Your Sleeping Dogs Can Bite You

In sales, customer service, and leadership, the cultivation of ignorant customers and followers is common, and figuratively lethal.

“We call those customers our sleeping dogs.”

The senior executive who said this was referring to customers who were being overcharged. You know, the customers who are really profitable?  The ones who are ignorant of their bad deal?

The executive referred to them as his “sleeping dogs” to honor an unspoken policy that loudly said “let sleeping dogs lie.”  As in, don’t bother a customer who is content to stay with a bad deal.

They exist in many businesses. In the cable and wireless space, they are the ones whose better deal is literally a few minutes away by phone. In the industrial space, they are the customers who have taken annual price increases loyally until their current deal is so far out of market that they could hire the procurement professional they sorely need if they only asked for a market price re-set.

The problem with this executive’s thinking is this:  Sleeping dogs bite.

A Matter of Service, and Ethics…

It’s a fact of life that if you choose not to serve your customers, somebody else will. A corollary to that is that if you bank on the ignorance of your customers, you are banking on a very fleeting thing.

Now, I’ve gone far enough so that some of you are thinking I’m writing about really unethical behavior, but that is only partly the case.

Sure, a company that charges your grandmother $25 a month for the Sunday paper (true story…) is profiting from the ignorance of a customer, but such behavior rarely passes the red face test when it’s found out.

The Lost Art of Calling on Customers

The reality is that in the realm of good sales and customer service, we treat far, far too many customers as sleeping dogs even when we are making only a fair profit from them.

You know why?

It’s the same reason our executive at the start of the story had: We are scared of our customer. We are scared that we might learn of our own shortcomings, or how unhappy the customer really is (but just hasn’t gotten around to firing your company).

In the modern world of sales and service (well, at least dating back to the fax machine), many transactions can be carried out virtually and without human interaction. Also, because many younger people have grown up without actually calling on people or interacting with them (I’m talking to you, Millennials), customers are being left alone as sleeping dogs far more often than in the past.

Combine that with a healthy dose of conflict avoidance on the part of many of the sleeping dogs, and you have a recipe for customer defection.

The Learning Applies to Leaders, Too

Don’t kid yourself that there aren’t also a lot followers who could be considered sleeping dogs as well.  You know them?  They are the people who are making 70% of the salary of the guy next to them while doing twice the work.

They deserve better customer service, too.  If you know this inequitable circumstance exists, and bank on it; you are right there with the friendly senior executive in my starting paragraph.  No, I’m not saying that we should all go out and re-trade our employees’ comp plans, I’m saying that your tolerance for inequity is a defining trait of your leadership profile.  We all have some tolerance for it, some of us to the extreme.  If you are found out by your followers as a leader who readily and enthusiastically allows a follower to sell himself too cheaply; you will lose their trust.

Count on it.

So What…

What this means is that in your customer service, sales, and leadership approaches, you have to embed a much better appreciation for sensing what customers are thinking. Sometimes, it’s a simple phone call from a customer service rep to see what is working (or not). Sometimes, sure, it’s a customer survey. Sometimes, yes, it’s an active sales effort to re-set pricing with customers or employees whose deals are, shall we say, out of market.

In doing so, you will create better customer and employee loyalty, you will learn more about your own company’s strengths and weaknesses, and you just might generate a moment of truth that brings in a few more customers via referrals and good press.

A customer loss is a damaging thing. In most industries, the cost of customer acquisition is far higher than the true cost of retention. The same is true (in spades) for employees.  A customer or employee lost to negligence is far worse—kind of like a dog bite.

When it comes to your sales, service, and leadership approach, beware letting sleeping dogs lie.

The near-term profit is rarely worth the long-term pain.

I welcome your thoughts and reflections.

How Improv Can Reinforce Your Strategy

For business strategists to be flexible and responsive, they must work like the best of improv performers.

A few months ago, my wife and I had the opportunity to take our children to an improvisational comedy workshop. In the midst of getting to watch my better half pantomime milking a cow in front of 50 people, I was reminded of one of the more interesting leadership realities.

The best leaders, like the best improv performers, are constant in their ability to give and take. The best improv performers can charm the hardest of audiences, and the best leaders can lead in the most challenging of circumstances.

