you should work to improve your weaknesses – the things that you / your company do poorly, if at all. The idea is that these things become your Achilles’ heel, so you should work to improve them so that they don’t become your downfall.
If customer service is your / your company’s weakness, you should certainly work on it – unless you’ve calculated weak customer service into your entire business model.
While that’s not my recommendation, I make note of it because some businesses are built around letting certain things go in favor of others the business finds more important. Low-price-centric businesses are often an example of this. You probably don’t expect good customer service at a store called “Cheapest Stuff Town” and your expectations will likely be confirmed.
In many cases, your weaknesses don’t matter so much. Until they do. We’ll get back to that.
Decide using work value
Some in the “work on your strengths” camp are all about the value of the work. They will coach you to never mow your yard, for example. The idea is that it’s “$10 an hour” work & your time is worth more, so outsource that work so that you can use that time to attend to $50, $100, or even $1000 an hour work. Yes, $1000 an hour work does exist and it doesn’t necessarily mean you bill someone that much.
As you might imagine, there’s a spectrum here, not a binary decision. For some, that hour following the mower around the yard gives you quiet time. By quiet time, I mean mentally quiet time to ponder decisions and things that merit deep thought, not that you have a silent mower.
Extreme proponents speak almost as if they’d outsource lovemaking if it took time away from work. Be careful about extremes.
Sure, pay $35 for someone to mow your yard if you despise mowing, particularly if you’ll actually make good use of that newly-freed hour.
Some weaknesses are best delegated. Work you despise. Tasks that don’t require your expertise. Things you’re seriously bad and/or slow at. Work that, once delegated, opens time for work that no one else can do except you. And yes, work that you might do because it has to be done, which takes time away from high value work you could be doing.
The ability to delegate the right tasks to the right people is a superpower worth improving upon.
And yet, there’s nuance
What tends to go unmentioned in strength vs weakness discussions is fundamentals. Whether they’re your strength or weakness – they’re an undeniable requirement. Houses have foundations or they crumble. Business people need foundational skills & knowledge, or they likely fail. For example, the need to understand a balance sheet & income statement is important, but it doesn’t mean you need to gain CPA skills.
Earlier today I was speaking with a friend who is looking for work. He mentioned something about interviewers asking for salary requirements. Personally, I always found that question lazy and a little aggravating. Not because of the question itself, but because there are better ways to ask that that yield a more complete answer. The salary requirements question rarely needs to be asked.
Most of the time, the person asking the question is filling out a form someone had asked them to complete about an applicant. The person asking the question often has no say in the decision. They’re simply filling out a form someone asked them to complete – and the answer is sometimes used later to either filter applicants or lowball them.
What’s your budget?
Some candidates will have been coached to respond that they’re confident they can arrive at a fair compensation that works for both parties if the discussion gets to that point. Others have learned to reply with “What’s your budget?” – which the questioner doesn’t always know because they are simply processing a form.
The question is also used to weed people out of the interviewing process early on – applicant filtering that the ad should already have done. In most cases, the candidate and the potential employer are not terribly far apart since both of them know the role’s compensation range in their local market – unless neither of them have been paying attention. In remote employment situations, these things can get a little more complex.
Good applicants don’t typically come sauntering into an interview expecting 40% more than your position is budgeted for unless your ad misrepresented the position, or the applicant is clueless.
Anybody who has a few minutes to search around can find out exactly what the pay range is for that role is based on location. This information is easy to find and everyone on both sides knows it. Result: This tap dance between what’s your budget and what are your salary requirements is mostly a waste of time.
Filter manually if you must
If you haven’t used your ad to filter applicants, there’s still a good answer to the budget question that helps everyone. Something like “Our budget is in the range of $LOW to $HIGH. People without experience ABC or qualifications XYZ typically start between $LOW and $MIDDLE. People with ABC and XYZ typically get an offer in a range of $MIDDLE and $HIGH.”
You’ve told them what your offer amount decision process involves. They now know how they fit those parameters and already know what their financial situation is. It’s a good time to ask them if they are still interested.
