What Are We All Supposed to Say Now?

The current pandemic has radically changed a lot of things about business, at least for now. Some of the most important to consider are the timing, nature, and format of customer conversations. As one business executive asked, “What in the world are we supposed to say now?” Everyone I speak with is anxious--for themselves, their teams, and their customer relationships. They still need to sell, but cannot come across as tone-deaf or pushy. Leaders want to set an optimistic and energetic tone--even when they have little idea themselves what is around the next corner. They feel the pressure to prepare for a surge in demand, although the timing and degree of a surge is anyone’s guess. Based upon some work I am doing with clients, and good practices I have been seeing across the state and country, I offer two pieces of guidance that might be helpful today. First, your team needs a high level of comfort and confidence in leading conversations, including the virtual type. Yes, while Zoom is for some becoming another four-letter word, it is serving a vital purpose. At the moment we don’t have access to the meetings, conferences, retreats, business reviews, store visits, or even community events that organically lead to valuable business conversations. Therefore, business teams need to be proactive in using what’s available. The second point extends beyond the format of your customer conversations to also include their tone and content. Today’s environment requires a new emphasis on empathy; one's expertise, experience, and network are rarely sufficient to build trustworthiness. As I wrote in my book, "It is only through conversations that you can demonstrate that necessary quality of empathy, thus activating your relationships and putting your expertise to its best use...you can ease customers' anxieties and demonstrate that you will be working in their best interests." In a Zoom-heavy world, our simple humanity is more visible. (I’m thinking of the many unexpected pet and/or child appearances during virtual meetings.) This is often refreshing. But whether or not video is part of a particular conversation, the humanity and empathy should still shine. The leaders I speak with agree this is the time for less “pitching” and jumping to the demo or proposal. It’s the time for more open questions, active listening, and focus on exactly how your offerings help buyers in this time of need. Will this new conversational world extend beyond 2020? Will we be Zooming to this degree forever? My crystal ball is admittedly cloudy. Yet based upon past crises and disruptions, I suspect we are looking at a mixed bag. Things will not go back to the way they were, but the foundations (including our need to gather in community, in person) will remain. I was thinking waaaay back to my undergraduate days, taking a particular (what I thought would be easy) elective in Music Appreciation. One of the few things I remember is the concept of “song form,” in which a given piece of music commonly has a first section (call it A) followed by a related but contrasting section (B) then back to the A section. However, my instructor called that third section “A-prime” to illustrate that it’s a little different than the original A section (such as with more ornamentation, as the instructor called it). Professional life beyond this outbreak will in many ways change. For example, we will reconsider how organizations and associations meet (perhaps with more small and regional events for a while, like workshops and retreats, and fewer big national gatherings). If your business has used sponsorships at trade shows as a primary means to generate demand, then how should you adjust? At the same time, resilient businesses are getting back to basics even as they adjust their product mix or modes of delivery. They might well emerge stronger than ever. Our business world could use more genuinely helpful conversations, whatever our “A-prime” looks like.

Marketing Is Not This

Marketing has always meant different things to different people. For many, marketing is associated with communication to customers and prospects--advertising messages, slogans, and logos. Others tend to focus on the digital or social sides of things. If you have ever taken a marketing class, then you likely learned the “4 Ps” of the marketing mix: product, promotion, pricing, and place. (“Place” generally referred to distribution strategy…but I suppose “4 Ps” sounds better than “3 Ps and a D.”) All of those assumptions still apply, yet they are no longer the complete story. These days marketers are also charged with (among other things) driving leads and revenue, creating an excellent customer experience, protecting the organizational brand and reputation, and building the technology needed for future success. According to the tech-research firm Gartner, chief marketing officers (CMOs) are now spending as much or more on technology than are chief information officers (CIOs). In order to meet new expectations, I’m finding that marketing leaders are necessarily shedding old assumptions and identities. As a former chief marketing officer and now advisor, I have dealt with this metamorphosis firsthand. ...

Five Myths of Messaging

The topic of messaging continues to be a hot one for marketers – at all levels and across industries. Whether your marketing world is B2C, B2B, or a combination (as it was for me while a CMO), the right words, stories, and pictures can set you apart. Messaging drives differentiation, even without you necessarily having to change your pricing, distribution, people, or product offerings. My definition of messaging is simple: the way people talk about the business. Those people doing the talking certainly includes executives as well as customer-facing workers. But many others could be—or should be—talking about the business. What are “back-office” workers, current customers, alumni, suppliers, and various professional friends saying as well? Some executives find the whole topic of messaging to be a bit soft and mysterious. It does involve varying helpings of strategy, branding, communications, and psychology. Still, effective messaging might be more practical and accessible than you think. ...

