What Does it Take?

There are times when a salesman can feel pushy and there are times when they can help me get over a sticking point. That difference is usually the thing that makes me choose one over the other. Let me give you an example.

In my life, I have purchased quite a few new cars. That means I have had more than one opportunity to see good salesman versus bad. I think it is safe to say that I have only bought from the good ones. Mostly because they were the ones that dealt best with my irrational fear of buying anything. And when I say anything, I mean I can be the type of guy that can agonize over a sixteen dollar book purchase.

Here’s how bad the fear can be when it comes to buying a car. Two of my cars have been stolen and another was totaled in an accident, so three times I have been in the position of HAVING to get a car. Thanks to insurance settlements, in each case I had plenty to put down, guaranteeing that my payments would be low. I didn’t have the hassle of a trade in, so there would be no haggling in that department. So, off to buy I went.

All three times I found myself in an uncomfortable spot. I had found the exact car I wanted, with all the options on it that I had desired. We had settled on a price that both sides felt was fair. And yet, it was hard to say yes.

The bottom line for most people is that it is hard to spend large sums of money, no matter how much you want to, how  much you need to and how much you are able to.

The salesmen that I bought from, all were able to get me over that tough spot. They made buying easy, even in large sums.

Have you ever had a similar experience?

Believeability

P.T. Barnum famously said there’s a sucker born every minute. I often think that  ratio needs to be revised. Judging by the number of incredible offers that cross my desk every day, it’s got to be closer to every twenty seconds by now. Most of these deals are too good to be possible. So either there is a huge market of gullible buyers out there, or there are a whole lot of sellers that are losing tons of money.

Some of it boils down to basic arithmetic. If you claim in your ad that you invested $150,000 in your special software, but you are willing to sell it for $37 and are limiting it to only 1,000 lucky people, then I’m either an idiot believing a total stranger is willing to lose over $100,000 to help another total stranger, or you’re a terrible business person.

This is not how Warren Buffet structures business deals.

Whatever it is that you’re selling, and we are all selling something, the offer has to be believable. Just as importantly, the story has to be believable. Those Nigerian scams have worked, but most people are savvy enough to know that nobody in some strange country will give them a few million for helping them launder money.

Sometimes, your offer can be too good to be true. The story behind it better make up the difference.

Kara-Okey-Dokey

I once worked at an upscale Hollywood restaurant that catered to the entertainment business. We were within a few blocks of about six TV and movie studios, so the environmentally friendly celebrities didn’t waste too much gas taking limos three minutes to grab a bite to eat. Great food, and saving the planet is some impressive multi-tasking.

On any given day or night, you could see the cast of ‘Cheers’ mingling with the cast of ‘Married with Children’. I have to say, it’s a surreal experience serving Cliff and Norm a couple of beers as they sit at your bar. Unfortunately, I don’t think they ever knew my name.

As a result of having famous people hang around, we were almost always busy. Show biz wanna-be’s populated the bar hoping to be discovered. Celebrities liked it since there were so many of them, they weren’t bothered by people. And, we had excellent food.

Notice though, I said we were almost always busy. That’s because, every summer, television shows would go on hiatus, and things would slow down by about 60%. That’s a huge drop off. And every year, the owners would try to decide what to do. Most years, they accepted it as a seasonal fact. In Florida, it gets busy in the winter, At our place, it slows down in the summer.

Then one year, our GM came up with a bright idea. He had gone to a place that had karaoke and it was packed! That, he said, is what we would do the next slow season. Against many objections, the idea was implemented. And it worked. For a while.

Initially, business picked up a lot. At least it appeared that way. The bar was full, people were everywhere, and a whole lot of singing was going on. One small problem. We had no sales. As busy as it was, very little money made it into the register. It didn’t take long to find out why.

The people filling the restaurant all wanted to sing. Having a reputation of being a place that had Hollywood producers and the like hanging out attracted every aspiring singer in town. They thought they’d be discovered here. And they had no money to spend, so we served a lot of water. But boy could they sing. It was American Idol two nights a week.

No one got discovered of course, since most of Hollywood was on hiatus. We had to implement karaoke rules to give everyone a chance to sing. Some would come in and try to sign up to sing six songs in a row. In other words, they wanted to do a set. It also happens to be that karaoke singers can be quite jealous of each other, so the occasional tiff would break out.