Sure, some will say that you’ve given them a sliver of an advantage by telling them what your range is. Horse biscuits. Again, unless they’re completely oblivious to the existence of the internet, they already know the range. At this point, it’s on the candidate to look elsewhere, and both of you to consider if there are other openings they’re qualified for – including positions with variable compensation.
Let your ad do the filtering
The process used to filter applicants should always start with the ad. Folks get worried that no one will apply (since when?) if their ad is too specific. Clearly, some companies go the other direction asking for things the position clearly doesn’t require. Software companies in particular are bad about that.
Regardless of what business you’re in, the ad’s reason for existence is to get qualified applicants to self-select – either in or out. Your ad should speak specifics to culture, your budget, workload, etc. You don’t want to interview 100 people when you know there might be 12 qualified people nearby with the right skills and experience. No one has time for that.
Where this ends if you aren’t careful: The lack of solid help wanted ad writing is one reason why corporate America ended up with all these resume scanner programs and websites that scan for keywords and throw out qualified candidates whose resume didn’t happen have the exact keywords needed to pass through the filter.
Resume scanners and websites can’t filter for culture, fit, and other “soft” qualities of an applicant, but a great help wanted ad can – and do so legally. Let the companies who must deal with thousands of resumes suffer through that while you home in on the right folks easily.
Was 2020 your best year ever? Was it your worst? I’ve talked with people dealing all three types of results, except that those conversations don’t really describe three types of results. It’s more like two easy to understand types of results and a wide spectrum of results between those two extremes. After an “eventful period”, I always wonder what people and companies will do next.
As you get older, you start seeing patterns during stressful, challenging periods. Younger people today seem to grasp this earlier than I did when I was their age. At least it seems that way.
One pattern is that you learn who people and companies really are. For example: there are takers, there are givers and there are those who do both. Stressful times don’t create those tendencies, but they do tend to amplify them.
There are people who seem to need pressure to perform their best. Likewise, there are people who need no pressure to perform their best. If you manage both of these people, it’s important to understand their differences.
I wonder what you’ll do differently this year vs. last year. I wonder what you’ll do the same. What did 2020 teach you about your business, your team (if you have one), your customers, and yourself.
My biggest takeaway from 2020 had nothing to do with COVID or the election.
I realized that I need to work harder than ever to spend time with smart, talented people. People smarter than me at things I find important. I’ve done this for years but in 2020, I doubled down. I’m already working even harder on this in 2021 because the payoff from last year’s effort was major.
At the least, the one thing to take from 2020 is that you made it. Hopefully your business did too. While there were a lot of human traits on display in 2020, there was at least one that stood out.
We can take a punch – in whatever form that might present itself. Doesn’t mean we don’t get hurt, but we get back up and try again. Even when it’s “wrong” or ill-advised.
There’s this guy in the valley I’ve been watching. Young guy. I knew him when he was a kid. He’s tried jobs. He’s tried his own business a couple of times. It never seemed to work out, at least not with enough consistency to depend on for the long haul. I could see his frustration – and so could everyone else. He wore it on his sleeve. I worried about him. Privately sent some advice. He’s a good man. He just hadn’t yet found his thing… until he did. Somehow, he managed to find it in 2020, of all places. I don’t see him angry anymore. He’s happy. He’s enjoying his work – and his customers seem to be as well.
He kept getting back up. That’s the part I’m proud of him for.
A sizable percentage of the country’s businesses are going to have to do the same, including some right here.
Encourage them when you can. Send some business their way when you can. Help them get back up off the floor after taking the punches 2020 handed out.
Wouldn’t it be a shame if they were unable to help you a few months or years from now because they’re closed – perhaps because not enough people did a little bit to help them back in 2021.
If your business had an amazing year, great. Depending on the reasons for that result, don’t get all cocky on us and assume that success will continue simply because you’re brilliant (even if you are). Keep proving your brilliance.
If your business had an awful year, perhaps the worst since your first year in business, don’t look at yourself in the mirror like you’re an idiot (even if you are). If your business survived, that’s something.
Depending on the reason(s) for the trouble, hopefully 2021 will be your great comeback. Or maybe last year was the signal that you need to try something else. If you do change business paths, take your resilience with you, along with the lessons of last year. They’ll both come in handy.
