Archive for June, 2007

customer series: don’t show uncertain cards

June 23, 2007

Reminder: when I use the word customer, particularly in this series, I’m pretty much referring to everbody! As in, not just a buyer in the strict sense.

When you want to sell a customer, it’s one thing to contemplate the points that the customer will like. It’s another to consider everything you see as strengths in your own mind. I’ve already established earlier, that while its great to be confident in the whole menu of strengths of your offering, you want to push the things the customer is most likely to consider positive.

The further point I want to make here is to consider what lies in the unknown. The things you’re not sure the customer would like. Hold those cards close to your chest! They are avoidable land mines.

Imagine a situation where you are selling a piece of land. Let’s say you know a neighbor landowner is considering putting up a building. Let’s say you know this will actually increase the value of all the land in the area…perhaps that building is going to be occupied by a prestigious tenant that will strengthen the market. If you’re absolutely sure the prospective buyer would consider this good news, you might emphasize this as a selling point. However, what if you’re not sure? What if there is a reason this would turn off the buyer?

Let’s say in our theoretical example, 9 out of 10 land buyers would see the neighbor project as a good thing. As a seller, let’s say you yourself had even considered postponing the sale to wait for the land appreciation from the project fruition before opting to move forward marketing your land. Watch out for the tricks of your mind! Don’t let these facts lull you into assuming the buyer is going to think it’s a good thing. You need to focus on the specific buyer. Don’t assume, unless you do so knowing you’re taking that leap of faith at your own peril.

Maybe my example isn’t the best. I don’t sell land; I was just shooting for something as generic as possible. The point is to watch what you disclose — even if you think something is a positive…and even if you think “most people” would think it is a positive. Remember, all that matters is the customer’s judgment.

In our example, it seems the best thing to do would be to ask prompting questions to the buyer to assess whether the news would be interpreted as a positive.

It’s a funny thing: we tend to be great at asking probing questions around revealing what we think might be a negative to see how careful we need to be. Assumed but uncertain positives should be handled with the same frame of mind.

The classic example is productivity software that eliminates overhead. Often someone in the customer chain has a clear motivation to see that your software NOT be purchased for it’s “obviously” positive productivity gains. What if that software could end up eliminating 25% of a manager’s headcount and budget?

Tread lightly.

For my last point I’m going to get a little abstract. This has to do with your future plans. If you need agreement from someone to take a step forward, you need to disclose enough to get that agreement. In achieving this, we often spill too much of the longer term plans we have. This undermines the goal, which is the agreement. Why? All this spilling just invites the other person to see a problem in the logic of your longer term plans. What’s the benefit? Even if there’s no conflict of interest in the longer term, you’re just inviting disagreement which is tertiary to the immediate goal at hand. Why are you inviting cold feet? I’m not suggesting to be tight-lipped all the time and invite suspicion. I’m suggesting being pragmatic in disclosure. If anything, let the other person’s imagination go to work on the longer term. Let them paint the picture most positive in their own eyes. There’s no way your “wonderful” picture can compete with the product of the other person’s own mind!

If you have trouble with the above (I know I do), try this exercise. Imagine the worst. Force yourself to think as if the other person will NOT like your assumed positives. This builds up your radar in a three ways. One, you leave all the tertiary spilling OUT. Two, you are more focused on figuring out what the customer will consider a positive — before disclosure. Three, by being your own critic, you might identify negatives you’d previously glossed over in your mind.

The Go/No-go Decision

June 22, 2007

This is a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot. The superset of decision making in general is, too. The world is full of models and research on this topic. This is going to become one of my major topics on this blog. (Another topic being the customer, everyone being a customer, and customer judgment themes I’ve recently written about.)

What a Go/No-go decision is seems intuitive enough by the name. One apt example is in flying airplanes. A pilot makes a Go/No-go decision about leaving the safety of the ground. Go or don’t Go.