But. Rather than go into leadership as improv—a well-trodden trail at this  point (just Google it)—I thought it interesting to explore another very current application: business strategy as improv.

The Core of Improvisational Anything

In any sort of improvisational performance, be it music, comedy, dance, or otherwise, a core tenet is called “Yes…and.” Yes…and is the shorthand for how performers improvise together. They take something someone else has said or played, interpret it, and then take off on their own with it before teeing it up for the next performer.

It goes something like this:

Performer 1:  “Today, I tried to walk the cat.”

Performer 2:  “Yes…and you probably found that the cat walked you…”

Except with a wittier writer, you might have laughed out loud.  It’s important to note that Yes…and is an idea in practice, so you don’t hear performers actually saying “yes…and” out loud during an improv performance (well, not often).

At its core, improv requires a few things.

It requires perception; the performer must be constantly focused on what others are doing, not on what they will do. Being self-focused is a surefire way to failure as an improv performer. So, you listen, and watch, and look for insights.

It requires agreement and acceptance. Improv starts with “yes” no matter what is said. Your counterpart flubs it, and you say yes; you start with yes and shape the conversation from there. Sure, you interpret action and revise approach, but you do it while moving forward.

It requires interpretation. The joy of improvisational comedy is that it often results in comedic insights through unique interpretations of a stated fact.

It requires action. The wheels of an improv performance don’t—can’t—stop. You never see an effective improv act that taps the brakes in the middle to “get things right” or “study further.”  Improvisers take the “and” part of “Yes…and” seriously. It’s where they deliver.

Applying Improv to Strategy

There is a great, growing insight in the world of management strategy that strategic planning approaches are mistimed to the real world. Some companies do 3- or 5-year strategic plans as deep studies and then go to “execute,” when meanwhile, the world is working at a much faster pace. The strategy that’s written today is out of date in a month if not a week; it’s a script in a world that requires improv.

Strategy is becoming constant motion and revision. It’s becoming improvisation within a framework vs. scripting and perfecting all actions and plans. So, we seek agility. We seek to plan and execute as a perpetual thought process versus a periodic one.

Yes…and that is where improv comes in.

As strategic leaders, we must establish the framework of our strategy. Study hard, know what you know (and don’t), and ensure alignment on core values and mission areas for the organization. And then, encourage and lead your organization through constant (or at least much more frequently periodic) perception, acceptance, interpretation, and action.

Effective strategists perceive by listening to their people, customers, markets, and macro trends and seeking insights.

They accept by ensuring that the facts they perceive, whatever they might be, are the facts. They avoid spin, confront reality, and say “YES!”

They interpret what they have perceived and accepted by formulating and reformulating their strategies in microcycles and being explicit about the microcycles.

And they act by ensuring that their initiatives, messages, and personal actions have integrity.

The strategist as improvisational artist is a new animal. For too long, we have thought of strategists as long-range thinkers devoid of any action orientation. But now, it’s time to embrace “Yes…and” in our strategies.

I welcome your comments.

Always Do It Again Like the First Time…

Is the secret to life and professionalism finding the ability to lead, love, and perform with the fervor you once had?

Remember the first time you had to really perform in a meeting? Or the first time you had to give a subordinate a performance review? Or maybe the first time you were responsible for the sales call?

How about the first time you said “I love you” to a significant other and meant it?

Maybe you remember the first time you tried really hard to master a sport, or an art, or a language. You found a link between passion and performance. You went through pain or anguish or nervous uncertainty to get there.

Maybe these things don’t resonate for you, but still, there’s a first time for everything. And for those things we very much want to do well on, we do the work, we deliver with feeling. We, in short, find a way. The first time is hard won.

Unfortunately, for a lot of the things I just listed, there’s also a one hundredth time. For some performances, there is a ten thousandth time.

The Professional’s Call

This weekend, I had the opportunity to witness the performance of a virtuoso jazz musician in an intimate setting. I was able to see and hear the music flow from someplace within him that I couldn’t see. As is sometimes the case when we witness amazing talent in action, I struggled to understand how perfect the performance seemed, even when almost all of it was improvised (it was, after all, jazz).

During an intermission, the musician–acting as our host–told those of us in the audience an interesting anecdote about the great performer Burt Bacharach.