The idea failed. But it also helped take the restaurant down with it.

How?

After spending years of cultivating an image of a high end, celebrity hangout, it was ruined with one summer of cheesy amateurs. Every now and then, one of our regulars would pop in, off season of course, see what was going on, and never come back. The word spread quickly. Soon, we were “that karaoke place”, and when TV season ramped up, they wanted nothing to do with us. We weren’t cool any more.

Our singers left too. When the chance of discovery was gone, they went to clubs that would let them do ten songs in a row.

Soon after, we closed. A lot of factors contributed to the failure of the restaurant, but the karaoke experiment was a big one.

Bottom line… You can’t be everything to everyone. If you build an image, or a brand ID, protect it. In the pursuit of another plate to spin, you just make drop your best one.

 

 

Unknown Unknowns

Have you ever had the experience of asking a salesperson in a store where they keep the ‘Widgets’ and being told that it is not an item they carry? Have you ever stumbled across the item later in a random aisle elsewhere in the store? When you find that salesperson again and tell them politely that they actually do carry the item, have you ever gotten the response, “Oh, you meant a ‘Widget’! That’s what we call it here.” 

Hidden in there is the claim that the salesperson actually does know his stuff but that it is your fault for asking for the wrong thing. It’s particularly frustrating when it’s an item that doesn’t have too many variations on its name. That store may call it a ‘commode congestion removal device’, but most of the world calls it a plunger.

Why is it so hard to say, “I don’t know?” I don’t expect people in a business to know everything, I just expect them to be able to get me the answer. If they have to refer me to someone else, so what?  If that person were paid on a commission basis, do you think they would casually dismiss someone with a, “We don’t carry that item”?  Or would they lift every rock in the store to find something like it?

Why is it that some people would rather lose a sale than appear to be stupid?

Donald Rumsfeld often spoke of the difficulties of preparing for armed conflict. He said you had to be ready for three things.

  1. Known Knowns. The Things you now you know. You might call these strengths.
  2. Known Unknowns. The things you know you don’t know. You might call these weaknesses.
  3. Unknown Unknowns. The things you don’t know you don’t know. You might call these a problem.

Obviously, of the three, the third is the most dangerous. The only way to make it worse, is to pretend that you do know what you don’t know.

My buddy Craig and I have encountered this mentality so many times, that it is now a game with us to find in a store whatever item the employee told us they didn’t carry. We succeed a majority of the time. Only rarely does the employee apologize and say, “I’m an idiot. So sorry about that.” Usually they find a way to make it our fault.

It’s funny that these days I consider someone more of an expert, and more to be trusted, if they say this simple phrase, “I don’t know. Give me a moment to find out.”

 

Just Do It Or Your Competitors Will

Years ago I worked for a restaurant that had built a very successful chain of locations using nothing but word of mouth. They did not believe in any other kind of advertising. None. No TV, no radio, no print. They wouldn’t even put fliers on cars.

Their philosophy was that as long as everything inside the four walls of the business were running correctly, no outside factors could affect their sales. Any decline in sales meant that something must be wrong inside the business and had to be discovered and rooted out.

This worked great when the competition was minimal. In fact, since this chain opened in the sixties, they were the only game in town in many cities for a very long time. They even bragged about how they saved money by not opening on main street, but by putting their locations on a lesser known, and cheaper to lease, side road. As long as everything inside was perfect, then the place would prosper.

No outside factor could hurt the bottom line.

Tornado ripping through town? Sales should not be affected. Economy suffering a recession? Sales should be fine. A dozen competitors open up on the main drag? Why, that should only drive more customers to the area, so sales should increase!

Those dozen competitors start an advertising blitz so intense that people forget you exist??? They believed that shouldn’t affect business at all.

In fact, over the years I saw many upper management types lose their jobs as the corporate office tried to figure out why sales were declining. It just had to be internal. Their philosophy told them so. Their company charter also told them, no advertising. It wasn’t necessary.

So they stuck with both outdated beliefs. And suffered till they , reluctantly, decided to do what all the rest were doing.