The Go/No-go decision is not just about the decision. It’s about what happens preceding, during, and after the decision. In project terms, there is a lot of conventional wisdom around predetermining “Go/No-go” points, static points along a project timeline that require going through this decision process. These are points at which it is determined whether to continue funding or kill a project.

There is also another school of thought that encourages this to be a more ongoing process, even trying to remove the inherent binary nature from such a decision.

In planning, common practice is to employ “if…then’s” (contingency planning) into our plans. In practice, I think this contingency planning would have more meaning if it were focused on identifying future circumstances that would force a Go/No-go decision on a part or whole of the overall plan.

Making Go/No-go type decisions are crucial in leading a project. Frankly, if I were an investor, I would rather have someone leading the project that has made 100 Go/No-go decisions outside the industry than someone with 20 years of experience within the industry but with relatively little Go/No-go decision-making that influenced the whole project they were working on. Someone skilled at making Go/No-go decisions has better odds of making correct decisions even in a foreign industry. The industry insider simply has knowledge of the industry, which, while an asset, is just that, an asset. It does very little to influence the ultimate outcome, which is by nature a result of decisions along the way.

One of the biggest Go/No-go decisions we can all relate to is in personal relationships. Let’s not even talk about marriage. Let’s talk about a simple boyfriend/girlfriend relationship. In a breakup, there is an obvious Go/No-go decision that has been made. What is not as obvious are the Go/No-go decisions along the way that resulted in “Go.” In fact, many of those decisions were probably made by just one of the parties without the knowledge of the other.

To me, mature processing of Go/No-go decisions, whether at discrete points or as an ongoing process, is perhaps the hallmark of leadership. For one thing Go/No-go is inherently future oriented. The decision forces a projection into the future. The decision is, in essence, a prediction of the future. This “bet” is the root from which even the execution, the making it happen, must spring. In the awkward phrasing of GW Bush, the Go/No-go is the domain of “the Decider.”

Apple and convergence

June 22, 2007

This is a follow up to my earlier post critiquing Al Reis’s iPhone commentary and fleshes out why I like the Apple convergence strategy.

Apple’s iPhone isn’t great because it’s a convergence device itself, but because it is part of the “i-universe”. Everybody has a computer. Everybody has a cell phone. Everybody has a music player and it’s probably an iPod. Everybody has media that plays on their music player and it’s probably from iTunes. If you have an interest in mobile video, iTunes is a great source for that, too. Get the picture?

Remember back in the day (not that that day is totally gone) when Sony had a similar stack in the home electronics world. We bought a Sony receiver, a Sony TV, a Sony CD changer, and a Sony every other component that came along (Sony DVD player…).

Apple also has its own operating system and much of its own software (browser, iPhoto, address book, calendar, are some of the top of mind for me). The brand for Apple isn’t iPhone, it’s “Apple i-…”

I’m not really an Apple fanboy, but I do have an Apple laptop, desktop and an ipod, and I have a lot of iTunes media. It just makes sense to pick Apple for my mobile device when I want an upgrade, the same way someone with a bunch of Sony electronics would tend to pick a Sony for the next component. I wasn’t a Sony nut either, when I realized, gosh, I have a lot of Sony electronics.

I think when a customer gets into the Apple universe from whatever angle (a computer, a phone, even an ipod), Apple is doing everything it can to allure that customer deeper and deeper into the whole Apple universe. And since their products generally fulfill the brand’s “promise”, the customer takes this journey willingly. Compare to Sony when it dominated home electronics. Compare to Microsoft. First the OS, then all the productivity apps, then the browser, the media player, etc. Sure, these rides tend to plateau, but they tend to go pretty far.

Apple seems to do a good job taking a product category and making choices on our behalf. We may not like all the choices, but the overall picture is compelling. At the same time, Apple makes choices that bias their Apple universe.

Another point: this “universe” has alternatives, yes. But when you go out of the Apple universe, things get complicated and frustrating. Try getting an mp3 phone and loading all your $$$ iTunes collection on to it. Sorry, unless you hack it, you can’t! Beyond that, the average ipod user learned itunes. Do they want to now have to select and learn to use a different service? Do they want half their music to only play on their ipod and half to play on their phone? Life starts to look easier in the i-universe.

