Friday, July 17, 2009

Counter-Intuitive Differentiation By Selling Heart Attacks, Not Health Food

Last week I wrote about using Terrible Service as a Differentiator. Today I was reminded about another interesting example of counter-intuitive differentiation, a restaurant called the Heart Attack Grill (wikipedia).

The 12 Big Reasons Why Independent IT Pros Fail to Prosper

Being an independent IT professional, at least if one wishes to be in it for the long-haul and happy with their level of achievement, is a complex undertaking. The level of success, gratification, and income can vary widely.

Many who undertake it fail to grow their level of business to the size they'd like. Still others find themselves unhappy with their lifestyle, even those who achieve attractive income levels.

It is quite common for many to fail to survive beyond a few months to a couple of years. Yes, some do hang on, but often are unhappy with themselves and their businesses.

Or, as some have found recently, they had viable but weak businesses. When low hanging fruit disappeared (clients that fell into their lap by chance rather than through a well developed system for attracting and cultivating new business), income dried up.

In my observation and study of independent IT professionals, non-IT professional services firms, and even other industries, as well as my own experiences, I've concluded that there are a number of common factors why IT professionals, and business owners in general, fail to achieve the level of success they hope for:

  1. Lack of time
  2. Lack of interest in "business issues"
  3. Misconceptions about what marketing is/isn't
  4. Lack of reliable systems (for attracting clients, cultivating relationships, growing income)
  5. Lack of strategy
  6. Lack of understanding what clients value and that not all prospects are the same
  7. Underestimation of their self-worth
  8. Lack of understanding how self-worth intersects with finding the right clients for them
  9. Lack of awareness about distinctions among freelancers (hired help), service providers, advisors, consultants, coaches, implementers, etc. Each of these are very different businesses.
  10. Assuming that conventional wisdom and popular strategies and tactics, which are easily discovered by watching others, are well known and practiced because they "work"
  11. A failure to shift from employee-->business owner mentality
  12. Assuming that outside experts in things like PR, marketing, and sales nearly always know what they're doing and have exactly the same concerns as they do. These specialists are no different than many of the IT consultants we all like to shake our heads at. They not only give untested and ineffective advice, but they sell (or earn commissions for) things that are overkill, unnecessary, or otherwise not entirely in the client's interest.
With persistence, but not simply that, these obstacles can be overcome. There are many paths so I'd be disingenuous if I suggested one solution here. I do believe it is fair to say, however, that the key is to be deliberate - in your strategy, goals, and positioning. Just watching others passively and copying them -- or worse, doing nothing -- is not going to get you there.

I will provide a few suggestions based on my own experiences and mistakes:
  • Observe others... and, in time, learning who to pay attention to and who to ignore, is a good first step. It's not always who you may think...
  • Look at already successful leaders who are NOT in the IT and consulting businesses. Their ideas are more valuable to you because they are more likely to be things that others (read: your competition) aren't doing.
  • Develop a vision for where you want to be (even if you aren't sure how you'll get there). Re-visit and refine it regularly. It's okay to evolve this over time too. It's inevitable.
  • Constant learn, by reading, attending seminars, talking to (more) successful peers, borrowing ideas from other industries/businesses, applying creativity, experimenting (failures are excellent learning opportunities, fail often)
  • Stop reading and listening to others for periods of time -- in order to implement (take action) on what you've picked up thus far. If you don't do this, you will become more addicted to the learning than to the doing.
My own wrong turns are why I started It is a community where I share the best resources I come across, my experiments, current thinking, etc. If you're an independent IT professional, know one, or are an aspiring one, I suggest you take a look at the site and join me.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Terrible Service as COMPELLING Differentiation

I was recently pondering how effective an attempt at differentiation like this would work:

"You should choose us because we aren't like everybody else: we have terrible customer service."

Hey, at least there's an attempt to create a compelling differentiation in that statement. It certainly has a greater impact on the prospect then: "We're different because we have excellent quality and superb customer service." Oh really?