How many businesses today are like this one? How many are waiting to see if all the new technologies and avenues to reach customers is tried out and perfected by their competitors? How many think that it is too difficult, and that if they can’t figure it out, their competitors probably can’t either, so they should be fine.

My guess is, a lot. And they will probably suffer the same fate. It could take years to recover, if they do at all.

Business today can be a lot like musical chairs. If you are the last one to adopt new methods, you may find yourself without  a place to sit. When the times are a-changin’ you have to change with them.

Put it into your company charter. Make it your philosophy. It is the one belief that will ever be outdated.

Don’t Hover

How can you deliver great customer service without being intrusive?

Nothing can make me want to leave a business faster than the salesperson who asks if I need any help, and upon hearing the reply, “Nah, I’m just looking”,  continuing to keep an uncomfortably close hover position. It’s like I’m Fred Astaire and they are Ginger Rogers, dancing backwards for every move down the aisle I make forward. Within minutes I have them walking backwards toward the door. As the door is closing behind me, it cuts off their final salvo to me, the exiting customer, “Come back anyti…..”.

Granted, there are times I walk into an establishment and I need help immediately. That is when this type of salesperson is most needed. And coincidentally, that is the time when I struggle the most to find one. I have always wondered why that is. Must be that Murphy character and his confusing laws at work.

This is probably one of those topics with so many viewpoints, and so many valid reasons why businesses choose to conduct themselves in whatever fashion they choose. For my two cents worth, adjusted for inflation of course, the salesperson should sum up the customers purpose fast and then help or get out of the way.

I am one of those people who prefers to find things myself. For years, I hated going to Barnes and Noble because you had to ask a clerk if they had a book in stock, then follow them as they took you to its location. Then, they’d hover as you tried to skim the table of contents. Borders on the other hand, set up computers where you could look it up yourself, then go and peruse at your leisure. That is bliss. If I needed their help, I’d ask.

So this got me to thinking, what is a good phrase to use when a customer walks into your establishment? It would have to be one that lets them know you are there if they need it, and out of their way if they don’t.

The old, “Hi, I’m Joe, just holler if you need anything”, is OK, but it seems  to me like Joe doesn’t really want to be bothered. Hovering is annoying, at least to me. “Can I help you”, is always great of course. But I was thinking there might be a phrase that lets the customer know that you will hover if need be, leave them alone if desired, and help them no matter what.

Here’s a possibility. Start with, “Hi, I’m Patrick (insert your name here), is there a direction I can point you?”

This lets them decide how to use your services. If they want to browse, they will tell you a direction to point them. If they want help, they’ll ask. It puts them in charge and hopefully keeps them from thinking you will try to push anything on them. You are getting their permission to sell to them.

And that is always a good place to start any relationship.

Donut Juggling

It’s a messy hobby to be sure, but as with anything unusual that I have pursued, it contained life lessons. And, donuts.

I have mentioned before that the question that tends to get me into the most trouble is this one: How Hard Can It Be? The answer is almost always, “A lot harder than you imagined, and if you knew that ahead of time, you would have never undertaken this crazy idea.”

An example of that for me is of course… Donut Juggling. Yes, it’s real. And yes, I am one of only a few practitioners of the art. And yes, it was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. But that is what protected the idea, which I will get into later. First, just what the heck am I talking about?

Years ago (too many stories in my life start this way now), I was looking for a new opening routine for my magic act. I wanted a quick bit done to snappy music, that showed skill and ability, that had humor, and that would let the audience know they were in good hands for the duration. That is the power of a strong opening in any kind of presentation. One minute can set up the next thirty.

After scouring magic archives looking for something I could adapt and modernize, I stumbled across an article from the 40’s written by a magician I admired named Robert Harbin. He had adapted an old vaudeville bit where a juggler would spin a Japanese Parasol and keep a ball rolling on top. He changed the ball into a rubber wheel and added a few new moves of his own. That is where I began.

I practiced at least an hour a day, usually three, learning the new bit. It would follow a pattern something like this: 1) Spin the parasol 2)  Place the wheel on it 3) Five seconds later, bend over to pick the wheel back up. Being a wheel, it had a tendency to roll behind things, so I got to move a lot of furniture until I learned to clear the room of all obstacles. 4) Curse at the top of my lungs and start again.

