Telling Clients They Have – Gasp! – a Weakness or Two.

When you’re a position to have to tell a client that they have a weakness or two or seventeen, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to do. Someone asked me that recently: “So, um, what do you do when you have to tell a client that, uh, a few things they’re doing aren’t…quite…good?”

“You’re asking me how do I tell someone their baby is ugly?”

“Well, I’ve never heard it said that way.”

“It’s exactly like that. Because when someone is close to their brand, it’s their baby. Some people know that deep down, their baby isn’t perfect even when they talk about it to other people. And they’re right. After all, a baby is a human being and humans are far from perfect.”

Brands are far from perfect too. Yet we see cases all the time of when CEOs and aspiring entrepreneurs have fallen in love with their own product far too quickly.

They haven’t asked the tough questions.
They haven’t talked to their potential prospects and gotten their take.
They think they don’t have competition when the reality is they haven’t looked hard enough.
They think areas like sales and marketing will just develop with time and besides, this will just ‘sell itself,’ right?”

“So…you don’t hold back?”

“Not really. And I don’t feel bad about it one bit because I’m coming into it objectively. They’re not. If they want to disagree with me, I’ll live with that and respect their point of view, but I can’t live with sugarcoating it for someone who wants to believe it’s all sunshine and rainbows just because their new product is on the market or that they’ve got 32 locations or $X million in revenue or they’ve been in business for 25 years. These are all admirable things. But just looking at the positives is not strategizing. That’s blowing smoke up their you-know-what. I’ve tried to prevent myself from doing that as I’ve gotten more experienced and wiser.”

“But do you say that in a diplomatic way or do you say it harshly?”

“I try not to be mean in any way, really. Everyone has flaws, myself very much included. But the funny thing is that when I start to say, ‘OK, now that we’re going to talk about your weaknesses, I’ll try to be as kind as I can…’ Do you know what they say in response?”

“Don’t pussyfoot around. Give it to me straight.” 

If you’re genuinely about client service, you don’t hide what they need to know for their own good from them. Unfortunately, there are some cheesy, service-with-a-smile-client-is-always-right people out there who don’t know how to do this because they’re too afraid. Plain and simple. No matter what they portray on the exterior, they’re just too afraid to offend, too afraid to lose their jobs, too afraid to lose the client, too afraid to do anything wrong. They don’t trust themselves and their experience to say what’s in the best interests of a brand. And not only will that fear hurt themselves, but ironically, it will actually hurt the very clients they claim to serve.

Need an extra incentive? If you don’t tell them their weaknesses, their competition will find those weaknesses and exploit them.

Better relationships are built on true honesty. That means delivering all of the news – the good, the bad and yes, the ugly. And then showing them how to turn that something ugly into something far prettier.

Prospecting: Separating The Believers From The Non-Believers

This scene from Mad Men sums up an important point for me about prospect relationship building.

There are Believers and there are Non-Believers. The difference is easier to spot than we make it.

As Don Draper says when explaining an ad campaign, “You either have it in your heart or you don’t.”

Let’s apply this to new business relationships. As we know, prospecting for the complex sale can be sophisticated, time-consuming and take many “touches” before an actual invitation occurs to be face-to-face with someone. Getting through that door isn’t often a one-time effort unless you’re in the right place at the right time.

But now you finally get that first meeting – it may come from your initiative or them finding you. They invite you in to learn more.

Here’s where you separate The Believers from the Non-Believers.

By the end of your first meeting, after you’ve discovered enough about the challenge before you do an even deeper dive and they’ve learned a solid amount about you, you should have a good sense of whether the person wants to have a relationship with you. They believe in you or they don’t. If they don’t want to move forward, so be it, but at least you know. If they do want to move forward, are we talking the details of a relationship in our second meeting or are we shooting the breeze?

This isn’t decided by logical factors. This isn’t a tally sheet of points on an RFP (Oh really? You’re going to tell me I just missed out because I scored a 94 and my competitor scored a 97? Riiiiight.).

For all the laundry lists of virtue that agencies throw out there (experience, creativity, number of employees/locations, awards), these have value – but none of them are exclusively own-able.

Relationships are emotional decisions. They go with you because they like you. And if they like you, they believe in you. And if they believe in you long enough, they refer you.

That last one is important. If they’re not referring, they like you but don’t like you enough.

Let’s take a look at the typical pattern: You meet. You greet. Both parties get to know each other. If it makes sense to do so, you present / quote.

Then what happens?

Sometimes it’s a “We’ll get back to you.” “We’re still thinking about it.” “So and so is on vacation.” “We’ve got a fire to put out in the next few weeks but we’ll get to this.”

We’ve all encountered a response like this in some fashion or another. It’s not that we’re necessarily bad presenters or that it’s all on us. It just might be that they’re not equipped to make change. The key word is “make.” Some companies don’t want to make change. They just love the IDEA of change. Because that’s safe and even romantic to think about. There’s no risk with an idea or merely talking about what could be. So they talk and talk and talk and want to meet with you over and over and over again. You keep getting lured in (“Oh wow! They’re bringing us back in for the fifth time! They must be really close to making a decision!”).