Take care of the people who take care of your customers. Spend more time with people who are smarter than you about something you find important.
Is there someone in your company whose abrupt departure would cause unholy chaos? Seth Godin called them a linchpin.
You probably aren’t worried about staff members quitting right now. Many employees are simply hoping they’ll be kept on the team until the vaccine does its thing and life resumes to whatever the next normal looks like. Similarly, many employers are hoping business remains strong enough that they can keep paying their team until some form of normalcy returns.
And yet, there’s one type of employee to be concerned about. They’re the glue that holds everything together. I’m talking about someone whose departure could bring the house down, even though might not be apparent.
They’re the folks who “are the company”. If you have someone like that, ask yourself: Do we treat and compensate them in a manner that correlate to their value to the company & our customers?
When the economy starts growing again and it’s clear that the turnaround is going to stick, many companies will be hiring. Finding great people to do the work your company does is your second most important job. Keeping the great ones you have is the first.
Your linchpin will be the one other companies are looking for. They’re not just a member of the team, they’re an essential cog in your business.
You need a plan to keep them.
We’ll talk about four areas:
What happens if you don’t keep them?
Compensate linchpins properly
Treat them like you value them.
Make their leadership official.
What happens if you don’t keep them?
When the economy turns around, many businesses will see a glut of applications.
The linchpin will have their choice of jobs, even if they aren’t looking. If you don’t know who they are, which is entirely possible in a larger company, your first step is to identify them. Your managers should know and if they don’t, that should tell you something about the work your managers are doing. In a smaller company, you probably know who they are.
A friend recently told me about their primary contact at the CPA firm who does their taxes. They gave the firm and their clients two years notice that they were retiring. Normally, this would seem unusual. Taxes are often once-a-year transactions, so their announcement was two transactions worth of notice – reasonable.
The company where they worked did nothing to replace them. Maybe they assumed it’d be business as usual. They were “only” a middle tier employee doing tax work – they weren’t a CPA. How much impact could their departure have?
This linchpin retired this past summer. The week of December 3rd, my friend got a letter that his CPA firm was dissolving. Not in a few months or after tax season. Immediately.
It turns out the now-retired person was the glue holding the office and their business processes together. Imagine having a CPA firm for over 20 years and having to tell all of your clients in December that you won’t be able to help them with their upcoming tax filings. Not this year, not ever.
Compensate a linchpin well
I can think of two people who worked for me who were linchpins. They’ve probably been linchpins everywhere they’ve worked.
I had control of J’s compensation, but I was young and stupid. The company was new, so every dollar had to be watched. No excuses – I was less of a leader back then.
We treated her like the valuable linchpin she was but whenever I think back to that time, I wish I had paid her better, even though she made higher than average for the position at that time and made more than at her previous job.
20 years later, I’ve yet to find a more effective peer, though I haven’t given up my search.
It doesn’t matter what they do. These people do whatever they do so well and create such an amazing experience that their customers (internal or external) would be up in arms if they left.
For the person you’re thinking of, are you paying them at a level that indicates how much the company values them? It’s easy to say “Well, they’re in a role whose market pay isn’t higher.” Do you make the decisions or does your budget? Do you know what the impact on your company would be if someone offered them $200 more a week than you pay them, so they left because they needed the money?
If you don’t currently have the funds, talk with them. They need to know they’re appreciated and how you’re thinking about them. Keep your promises.
While money is important, it’s not all about compensation. There are at least two other things you can and should do to recognize your linchpins.
Treat them like you value them
T reminds me of the person who retired from the CPA firm, ie: they are the glue that holds everything together. Her magic manifested itself during new customer onboarding, customer training and similar duties.
That company’s onboarding process was complex and technical – and was made more challenging by the variety of customer environments we encountered.
During the onboarding process, she’d discover things the customer never told sales – things no one knew about the organization or their business process. Things the customer didn’t often realize they needed or needed to stop.
These are the things you discover when you get down to bare metal in order to add a new capability for a customer. And yet, I watched the company treat her indifferently at times, as a hassle at others, with reverence at other times, and ultimately as a difficult person who was essential, so the company tolerated her… until it didn’t.