 

It took a month just to be able to balance the wheel on the parasol. It also took 14 packs of Ricolas to soothe my throat from the cursing. And I had yet to learn any fancy moves. I was going to need a lot more lozenges.

By the end of three months, I was pretty good. However, I wasn’t happy with the routine. It showed skill, it was neat to watch, and I had snappy music picked out, but it was still lacking some humor. A wheel is just not that funny. But a donut is. So, with a little liquid latex , I transformed the wheel into a powdered donut.

The beauty of that decision was that it also gave me the big finish I was missing. Just how do I end this routine? But with a donut, the path was clear. I had to dunk it, and I had to do it by flipping it off the parasol and catching it in a mug. That took another few weeks of practice, but in the end, it was all worth it. I possessed what I had sought. 90 seconds of silliness that set up the next thirty minutes of my act. Perfect.

It worked better than I had dreamed. It worked so well in fact, that quite  a few performers tried to steal it. And that is where the life lessons come in.

First lesson: The more hassle you are willing to endure, the better your reward. If something is easy, anyone can do it, and then it is not special. We love seeing people do things not everyone can do, and we reward them with our attention. That attention may come in the form of buying their products, watching them on stage or on the field, or hiring them to perform a service we can’t do.

The second lesson: If it’s difficult, very few people will steal the idea, so the difficulty is what protects it. Not from everyone, but from most, which is usually good enough. And this is why: One of the reasons someone steals an idea is because it’s easier than coming up with their own. That laziness is what will keep them from taking an idea that will be difficult to make happen. They will move on to something easier. Not always, but a high enough percentage of the time to ensure you are one of only a handful that can do what you do.

So, embrace the difficult. It will always reward you. For me, it has kept me flush with rubber pastries. What more do I need?

It’s Good To Be Bad

Before you get too far ahead of me, I don’t mean it’s good to be bad in a Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan sort of way, although I am certain they would disagree with me. That is a topic for another day, and most likely a different blog.

When I say ‘bad’, I mean it’s OK to not be perfect at whatever it is you desire to be good at. The reality is, you will stink at something new for quite some time. The more afraid you are to fall on your face with it, the more difficult it will be for you to gain any proficiency. That’s the delicious irony of it all. The more you try to avoid stinking, the more you set yourself up to do just that. Your best bet is to get the stink out of the way as soon as possible.

Let’s say you want to do some public speaking. That first speech is going to be tough. You’re going to want it to be perfect, and it won’t be. But the next one will be better. And the one after that. In fact, even if you think you did a fantastic job at speech number one, if you watch a video of it two or three years later, you will probably cringe at how awful you were. And three years from now, the same will be true about a speech you gave today.

Children don’t suffer from this like adults do. For some reason, they will struggle and stumble through something new in order to learn it. As a result, then learn it at a much faster pace than an adult. Most people attribute this to children having a sponge-like mind, whereas we adults have long lost our sponginess. While I do believe that children develop faster for a while, I also think their ability to be bad and move on quickly deserves some of the credit.

Think of a child learning a language. They don’t care about making mistakes and potentially offending a native speaker of that language. Instead, they welcome a chance to practice with a native speaker and make all kinds of mistakes. An adult learning Japanese for example, after two years of study would hesitate to address someone from Japan to try out their skills for fear of looking stupid. A child would do this after one week of farting around with some Japanese flash cards. Is it any wonder they pick it up so much faster?

I don’t know when this attitude sets in as we grow up. Perhaps years of schooling teaches us that there is only one right answer, and that everything is a test that we have to pass or else our lives won’t amount to anything. All I know is, once this attitude gets a hold of us, it is difficult to get rid of it. But, if we ever want to do something challenging and new, something that makes us nervous, then we have to be willing to suck at it for a while. Otherwise, the goal is not risky enough.

It is good that we worry about not being good at something. That means we care about it. If we don’t care if we stink, then the thing we are working on is not very important.

So, we have to walk that fine line. Pursue something that matters to us, that we care about enough that the thought of being bad at it makes us cringe, then go out and stink at it for a while.

It’s a great way to get good.

Vacuum Pack Your Presentation

Whenever I put together any kind of presentation, be it a magic show, a talk or a theatrical piece, there is one rule I have followed over the years that has served me well. Your best bet with a presentation is to vacuum pack it. Eliminate the fluff. Suck the air out of it. Make it all meat and no veggies.