I have a PDA phone from Nokia. The biggest drawbacks versus the iPhone are the weak browser and no media player for songs and videos. Since I’m already familiar with this “i-universe”, I trust Apple on those two things…browser? Safari. media? iPod/iTunes. So, while I may think, maybe there are better PDA’s out there, the powerful draw is why not stay in this comfortable i-universe? (Sidenote: interestingly, some newer Nokia phones now use Safari. Years ago, Apple also decided to allow PC users to use iPod/iTunes. These are like Apple i-universe trial memberships 🙂 )

Reis’s point was the iPhone is a convergence device and those often fail. I think the bigger convergence going on with the iPhone is the “i-…” meeting the “phone.” Whether Reis acknowledges it or not, PDA’s is a viable market and they are already convergence devices. Apple is not creating that. They are entering the category.

Apple’s overall success/strategy has to do with the success of the i-universe not the quarterly sales or adoption rate of any one given device. Granted, the iPhone is a huge test to the i-universe. To some extent, it is bet the company. Why? Because if it completely fails, the indication is the i-universe might be pushing against it’s limits. If that’s the case, plateau may be around the corner. I, for one, doubt it.

motivating the customer (follow up to judgment, customer, agent, arbiter)

June 22, 2007

Maybe I need to make this a series.

I’m not a “born salesman.” Not who I am. For starters, my brain chemistry is pretty hard-wired against it. Maybe it’s because I was the youngest child…whatever the case, the instinct upstairs is generally defer or avoid in a conflict, rather than fight or demand. Add to that, I’m not naturally the glowing, beaming type either. I’m not a curmudgeon, but let’s just say I have to work pretty hard to win somebody over on charisma.

The upshot is I’ve learned to be more observant when I need to sell. One of the most important observations I’ve learned is to get very specific about the customer’s motivation. Generally, there’s a chain of people that need to be ‘sold’ to make a sale. Even if we’re selling to an individual, they might be, in their minds, deciding if their spouse, coworkers, or peers, would agree with their buying decision.

Sometimes the motivations along the way are plain as day and we never see them. If you’re selling something to a company, there are probably “business development” types that aren’t strictly salespeople, but a significant portion of their compensation is incentive based. If you can make yourself or what you are selling in some way valuable to those types, even if they’re not the decision makers, they can be very helpful. The more generalized their role the better. In other words, an inside sales appointment setter isn’t going to care what you’re selling.

But even those without obvious motivation still have some kind of hidden (real) motivation.

Here’s a personal example: a friend planning to sell her house needs some repairs done and called on two repairmen to give estimates. I’m guessing both will give similar good bids because they’re aware of the competition. They both were smart in trying to tap a hidden motivation though, knowing price parity was probably going to occur.

One happened to know the real estate agent my friend is using. He immediately set out to emphasize that relationship by knowing everything the agent (the “expert” in this scenario) would want in a make-ready project. I’m guessing he will even call the agent and ask her if there are any specifics she recommends beyond the repairs in the bidding process. The motivation he’s trying to tap: making my friend’s life easier by satisfying the agent, who ultimately is the “expert” in selling the house, the ultimate objective.

The other happened to know the roofer who had done repairs to her house before. Some water damage in a room was on the list of repairs. The damage was from a roof leak. This bidder went out of his way to inspect the roof, which was not on the list. His plan was to help my friend get the roof repaired for free and coordinate this with his friend the roofer. He was trying to tap another motivation: saving my friend money and time on a needed repair that the other repairman probably didn’t identify or include on the bid, but would probably be caught in a home inspection.

I’m not sure who my friend is going with, but the point is these street-wise repairmen knew to get the job they would need to tap a motivation above and beyond providing requested services at a competitive price.