This problem, an inability to have a compelling message for the prospect, is rampant throughout the business world.

Here's an example from Dan McNicholl, CIO of General Motors, referring to IT VARs:

Don't attempt to offer every kind of solution to his organization or sound like any other solution provider, McNicholl says. Like most other CIOs, McNicholl says he's heard the same lines time and again. "We have the most innovative people; we have the most dependable methodologies; we have the most competitive prices. It's like a record after a while," he says. "None of them have created a reason, other than price, for me to choose them. Pick a dimension you want to compete on, and build your brand and focus on it. Otherwise, I'm going to pick you on price."

P.S. While my opener was meant as tongue-in-cheek, there is a restaurant, which sadly I can't track down the name of at the moment (yes, even via Google), that I recall reading about a bit back and is known for good food and absolutely horrendous service. It has turned the latter into their badge of honor (and which inspires word-of-mouth I'm sure). They intentionally make the service as horrible as possible because customers actually come to see if the stories are true (to be treated poorly). Customers would actually be disappointed if they didn't leave with a waiter telling them to "piss off", etc.

The point: The important part is that, whatever your compelling differentiation is, it ought not be half-ass or you risk diluting (and maybe even destroying) its effectiveness. It also needs to be congruent with what you actually are (and are not). It matters less what it actually is and more that it is real, noticeable, and intriguing.


"I already knew that."

Ran across this quote from Mary Schmidt, a marketing consultant, today. I thought it was great:

"I already knew that."

I sometimes hear this when asked for free advice. I'm tempted to reply, "Well, great! Then why aren't you doing it?" A good consultant can help you test assumptions, focus on key activities and help get "it" done, whatever "it" is -- launching a new product, reorganizing HR, and so on.

Also reminds me of the theme of one of my current reads-in-progress: Strategy and the Fat Smoker: Doing What's Obvious But Not Easy by David Maister.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

How To Get Better At "Trying Everything"

Sometimes we tell ourselves (or hear someone else say):

"I've tried everything. I just can't do it."
(With some variation of the second sentence.) The only problem is: it is hardly ever true.

It's important to recognize there is a difference between trying everything possible versus trying everything we can think of. This comes up daily, for all of us, while in the search for solutions to problems (ex: getting new business, finding a job, etc.) , tackling projects at work, and personal goals.

Sometimes we even convince ourselves we've been "working our ass off", where the real problem isn't that we're not motivated but that we've been floundering around doing seemingly useful "busy work" because we lack a clear idea what we should be doing next to move forward towards our goal. (An aside: Copying what others are doing, who may be not be all that better off, often isn't a good shortcut either).

I usually get into these ruts when I'm feeling one or more of:
  • tired
  • overworked
  • too focused
  • overwhelmed
  • unfocused
The best cure for me is some combination of:
  • taking a walk
  • studying something unrelated
  • reading a good, intellectual and perspective stimulating, newspaper (ex: NY Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, etc.) in print (hard copy, old school, not on-line)
  • grabbing a letter or legal pad and writing down all the to do, worrisome, and upcoming items, goals, ideas, etc. I have sloshing around in my head (and also in my sub-conscious as a result)
  • watching a favorite or engaging fictional TV show
  • breaking the priorities/goals/to do items down into smaller blocks, chunks, to do lists
  • sleeping on it
  • clearing my calendar of outside appointments
  • taking a long drive (sometimes with the commitment to not come back until I've figured out a next step)
  • kicking the idea around with my wife, a partner, or a close friend or colleague
  • getting out, often to a coffeehouse to do some people watching
  • re-prioritizing my top 5 items (and adding anything else that comes to mind to the "6+ item", not bothering to prioritize it specifically since there's little point in worrying about the specific order of anything other than the top 3 to 5 at any given point in time)
  • cleaning my work area, home office, or the even some area of the house
You get the gist.