Bacharach is known for his performance of the song Alfie, a somber, meaningful song about life. Here it is:

Through some mental math, our host related that Bacharach, over his career, has likely performed Alfie more than 10,000 times. That’s 10,000 instances of a performer’s finding the same passion and emotion in an activity that he had the very first time. Our host explained that being able to perform every time with the passion of the first is, in a lot of ways, a secret to life.

A Lesson for Life and Work

The anecdote is a profound illustration of what it means to be a professional. It’s also, I think, a profound illustration of what it means to maintain curiosity, wonder, and passion within a world of banality and repetition.

Think about it. Can you imagine being able to experience the joy and wonder you felt during your first kiss during the goodnight kiss on your 30th anniversary? Can you imagine being able to say “I love you” today to your spouse with the same trepidation and sense of the future you had the first time?

What a rush!

A friend and mentor of mine once related to me that she knew she was doing well as a professional when she no longer felt nervous walking into meetings with senior executives; the act of leading meetings had become a rote exercise. I respect this point of view. I’ve lived through the maturation that she mentioned, and I’ve delivered the same insight to others. But while the maturity of professionalism is important, so is the passion.

I’ve witnessed countless professionals “going through the motions.”  They do endless meetings with no soul and no passion for vision or values. They work to their incentives like coin-operated machines. They look elsewhere for their passion and in the meantime demolish the hopes of their audiences. Except that their audiences are the people in their organizations or, in the worst cases, their potential business partners and customers.

We professionals, like the performers we really all are, must remember to go back to the passion (if not the nerves) of the first time if we are to deliver our own virtuosic performance on the hundredth or the thousandth time. If we seek to move others, we have to break out of the professional monotony that comes to us and deliver with feeling, and this matters whether you are a jazz pianist or a financial analyst.

Find an insight. Find something new in every repetition. Rediscover the first time you did it. Find the passion that comes with the first time—the hard-won first time—every time, and I do think that you’ll find at least one secret to life.

The Last and Largest Burden of Leadership Communication

If you are the leader, it’s your responsibility to ensure understanding.

I had an amusing reminder of a critical communication concept a few months ago.  It was one of those wake up calls that starts softly and ended with a laugh; but it had a serious lesson.

The situation was this:  In working through a strategic planning exercise with a client, I took the time to outline a concept in the strategy labelled, simply:

“Change Leadership”

The concept, which I had not yet outlined in detail, was (in my mind) to pull in all of the tools, approaches, management behaviors, and other actions required to ensure that the strategies being outlined had a chance of permeating the business.  It was, admittedly, a bit of jargon used as a placeholder for a critical set of leadership elements.   I knew all this, of course; because I had written it!

The rub, as I found out, was that the concept of “Change Leadership,” a noun whose full outline I was intent on conveying at some later date; was possibly going to be interpreted by leaders in the organization as a verb; as in “this is where we change leadership.”

As in “this is where leaders get fired.”

For those of you who may not know, consulting with a top team and having them believe that you’ve outlined the conceptual means of their demise may come with some difficulties!!!

Luckily, this misunderstanding was more of a comic moment than a serious one–a leader on the client’s executive team mentioned it in passing. But, it brings up an important, timeless issue…One of clarity in communication and understanding.

George Bernard Shaw once said that “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

There’s a lesson in there for those of us who spend our time leading others through concepts.  (Hint, that’s pretty much any executive leader.)

In my case, I thought I had outlined a work stream for change management; but somebody read what I wrote and thought I might want to fire management.

Your cases may vary:

You think you’ve given sufficient direction and clarity; but others have no idea what you are talking about.

You are getting exasperated at having to repeat yourself on all the “easy” stuff; but others think you just aren’t communicating and that it isn’t at all very easy.

You, in short, may be missing a significant part of communication:  The moment where you check for understanding, and adjust your delivery for clarity.

It happens to us all.

Unfortunately, many of us have a tendency to blame the victim.  We use phrases like “he just doesn’t get it,” or “she’s a poor listener” to cover for our own inadequacies as a leader and communicator.

Be sure to take the time to understand whether those around you understand.  If you are the leader, it’s on you, not them.

It’s one of those peculiar burdens that comes with being a leader.

It could save you from some scary circumstances.

Please share your thoughts and experiences with leadership mis-communication and misunderstanding.