I have a couple of new teen-aged friends. They work at a Subway restaurant in Mendon, Massachusetts, but I’m pretty sure they are going to make it to Hollywood. Coincidentally, Mendon is the town I grew up in. Back then we had one traffic light, two police cruisers and a convenience store. Not much has changed in the past twenty years with the exception of a few popular retail outlets.
This afternoon I stopped in to pick up lunch (my regular veggie patty on flatbread). While waiting I overheard these two counter assistants talking about someone who had just left (“I love his aura…he always makes people smile”). They continued on very personably with each customer in line then exchanged small talk with me while making my sandwich.
At the register, the attendant inquired customarily if I wanted to add a fountain drink and/or chips to my order. “No thanks,” I replied, explaining that I was heading home to eat. “Are you sure?” one of them asked. “We’re trying to sell enough fountain drinks to win a trip to Hollywood.”
And there it was. Customer relationship 101.
They had already won me over, by simply being polite. I played with them a bit, asking “What would you do in Hollywood?” One answered “Everything!” Said the other, “I’ve never been anywhere so I don’t know what it would be like, but I’d love to put my hands in the prints of celebrities on the Walk of Fame.”
You know, enthusiasm really is contagious. And $2.50 isn’t much to support someone’s dream. So I got an iced tea and Baked Lays then wished them well.
My takeaway? They weren’t afraid to ask for what they wanted. And when they did ask, it wasn’t presumptuous. Theirs felt like an offer, not an obligation (if you’ve been asked to donate to the kids raising money in front of the grocery store on Saturdays, you know the difference).
This reminds me of a great teacher and author, Alison Armstrong. She writes about “Understanding Men, Celebrating Women” and has an audio series on conscious dating. I am delightfully married and have no interest in dating, but I am fascinated by human interaction so at the recommendation of a friend I gave it a listen.
Alison is full of great advice, but the one thing that sticks with me the most (and that I retell frequently) is her perspective on dealbreakers. What’s a dealbreaker? It is something that we absolutely can’t stand, or absolutely must have. For example, you might be a vehement non-smoker who wouldn’t even consider marrying someone who enjoys the habit. “You smoke, I leave.” That’s that, right? Pretty straightforward.
But hold on a second; it turns out that many of us aren’t so up front about our dealbreakers. We dawdle around, trying to find the right time to explain ourselves because we are afraid of rejecting people or being spurned ourselves. And sometimes (a lot of times actually) we do this because we think we can change the other person, given enough time and pressure.
In the smoker example you might tolerate that behavior from someone whom you are dating. But when it comes time for an engagement (ie: serious commitment) the trouble begins. What a waste of time! Alison’s argument is that we need to stop pretending to be someone we are not, and be forthcoming, right away. If we go on a date and you are a smoker I can be direct: “gee, I’m really looking for a long-term relationship but I can’t see that happening with someone who smokes. Is that a habit you feel comfortable with?” If the person isn’t inclined to stop smoking, we can still enjoy our dinner, I can thank them and we can go our separate ways to find people who do meet our criteria.
The lightning strike for me came when I realized that this same principle applies in the business world. I used to waste countless hours ‘building rapport’ with prospects who really weren’t inclined to buy from me. This isn’t to say that every potential customer is immediately obvious. Rather, the idea is to articulate my value proposition, be clear about my capabilities and ask bold enough questions to find out early on whether that relationship is one with high potential for both of us.
When someone says ‘no’ that can be a really good thing. It could be a sign that I don’t have the right product or service for them, in which case nothing I do is going to make it work. I should move on.
The bottom line: Dealbreakers are about transparency. Transparency, however, can be a tricky thing (consider regulation of the financial markets, for example). We all have our reasons for creating personal and/or professional personas. Companies do this too, as do politicians, etc.
Each year the Santa Monica Museum of Art holds a fundraiser called Incognito. Liesl Bradner reports in the L.A. Times that this year, “more than 650 8-by-10 pieces were donated by 500 artists, including the emerging as well as the iconic. The catch: You don’t know who created the artwork until you’ve paid for it. The names are revealed once patrons pick up the carefully wrapped packages, creating an element of surprise — and relief for some.” Adding to the fun, “Some easily recognizable artists have been known to purposely disguise their pieces and others try to imitate more famous artists.”
I love the way this event incorporates the seemingly disparate notions of transparency and anonymity, and I wonder whether there is another business lesson hiding in here, too.
My friend Alexa thinks so. She’s the kind of twenty-something I want to be (even though I’m 37): a get-it-done, make-no-excuses, resourceful person who advises CEO’s and entrepreneurs twice her age. We were talking about crowdsourcing recently, when she wondered aloud why the concept of transparency seems to contravene currently accepted business principles.
Speculating wildly, we tried to image what would happen if a company turned to its customers and suppliers and revealed “look we just had to lay off fifteen people, and we are trying to figure out how to maintain our high standards of service and delivery. Would you share our ideas with us?” Traditional thinking leads us to believe that this would be a sign of weakness, one that our competitors would catch wind of and use against us. I won’t go so far as to completely disagree with that conventional wisdom, but I do wonder; is there another way?
The New World:
A new world exists in my mind. Actually, it’s a synthesis of existing worlds. Websites like 99 Designs and Logo Tournament use crowdsourcing to connect designers with businesses. The company says what they need, gives some parameters and determines how much they are willing to spend. Within days they get a large sample of designs to choose from. We could make lots of points and counterpoints about the quality and fairness of the work and financial reward here, but one thing is clear to me; the free market supports it. Designers find work and companies get affordable results.
So here’s a new idea that blends transparency and anonymity. What if there were a website that:
If companies wanted to select specific kinds of people as contributors, they could sort the public profiles by functional category or rating. Businesses could also opt to offer financial incentives to specific individuals, teams or the public depending on the scope of the problem/project.
In keeping with the theme of this post, I want your feedback. Love it? Hate it? Fire away! Make something happen…