I Just HAD to Ask…

February 27, 2010

A lifetime ago, in the middle of a drug cartel trial in Hammond, Indiana, a defense attorney threatened to put me on the witness stand and started coaching me about my testimony. When I questioned his ethics, he told me what every litigator learns—you never ask a question unless you know what the answer is going to be.

That’s good advice when preparing for trial, including the trials of life. Ask the questions first and know what to expect later. Sometimes, though, we’re so sure we know the answer, we decide it’s not even necessary to ask any questions.

I make a big point of telling clients that the customer is the ultimate insider. Not only are they the final arbiters of value, they also make the best mirrors. Ask them the right way and they’ll tell you more about your own business than you ever wanted to know.

That’s the problem, of course. How many of us really want to know? No news is good news, right? Why ask for trouble? Instead of asking for rejection, we draw on experience, anecdote and memories that are—like premium vodka—triple filtered.

Which means, of course, that we miss the opportunity to correct the problems that are costing us business.

Or friends.

Or opportunities.

We simply assert that we know everything we need to know and continue our errant journeys.

I broke that tradition last month, overcoming my own dread and commissioning a survey of my customers. Well, not all were customers, but we queried a group of people who know me to one degree or another in a variety of business and board environments. I’m doing a lot of networking these days, so I was more than a trifle curious about the people I meet or, more accurately, the people who meet me.

As you would expect, the survey showed I have no flaws and everyone thinks I am the most wonderful person they have ever met. All expressed surprise that I felt the need to ask if they had any doubts about my perfection.

Actually, the results were positive, but it turns out (GASP!!) that there might be room for improvement. A few misguided people think I am fallible and they hid behind a cloak of anonymity as they critiqued me.

While some praise me as persistent, others mistake this wonderful trait as stubbornness. While most people yearn to savor every word I utter, a few foolish souls think I can talk too much. Some people respect my candor while others recoil at my bluntness.

It’s enlightening to see how strength in one environment becomes weakness in another, or the traits lauded by one person are grating to someone else.

Obviously, I cannot change myself for each situation, but I can get better at adjusting my presentation for each audience. The first step to improvement, of course, is asking the right questions—and listening to the answers.

I never ended up on the witness stand in Hammond, but I’m creating a transcript every day.

We all do.

Asking for a copy of that transcript can be unnerving. Sometimes, we discover all kinds of stupid stuff, set down in our own handwriting. Sometimes, we come out better than we thought. In either case, though, it’s a valuable exercise to poll the jury.

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Money Matters….

February 23, 2010

@ the dadblog……… http://www.5minutesforparenting.com/619/money-matters/

You Can’t Fool Me. I’ve Already Fooled Myself!

February 21, 2010

I was soaked by the time I crossed the parking lot and opened the door of the jewelry store. Just a few days before our anniversary, or maybe it was Jill’s birthday, I was a man on a mission.

I hate shopping for jewelry. It’s too one-sided. Every product is unique and it’s worth whatever the seller says it’s worth. You can’t go to the next dealer and price the same item, as you could for cars, microwaves, copiers, books…pretty much everything.

Except jewelry.

So I asked a lot of questions about the differences in size and color and shape and how-the-heck-do-you-know which is which. The jeweler responded to each question with “it depends” or “each pearl is different.”

Well, yeah. But he found a way to look at those differences and assign specific prices, so I wanted to understand how or why he did it. I’d know what to buy and what to pay if I understood why he made various choices about the same thing.

The conversation was fruitless and, five minutes later, I thanked him and left the store. As I opened the door, I heard him tell his young son, “He just came in to get out of the rain.”

I don’t know how he is on a good day, when he thinks he’s dealing with a real customer, but clearly he didn’t think I fit the profile. I was the only customer in the store, but that didn’t matter. He had already decided I wasn’t going to buy from him, so he used all his power to turn his assumptions into reality.

And I used my power to buy pearls from somebody else.

The first jeweler is still in business. Most likely, he’s still turning people away on the basis of his perfect instincts and still thinking he’s very, very smart. He’s not nearly as successful as he could be, of course, but his lack of awareness shields him from the self-doubt that plagues more introspective souls.

I was reminded of the jeweler while reading a book about the ways doctors make bad decisions by relying on misleading instincts. Like our friend with the unsold pearls, doctors often jump to errant conclusions and then adjust their filters to support their mistakes.

Just like you and me.

My dad said that any person you meet will make a dozen conclusions about you before you begin to speak. Perhaps you resemble his ex-wife or your handshake reminds him of his favorite uncle. Maybe your suit is the same color that his own boss was wearing when he got hired (or fired) or your shoes are too scuffed for his taste.

Before the conversation gets started, you’re not you anymore. You’re a combination of memories, all mashed into a box that allows no escape. Usually, any misconceptions are minor. Sometimes, though, we all swing to faulty assumptions and, worse, we work very hard to prove ourselves correct.

