When I grow up

208247_5887814934_3245_nWhat do you want to be when you grow up?

How many times were you asked that question as a child? How many times have you asked it? Do you know the answer?

It’s a tough question, mostly because we feel limited by the labels in some mythic index of occupations. Besides that, things change. Technology changes. Society changes. Needs change. People change. Very few people carry that same dream forward and can actually present a business card bearing the label they casually (or passionately, in some cases) spouted.

I don’t know a single kid who would have said, I want to be an insurance salesperson! But I do know people who sell insurance–and even reinsurance–who absolutely love their jobs. They love helping people feel secure and protecting their assets.

I don’t know a single kid who would have said, I want to be a be a logistics manager! But I do know logistics managers who find tremendous satisfaction in putting together intricate delivery plans to ensure that their customers have what they need, when they need it. They love knowing that their work keeps factories running.

I don’t know a single kid who would have said, I want to be a customer service rep! But I do know plenty of customer service reps who become energized by helping people get what they need. They love solving problems, fulfilling orders, and making connections.

*Cut to real life.*

One of my friends is looking for a job. His life path has removed him from the corporate frenzy for several years, and now he’s looking to rejoin the fray. When we talked about this, I found myself asking, What do you want to do? Of course, I was looking for a label to slap on his forehead so I could drop him into a category. Then I’d know which direction to point him.

He didn’t give me a clear answer, probably because he didn’t have one. Instead, our conversation digressed into the verbal pinpricks we like to inflict on each other. Slightly annoyed, I finally said, “You need to find a way to get paid for exasperating people.”

Boom.

I thought I had landed a jab and we’d move on. Then I started thinking about it. What if he could find a way to get paid for exasperating people? I concocted a plan and pitched it to him:

You could totally sell it. Call yourself a change agent and get hired for short-term gigs by companies that are having a hard time changing “the way they’ve always done it.” Your entire job would be to sit in meetings and be contrary. Force people to think differently by answering your pain-in-the-a$$ questions.

Maybe it sounds like a crazy idea, but I know lots of companies who could use this kind of thing. (And if you label yourself a consultant, they might even buy it.)

Anyway, that got me thinking about how we limit ourselves with labels. Crazy ideas like this don’t come from trying to fit someone in a box–and we need more crazy ideas so we can come up with some good ones in the process. We have to think bigger than labels.

Instead of asking what someone wants to be, maybe the better questions are What do you like to do? What problems do you want to solve? What is your passion? It might be hard to give that destination a name, but I’ll bet you find the journey more fulfilling.

When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life. (Attributed to John Lennon)

Dirty laundry

DirtyLaundry2-LaundryBasketI hate to do laundry. I’ve always hated to do laundry. In fact, when I was in college, I once made it a record six weeks without venturing to that dreaded room in my dorm basement. My secret? Underwear, lots of underwear. After all, who really cares how many times you rotate sweatpants and jeans when you’re 18 and trudging around the campus anti-world? Underwear is a different story, though. One-and-done is my motto, so the key is to have A LOT of it.

My aversion to the washing machine took on a new dimension in those college years. When I ran dangerously low on unmentionables, I bought a couple of pairs at a boutique near campus. You can imagine how that price tag impacted my poor-student budget, so I knew I had to find a more sustainable approach.

Laundry time? Nope. I needed Target.

The problem was that with campus nestled in a residential area and the mall in the next town over–and me having no car–I needed transportation. None of my friends had cars either, so desperation led me to the city bus.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with the bus, and as I have cruised through adulthood exploring different cities around the world, I think public transportation is one of the greatest inventions ever. But as an eighteen-year-old from the Midwest, I had no idea how to use it. It intimidated me.

In fact, buses still intimidate me. Trains are pretty simple to figure out; there’s always a map nearby to offer the big picture, and whole system is generally well-mapped visually. It’s easy to see how many stops, how many changes, where to switch, etc.

Not so with buses.

Without a station structure to house maps and posters–and with less oversight to deter vandalism–bus huts have neither the space nor the maintenance routine to provide much information. In fact, there’s often just a sign marking the location of the stop sitting atop an abbreviated schedule that looks something like this–if you’re lucky:

bus-sched-1

So say I know I’m standing at Tunnel & Thayer. I can see all the times the bus will arrive to whisk me away. I can even intuit to which stops it will take me, but what then? How do I know where to transfer? What’s available to transfer TO at those stops? Where are they in relation to anything? And how much does this even cost? Is bus riding some elite club for people who grew up in the city, a conspiracy to make the rest of us feel like country cousins?

