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What Do You Really Do?

Many Armed ManSometimes the simplest questions are the most profound.

Like “who are you” or “what do you do”. Why the philosophy this week?

Well, I’m helping my Goddaughter start a business. She’s truly gifted with horses and loves teaching riders and training horses. The recent Olympic equestrian events are her dream job. She has a dream to work with horses, she has expertise and experience riding and teaching. So how do we turn that into a business? What should she DO?

That may seem like an overly simplistic question… she should find people that have horses and that want to ride… and help them, right? On the surface that’s correct. Unfortunately, starting an actual business requires much more detail than “go find customers”.

The question of what a business really does may seem so obvious that it can easily be overlooked in the daily grind of running it. That sounds strange, I know. But look at Emily. Who needs her expertise and is willing to pay for what she does? (Another simple, but profound, question). For some businesses it may seem straight forward, for others it may appear more complex. I, as it happens, run a training company. That sounds simple enough. However, in addition to creating really cool courses and workshops people can take, we also offer a range of consulting services. We help people create or improve presentations, we write copy, help design sales processes, assist others to improve their own training courses, as well as some technology consulting thrown in for good measure. That can get complicated fast. Where do I focus my limited resources to get maximum results in finding and servicing my market for all those services? If I do a lot of different things how do I decide who my market actually IS? Knowing exactly what I do is imperative for me to answer those questions. Not what I would like to do… what I actually do.

Okay, let’s look at Emily and her equestrian start-up as an example. Her business seems simple… until you start looking at how to get people to pay. Where should she focus marketing efforts. Is there a specific type of customer that she works better with? Is it better to have students with their own horses, or have them train on hers? Should she give lessons only at the family farm, or only travel to other people’s facilities, or both? In all these cases knowing exactly WHAT she is going to offer them is the key to answering those questions. If she based her business on just wanting to have a “horse business” she could very quickly get pulled into 100 different and distracting directions. Clients can, and will, ask for things you’ve never thought of before. So when a client asks her if she will travel to a regional dressage show with their daughter next weekend as her coach, she needs a way to decide if that makes sense to her business. Maybe that’s a good idea, maybe it’s not a good use of her time. If she knows that doesn’t fit with what her core business is then she can make that decision quickly.

So, know what you do. Then you can figure out who you can do it for. It will save you lots of time, money and energy chasing windmills that don’t do a thing for your business in the long run.

Caught in the Spin Cycle

I received an email today from someone who has never discounted anything… ever.

Sleazy SalesmanThe email was advertising a 1/2 off sale. My first thought was, “uh oh, they must be in big trouble”. I called a friend who also works with them and compared notes. Instead of letting on that sales were rough, our client was saying how great things are. Not one hint of trouble. To be honest, I had already guessed he was in trouble. There are always signs. The sale flyer was just confirmation. What I couldn’t figure out is why he felt the need to keep it secret from us. We are in a position to help. Instead he chose to put us into the “spin cycle”. I hear business people spin things all the time. They spin to clients, employees or even their investors. They try to make the most out of a mistake, or poor planning or to explain a dip in earnings. So what’s wrong with spin? On the surface, nothing. Everyone spins. I do it, you do it… it’s part of our attempts to influence each other. It’s one of the ways we minimize the negative and accentuate the positive. But there is a potential downside to spin. Spin is a public relations term that refers to a form of propaganda. A way of presenting certain facts in a more flattering way. It’s a type of story… told from a certain perspective… that is designed to present something or someone in a more favorable light than the naked facts might not normally show. It’s a tactic designed to take lemons and create lemonade. When I realized I was being “spun” by my client I got upset. I felt insulted. Honestly, I was a bit hurt. Didn’t he trust me? Hadn’t I proven I have his success at heart the last several years? It just didn’t make sense. What’s more, it gained him absolutely nothing to spin me. I’m not in a position to hurt his business. I can’t make things worse. I wondered why this person felt it necessary to spin me. Then I realized that this person spins to everyone. Comparing notes with my friend we identified five times in the last year that we’ve both been spun by this person. And not only does he spin to me and his other vendors, he spins to his employees too. And that’s where things get really dangerous. This is essentially the problem with spin, if it doesn’t work… it can be a disaster. In this case it made me question the foundation of our business relationship. I’ve lost trust in him. Spinning is also habit forming. I’ve seen managers and company owners who live by spinning before. Time and again it ultimately backfired in their face. Now some situations may genuinely be major enough to require some serious spin. I get that. However, most things don’t need so much spin. Maybe people spin because they don’t want to look bad. Or they’re afraid that admitting a blunder would shatter their aire of authority. My experience is actually the opposite. The people who’ve been ready to admit mistakes and work through them are the people I really admire… who I want to work with long term. I’ve made my share of mistakes too, some quite large. I’ve lost commission on projects because I botched something critical. But taking the high road and coming clean with my customers and my colleagues always ended up working to my long term advantage. I have several loyal clients because I managed problems with a minimum of spin. Unfortunately some owners or managers feel the need to spin their own employees too. This is a tragic mistake in my book. I’m not saying go to “full disclosure” mode. I believe in honesty and respect for the people who are helping to make my vision a reality. Clinging to an illusion of infallibility can actually make someone a less effective leader. It can create a wall between us and our employees, or our clients. That ultimately leads to more problems… not fewer. Spin is dangerous. People know when you’re being disingenuous… and even if you think your intentions are good, it doesn’t work. People will notice something’s not right. They will talk. You could be seeding the demise of your own company by not coming clean and leaving the spin in the washing machine where it belongs.

