Whose opinion do you listen to?

I see that my favourite marketing guru (Seth Godin) has an interesting blog post today about which opinions are worth listening to. There are certainly plenty of folk out there willing to share their views on us and what we do, and according to Seth we often pay heed to the wrong ones!

It reminded me of a couple of things, one abstract, the other more real-world.

First, the Inner Voice concept which performance psychologists, NLP coaches and others find so fascinating. Tim Gallwey wrote the Inner Game of Tennis (one of the most influential books in business coaching) and built up the case for the Two Selves. Self 1 is our inner voice, the internal chatter that frequently sabotages our efforts when we have to perform in some way and feel anxiety or uncertainty. Self 2 is the doing part of our being – it’s dominant when we perform at our best, when we’re in a state of ‘flow’ (driving a car for example). Our ability to manage that inner chatter and allow Self 2 to strut its stuff is crucial to our success – take an interest in these areas. Start by simply being aware of the existence of negative self-talk. These internal critics may shout loud, but their opinions need to be balanced with more positive influences.

My second point comes from my past experience of running membership-based golf & leisure clubs. I recall how easy it was to be swayed by the ‘regulars’. They’re always in the bar and they’ll seize every opportunity to tell you where you’re going wrong. Yet despite being so unhappy with the way things are, they’ll never leave! They’ll renew their membership year-on-year and keep propping up the bar. It’s the members you rarely see who represent the risk in your business. Their renewal is by no means guaranteed and for some reason they’re not frequenting the club/bar/restaurant. It’s your job to find out why, and try to convert them into active users.

Criticism stings and it forces itself into our consciousness. But as Seth Godin reminds us, the trick is to identify which opinions matter – a central theme in improved emotional intelligence.

Smart marketing means selling emotion

happyteendriverThe new BMW commercial showing in the cinemas talks about the ‘joy’ their cars bring. According to the ad, “what you make people feel is as important as what you make.” This underlines a central theme in marketing – that we buy on emotion rather than logic. It’s the key motivation for customers to purchase, a critical sales driver.

It’s an important consideration when you’re looking to generate sales for your product or service. If you get close to your customers you begin to understand how they FEEL as a result of having used your company. They might feel safer, calmer, exhilarated, more confident – all of which makes them happier.

If you know how people respond emotionally to what you do, you can pitch your proposition in these terms – like BMW. It’s powerful and persuasive marketing.

Standing out in a crowded market

Writing in the Observer today (9/8/09), Prof Ian Roxburgh refers to the modern phenomenon of academic inflation. The year he graduated from Nottingham University (1960), 6.4% of graduates got first class honours and 25.5% 2:1′s. This compares to figures quoted in the Observer showing that last year in the UK there were 13.3% firsts and 48.1% 2:1′s.

In the same Observer Letters Page, a Psychology lecturer from Liverpool University claims that, in his experience, “The vast majority of students lack basic skills such as the ability to write grammatically or to evaluate a scientific argument.”

It’s a problem facing recruiters – how to identify really good candidates when there are so many graduates around with good degrees. But it’s an equally big problem for the graduates themselves. How on earth are they going to stand out from the crowd and get noticed by employers?

Let me suggest a solution. As an employer, I’d be impressed by other factors – less measurable perhaps, but criteria that help me distinguish those with the ‘X’ factor. Things like your willingness/ability to:

  • Write and speak well
  • Form good relationships
  • Innovate
  • Be curious and seek to understand
  • Empathise with others
  • Coach and nurture others
  • Inspire and enthuse others
  • Be self-motivated
  • Be entrepreneurial
  • Lead
  • Show respect
  • Know when to shut up
  • Allow others to shine
  • Handle adversity
  • Be reliable and take responsibility
  • Show determination
  • Have strong values and be guided by them

These criteria are harder to measure than academic success but may ultimately be the difference between a job offer and a rejection. So as a graduate, ask yourself this…do I have these characteristics and secondly, do I CONVEY them in my CV or when I’m interviewed?

And finally, if you’re in business and looking to compete successfully, consider how your target audience is going to distinguish you from the raft of others out there offering similar services. Have YOU got the ‘X’ factor?

Balancing practice time and action time

Irish Golfer Padraig Harrington was in the news today. The three-time major winner has had a poor season this year, but currently leads this week’s tournament on the PGA Tour in America. Harrington is renowned for his extraordinary work ethic, practising 60-70 hours a week. But it’s taking a toll on his body and he talks in today’s Guardian about drastically reducing his practice regime if he’s going to keep his career going well into his 40′s.