Today I’d pull up the Transit Authority’s website on my phone and try to figure it out, but in 1987, there was no internet, let alone smartphones. Heck, car-mounted cell phones were just starting to come out, and they were super expensive. But, I digress.

My point is that this is a communications disaster. It’s not intuitive and there’s no real way to get information when you need it. Good communications principles don’t just apply to marketing efforts, meetings, and manners. They should be ubiquitous. They apply to everything, even bus schedules.

When you’re trying to give people information, remember this:

  • Don’t leave out important information.
  • Make it easy.
  • Use visuals when possible.
  • Spread the word.

In the meantime, I guess I’ll just do my laundry more often.

Just desserts

Holy_Cannoli!My daughter’s social studies teacher hosted a cultural fair last spring where the kids could present their year-end country projects. The kids had worked in groups to create elaborate displays, learn facts and anecdotes, and even whip up samples of local cuisines. The teacher expected the cafetorium to be packed, so she asked parents to sign up to bring a variety of international dishes to feed the masses, potluck style. I volunteered to make cannoli.

Okay, stop right there. Before I go any further, let’s all agree to ignore the notion that I shouldn’t have waited till the last day to get things done. This story won’t be any good if you won’t at least give me that much. Deal?

On the day of the fair, I assembled my ingredients and made something close to a vat of cannoli filling. I had planned to buy the shells rather than make them myself, so around 3pm I took off for the grocery store.

*Gulp*

My usual store didn’t carry them anymore. And neither did the next one. Or the next one. Or the next one. With three hours left till the cultural fair, I was out of luck and out of time.

No problem, I thought. I’m a resourceful person. I can figure this out.

And I did. Spying filled cannolis in the pastry case at my local Fresh Market, I asked the clerk if she would be willing to sell me some of the empty shells I knew they had in reserve.

I don’t know, she said. I wouldn’t know what to charge you.

Is there someone you can ask? I persisted.

Well, one bakery manager is at lunch, and the other one is on vacation, she replied, as if that were the end of the discussion.

Surely, I said, we can figure this out. There has to be someone in the store who can help. Please.

With a groan and a sigh, the clerk retreated. Several minutes later she picked up the phone and placed a call. After a round of hushed voices and furtive glances, she hung up the phone and returned to the counter.

Sorry, she said breezily, I can’t. And just like that, with no further explanation, she turned around and walked away.

I doubt the clerk has any idea what really transpired. Even in refusing to sell me the empty shells–I don’t believe she made anything resembling a valiant attempt on my behalf–and in purveying a haughty attitude about it, she wasn’t the one I resented. I resented Fresh Market. Perhaps she didn’t realize that everything she says and does while wearing her bakery duds and name tag represents the company. So how did she affect the store?

  1. Fresh Market lost a sale. They had the goods and I was willing to pay for them. A win-win turned into a lose-lose.
  2. Fresh Market ticked off a customer. I not only felt mistreated by the clerk by her annoyed demeanor and lack of concern, but I also felt as if I were being strong-armed into buying the filled cannoli. Which, by the way, I did not do.
  3. Other people heard of my dissatisfaction with Fresh Market. While I refrained from taking a scorched earth approach, I definitely shared my frustration with several of my friends. Negative word-of-mouth is not helpful to any business.
  4. Fresh Market lost future sales. Oh, I’ve shopped at Fresh Market several times since that day, but I have yet to pull out my wallet at the bakery case. I’ll get my sweet treats elsewhere for a bit longer.

Truthfully, I don’t really care about the cannoli shells (anymore), but I love the branding lesson here. It’s a great reminder that most often it isn’t the people in marketing who have the most impact on a brand–it’s the people talking to customers.

P.S. In case you’re wondering, I trashed the cannoli filling. The cultural fair got mini eclairs as my contribution, and my daughter got an A+ on her project.