Sometimes we need to create a motivation. I’ve spent some time trying to raise sponsorship money for non-profits and events. Raising this kind of money on the cause alone is challenging. And often, making obvious concessions for promotion makes your effort seem distasteful to the target. So I try to create triangles. With an event, I would often ask myself who I could invite as special guests that a sponsor would want the chance to talk to. With a general sponsorship, I would create a picture in my head. I would envision a giant image of a T-shirt with two sponsors on the back. Who would like to be next to each other? And with individual fundraising, there’s no secret why organizations include lists of existing donors in their material. Two points of this “triangle” are one point the non-profit and one point the existing donors. The other point, figuratively far away, is the target donor. The target may not be too motivated by the non-profit, but they want to be in the herd of the second point, existing donors.

This all goes back to the judgment of the customer article. If we don’t vigilantly look for the customer’s motivation, we aren’t doing anything to stack the odds in our favor (while the other guy probably is). When we whine the customer didn’t make the right choice, or get down that our offering doesn’t have the right merits, we’re being self-centered. We need to focus on understanding the individual customer’s judgment and motivation.

thought for the day: personal development

June 22, 2007

I had an interesting conversation today that led me to reflect both on myself and my peer group, defined for the purpose of this article as young professionals trying hard to advance their careers.

I think we all go through a phase where we think to ourselves “if I were x, then I could advance.” And “x” gets filled with LOTS of things. For example, “more aggressive” “more charismatic” “more organized” “better at a given skill”. Then there’s things that fit with “if I had x” like “better contacts” “more senior role” “more credentials”. The list goes on.

What’s interesting to me is that the more focused we are on this advancement, especially if we want to reach lofty goals, the more this phase (which, I suspect for some could last an entire career) can be counter-productive. Why? While it’s great to keep an eye on personal improvement and development, this focus can be taxing on our psyche. Within this line of thinking lies a dissatisfaction with our current state. If this goes unchecked and we become too focused on what we want to become, we lose respect for who we are.

An alluring but faulty logic is “if who we are hasn’t gotten us where we want to be, who we are isn’t ok.” For one thing, the logic is in itself incorrect because progress always takes time, and “who we are” is probably working just fine, just not fast enough for our liking, so to speak. But more fundamentally, a persistent mental state of dissatisfaction of who we are is both self-reinforcing and de-motivating.

The remedy is to remind ourselves what is good about who we are. I don’t mean this in a feel-good kind of way. I mean that it’s productive, in the midst of all our desire to “get better,” to examine the good that’s already there. Number one, a positive attitude keeps us on the offensive. Number two, I think this process of assessing the positive helps us focus and build on our strengths. Particularly in a situation where the “x” above has grown into a laundry list of improvements, we benefit from narrowing those down to one or two improvements that leverage existing strengths, are very aligned with our goals, and that are achievable.

One corollary thought I’m considering is, with the thought “if I were x, then I could advance”, a good exercise might not be to worry about “x” so much as this vague “advance” part. What if we replaced “advance” with “y”. Now “x” needs to lead to “y”, which ought to help us get more specific. Maybe we need to take a harder look at “y” when we have a runaway improvement list.

If “Y,” as a pre-requisite, needs to be either a tight goal or specific problem to be overcome that is truly something we want, the important things that fill “x” should also become more focused…and at the same time, my suspicion is they will often turn out to leverage our existing strengths more.

I think this is more intuitive by jumping outside of personal development, and rather to just problem solving in general. When a problem is vague and distant, what’s necessary to overcome seems larger than it really is. The more defined a problem, the more we can envision tangible routes to a solution. Along the way, our brain can then be resourceful…looking for existing pieces of the solution to leverage and then for the new ‘work’ that will leverage what is existing to produce the solution.

Still can’t relate? How many times have you heard yourself or someone else say, “I don’t know what I want to be”? Or how about “I want to be successful, but I’m not sure how to get there.” Certainly everybody has heard these things and the great majority have thought these things. For anyone with these thoughts, their “Y” is vague and chances are they have a laundry list of “X”.

