This column marks a milestone for me. This is my 250th column for the family of Business Journals under the American City Business Journals banner. My first column was published in the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal on April 18, 1997; sixteen years ago. If any of you have a copy of the original column, please keep the accompanying photo of me to yourself, I get enough grief from my nine-year old stepdaughter as it is. It is typical for an anniversary like this to hold greater importance for the person experiencing it than for those reading about it. Garrison Keillor, author and creator of the radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, said it best when he noted that longevity is less about quality than it is about length.
In 2004, Dan Buettner teamed up with National Geographic to discover what helps human beings be happier, live longer, and work better. The process involved identifying the areas around the world where people lived the longest. They then compared the lifestyles of these various areas to determine their commonalities. Buettner labeled these happy, long-lived areas Blue Zones, which became the title of his best-selling book. Places like Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; and Loma Linda, California routinely see populations reach age 100 while most of the rest of the world feels like they’re 100 when they hit 60.
If you are reading this, then you made it through the end of the world—predicted by the Mayan calendar for December 21, 2012. Congratulations. If you are like me, you played it safe and held off on a bunch of work for the few days leading up to the 21st. Who wants to be the schmuck that spent his last days on Earth returning e-mails and updating spreadsheets? Now that we’re all still here, I suppose it is time to get back to work. After all, we don’t want to survive Armageddon just to drive over a fiscal cliff.
Recently I entertained at a holiday party for a law firm. I provided entertainment for a number of law firms over the holidays so if you think I’m talking about yours; maybe, maybe not. We got into a discussion about image. Public perception being as important as it is, a company’s image is top-of-mind for smart executives. I commented on the photos of the lawyers on the firm’s website. I noticed that most of the headshots made the attorneys seem angry. Everyone was posed looking directly at the camera, eyes fixed, with a grimace that said, “You want me on your side, not your competitors.” A lot of them were holding big law books as if to say, “I read this whole thing.”
I mentioned this to one of the staff members at the event. She said that clients looking for a litigator want someone who looks like a bulldog because that is how they want the lawyer to behave on their behalf in court. I got to wondering about how true that might, or might not, be. I am sure there are plenty of arguments to be made on both sides, however, my assumption is that the claim about the client’s preference is an assumption, not a verifiable fact. If you read my last column (and if you didn’t, shame), I wrote about the practice of successful organizations—namely, they rid themselves of assumptions and behave based solely on facts. The facts are determined by asking clients what they want and putting your ego aside to fulfill those wants.
What if the clients of a law firm were surveyed and asked about the image of the firm? To be fair, I would assume most clients would rather see a photo of a lawyer standing next to a stack of legal texts than of a guy in sports gear hitting a tennis ball. But I wonder how willing the lawyers would be to change their photo if they did discover the client was attracted to a different image. What if an engaging smile and casual posture worked better at attracting new clients? What if such a photo put the potential client more at ease? I’m not saying this is the case, I’m just wondering how willing the lawyers would be to change their image if they discovered that is what the client wanted.
That’s the hard part about getting client feedback—you have to use it. You have to put your assumptions and ego aside and do what your customers want you to do. You have to act in accordance with what you sell. A long time ago I answered the phone at our company (I answer all our calls. I don’t want someone else speaking for me). I don’t like long, drawn out greetings such as, “Stevie Ray’s Improv Company, this is Stevie Ray speaking, how can I help you today?” (I also don’t like calling a company and hearing, “We’re having a fantastic day here at Bob’s Body Shop! How can we make your day a great one too?”) By the time I get through listening to some greetings, it takes so long I forgot who I was calling in the first place. And here is a tip, if you have twelve people’s names in your company, only use the first two in your greeting. This would let me know it is not a one-person shop without having to hear everyone’s name who ever clocked in. When I hear the greeter run through every person’s name, I think two things. One, that I pity the poor person has to repeat that a hundred times a day whenever the phone rings. Two, those twelve people must have huge egos.
Be that as it may, I simply answer the phone with “Stevie Ray’s.” I get no complaints. Except once, that phone call I answered years ago. My tone that day was a bit curt; I was pretty busy. Luckily, the caller was an acquaintance of mine. He said, “Wow, for a guy who sells fun you sure don’t answer the phone that way. I might as well be calling the DMV.” Fortunately for me, this guy happened to be in marketing, so I got a quick lesson in branding; for free.
He told me that all products and services are marketing must have a brand emotion, which I knew. He also reminded me that every single person in the company must behave in ways that demonstrate that emotion. Nothing gets sold unless an emotion is attached to it. This is because of a principle that guides all marketing and advertising, people buy with emotion and justify with fact, not the other way around. Our brains are wired to react to input in a certain order. The parts of our brain that react emotionally receive the input first. Only after it cycles around for a while does the input make it to the critical thinking part of the brain (the Right Pre-Frontal Cortex). By that time, emotion has taken over. If we feel like, we buy. If we don’t, no amount of information will change dislike to like.