Keynotes

mos cardAs you might expect, my recent job change brought a few surprises with it. Realizing how challenging it is to be new at everything. Opening my closet door to find to find a stockpile of clothing that no longer seems appropriate. Being able to have lunch with my mother during the workday for the first time ever. Struggling to find a new writing routine. Something that surprised even my surprised self, however, was the attention generated by the announcement of my new venture.

My new company announced my arrival with a press release–pretty standard fare. In my previous position, I had even written several of those for others. The part that surprised me was the way others viewed the PR as a marketing opportunity. My grad school alma mater tweeted it to tie the success of an alumna to its own value. A local auto dealership sent me a letter outlining the advertising opportunities it offers. The Jehovah’s Witnesses sent me several tracts and a handwritten note that tried desperately to explain a nebulous connection between them and my new job. I found this all very fascinating.

I did, however, find one missive to be very well executed. I received a tasteful, well-written note from an upscale restaurant offering nothing more than congratulations–and a $25 credit with no strings attached. Brilliant. No gimmick, no expectation. The restaurant gave something to me; it didn’t expect something of me. Now, $25 won’t go far at that particular restaurant, but the gesture does make me inclined to pay it a visit.

What a terrific illustration of the potency in valuing people, of being willing to give in good faith in order to build a relationship, of giving people reasons to want to come to you, not to have to.

There’s a lesson in everything, even one little note.

P.S. Click on the photo above and read the card if you have a chance. What it said made all the difference. Words do matter.

The secret to cold calling

phone-for-cold-callI got another cold call yesterday, one of the dozens I take every week at work. If I spent the requested amount of time with each caller–Can I take ten minutes of your time? When can we set up a half hour conference call? I’d like to have a fifteen minute chat to assess your needs–I’d never get anything done. Besides that, if it’s not in the budget, I can’t spend it. If I’ve never heard of it, I’m pretty sure I didn’t put it in the budget. The result? I’ve perfected an extensive repertoire of ways to say No, thank you, firmly and politely.

Once in a while I will actually listen to someone’s pitch. The rules are thus:

  1. I’m actually in the market for the product or service. (Slim chance, but it happens occasionally.)
  2. The product or service is on my radar as a “might need later” and I want to do some homework. (Totally at my discretion; the caller has no control over what bounces around in my head.)
  3. The caller has taken some time to understand our business BEFORE he calls. (The name of my company can be misleading. A 2-1/2 second visit to our website will eliminate all confusion about what we do.) This isn’t always a guarantee that I’ll listen, but getting it wrong is a guarantee that I won’t.
  4. Having the particular caller/caller’s company as a contact might benefit me in the future–or ticking him off might burn a bridge.
  5. You’ve already done me a favor somehow.
  6. I have some time to kill. (Fat chance–just making sure you’re paying attention.)

Cold callers have no control over items 2 and 6, but items 1, 3, 4, and 5 offer a sliver of hope. The secret is doing the homework. Calling me from a database list will never work; I’ll be able to tell right away. It honestly ticks me off when someone assumes I work for a power company just because the word “electric” is in its name.

However, if the caller has taken the time to find out what I do, what my company does, and hone in on the areas where there’s either a glaring need or a strategic fit (which may not even be today but could materialize in the longer term), then maybe–just maybe–we have a place to start.

But, dear cold callers, you have to work fast. You only have SECONDS to get my attention when I answer the phone. That’s why doing your homework is so important. I’m not going to give you my time to figure it out; you have to use your own. If you have to do it, the calling should only be cold for one of us. I’ll give you a hint: you should already be warmed up.

P.S. Don’t ask how I’m doing today when I don’t even know who you are.

Feel the love–Carlo’s part 2

karaandbuddyFollowing up on last week’s post, Fran the man, my two-hour wait at Carlo’s Bakery was rife with examples of good business. If you’ll indulge me one more time, I promise this will be my last Carlo’s story.

This is a tale of customer service.

When my kids and I first arrived at Carlo’s, we saw a long line in front of a CVS on the other side of the cross street. The line in front of Carlos’s itself, however, looked fairly reasonable. Given that there were about half a block of open space and a cross street between the two lines, I shrugged off the disconnected tail and hopped into the part in front of the bakery itself.

My kids and I stood quietly for a few minutes and snapped a few pictures before we started talking to the people in front of us. That’s when we learned that we needed to go to the end of the other part of the line, the part that wasn’t disconnected after all. We made our way unfazed down the block; we figured it had been too good to be true.