I say tolerated because no one seemed to like managing her. We got along well perhaps because I was fortunate enough to figure out her motivation. She loved the work and her customers. Anything that got in the way of that didn’t sit well with her, but the secret was that her occasional grumpiness was sourced entirely in her concern about a customer’s poor experience. The customer always came first. She’d schedule an onboarding at two am if necessary.
I put myself between the aforementioned treatment and her as much as I could because her value was evident. I saw first hand what she was getting done. She had above-average patience with customers, as well as a load of industry knowledge, technical skill, and the ability to navigate the crazy things we sometimes find at a customer site – without losing it.
There was literally no one else at the company who could do her job. While I had the technical abilities, I didn’t have the industry knowledge. She had both, as well as the ability to work with customers.
The value of people like this is immense. Maybe you can’t pay them like a VP, but you’d better treat them with the same consideration. They’re worth it. Finding out their value by virtue of their departure will be expensive and painful. It’s not all about compensation.
Make their leadership official
The people we’re talking are often asked to train new team members, even those in more senior roles. There’s a reason linchpins are often asked to train others – and it isn’t necessarily their skill.
It’s the example they set and the attitude they bring to the work.
The thing about spreading what this person does is that how they do their work is what makes them a leader. Sure, they may have more experience and maybe more advanced skills than others, but usually, it’s their attitude and the care they take doing the actual work.
Instead of thinking “I’m just a worker bee, this isn’t important work”, they work as if they realize that every step in the process is an important part of the whole, even their part, because it is.
That mindset and the thought processes they convey can be transferred to other people by using them as mentors or trainers. While this may not be a true management role, having someone act as a mentor or trainer is still recognizing them as a leader. Having a fancy title or management responsibility doesn’t make you a leader. Your actions do that. Most of them are leaders long before that – and often remain leaders even if the title and responsibility is never conveyed.
The people around them already know they’re a leader. Having them mentor or train others tells the linchpin that YOU know. That’s important. It sends a company-wide message that recognize their leadership, even though they aren’t “management”.
You probably have a linchpin on your team – maybe more than one if you’re lucky. Question is, can you keep them?
There’s a quote in the story about Moderna’s technology that identified the key to going after the virus (the spike protein, apparently) within two days of receiving the genetic sequence of the virus, which follows:
That’s from January. The comments about this process reminded me so much of custom work. Specifically, of showing a customer the mockup of an application or website that maybe took a day or so to develop. Mockups don’t take long because they don’t do much. They’re just a visual example that proposes a look for the real software / webpage. The idea is to get feedback from your customer *before* doing a ton of work.
Mockups are everywhere
It’s not terribly different from the 3D mock ups that you can create if you remodel or build homes. There’s architectural design software that’s simply amazing in that respect. The realism is impressive. I remember seeing it a few years ago. You could design a house in 3D including landscaping. Once done, you could visually “walk” through the design and get a feel how it would look – all in very realistic 3D. While impressive, it was still nothing more than a mockup. Like mockups in other industries, it looked real, but it didn’t do anything.
The parallel isn’t exactly like Moderna situation but it’s similar. Here’s how: once you identify what you have to build – in detail – and you get agreement on it, the hard part is done.
I don’t mean that building whatever you mocked up doesn’t require a lot of work, technology, raw materials, time, communication, know-how, etc. It does. Even so, the work to figure out what you needed to build in the first place, can be most difficult. Getting consensus on an on-budget design that everyone agrees on – and it’s actually what’s needed – can be rather difficult.
Many times a project is doomed from the outset because there wasn’t enough communication to describe what was wanted and why, what the possible solutions look like, and what solution makes the most sense for the situation. What ends up getting built is what we thought someone wanted, only to find out both sides made too many assumptions and failed to ask enough questions. Mockups are great for reducing these problems.
New school design
What Moderna did in two days is flat out amazing, particularly when you compare it to how it was done in the past. Old school methods of building vaccines were in some cases done by getting people sick and studying the reactions in the sick peoples’ bodies. From those reactions, scientists, doctors, chemists and others eventually came up with a vaccine. Today, much of that work happens in a computer. That’s an oversimplification medically, biochemically, and probably in other ways – but you get the idea.