To me, the following prescription makes sense:

1. Take a look at your existing strengths
2. Pat yourself on the back
3. Look for a goal you really want and where some of your strengths can be leveraged. (Y)
4. Analyze: the distance between your goal and your present is essentially the gap between your existing strengths and the goal. That is “X”. Is “X” definable? Within your reach? Is the goal worth it?
5. If and only if “X” and “Y” pass your tests should they have any real meaning to you. Cut away thoughts of improvements (X’s) and goals (Y’s) that don’t pass muster.

judgment: customer, agent or arbiter

June 20, 2007

I recently read Paul Graham’s essay on judgment (Graham’s essay. In short, his claim is while we grow up dealing with people judging us based on our performance, our progress, our potential, our achievement, etc etc, once we’re grown up, especially where it really matters, people don’t judge us that way. They judge us based on their life, their needs, what matters to them, how we can help them, how we fit into their world. The judgments are less and less about us and more about THEM!

I liked how he used the term customer to represent this latter judgment. Once we realize other people around us are judging like a customer, we automatically recognize, correctly, they are in charge of their own judgment. If their judgment is bad, and we are judged poorly because of it, it doesn’t matter. They are the customer. It can’t be that their judgment is bad, because to them, it’s perfectly correct!

An arbiter (a judge, and sometimes a teacher or a supervisor) is different. Why? Because they are in some way responsible, to you, for making a correct judgment. Thus, they dig in a little more. They would tend to give your ‘case’ a more ‘fair hearing.’ Imagine a teacher who dislikes a certain student. However, one can fairly assume, the teacher will accurately assign grades to a report card of that student at the end of the school period.

I also think with both customer judgment and arbiter judgment, we can see where the agent becomes valuable. Whenever you deal with a customer, it makes sense to consider an agent. An agent is more likely to understand what makes up the body of the customer’s judgment. An agent also is more free, and more experienced, at fishing the customer’s judgment and at appealing to that judgment on your behalf. Even with an arbiter, an agent may be better suited to do your bargaining.

I think it’s also worth pointing out that ‘customers’ lie. What’s more is this lying is not only permissable, it is completely natural. A customer is doing the judging, so when prodded to reveal their body of judgment, they are being prodded into a reversal (where their judgment is then judged). Customers don’t have to comply. What’s more, customers are people and people are emotional and emotions are irrational. Therefore, even if they want to be truthful, they may be, and likely are, still lying. Lying is a harsh term. In reality judgment varies like the wind. But people (customers), when asked about their judgment, articulate an answer that is static. Thus, by nature they are ‘lying’ at least some of the time.

Let’s say a company is hiring. Even for a single position, at different times the criteria for being hired will vary over time, depending on demand, on number of applicants, and, yes, on a whim! The company doing the hiring is a customer.

Same for dating

Same for homebuying

Same for major promotions

Same even for friendship

Another point to make is how important it is to separate self-worth from others’ judgment. Unless you like roller coasters and lots of mystery regarding how you’re going to feel about yourself tomorrow, the day after, and the day after!

Another point is to remind yourself everybody is a customer, all the time. Even when and if they aren’t, you’ll do better thinking they are. There are lots of upsides to this, too. First, if everybody is a customer, we can ask ourselves what it is they want. We can remember what works and what doesn’t…for them, that is. We can ‘help’ a customer arrive at the decision we want them to make. In return, we have a better shot at that customer judging us positively and acting accordingly (whatever that may mean).

presidential candidates, random thoughts

June 20, 2007

My current thoughts on the presidential race: the rush to start early benefits the prior unknowns, given they have a chance, the most. I would say Mitt Romney benefits the most this go round. I find also-rans odd. If memory serves, though, Bill Clinton wasn’t a favorite in his first race. However, there are a lot of candidates in the current field that just don’t seem to have a chance. At some point, aren’t they just wasting money trying to run? Does a campaign donor put money on just the candidate or would the donor be willing just to support the message knowing the candidate will lose? Maybe a campaign should accept money with a checkbox: once we’re 99% sure we’re not going to win, is it still ok to spend your money on campaigning?