Two Out of Three is Bad, Part 1: When the Message is Missing

While doing interviews for a new client, I spoke at length with one of the company’s highly decorated, A-player-type sales people. He was no fan of his company’s website. “I steer prospects away from it,“ he admitted. “It has a lot of words but doesn’t say anything.”

I asked him for specifics. He showed me a section that actually read, “our platform facilitates world-class solutions for our customers’ business 

problems.” Yikes—he was right. The company’s self-focused and vacuous message only served to make them sound like everyone else.

While working with many different types of companies, I have discovered that three components—Message, Messengers, and Management—contribute to a company’s success (or failure) in customer conversations. Some organizations are strong in two components but need to address weakness in the third. In a case when the Messengers and Management are in place but the Message itself is weak, the result is commoditization in the eyes of potential buyers.   ...

Could Shell (or others) lure you to the expensive middle?

As I was standing at the gas pumps, cringing and preparing to fill the tank again, I noticed this Shell station’s clever use of a psychological shortcut. Do you see it?

You might reasonably assume that the three product options—Regular, V-Power, and Plus—would be arranged according to price with the lowest-priced variety on the left. However, the Shell people placed their highest-priced gas variety right in the middle.

Perhaps they did an online search and found this column which demonstrated how consumers tend to respond to a “center-stage effect.” People tend to disproportionately select product options that are place in the center, even when the number of choices or product features are varied.


How Meeting Professionals are Meeting Needs — in a More Virtual World

What is the value of professional meetings when one can GoToMeeting without going to a meeting?

As someone who speaks at meetings, attends meetings, and uses virtual-meeting tools on a regular basis I am continually evaluating what works in various settings these days. And by “works” I consider the degree to which meeting participants gain knowledge (including cultural knowledge), specific skills, and confidence for performing better in their jobs.

On the PCMA (Professional Convention Management Association) website Michelle Crowley shared this expert view:


“That Went By Fast!” and Other Lessons on the Sales Pitch

What’s your sales pitch? I recently led a “Pitch-IT” program at the Arkansas Venture Center for a group of salespeople, entrepreneurs, solopreneurs and everyotherpreneurs. The goal was to, in less than 90 minutes, help these (mostly young) business people learn to quickly position their product or idea.

The program was titled “Elements of the Perfect Pitch.” Before getting into the meat of the event—when the participants would draft and practice their own pitches—I shared these tenets:

This is not about perfection, the program title notwithstanding. Your conversation will need regular honing and revising. (I changed the title to “Elements of the (Nearly) Perfect Pitch.”) This is not an elevator pitch, unless you’re the extremely rare person whose conversations occur mostly in elevators.   This is not just an investor spiel. You should build conversation points for potential customers, people in the media, influencers, and networks of family and friends as well. When I asked th ...

Classic Message: Subliminal Advertising, or Not

(Note: I published this column in 2002 in Arkansas Business. Some incorrect assumptions are unfortunately durable. Just ask Leo.)

Pardon me — do you have the time? If your watch is showing a time other than 10:10, then you're obviously not living in the world according to magazine and newspaper advertising.

The vast majority of print ads for watches and clocks show the time as 10:10 or something close to it. Why? Legend has it that someone in the business, some time ago, believed that at 10:10, the hands on a clock made a kind of smiley face — and that this smiley face subliminally would encourage consumers to be so happy that they would want to purchase said advertised watch or clock. (I guess 8:20 would conjure up Mister Frowny Face.) The practice is so embedded within the industry that even ads for digital watches and clocks (which can neither smile nor frown) generally show the time as 10:10.


Sales has to make the Top 101, right?

I went through 101 Things I Learned in Business School, a hardcover business bestseller by Michael W. Preis and Matthew Frederick. It’s an easy and interesting read, with 101 single-page notes ranging from definitions (a stock indicates ownership; a bond is an I.O.U.) to tips (a manager usually should have no more than six to eight workers reporting to him or her) to pithy quotes (Not to decide is to decide, by Harvey Cox). 

The authors say their book ‘seeks to present lessons in the areas of business that are most likely to be useful to you.’ But, if the often-quoted maxim (nothing happens until somebody sells something) is true, then why is it that none of these supposedly 101 top lessons directly addresses how to sell something? 


How to Market Change

Almost every element of my work these days involves helping clients anticipate changes, adapt to them, and especially to implement change across customer-facing teams. Here’s what I see working. 

As one example, through my affiliation with DSG I have been helping a Fortune 500 client to better communicate internally about new-product launches. Many of these new products represent substantially different types of solutions or pricing models for the team. How can you best get an organization to transform its messaging for the long term?  

This client follows the change-management model popularized by Harvard Business School professor John Kotter. Kotter’s model has eight stages:

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