Some of you may remember the SETI project from years ago. After you installed their software, it would download and process a small amount of the radio telescope data collected by the Arecibo observatory – yes, the one in Puerto Rico that suffered damage resulting in it being permanently taken offline. SETI’s software would process the data and send it back to the SETI system, which would use whatever processing your computer had done to figure out if that data was valuable.
Early this year, I stumbled across similar project for medical study called Folding@Home. Folding@Home is working on protein folding analysis for COVID and other diseases. I read somewhere that some of the data processed by this project helped produce some portion of the vaccine solution – but I don’t know the details. This happened thanks to a large number of people all over the globe letting their computer do these computations and analysis in the background. As a group, these computers served someone as an equivalent to a medical supercomputer. That’s important to this work because supercomputers are rare, in demand, and really expensive.
Before I digress further, let’s explore how expectation gaps appear.
So if Moderna’s software figured out the spike protein after two days of work in January 2020, you might be thinking “Gee, it’s November, why don’t we have a vaccine yet?”
It’s a reasonable question and it brings the discussion back to our mockup discussion.
By identifying the shape that a vaccine has to match, they’ve done a very important piece of work. It’s a mockup of part of the work of producing a vaccine (yes, a sizable oversimplification).
Once you have a vaccine, it has to be tested, including time-consuming human trials. That process is often where the work doesn’t pass muster. Once it’s been tested, accepted by the FDA, and probably other work I haven’t mentioned, then you have to manufacture millions of doses. That requires sourcing raw materials – some of which may be expensive, time-consuming to make, etc.
You have to figure out the logistics of delivering it and administering it to millions. That takes money, people, logistics, systems, and time, but that’s not the point.
Communication is essential
What fascinated me about it was the gap in expectations between the reality of the work and what we (the general public) expect.
Anyone who has done custom work learns very early on that if you don’t manage the expectations gap, you’re in trouble. I suppose it’s a good thing that Moderna’s successful protein work didn’t make it into the news in early January since they didn’t yet have a vaccine. They simply had the protein match. Some who knew of this success had expectations for a quick solution, not realizing that the process had just begun – thus creating an expectations gap.
Despite the fact that the typical multiple year process of figuring out what to build had been reduced to two days thanks to years of effort, testing, and trials on other diseases, plenty of work remained.
First US Polio case: 1894. Polio vaccine approved: 1960.
They felt they’d have a vaccine in 18 months vs. four years, the recent best case for vaccine development. A reminder: It took 76 years to get a polio vaccine. Science has improved and our expectations have kept pace.
That’s the lesson those who do custom work must learn from this. We have to be careful to manage expectations because it’s so easy for the customer to see very early on what looks like a finished product but isn’t – because we want to get feedback from them.
Whether it’s a house design, software, a website, or whatever – there’s a lot of work required to get from that mockup, to something that only works on the programmer’s machine and nowhere else (aka “WOMM” – works on my machine), to a point where it works on every computer, browser, mobile device or whatever.
This gap is “significant”, kind of like the gap that can be created when a home builder gets the foundation poured, framing done and the roof on. All of a sudden it looks like a house. Get windows and the front door on and it starts to look like a real house – but it’s only been a couple of months. Why does the rest take so long? If your expectations aren’t set properly, conflict is coming.
Avoiding the expectations gap
Why? Because the first 80% looks like everything and the second 80% is hard to see from the curb. A house may not be wired, plumbed, sheet rocked, painted, etc. The builder may be waiting on various tags / permits. It may lack cabinets, appliances, flooring, fixtures, etc. It may not be cleaned up or landscaped.
Some of these things are hard to see from the street, where it doesn’t look much different from the day the roof was finished. It’s similar to me showing you an app on my machine, where it works in the environment I work in every day – where it’s easy to make it work.
It’s critical when doing custom work to make sure that you explain what people are seeing and what’s left. Part of doing that (and not catching a lot of grief) involves your expertise in knowing what it takes to get from point A to point B because until you know the expectation gap may also be in your head. This gap is a good way to assess the expertise of someone that you’re planning to hire.