Pitching: Episode 2- Attack of the Clones

When we last left our hero he had just been abandoned by a possible client…

The Clonesa vice president for a defense contractor he was desperate to meet with. Our Jedi delivered the marketing approved catch all “elevator speech” and, viola… the prospect bolted for the buffet table. That left our Jedi business warrior staring into his cheap wine and munching on cheese crackers alone. Had the force let him down? (just go with me here Star Wars fans)

To get to the heart of what happened it’s important to know that we meet a lot of people every day. We hear a lot of ideas, slogans, ads, pitches and requests in our business and personal lives. The New York Times did a survey in 2007 and determined that each person in the US sees about 5,000 ads per day. And that was before Facebook really got ramped up into the online ads business. So I’m betting it’s more now. It’s difficult to get above that noise and have someone pay attention to us. This is just how it is. This helps explain some of why our Jedi couldn’t get the VP’s attention.

The bottom line is that our Jedi sounds just like everyone else that wants the VP’s business. In this case the Jedi actually looked like a “clone”.

VP Muckity Muck didn’t understand what our hero’s company did… or how it related to him and his personal challenges. Just like every other marketing or tech jargon filled, word fest he hears, our canned “elevator speech” didn’t connect with what’s important to him. Since we launched into that spiel immediately we didn’t have any time to find out about what might actually be important for to him.

“Well how am I supposed to get him to tell me what his problems are if I can’t say something that makes him interested up front?” our Jedi asks.

That’s a valid question. The honest answer to that is “you can’t”. At least not yet. We don’t know what would catch his interest because we don’t know anything about him. We may know about his company. We may know who their customers are, what projects they’re working on and how much money they have. We’ve done the research on his company, we’ve been dogging them for months after all.

What our Jedi doesn’t know is that this particular vice president, the one we sent looking for the free bar, has a meeting with an Air Force Colonel tomorrow. A colonel who’s going to demand a monitoring solution for a problem on an important weapons testing program. And our VP doesn’t know what he’s going to tell him.

He didn’t hear anything about that in Jedi’s “elevator speech”. Maybe the next guy will at least share a joke he can tell Colonel Hot Head in the morning before the butt chewing begins. As it turns out we have the perfect solution to his problem. A solution he’ll never find out about.

Pitching is a two way process. To clarify, remember we’re talking about pitching to a new contact here. We’ll leave other types of pitching for another blog post.

Whether it’s a sales prospect, someone we want to invest in your company or a new employee we want to hire for an important position or project, the concept is the same. We are looking to get into a deeper conversation to find out what’s important to them. In order to do that we need to actually start a conversation. A conversation is a two way process.

How about we play the scene again and see what else our Jedi might have done to improve his chances. Rewind the video please and… press play:

There’s VP with the meatball on a stick. There’s our Jedi. VP says “So, what do you do?” Jedi smiles warmly and says “I enable people to have a hundred eyes at once.”

Now VP Muckity Muck has never heard this answer before… and though he might wonder if Jedi has had too much of the free wine, he can’t ignore that one. So he says “you do what?” Jedi laughs genuinely and then explains “We enable people to keep track of lots of information visually. Like video walls monitoring security systems and computer network operations. Have you ever seen the military command center scenes in movies? There was one in the latest Batman movie. There you go.” Now this makes more sense to VP, he can visualize a command and control center. “Oh. Right.” says he.

Immediately our Jedi asks “so more importantly, what do YOU do?”. Then he waits for the answer, and he actually listens to what he says. He doesn’t jump in and interrupt. He listens actively. Now Jedi can start asking relevant probing questions to find out more about what VP does, what’s important to him and what he might be able to help him with. He might not tell us about Colonel Hot Head right away (or maybe he will) but we’ve begun, we’re in a conversation. We’re not talking contracts yet, but it’s too early for that. We are just off the starting block.

In my opinion, knowing what pitching is, and what it is not, is one of the most useful, and overlooked secrets to business success. We often try to do too much too fast. By slowing down and planning a little we can save hours and hours of discouragement.