Harrington’s predicament reminded me of a dilemma facing all of us – that is the balance between our practice time and our time ‘on stage’. Amateur golfers usually play too much and practise too little, which means they never improve their skills and merely ingrain bad habits. In the workplace, we’re ‘on show’ in the same way as professional athletes – sometimes overtly (public speaking, an interview), sometimes less obviously (meeting someone at a networking event, serving people in a shop). In all cases we’re being judged by our audience and they’re forming opinions of us that they share with others.

But what about the balance between ‘practice time’ and the actual ‘doing’ time? For most people in business, doing is all they do. They rarely stop to spend time on the ‘practice range’, and thus ingrain bad habits and fail to improve.

Think of a log chopping competition as a metaphor for work. You start off chopping 500 logs Day 1, 400 Day 2, then down to 300 Day 3. Frustrated, you start earlier and work through your lunch break, but you fail to halt the downward slide. Why? Because the BLADE OF THE AXE IS GETTING BLUNT!

If you’re really busy, be wary of falling into the log-chopping trap. It pays to stop occasionally and sharpen your axe. Strike a balance between the time you spend competing and the time you spend getting smarter.

Find the pain

theo-paphitisWatching Dragons Den last night, it was clear where the problem lies with many of the business propositions on show – there’s not enough pain. Take the example of the device that automatically dispenses measures of baby formula. Designed by a father who found it difficult (in the middle of the night, half asleep) to measure the traditional way – by hand/spoon – this was, in his view, a ‘winner’.

Theo wasn’t impressed. He’d been there, a supportive dad up at 3am, barely awake. But although he might have occasionally been a spoonful out one way or the other, the kids grew up fine. In other words there wasn’t a big enough problem to solve. Not enough pain.

It’s so important when you’re preparing a product or service for the market to understand what problem it’s solving. Is it felt by enough people? Does it cause real grief? Is it easily resolved by other means? Why should we choose you to solve it rather than anyone else? This is the very reason you generate sales and dictates the marketing message.

We often focus on how we solve things, while losing sight of the problem itself. See an interesting take on this by American marketing guru Seth Godin.

Friends Reunited and the importance of relationships

I was interested to read in today’s papers about the sale of Friends Reunited by ITV for a sum of £25 million. Sounds like a lot of money, except when you realise they bought it in 2005 for £175 million! Friends Reunited has been losing share in the on-line social networking market for some time – three million users at the moment compared with Facebook’s 200 million. And of course Twitter’s star is rising even faster right now.

Murad Ahmed writes an interesting piece in The Times (Aug 7 2009), observing that, “Friends Reunited was a good idea but it was not built upon. It provided an appealing service but once Mary found her childhood mate Sally the usefulness of the site ended.” Ahmed claims that Facebook, with its photo sharing, add a friend, group forming facilities, “gave a reason to keep coming back. It was good at maintaining relationships, not just resurrecting them.”

For me, this mirrors an important principle in business – to build long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationships. The traditional ‘smash-and-grab tactic’ (where you fleece a customer, in the knowledge that there are plenty more out there to replace him) really won’t wash any more. You need to establish trust and longevity in a relationship, so you’re not relying on finding new customers all the time.

It remains to be seen if the likes of Facebook and Twitter are successful in actually creating real value in the relationships they claim to build.

BTW, lovely cartoon in the Telegraph yesterday (Matt, I think – he’s a genius). Two snails are ambling along, one looking rather unhappy. The problem? “My broadband connection is just sooo slow!” A nice observation on the pace of modern life.

Learning from comedy

comedian-josh-blue2Listen to most comedians and you realise their material is about really simple stuff, things from everyday life that they find amusing. They’re great observers of the world around them and frequently carry a note book for those occasions when they see what could form part of a funny story. One comedian recently told me about a incident on a train where a man had finished eating a banana and was left with the dilemma of what to do with the skin. A kind old lady noticed his predicament and pulled out a plastic bag from her handbag so the man could wrap the skin up neatly. Of course the comedian sees the irony in that – the skin (biodegradable) has been transformed into eco-unfriendly litter, good citizenship gone wrong!

Two points here: first, the natural curiosity of the comedian is a powerful trait that works well in business. John is focused on getting what he wants – material for his act. And because he knows what he wants, he notices incidents like the banana skin when others would miss them. Having clear focus and goals in your business will help you do the same. You’ll pick up things that complement the achievement of your goals.