The house in the hills
Back in the 90s, we built a custom home – architect and all. When we interviewed the builder, who came with good references, he set expectations for us from the outset. He said “All the references had projects that went pretty well. But I should tell you, every 10 or 20 projects we have one that seems to the homeowner like a complete disaster. It will feel like everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. It turns out fine in the end. Most times we can control those things, but sometimes we can’t. Between the weather, people, suppliers, subcontractors, and everyone else that’s involved – there’s a lot of moving parts and opportunity for things to go wrong. What you need to know is that I will take care of these things if that happens.”
At the time, I appreciated the warning, but didn’t think much about it. We never think the gap is going to get us.
Unfortunately, that’s what happened. We had maybe eight or ten things go wrong that seemed like a disaster at the time. Halfway through framing, the builder said “The way the architect designed this staircase… it didn’t go anywhere. The only way to build it so you could walk upstairs was to make some adjustments.” He simply took care of it.
A concrete truck got stuck in the backyard, slid down the slope of our lot and jammed itself against a tree on the neighbor’s lot (which fortunately didn’t have a house on it yet). They had to call another concrete truck to pull first one out. Meanwhile, the concrete was getting hotter and hotter, meaning it was going difficult to spread once it was poured.
Filling the expectations gap
That night I stop by the house after work and find guys in the dark working hard trying to spread the concrete before it sets. I can tell by how hard they’re working that it’s already decided to set and they’re doing their best to make it work. They ended up having to pour another small layer to smooth everything out. Other things happened, but it didn’t matter because a) he set the expectation and b) he took care of it. While the problems were annoying, the builder did what he said he’d do. He filled the expectations gap.
Years later I ran into a real estate agent who had a similar expectation gap filler. She had a checklist for the refrigerator when she listed your house. She said “Here’s a list of things that may go wrong between now and the time your home sale closes. Some are normal, some are crazy. If they happen, I will let you know and I will take care of it.”
She set the expectation and filled the gap appropriately. That’s really all customers want. When they hire you to do a custom job, they want it taken care of. Whether the work is selling your house, building software, or a tax return, customers simply want a professional to finish the job and handle whatever problems arise.
The good news is that this is a fairly easy situation to improve. You already know all the things that can go wrong. You’ve dealt with 99% of them. Why not document them? Present them to your customers in a way that turns them into a way to show you’ve got experience and expertise on your side. Make sure they know what your response will be.
Don’t fear putting them in writing – not so much as a guarantee, but as a “We’ve got your back.” Remember, they’re coming to you for a result, not for the mess between point a and point b.
You might be worried that your competitors will copy what you do in this area. The rare one might, but most won’t. It’s surprising how many things you can do for your customers right out in the open where your competitors can see them – and they’ll simply watch. Some will attempt them and find them too much work. Don’t worry about your competitors. Worry about your customers.
So… how are you filling the expectations gap for your customers? How can you bridge that gap and give your customers more confidence that they’ll be well cared for?
Have you been asked to “jump on a call” lately? Almost daily, some guy emails, leaves a voice message, or ‘reaches out’ on LinkedIn and, despite having zero prior contact with them, immediately wants to know if you have “10 minutes to jump on a call” with them. It floors me that salespeople have enough free time to send cold emails asking for a cold call regarding a service that we are the worst possible fit for.
He did no research, or more likely, whoever or whatever gave him the lead expended very little effort to toss me in the lead pile, other than perhaps a LinkedIn scrape or email list rental.
I ignored the first email, figuring that the email was sent on his behalf by an automated system. If someone replies, it’s his job to respond and try to make the sale. In most cases, there’s a weak manual effort involved, or a poorly setup automatic system – meaning they’d give up after one email.
Not this time
He emails again, or his systems do. Either way, better than not having done so at all – but that still doesn’t fix the lack of fit. This time, it’s clear to me that ignoring him isn’t going to work (which is fine, BTW). Ordinarily, I’d click the “Junk” button and be done with it. For whatever reason, I decided to see what he was made of.