And that can’t happen. Because you go from being potentially paid consultant/agency to free therapist.

People who want therapy are not serious prospects. They are Non-Believers. If they are stuck and you have presented what could be a smart, strategic way out of being stuck, they should not be comfortable with where they presently are. You are taking them to a place outside of that Comfort Zone, yes. But even in their slight discomfort, The Believer knows that this is a vital and important thing for the company, not something to be feared.

It should take no more than one meeting for a person to not only believe change is necessary but that it has to happen now. It should take no more than two meetings for that person to believe that you are the right person to enact that change.

Beyond this, you need to ask yourself if you’re dealing with a serious prospect or a tire kicker.

I’m not proud to admit it, but on more than one occasion, I’ve had a prospect I’d met and spoken with several times before keep me on the phone for an hour talking about their problems. That was stupid. There comes a point where you must say, “You know, I’d love to continue this chat but I typically bill people beyond the ___ minute. Is that something you’re comfortable with?”

You have it in your heart or you don’t.

Think about your favorite brands – what do they have in common about their customers? They’re more than customers. They’re giant fans. They’ll defend that brand to no end. They’ll come back again and again. They’ll tell others how wonderful that brand is.

They Believe in that brand. There is no middle ground. No Semi-Believers.

This doesn’t stop when they become clients.
Are we wrong to want to strive for Believers in our agency in a collection of clientele? I don’t think so. Imagine your agency with 100% Believers. Every one of them loves you. Trusts you. Refers you business and/or might very well be open to doing more business in the right circumstance. Can’t say enough good things.

What’s that? Some clients don’t do that? Which ones? Why? How can that be improved upon from here?

Of course this doesn’t mean they’re going to blindly agree to everything you say and do. Of course they’ll question or suggest changes. That’s normal. There’s a difference between sharing opinion and dictating, “This is what I want the ad to specifically say.” The former is still belief. The latter is not.

Believers want to be led, guided and educated. They are inspired to act now. They don’t want to just talk about it over and over and over. They don’t pretend to know everything or better than their own customer. And they see you as the expert that you are rather than being dragged kicking and screaming into new ideas or new technologies.

Look, some people just aren’t ready to go forward when the time comes. I can respect that, but you also have to have respect for yourself. The first and incredibly important step of liking someone isn’t something you have to think about over a period of several meetings and months. You just know it the first time. And you know what the concrete next steps are as a result.

You either have it in your heart or you don’t.

Resolve That Nobody Steals Your Time

It took me a few days later than usual to find my New Year’s Resolution. It’s not to lose a few more pounds (although that’s fine with me) or the other usual stuff.

This year, I’m going to protect my professional time like nobody’s business.

I’m going to make more meetings count.

I’m not going to attend cocktail hours to merely exchange business cards, but to connect.

I’m going to value the increased speed in helping someone clarify a decision, whether that is a yes or a no.

In short, everything I do has to go somewhere beyond that original meeting.

Here’s why I was inspired. I was recently in a conference call where it took the better part of an hour for me to discover that there was not a fit. Actually, scratch that. I knew it was going nowhere within 15 minutes. I was being nice for the rest of the time.

It was my fault, too. I should’ve done what the people at Sales Results, Inc. taught me, namely, to set an agenda and outline the purpose for why we were meeting (and there’s so much more to it than this, which they can teach you).

Your skills are valuable. Your thoughts are valuable. Your opinions are valuable. Those need to be channeled somewhere beyond sharing a Grande Mocha and wishing each other well. It can’t just be the answer to “what do you do?”

You have no time for tire kickers.

You have no time for people trying to get free advice off of you.

You have no time for people who don’t understand your value.

You have no time for people who are simply too paralyzed by fear or layers of bureaucracy to do anything.

Similarly, you have to ask yourself how much work you want to put into educating someone on what you do/what value you bring before they become a true lead.

That is why I have all the time in the world to educate people on how social media may play a role in their business’ success, but I have no time to educate people on the relevance of social media. It’s here. It’s not going anywhere. And if you don’t understand that by now, I doubt anything I say will change your mind to the contrary.

And even if I do convince you, does that mean you’ll want to get started? Ha. No. You’ll be skeptical, thinking this whole social media thing is a passing fad. Let’s not kid each other.

It’s amazing how some people stroll into networking settings and brag about the 20 groups they’re members of. That’s not smart. That’s inefficient and throwing at a dartboard blindfolded. The way I see it, you should work to identify the very core groups you want to be a part of that are right for your brand’s mission.

People who expect you to do a dog-and-pony show at the initial meeting are misguided. It’s not a time for that. It’s a time to learn about one another – and that goes both ways. Go to each other’s website. See each other’s LinkedIn profiles. As much as I hate people who say, “Google me,” you should, well, Google them, their company and other relevant companies in their space.

What all this has to do with branding is that you say a lot by the company you keep and how you approach that company. Make the process of making your strategic partnership team really, really hard.