The early beginning favors one or two late arrivals. It seems like Fred Thompson gets the benefit here. The reason is he gets publicity for doing a ‘non-campaign’ campaign. By delaying, he sticks out. The shadow horse. Bloomberg also is getting this coverage. If he does run, he seems to be playing this card more masterfully than Thompson who has practically said he is running. Even if Thompson pulls out, most people know he’s in the race in spirit. Bloomberg, however, is sending mixed signals. If he doesn’t run, it won’t seem like he pulled out. Thus the Bloomberg non-campaign is more intriguing.

I think the presidential administration/executive branch is so complex, it seems limiting to elect only a President/VP ticket. I guess it would be difficult to do it another way, but the ‘rest of the administration’ seems at least as, if not more, important. Look at GW Bush. Particularly in the first term, his administration was basically a slightly updated version of G Bush Sr’s, esp in the senior roles — esp those dealing with foreign policy and military.

This brings up questions: would, for example, Barack Obama’s cabinet look like Hillary Clinton’s? Would Hillary Clinton’s look like the Bill Clinton cabinet? What about Romney’s, Guliani’s, others’? I suspect you could learn a lot about a candidate and his/her future administration by seeing how they would stack a cabinet.

I don’t consider myself an average Republican because I greatly separate fiscal, military, and social/moral issues. (I generally subscribe to less government, strong military, and investment in technology (cleantech, nuclear, medical, space, etc) that benefit from gov’t backing. I’m mostly libertarian when it comes to domestic issues, from healthcare to gun ownership. I do think the current admin is too narrow on foreign policy and could benefit from a broader Kissinger-like approach, in addition to greater leadership on popular issues abroad.) Anyway, the question is, do most self-described Republicans and Democrats tow the party line 25, 50, 75, or nearly 100% of the way? Also curious what percentage of “one-issue” voters are out there? And of those, how many would vote the other way in a candidacy were the one issue not present?

I don’t recall past elections where popular leaders expressed intelligent support for a candidate that made a huge impact, but I would be interested in this as a phenomenon. For instance, I happen to think Bill Gates is quite smart, and his wisdom reaches beyond software. So, I would appreciate his analysis of why he would support a particular candidate. Warren Buffett? Steve Jobs? I suppose, these are super-wealthy people, but the reason I would appreciate their thoughts is that they are somewhat plain spoken and capable of nuance at the same time. And they have a track record of being right a lot! Also, this kind of commentary/analysis would be appreciated sooner than later, since by the election, we’re deciding (generally) on two, max 3, candidates who often polarize the choice on their own.

The election system is tricky. Let’s say you are a die-hard Democrat. Then what you would actually prefer is a far right Republican winning the nomination. And vice versa. Further, the truth is, if you are a far left Democrat, what you really want is a centrist Democrat winning the primary, giving a greater chance at the popular vote (by state, resulting in the electoral vote win….). The only way a far right or far left candidate wins is if they ‘mobilize’ their base SO MUCH that the turn out overwhelms the polls. I don’t see that happening. Even though GW Bush was fairly far right (esp the way he ran his campaigns), he was center enough. To me, one way to not be too far one way or the other is to not disrupt issues that have previously been decided. IOW, even though he is a pro-lifer, he didn’t campaign on reversing Roe v. Wade. I think the more a candidate tries to change or undo something, the more far-wing the candidate is. The candidate can get away with stances, positions, and future-talk that is more left or right, as long as the “concrete” of the past isn’t messed with. I think this also says a lot about why Social Security reform was a failure and remains a Gordian knot.

This leads to another thought: would the far left Democrat actually prefer a candidate running a center campaign who would then swing to the far left after election? It would seem so, but I guess this leaves the second term in great jeopardy, given the ‘betrayal’ of those voting in the candidate based on their centrist campaign.