Having been a user of the service he’s selling, I know who’s a good fit for the service – and we aren’t. I tell him four reasons why the company is not a good fit for their service. Should be clear to him that we are a waste of his sales time.
He replies – and this one is not an automated email. He actually wrote it, typos and all. He says “As you grow” or “When you grow” or some such, let me know when you’re ready for us.
He isn’t paying attention to what I said. His somewhat mechanical response implies that we’re a young, tiny company and are just aren’t ready for them yet. It leaves the impression (perhaps false) that he doesn’t care. If that’s true, that tells me his company doesn’t care. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t – they’re quite large and successful.
Required: Paying attention
The not paying attention part is trouble. It leaves people with the idea that you don’t care – even if you do.
I reply to the sales guy’s email: “We’ve been in business for decades. The 4 items I mentioned that don’t make us a fit for your software (which I have used before) are intentional decisions about the way our business operates. They will not change.”
I gave him an opening. If he checks LinkedIn, he can gather additional info. From that, he can assume (perhaps incorrectly) that I know others similar roles. Perhaps those companies could use his software. He could have asked for a referral. He didn’t.
The gift I gave him was saying that I have used his software before. I didn’t say “I used it and it was awful.” (it wasn’t) His opportunity to respond to that gift was to reply, thank me for being a former user (whatever) and “Do you know people in positions like yours who might be a better fit?”
The dog ate my homework
When you don’t do your homework, you waste my time AND yours. Wasting time due to life’s little curveballs is simply an opportunity to make adjustments. Wasting time because a salesperson didn’t properly qualify a lead (me) – is another thing altogether.
One of the four items I responded to the guy with is publicly available information if you want it. The rest might be discerned from digging around a little, but it takes less time to email an unqualified lead than it does to do your homework, so most companies send the email.
The problem is that when salespeople don’t do their homework, they make less money. Their company suffers too. They spend time on leads they’ll most likely never close. They have x minutes per day to work leads. You don’t want to waste even five minutes on someone who will never, ever buy.
Try this: Spend two minutes researching each lead. Unless you’re required to work every single lead, your time will be better spent doing a little research and eliminating the obviously poor matches.
The “Business is Personal” origin story is at the core of what “Business is Personal” is. Back in 2005 I started talking to my sales manager about selling the business. They decided they wanted to buy it. This was good because they understood the business, as well as the value of the business. I knew they could take care of the customers, so I wasn’t really concerned about the future of the business from the customers’ perspective. Some people may not care but I didn’t want to sell the business to somebody who would promptly goof it up. We took something that was struggling, fixed it, and grew it 12X. It meant something to me.
What made it gel?
Over the next couple of months, we were getting things figured out and settling on a price, among other things. One day, they made a remark that didn’t sit well with me at all. I remember taking whatever it was as an insult.
It’s funny that I cannot remember the specifics of what they said, despite being a seminal moment in my career – at least from a “I stand here” perspective. It wasn’t simply a “you rubbed me the wrong way” thing – it was fundamentally a “This is not how things are done” sort of thing.
When I reacted to this, they said “Mark, it’s not personal. It’s just business.” Their explanation was that their comment wasn’t a personal attack on me – and therefore it was ‘just business’.
I disagreed. Not because they were insulting me, but because I believed business IS personal – and I proceeded to explain why. While we got the transaction done and I moved on from the business, that conversation remains with me to this day. Not the long-forgotten conflict, but the clarity that business is indeed personal and the reasons why.
Even my kids know
Back when we got together with other people, it wasn’t uncommon for work to come up in conversation. When that happened, how you’re treated by your employer will color your comments – or have you keep them short. Whether you’re treated well or poorly at work, it’s difficult not to take it personally – and it’ll show in your conversations with others.
If your kids hear you and your significant other talking about how things are going at work, they get it. Maybe not all of it, but kids are not stupid. They listen, and learn. They understand when work is treating their parent well, even if they don’t understand the details. They can tell from the look on your face and the tone of your voice.
Would you wear their t-shirt?