Make the process of being your client a selective process. Not everybody can get into your club and that’s a good thing. So stop right now by saying a good client/referral for you is “Anybody who….” No. Stop. It’s not anybody. It’s a specific type of person. Drill down and know it so you can recite it by heart. Again, it is your TIME and there’s only so much of it to go around. So why the F*** would you give it away to anyone who wants it?

This spreads to social media as much as anything. Content creation, curation, distribution, research, reporting, etc. is not something you easily slip into your week, especially when you sit down to a meaningful blog post or scripting a video. Unless you want to just pump out a bunch of posts without meaning or understanding for how it fits within the overall brand. I personally don’t prefer that.

The larger picture of this is that having no discipline with who gets your professional time means those you care about in your personal time may suffer. Oh, I’m sorry I couldn’t be home by dinnertime, honey. I was taking a long meeting with a prospect who, as it turned out, wasn’t a prospect. Or I was on the phone for an extended period of time advising someone who has no business running a business but wants me to be their therapist rather than their marketing strategist.

That’s not their fault. It’s yours. For not screening them quicker. For being a pushover with someone who wants to pick your brain free of charge. For not steering them online to check out your business or sending them material in advance of a conversation. For cheating yourself out of the time it takes to create something people can value and share and talk about. You said Yes to people who didn’t deserve it and now you have to tell someone or something you love No.

That’s the bigger complication of liberally giving out your time without any rhyme or reason. And seeing it as more precious is exactly what the most important professional and personal people in your life deserve.


We Are All In The Hospitality Business.

The other day I was watching a show called “Hotel Impossible” in which a consultant gives shabby, unprofitable hotels and resorts the makeover treatment from a design and operations standpoint. As you can expect, he didn’t pull any punches on what was wrong with these places, whether the rooms were dirty, the color scheme was boring, the staff was disorganized and more. Many times the hotel owners thought the location would make up for a lot of these miscues (nice try). Worst of all, these shortcomings had translated into an awful time for the guests, who would surely never come back if the hotel remained in that condition.

In reality, if the hotel was merely OK, it’s safe to say the guest wouldn’t come back for that either, right? Surely they wouldn’t tell many others about it.

That’s when it struck that it’s kind of odd that we confine this word “Hospitality” to hotels and restaurants. Don’t we all want to be hospitable, after all?

Treating our brands as hotels
while seeing our customers as guests
wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Think about it. Most hotels get to keep a guest for a few days or maybe just overnight. Obviously, for restaurants, it’s even less – an hour or two. In that very limited timeframe, they have an opportunity to either provide service or provide an experience.

How does that apply to other industries?

If they say you’re “professional,” you’re probably providing a service. Good for you. Welcome to a giant pool of people who get paid for what they do. In other words, big whoop.

If they are amazed by the experience, have been given a memory, recommend you to others, sing your praises, etc., you’re providing something special. We’re talking about great surprises that are above and beyond the expected. This is hard work. It’s not easy to get here. But it’s something to strive for if you hope to have repeat “guests.” By the way, if something goes wrong during their “stay,” you do something incredible that surprises them too. Even the best hotels make mistakes – it’s how they make it really, really right for the guest that shows a higher level of sophistication.

I try to remind myself that clients are guests within my care. I’m pushing myself to ask the questions and give insightful reporting before they even ask for it. Why? I’ve learned that if they ask and ask and ask and ask, there could be something I’m not providing enough of. Take most advertising agencies – many tend to have the mindset that when the client asks for something, you jump on top of it, rally your team, come up with great ideas and hopefully, you wow the client with your brilliance.

But again, what if we had done that before they even asked? I go back to the hotel analogy. If you have to ask the front desk for many things, it gets to be an inconvenience for you. Sure, they’ll probably bring up what you want and you’ll be mildly appreciative. And yet, what if they brought something to your door just because they thought you would enjoy your stay that much better? What if they realized it was a special event based on your history with them, so that before you ever reminded them that “it’s our anniversary,” you got upgraded to a bigger suite? Wouldn’t you stand a greater chance of telling someone else about it online at a review site?

What’s the point of having LinkedIn Recommendations if all someone can say is, “They did what I asked them to do?” What kind of referral is worth having when you are nothing more than an order taker and “service provider?”

Guests in hotels don’t stay forever. Neither do guests in our businesses, whether it’s for a short-term engagement or a relationship that lasts until we retire. So during the time they’re with us, we have to think of it before they do. We have to advise even if they never think to ask for it – because, after all, that’s why they choose us. We have to ask how we’re doing far more often than assume no news is good news.

Brands that only tout their professionalism or years of experience may be able to keep a guest but they won’t get glowing reviews and raving fans. Not by itself. That’s the difference. What they see as advantages are often merely the point of entry of doing business. And as a result of either not looking deeply enough within themselves or asking their own clients how they’re doing with greater humility or both, they think everything is right with the world. Until someone checks out. By then, it’s too late.

One last thought: Hotels don’t have to be The Ritz in order to create a great experience. They need to understand their guests, listen to what they prefer most and deliver that in the most appealing/creative/unexpected/surprising/amazingly efficient way. That’s what extends their stay, motivates them to write better reviews and extoll the virtues of that brand to many others.

Further thoughts and ideas on this?

Be my guest.