It's just too easy to get stuck. It is inevitable. There's no profit in worrying or trying to prevent it. The only two things worth spending some time coming up with solutions to are:
  1. How to recognize when you are stuck, as early and often as possible
  2. Things to do to cure it
We have to develop personalized ways to get unstuck. There's no point in fighting or trying to avoid these situations outright -- they are bound to occur despite our best intentions.

This post was (in part) inspired by this excerpt from an excellent book I'm reading by Jay Abraham called "The Sticking Point Solution: 9 Ways to Move Your Business from Stagnation to Stunning Growth in Touch Economic Times":
Usually when people claim to have "tried it all," they haven't. They're stuck thinking within the same old mindset. And I've seen this revealed--firsthand.

At a Tony Robbins seminar I ounce attended, a man came up on stage, in front of thousands of people, and asked for advice. "Tony I've tried everything to make more money. I can't do it."

Tony was skeptical. "Name the last twenty-five to thirty new tactics you've tried in the last six or seven months and describe how each performed."

The man was speechless. He couldn't name a single one. Tony didn't give up. "Okay, name just ten." The man could only mutter unintelligibly before Tony finally drove the point home: "Just what have you done?"

The man's response shocked me: "I've looked in the want ads, and I've gone to a few franchise shows." Those two attempts hardly amounted to the "everything" he claimed to have tried. With his creative process stuck, the man was simply unable to see beyond the traditional methods he knew.
Usually, when I'm working with clients or myself, and start to feel "stuck" it's not due to a lack of intelligence, capability, confidence, or ambition. It's just a loss of perspective. When these times hit, it may be good to remember this post. We could all use a little perspective every once in a while.

Sometimes I (we) get stuck and don't even realize it. That has me thinking that we should build some of the cures for being stuck into our routines, even when we think we're on top of things. Because, even under the best of circumstances and when we're making lots of progress towards our goals, there are always others ways to look at things.

So, in conclusion, I'm suggesting this philosophy (for myself and perhaps for you too): Don't lose sleep over it, just keep your eyes wide open and keep moving forward. Go out of your way every day, to use some of the cures that you know keep you from getting stuck, so that you can be confident you're keeping your eyes wide open.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

My 6 Biggest Business Mistakes (Thus Far)

When I started this post it was, initially, entitled my THREE biggest business mistakes. Then it got longer, more occurring to me as I typed. There are many more but I decided to limit it to the six that stayed top of mind, figuring they were probably the most important (thus far), and that I view as also being highly relevant to other folks.

So here they are:

  1. Assuming that what others are doing, who are seemingly successful, is the best way. Studying the competition is one thing. But the best path to take is usually based on a mixture of creative ideas of your own and those stolen from other completely unrelated industries. Study the competition to be different from them and to spot the gaps.
  2. Listening to and considering advice from folks who, while well meaning, have absolutely no idea, credentials, or background in where I was headed. Even those in the same business do not warrant serious consideration unless they are on the same plane that you aspire too. For example, if you desire to be wealthy don't take advice from those who are not wealthy, even if they have your best interests at heart and sound savvy. This also means most talking heads on the television and reporters in general are not the best sources of wisdom. (Though they, or rather those they report on, may be good leads as to who to actually to listen to, talk to, read about, etc. yourself). Ultimately you have to make your own judgments regarding sources of advice. I spend a lot of time figuring out how to discover who to listen to on particular topics so that I can spend less time listening to noise from others who aren't truly helpful or, worse, are spouting B.S.
  3. Not focusing. Once I had narrowed down who I was going to draw inspiration from, there came a point where I should have stopped looking for external inspiration and started applying my new found capabilities and knowledge gleaned from all that studying of other successful folks. Yes, the additional study of systems that had worked for others was beneficial (and continues to be, as I keep up that studying every day). There is no clear "starting line" but at some point I realized that for all the good stuff I was learning for the future I was also to a point where I could do plenty with what I had if only I got to work applying it.
  4. Thinking that marketing (mostly) meant advertising (and also, in part, being cynical about advertising and sales). Marketing IS the business. And I don't mean that statement in the way I might have interpreted it before I knew what I know now. Combined with cynicism I might have written that statement off. But marketing is about everything: the features, the products, the service, the positioning, pricing, every interaction, etc. In fact, there is not one thing that you could name in any organization that isn't about marketing. Nada.
  5. Not studying direct response marketing earlier. Holy crap. If you think good marketing and advertising is about pleasing and artistic advertisements, headlines that are a "play on words" in an attempt to sound cute, and winning awards than you are, worst case, a sitting duck waiting for competition to stomp you. Best case: you are spending money on marketing without any idea what is working and what isn't... and thus no measurable ROI or means to improve it over time (which still means you're a sitting duck: for a savvy competitor who understands direct response to blow you out of the water even as you boost your marketing spending). Effective advertising and promotion does not flow from the hands of graphics designers anymore than a professional baseball player's home run is the result of the guy who mows the grass at the stadium. You may argue it plays a role, and that may technically be true, but there are far bigger factors at work that should be focused on first.
  6. Under-appreciating the importance of mindset. I am not just talking about positive thinking here. I'm talking about feelings about money, success, being wealth, not following the herd, questioning the status-quo, etc. And things like who you hang around with, focusing on results/outcomes over tasks, etc.. A lot of this stuff is sub-conscious or invisible until you start really learning about it so you can recognize it. It's even more difficult to spot because the majority of folks are oblivious to it. You can be ambitious as hell and still fail to reach your goals if your mindset is off-base.
That's all for now. I'm sure there will be to discuss another day. Perhaps a few folks out there will find this post helpful.


Tuesday, July 7, 2009

It's not JUST The Economy, Stupid.

The economy can only take so much blame for the woes of many of us before a bubble of a different sort bursts: our own. Especially for those of us who are business owners, we need to remember that we're in business for ourselves.

Business owners are rarely innocent victims of circumstances. Sure we can't anticipate every possible thing, but no one forced us down any particular path either. We business owners, especially those of us in the developed world, have far more opportunities, protections, and levers at our disposal.

We suffer from the same weaknesses as anyone else such as complacency, fear of uncertainty, and the need for positive cash flow. But we are not entitled to being handed solutions to these needs and problems. They are our own and and we must seek solutions that are empowering.

First though we need to be honest with ourselves:

  • How much credit do we really deserve for our growth during boom times? Was it strategic or more the result of the pie growing around us? (i.e. did business fall into our lap... as well as our competitors... or did we attract it systematically and through compelling positioning?)
  • How much is our blame on the nebulous "economy" our way of deflecting from our own weaknesses, mistakes, and oversights while putting off the nitty gritty work of tackling them?
  • What's the profit in continuing to blame things that are outside our control while ignoring the things that are?
As a blogger Brandon Boyd recently said:
This economy is 'thinning the herd' of weak business practices. Its affect will be a benefit to the customer in the long run - as businesses that truly 'deliver' will remain.
I'd add that it'll benefit business owners in the long run too. Those that manage to do more than simply coast through economic downturns will build stronger businesses. They will be the leaders, regardless of economic cycles. Those that go away, well, they were lucky to begin with.

The truth may hurt but that doesn't mean it can't be helpful. The first step is admitting it, right?


Thursday, July 2, 2009

First Step To Dramatically Boosting Your Marketing Effectiveness

Too much marketing is impersonal and "me too".

Make your marketing personal, emotional, and human.

Start saying "I" a lot more. Talk to your prospect directly by saying "You" a lot more too.

It's harder to copy your personality than a slogan. It's easier to connect with a human than generic language.

And while you're at it, stop saying "we're the best". Show them, paint a picture, and lead them to realizing it on their own. Make it obvious but discoverable.

The secret to good marketing isn't fancy slogans or perfect copy. It's about connecting and relating. It's much harder to do that while being inhuman and generic even if it makes for excellent academic prose.