Once we settled into our rightful spot at the back of the line, we learned how it worked. Periodically, a Carlo’s employee would make his way down the line, handing numbered tickets to each person or group who would be purchasing something. (For example, I received one ticket for my kids and me, since the pocketbook was mine-all-mine. We would have gotten individual tickets if they had intended to make separate purchases. Fat chance of that.) We couldn’t get into the store without these tickets, and we had to wait our turn until our number appeared on the “Now Serving” message board.

Besides keeping things orderly, what this really accomplished was to eliminate line jumpers. If we had stayed in our original location, we wouldn’t have gotten into the store anyway. No ticket, no entry. Once we understood how it worked, I could let down my hyper vigilant sense of righteousness and not worry about people getting in front of me; it wouldn’t do them any good.

The guys who handed out the tickets were very pleasant and especially patient. They tirelessly answered the same questions over and over again. They never stopped smiling, and their enthusiasm seemed genuine. They knew that our collective desire to wait in line, crowd into the store, and make outrageous purchases of pastries meant job security for them.

So did the people behind the counter. Questions such as, How often does Buddy come in? Is Buddy here? Where are the sisters? Is it always this busy? pummeled them from open to close. They answered every one and never seemed to melt in frustration. They clearly understood that they were there because we were there. The small bake shop may have been crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with people, but the overall mood was good, perhaps because we all felt appreciated and valued.

I found some outstanding object lessons here: make customers comfortable, address their concerns, answer their questions, act happy to see them. WIthout their Cake Boss fans, Carlo’s becomes just another local bakery.

In any business, we NEED our customers. Spending more time making them comfortable, addressing their concerns, answering their questions, and acting happy to see them shows that we appreciate them–and helps keep them as customers. What strikes me as odd is that intuitive as this seems, I’m always amazed when it actually happens. That tells me it doesn’t happen enough.

Fran the man

cake bossLast week was spring break, and despite my daughter’s protests that “it didn’t sound exotic enough” (that’s a quote), I took my kids to New York City to get a taste of the Big Apple. My son, a huge fan of the TLC show Cake Boss, immediately recognized the city’s proximity to New Jersey and campaigned for a jaunt to Hoboken as part of our adventure. Two trains and a short walk later, we stood in front of Carlo’s Bakery, home of Buddy Valastro the Cake Boss.

A few hundred other people stood in front of Carlo’s, too. Enough to make for a two-hour wait on the sidewalk. Even so, my kids enthusiastically confirmed that they indeed wanted to wait for the chance to get inside the shop; seeing it from the street wasn’t good enough. Thankfully, the weather was good and the people around us were pleasant, so we settled in to wait.

Not long into our confectionery odyssey, I looked up to see a man methodically working his way down the line, group by group. When he got to us, he explained that he worked for Fran’s Italian Deli, a local establishment that offered great sandwiches on the world’s best homemade Italian bread, cold drinks, and free delivery. In fact, he said as he handed us a menu on which he had written his cell number, he would be happy to deliver to us in line. As incentive, he added a discount code to the menu. I thanked him and told him I appreciated his inventiveness, and he moved to the next group of people.

Shortly after he left, I saw this man come back, this time with food. As the line progressed–the wait really was two hours long–I saw him several more times, passing out menus and delivering snacks, sandwiches, and cold drinks to my fellow Carlo’s groupies.

I loved it.

Here was a guy who didn’t bemoan a long line of people waiting to go to somewhere else. He didn’t begrudge the success of a fellow businessman and grumble, Why can’t this be me? Instead, he saw an opportunity, and he capitalized on it. He got creative, and instead of bringing people to his business, he brought his business to them. He assessed their needs and figured out how to address them in a way that meant success for everyone. It gave the people in line something to do, satisfied hungry bellies and thirsty mouths without forcing people to lose their places in line, and it gave the cash coffers of Fran’s Italian Deli an upward bump.

Now contrast this scene with a couple of the other storefronts along the same sidewalk. Employees from those businesses periodically came outside to shoo us waiters away from their doors to accommodate customers who might want to come in. Instead of seeing a potential audience, they saw a definite nuisance. What a missed opportunity.

As the guy from Fran’s realized, opportunities abound. Go out and get them.