When your employees walk through the grocery store with t-shirt or a ballcap that has the name of your business on it. Some people walk by and might say “Yeah, love that place.” Some people won’t say a word. Some people will nod or tip their cap. Some might make a negative comment.
Is the person wearing the hat or shirt ambivalent to the comments? Perhaps. There will be some who don’t care, but most will elicit a personal reaction – even if they keep it to themselves.
It’s their place of work. It’s where they spend a fair amount of time learning, refining, working as a expert in their field. Even if you hate the company, you’ll likely have some reaction if someone says that place’s work sucks – because it reflects on your work, even if in a small way.
I think back to the places I’ve worked since 1983 and asked myself whether I’d want to wear a t-shirt with each employer’s name on it. There are a couple that I wouldn’t choose to wear. The reasons don’t matter. Maybe it seems like a trivial thing, but wearing them reflects upon me. It’s personal.
Would you wear your employer’s t-shirt around town if you had a choice? Why? Why not? Is it personal much?
I built that
When you’ve built something from scratch, or you’ve been part of the team who built a company from nothing, it means something. You helped take it from a garage in a back alley to something sustainable and solid.
If I asked you about it, you aren’t likely to say “We built a strong company from nothing against tall odds, but it was just work.”
Nobody says things like that – because Business is Personal.
A number of businesses I regularly talk to have been working on big new projects over the last six months. Perhaps you have been too. Things have changed for some, not so much for others. A number of folks have been thinking hard about their customers and what’s impacted them in the last six months, then got to work building something to help… something that’s good for the seller as well as the buyer. The next step is how to present it to your market. Things aren’t what they were this time last year. How does that impact the introduction of your new project? To me, the impact is significant. Do you dare waste that effort with an introduction that no one understands?
Take a pulse
Unless absolutely nothing has changed for your customers (and maybe despite the fact that nothing has changed – if that’s the case), assuming you can go at your existing customer base with the same type of message you might have approached them with last November might not be ideal.
Obvious or not, we’re in a situation where, for some customers it would be okay to use messaging similar to what we would have used last November. Yet last year’s message might catch others completely out of sorts.
Most of us can’t afford to introduce something brand new with a message that falls completely flat. That first impression is important. We don’t get a second chance for a first introduction – so it has to be the right one.
If our introduction doesn’t resonate with them simply because of their current situation – that’s on us.
Maybe you have customers who are one person businesses. And perhaps others who are five employee shops. Maybe some have 15, 20 or 30 employees. Each of those customers (prospects), regardless of what they do, may have navigated the last six months differently. Each of them is probably in a different place today. Because of that, the message you use to introduce the thing you’ve been working so hard on must take each of their situations into consideration.
Given whatever has changed in your business, and whatever has changed in your customers’ (prospects’) businesses, your intro should be carefully considered. Don’t be surprised if you need to address each group with a message specifically for them. While you might typically do that anyway – today may be a unique situation.
Don’t be surprised to find that you need a specific message for the one person shops. Their last six months could have been amazing, horrific, or somewhere in between. They may deliver what they do in a different way. They may be in a different business altogether – in the same market. They may be in a different market. You need to know. What that one person shop had to do could be completely different compared to the five, 10, or 20 employee company.
If you address the 30 person company with the same message that you send to the one person shops your message may fall on deaf ears. It may not make sense in November 2020 for that size customer in your market, even if it’s perfect for a different sized customer.
These are things you need to figure out with one-to-one conversations with customers of each size. You know the right customer sizes. Reach out and find out how things are going. Ask what’s changed, what hasn’t changed, if needs have changed, and which ones haven’t.
Use what you learned
Use what you learn in those conversations to determine how you address each of those groups of customers. One of the last things you want to do is approach them with something new that they sorely need and do so in a way that isn’t easily understandable, doesn’t resonate with what they think their current needs are, doesn’t make any sense, or sounds like you haven’t been paying attention.
On the other hand, if your approach shows that you’re paying attention, that your new offering fills a need they may not have had six months ago, or simply fills a new need, your efforts might find a receptive audience.
Whatever the case, it’s critical that your message makes it clear that you’ve been watching, listening, and using those discoveries to start the conversation in a way that shows you’re ready, willing, and able to help.