Even if we expect a negative outcome, we still invest all our energy to confirm our expectations. Whether it’s a meeting with clients or a convo with the in-laws, we follow the same script. If we think the no-good jerks are going to cheat us, or we anticipate stubborn resistance, we follow the dictum of Captain Picard to make it so.

How many customers or friends or opportunities do we let slip, simply because we’re so damn smart?

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Does Domino’s Sell Pizza?

February 13, 2010

About 30 years ago, before I started selling my life one hour at a time, I was visiting with a lawyer I know. In the middle of our conversation, the phone rang, he answered, said about 10 words and hung up. Then he filled out a time sheet to bill the client for 15 minutes of his time.

I chided him for charging anyone for what amounted to less than a dozen words of advice. He stared at me for a second and asked, “What do you think we sell around here?”

I’ve been thinking about that question—What Do You Think We Sell Around Here?—as I work with clients and contribute to LinkedIn discussion groups and pontificate on the challenges of life. The answer to the question isn’t always obvious.

That’s because there’s always a buyer on the other end of the transaction. And whatever the product or service or features presented by the seller, it’s really the buyer who decides what we’re selling around here.

When I ask people what Domino’s sells, most answer: pizza. But Domino’s customers don’t really buy pizza; they buy delivery. And not just delivery, but consistently rapid delivery. I can’t think of anyone who buys from Domino’s because it’s their favorite pizza. However, if it’s 8:30 p.m. and you suddenly realize there’s green slime growing on the cold cuts in the refrigerator and you want to eat quickly, you call Domino’s.

Similarly, Fedex doesn’t sell delivery, but rather the assurance of timely delivery. McDonald’s sells predictability, while Disneyland sells memories. Rolex sells status, which can be very expensive, but at least they give you a free watch with every order.

Frequently, there’s a significant gap between the things we think we’re selling and the value perceived by our audience. In business, that gap can be measured in lost sales, unprofitable product lines, high customer turnover and, in the worst of cases, collapse. In personal relationships, the result is hurt feelings, estrangement and, in the worst of cases, hatred.

Whether you’re delivering pizzas or courting investors, organizing a charity walk or proposing marriage, you’re always selling something.

And it’s always a buyer’s market.

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I’ve Been Served

February 9, 2010

Check out my parenting blog @ http://www.5minutesforparenting.com/606/ive-been-served/

Walking the Line

February 7, 2010

Back when I was learning how to drive race cars, the instructor was giving us a chalk talk about the line. The line is the ideal path for a car, making it possible to brake the hardest without skidding, take the turns at the highest speed and drive the optimum distance to get to the finish line first. It’s a combination of physics, physics and physics.

And some of the guys in the class with me are arguing about alternatives.

What if I drop into third gear 100 feet later and start the turn further from the edge of the asphalt?

Couldn’t I make better time if I start my turn earlier and make a wider arc?

And all the instructor says, again and again, is: “The line is the line.”

He was right, of course. No driver can stick to the line 100% of the time, partly because everyone is trying to drive the same path and it can get pretty crowded out there. Once you’re off the line, it takes time and energy to get back on it. Lots of issues, and other cars, get in the way. However, any driver able to drive the line precisely could amass one heck of a winning percentage.

There is another word we can use to describe the line. That word is: reality. Many people—not you, dear reader, but other, less perfect souls—will spend far too much time arguing with reality.

Harry’s not really producing as a sales rep, but if I give him one more deadline, he’ll change.

I should lose some weight already, but maybe I can burn more calories if I eat while standing.

Agnes has never been a team player, but this new project will convince her to change her work habits.

And even as we are arguing with the way things really are, we can’t avoid knowing that Harry isn’t going to respond to the same deadlines he didn’t meet before, that standing while eating is not going to burn more calories and Agnes is simply a toxic employee who should have pursued other ventures a long, long time ago.

What is it, deep within our DNA, that makes us take the same path, over and over, even when we know, also deep within our DNA, that it’s just not going to work? Strange creatures, we are.

Self-defeating creatures, as well. I wonder sometimes about the amount of progress we avoid simply because we don’t just accept reality and move on to more productive activities.

Harry’s not the right sales rep for this company today, he wasn’t the right guy last year and, if I wait long enough, he won’t be the right guy next year.

Agnes was a bad hire on day one, but we kept reassigning her instead of firing her and she’ll still be a bad hire, in a different department, next year.

I can eat standing up for the next five years without making a dent in my excess baggage.

I spend way too much time talking with people about issues we talked about last year and the year before and the year before that. Some are their issues and some are mine, but all of them are topics we’ll probably be talking about next year, as well, because it’s easier to talk about them than to fix them. Except, of course, that if you add up all the time spent talking, worrying and navel gazing, we’d save a lot of time and aggravation by simply facing facts and moving on to more productive pursuits.

What’s holding you back, today, because you refuse to accept the reality of a situation? What problems remain unresolved because you choose “solutions” that haven’t worked the last five times you tried them?

The line is the line.

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See today’s post at the parenting blog

February 2, 2010