Creating an effective pitch does take some conscious effort and forethought. Knowing what you’re trying to accomplish is critical to knowing how you want to present yourself. I’m not a believer in the canned “elevator speech”. My experience has shown me that no one pitch fits everyone. Tailoring the conversation is important. That is not something you can do with a “one size fits all” blurb.

Pitching doesn’t have to be complicated, but it’s important. By being myself, leaving the techno jargon at the door, and doing some pre-planning I can open up an opportunity for some person to person talking. That is the real goal of pitching yourself to someone new. The key is to take the time to create a pitch that makes sense for you personally.

I’m not saying ignore your marketing department, but don’t expect them to come up with a silver bullet pitch that fits all occasions. Put a little effort into personalizing it for yourself.  If it’s to be authentic and effective it has to be personal. It will pay off huge dividends and make your contacts much more productive and the process much more enjoyable.

Pitching: So what’s the big deal?

You’re at an event. Someone walks up to you, meatball on a stick in hand.

9263163_sHe smiles. You smile. He says “So, what do you do?”. How do you respond?

Pitching. People in the business world hear that word a lot. It’s used to mean different things at different times, but the scene above is one of the most common. It’s also one of the most critical moments in your life if you’re in business. Maybe this guy munching on the Swedish meatball is vice president at a major defense contractor. One you’ve been trying to get into for months. Now you have your chance.

Let’s play the scene out and see what happens. He says…”So, what do you do?”. You take a quick sip of your own cheap wine… and say something like:

“I’m a strategist and consultative partner that works with organizations to provide vital integration solutions in communications, training, broadcast, streaming, video and on demand presentation applications. We have an engineering and IT-centric core that designs and architects intuitive and human-friendly solutions aligned with a company’s business objectives, growth challenges and end user needs. We take a pre-emptive approach to problem solving to create unified communications strategies and distinguished media integration solutions that stand out from our competition.”

His reaction? He pulls out a pen and asks “where do I sign?” Right?

Well, maybe.

More likely you’ll get a nod and an “Oh. That sounds interesting.” Then as you juggle your cocktail napkin full of cheese and crackers with your drink so you can reach for your card… he’s gone. He saw someone he knows and with a polite nod he’s off.

Ever happen to you? I’ve been there more times than I care to remember.

“But he said that sounds interesting.” What happened? He didn’t even take my card? Well, to break it to you gently… he lied.

He wasn’t really interested because he had no idea what you were talking about. Even if he did catch a few words he recognized he had no idea how that related to him. And honestly, did you really understand it yourself?

It’s actually difficult for many of us to talk about what we do. Especially in the few moments you have when you meet someone new. How do you sum up a complex product, service or even a company in just a few words? And do it so that anyone you talk to can understand it? Fair or not, that’s the world of business today. It’s just the reality we live in. People are bombarded by information that flies around the world at light speed. So making an impression is critical… and difficult if you don’t know how.

Many people don’t take the time and thought to put together a pitch that works. There are so many other things to deal with during the day. Small companies have few resources so it’s easy not to tackle something like creating a good pitch. Larger organizations have marketing departments that are supposed to come up with those things for you. The challenge is that they often come up with pitches like the one you used at the cocktail party above.

Mostly, I think, pitching is just misunderstood. There are good ways to pitch and there are bad ways to pitch. One of the first lessons is to know when to pitch and when not to. Launching into a pre-written, marketing department approved, one size fits all, techno-babble when you meet someone at a cocktail party will ensure that you meet lots of other people too… because no one will stay around long to chat.

A better strategy is to take the time to create a concise, catchy pitch that will hook their attention and make them want to talk to you more. Then you can get to asking them about THEM. Because learning about them is critical to a successful pitch. What? My marketing department didn’t tell me that!

Remember a pitch is often just the beginning, at least in this scenario. You’re meeting someone new and what you’re really after is a meeting to discuss their problems so you can determine if you can help them and how. The problem here is that you didn’t engage him and he got away before you could get the conversation going.

So, what could you have done to keep VP Muckity Muck around for a few minutes? First of all you could have left the marketing department pitch at the door and just been yourself. Being authentic is a breath of fresh air for many executives. So many people are so focused on getting their “message” across that one of the best ways to stand out is to just be you… a person… who happens to be holding the same cheap wine the other guy is and eating the same hour-devours.

The other thing you could do is ask about him. This is an often overlooked part of “pitching”. So many times pitching is assumed to be a one way process. It’s not. Without knowing what’s going on with them you won’t actually build the report you need to move into a deeper conversation. It’s a simple mistake, but one people make every day.

How do you DO that? What do you ask? How do you get your message across? You’ve got a quota to meet and you don’t want to loose this opportunity! Patience young jedi… we’ll talk about that in our next episode.