You get the point. I came to this realization years ago. I have spent a great deal of my life hanging around performers, and  performers have a tendency to compare notes. Every now and then I’d be talking with someone who had an effect in their repertoire that I also used.  Often, they would brag about how they were able to fill ten minutes  of their show with that one effect, which caught me by surprise because I only got three minutes from it.

And it’d make me wonder… should I be getting more time from it, or should they be getting less? Almost every time I come down on the side of less. And not just because that was how I did it, but because it is usually all that routine is good for.

I have sat through waaay too many Power Point presentations that could easily have been cut in half, but the presenter had to fill 30 minutes, so fill it they did. And they bored me so much that I missed the fifteen minutes of meat in their slide show. Just because you can talk ad nauseum, doesn’t mean you should make the audience nauseous.

Here is my method in a nut shell: Suck the air out of your presentation, or you will have to air the suck out of it. Vacuum pack it, and it will stay fresh.

Because if you’re fillin’ you ain’t killin’.

Saving Time Using Google Reader

If you’re like me, and I know that I am, you have a hard time keeping up with the overflow of information that comes your way on a daily ba
sis. If you were to look at my browsers bookmarks, you’d wonder how anyone could find the time to visit, let alone read all the blogs I find relevant and interesting. Well, it ain’t easy, but it can be done, using a little tool from that little start up company called Google.

If you haven’t used Google Reader, you are missing out on one great time saving tool. You’ve probably heard of it, but, like everything else in life, you were too busy to check it out. For me, it’s hard trying to find the time to learn how to use any new tool or gadget. That’s why I am pretty sure I am only using a fraction of my smart phones abilities. Heck, that’s probably why we only use ten percent of our brains. The owners manual is complicated and we don’t have time to read it.

Google reader though, is a piece of cake to use and you can get the gist of it in just a few minutes. And then, sit back and enjoy the extra time. Seriously, you will find it a time saver. Here’s how it works:

It starts with having a Google account, like your GMail account. It’s pretty safe to assume almost everyone has one, so go there and sign in. On the Google home page, the drop down menu will offer ‘Reader’ as a choice. Click that and you will see a basic environment, nothing to fancy here.

Now, let’s say you like to visit Chris Brogan every day (a smart move by the way). Just look for that orange RSS feed button. Not every site will have an RSS feed, but most these days do. In Firefox, it is located in the address bar. Click that and a drop down menu will offer you the option to subscribe to that sites RSS feed. Go ahead and do it. You will be taken to a page that offers a few choices of how you want to subscribe to this page. I opt for the Google choice. Hit subscribe now.

Your next choice will be to add it to your Google homepage or to Google reader. If you like everything on your homepage, opt for that. My homepage would be a disaster if all of my daily reads were fed there, so I opt for the Reader. After clicking that, you are taken to the Google Reader page. That is where you can manage your subscriptions.

I have many folders. One is called daily reads, but I have a political folder, one for internet business stuff, one for hobbies etc. Let’s say the site I just subscribed to is a daily read. I drag the new site into that folder. There is a number next to its listing that shows the number of unread posts. It will be small for now since you just subscribed.

When I click on the new listing, I will see all the unread posts. This is where the time saving comes in. Not every posts on every site will be of interest to me. Others will be evergreen topics that I want to look at over and over. Sometimes just scanning the title of a post is enough to let me know whether or not I want to read it. If I don’t want to, I click  the ‘Mark as read’ button. Others, I open up right there in the Google Reader window and preview it. The nice thing about the preview window is that you don’t have to leave the page to read the article. Sometimes I find a post that I know I will want to refer to again, so I will click the ‘Keep as Unread’ button, and it will always be available.

Now, if you have a dozen or so daily reads, you can visit them all in one place and at a glance know if you want to read a post. No more scrolling through a zillion blogs to look for unread gems, you can now find them quickly.

The other beautiful thing is that when you visit Google Reader the next time, within seconds you will know if any of your daily reads has posted anything new. So instead of spending twenty minutes to look for new posts, you can find them in seconds.I don’t know anyone who couldn’t use another twenty minutes in their day.