Second, he’s very good at turning things he’s noticed into a story that works. Storytelling is a great skill in business presentations too, but you’ve got to make it relevant. There’s got to be a point to it – perhaps some metaphorical significance that serves to make your point really hit home.

A good training technique is to challenge colleagues to talk about a variety of objects laid out on a table. If it’s a tin can they’ll run out of things to say if they describe it literally, but if they make a metaphorical jump to say what it symbolises (perhaps longevity) they can easily expand on this and talk about things that last – eg strong business relationships.

So two things to take from comedy:

  • make sure you’re really clear on what you want – then you’ll see stuff you’d otherwise miss,
  • use real-life experiences to construct stories, so you can get a point across with impact and authenticity.

The importance of Partnership

Partnerships make us stronger and one of the positive consequences of the recession has been a greater willingness to seek new relationships and potential partnerships. I usually highlight lessons from the world of sport, but in this case I’d prefer to draw something from nature. I’m talking here about ‘symbiotic’ relationships, the word taken from the Greek meaning ‘living with’. Think of the shark and the pilot fish. They co-exist and perform a mutually beneficial function – the pilot fish removes parasites from the predator’s  skin while the shark serves as a scary minder for its tiny hitchhiker.

We’ve seen new relationships forming in business – Orange Wednesdays and Pizza Express, Waterstone’s and Costa Coffee. They’re complementary brands and they’ve effectively ‘fused’ to become a stronger whole. But even on a smaller scale, there are opportunities for SME’s to form symbiotic relationships with other complementary, non-competing companies. Think of who might add value to your product or service, a company with a similar profile of customer, and approach them with a suggestion that does the same thing for them. You tap into each other’s client bases while adding value to those existing relationships.

How well connected are you?

If you rely on referral and networking to generate business, you should try this test. I’ve called it ‘the connectedness test’. It’s taken from the highly popular book by Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point. Essentially, it’s designed to test what sort of social animal you are. If, for example, you keep a small circle of friends and associates and rarely make an effort to engage in conversation with strangers, you’ll score fairly low. However, if you’re quite gregarious and willing to strike up conversations with complete strangers (whether at networking events or in Tesco’s) you’ll score high.

It’s relevant because your ability to build up an effective network is CRITICAL to your success in business, especially so during recessionary times when it’s tough to ‘buy’ that business in. Gladwell talks about the importance of what he terms ‘weak ties’, in other words people you know but not well (perhaps someone you bump into from time to time). If they know what you do, and you’re always pleasant to them, they might just be of some help to you from time to time.


  • Download the list of names by following the link below.
  • These names are taken at random from the South Manchester telephone directory.
  • Give yourself a point for each surname you ‘know’.
  • In other words, if you know 6 Smiths, that’s 6 points.
  • The definition of ‘know’ is that if you passed them in the street, you’d at least know each other by name.
  • DON’T CHEAT! Resist the temptation to go through your old diaries and count a person who was in your class at school. If you don’t have a relationship of some kind with them NOW, ignore those. You want an accurate rating.

Once you’ve completed the test, drop me a line and we’ll interpret the results together!


How to deal with complaints

I heard an interesting story last night about an incident in a restaurant. An elderly customer became ill during the course of a meal and was actually sick at the table (she had an existing medical condition, nothing to do with the food). She’d just about finished her starter and her main was being prepared in the kitchen. This was obviously embarrassing for the poor lady, but instead of coming over to deal with it, the manager allowed the junior staff to clean up the mess and handle the problem. The lady was asked to pay for the starter but the waitress was asked if she could cancel the mains so the lady and her husband could go home. The girl checked with the manager but he insisted they still pay for the mains, as they were already being prepared.

To me this says two things. Firstly, it’s all very well giving junior staff responsibility and delegating effectively, but this incident required the attention of the senior staff. Second, it indicates how important an opportunity this is (and note I use the word ‘opportunity’) for the business to deal effectively with a complaint.

I met John Timpson the other week, he of the shoe repair chain. He told me he’d empowered his shop managers to spend up to FIVE HUNDRED POUNDS to resolve a customer complaint – without having to seek authorisation! In his experience, complaints that are ‘processed’ by sending the matter higher and higher up the food chain rarely get resolved satisfactorily and leave a residue of ill feeling that spreads through word of mouth. Far better in his view to nip it in the bud AT SOURCE and minimise the damage.

But the reason I mentioned ‘opportunity’ is that a complaint is a chance to win a new friend. If dealt with extremely well, a disgruntled customer can often turn into an advocate for you and your business.

So treat complaints as a great opportunity to ‘turn someone around’ and win new friends.