Your product or service must fit one of five main emotions: Trustworthy, Competent, Sophisticated, Exciting, or Rugged. Whether it is a car or a pair of jeans, tech services or roofing, it is either branded with one of those five emotions or it doesn’t sell. The easy part is making the product fit the emotion, the hard part is having the staff live the emotion. I certainly wasn’t living the emotion when I answered with a dull, “Stevie Ray’s.” Our brand has always been fun and excitement and I have to live that every day, not just when I am delivering the service.
I have even had clients push me in that direction. At one event I was the keynote speaker, so I was planning on being competent. The client, however, wanted excitement. Just before taking the stage I asked for a final confirmation from the client about her objectives. I always ask, “What is it you want these people to leave with?” I expected her to say skills related to competency; communication, leadership, teamwork. Had she said any of those, my ego would have been satisfied. I could have been important guy delivering important information. She said, “We just want people to have fun.” Once again, a client reminded me of what I should have remembered all along, the brand is more important than my ego.
Now I answer my phone with my brand in mind. I have fun. My clients love it. Some companies live their brand in every detail. A well-known company, Martin Bastian, produces corporate events (entertainment, speakers, audio/visual needs, etc.). Although this type of service needs to be competent, and sometimes sophisticated, it really hinges on excitement. Excitement equals fun, and people crave fun. People need competence, but nobody really craves it. When you call the offices of Martin Bastian, if you get put on hold you get the most fun hold message I have ever heard.
Over the usual background music, a voice says, “As our 100th caller today you win the grand prize of being able to listen to our wonderful hold music. Please enjoy!” After a short period of music, the voice returns with, “Martin Bastian appreciates your patience. Please refrain from tapping your fingers, humming along with the music, or doodling while on hold.” After another interlude the music changes to the theme from The Twilight Zone while the voice-over says, “You have entered another dimension, a dimension where time seems to stand still. With the push of a button and the flash of a little red light, you have entered The Holding Zone.” People have actually called Martin Bastian and asked to be put on hold. The colleague who told me about the message has played it on speaker phone for his fellow staff members. If you were looking for a company to work with, which one would pop immediately to mind?
Truly living your brand goes beyond slapping a label on the product and calling it a day. It takes paying attention to the client. It takes setting aside your ego and living the brand personally, every day. And not one staff member can opt out. Even employees who never speak to a customer must live the brand. If they don’t, they infect others and the emotion is lost. No company survives without emotion.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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After the ground-breaking book Good to Great made the rounds, folks at the American Society of Association Executives and the Center for Association Leadership decided to apply the Good to Great principles to the non-profit world. After years of research into what makes some non-profits more successful than others, in 2006 they published Seven Measures of Success: What Remarkable Associations Do That Others Don’t. In reading the book I appreciated that they avoided labeling non-profit associations as “different” than for-profit companies. Non-profits may not be founded for the purposes of providing positive returns for investors or owners, but that is their only true difference.
My ego has been taking a hit lately. As I prepare to work with a client I always ask what their main objective is for my session; what one thing they would like the group to leave with. I expect (hope) to hear, “Oh wise sage, please impart what-ever knowledge you have gleaned from your years of experience. Make these people better leaders, employees, and yes…human beings.” When I come out of that fog I hear the client say, “We just really need a good laugh!” This statemnt is usually preceded by “Things have been really tough lately, so…” “We’ve been going through a lot of changes, so…” or “There is a lot of uncertainty, so…”
A long time ago I asked my friend Lee what it was like having to be creative on demand every day. Lee was co-owner of an advertising company and his role was the copy writer. His company was known for clever advertising campaigns; rather than the in-your-face “Buy our stuff” ads, their approach would grab you with something funny and let the underlying message creep up on you later. Given that his copy writing was so imaginative, I wanted to know how he could summon it on cue whenever a client gave him a deadline.
Mitt Romney picked a running mate and Obama and Biden have decided they want another 48 months in the White House, let the games begin. (Note: If you are excited and/or worried that this will be a tirade against one party or t’other, don’t be. I haven’t made a mistake that big since I truthfully answered the question, “Honey, what do think of this outfit?”) What I will say is that political races have degenerated into the kind of illness I see infecting business across this great land of ours. Namely, if we can keep people’s attention focused solely on beating the other guys, they won’t notice that the mess we have created ourselves.
I was talking to a client the other day as we planned a workshop for his sales team. At one point he said, “If I could just get all of my sales people to act like my nine-year old daughter, our sales would go through the roof. When she wants something, she pursues me relentlessly until I finally give in. No matter how hard I try to deny her request or distract her, her train of thought remains focused only on what she wants.”
I was conducting a workshop for about 300 employees at a conference recently. As I stood in the atrium as the attendees filed in, I overheard one woman say to another, “I hope this speaker is better than the last one we had.” Her friend replied, “I don’t care. I don’t want to learn nothin’ I don’t already know.” My first thought was to quickly switch my topic for the day to “How To Use Grammar So You Sound Smarter Than a First-Grader.” The saddest part of the experience was,
I was at an all-company meeting the other day waiting to conduct a workshop. It was a financial planning company and the C.E.O. was delivering an end-of-the-fiscal-year speech. I settled into my chair expecting to snooze through another “I have faith in this company because we’re the best” speech. I have come to believe that only half of the presidents and C.E.O.s in this country believe they can genuinely talk to their employees, the other half circulate the same speech from company to company.