Friday, October 29, 2010

I'm A Ham? Well, You're In Sales

If you’re a regular reader of this column, you know I like music and music metaphors. If you’re an irregular reader may I suggest a sparkling glass of Sal Hepatica.

I have many favorite album titles, including Anywhere You Are, There You Is, which I wrote about in a column that can be accessed by engaging the down arrow like so. One of my favorite titles is from the guitarist Don Dixon, whom I should like far more than I do.

Dixon’s record starts with the artist as a very young man of about 10, arguing with his brother over music. At one point his brother accuses Dixon of being a ham, to which Dixon replies, “Yeah? Well, if I’m a ham, you’re a sausage.” And that’s the title of the album.

Believe it or not, there is application for this in the wacky world of marketing, with just a few minor changes to selected words. Instead of, “If I’m a ham, you’re a sausage,” may I suggest, “If I’m in sales, you’re in product development.”

It’s a fact. Of the two broad duties performed by many marketers, sales continually stresses to marketers that they’re in sales, while no one stresses anything to sales because sales can’t be found. Or they’re at Panera Bread for the eighth time this week. Or they’re out of range.

Okay, consider this a shot across sales’ well-dressed bow: You’re in product development. Everyone in this man’s corporate army is in product development.

The trick is engaging sales and the other non-lunching members of your organization in product development without actually having them design a product.

You want sales actually designing your product less than you want cholera. The Microsoft Kin is a perfect example of sales designing a product. It accumulated more bells than St. Mary’s and more whistles than a Brazilian thong and sold for a lot more than it should have at the start and less than it did but still too much after Microsoft had a product launch and nobody came.

You could tell this product was a technological kamikaze. No kid will buy a cell phone for kids. Kids buy adult cell phones and find new and amazing things to do with them, like use them as remote controllers for cage-fighters while simultaneously listening to the Kings of Leon and broadcasting, “I have arrived at Dairy Queen!” to the world.

Along those same lines, you do not want programmers designing a product, nor do you want call-center employees or the building-and-grounds staff.

The result would resemble the KFC Double Down sandwich, with a third piece of chicken added for the programmer in the Star Trek shirt.

So everyone’s in product development but you don’t want anyone actually developing product, huh? How do you talk your way out of this one?

It’s a simple two-stage process. First, find all the smart people. Second, give all these departments pieces without ceding control of the whole.

I know this is an amazing revelation, but not all the smart people in your organization are in marketing. Similarly amazing, not all the halfwits are in sales.

Smart people are smart people, regardless of their position. They’re like the nondescript Minneapolis musicians who backed up Bob Dylan on Blood on the Tracks. Just because they’re not famous big-shots doesn’t mean they’re not any good.

One of the most important internal tasks you can perform as a marketer is to use your “smart radar” and find the smart people in every department. Once you’ve done that you can use them to mobilize areas under their control and engage them appropriately in the product-development process.

Take R&D. They came up with the core idea, the basic improvement or innovation that is going to make this product sing two choruses of “California Girls” (the Katy Perry version). However, you don’t want R&D going any further than the idea stage, at least not without changing out of that shirt. You don’t give them veto power over packaging, for instance, unless you like your toaster oven wrapped in a schematic. Yet there are people in R&D who think beyond the D, who can grasp the marketing implications of what they do. Use them to communicate back to their teams ways of making what they do more marketing-friendly. I guarantee that the next time through the process will be better geared toward a marketable outcome.

Programmers and Web designers are a perfect match with call-center employees. Why? The call-center employees are most closely attuned to what’s happening on the ground; the programmer knows what can be done with the air. Left to their own devices they aren’t much; the call-center folks will refer callers to the Web for guidance, even though the Web site has been given over (by the programmers) to YouTube videos of kittens running for public office, while the Facebook page runs a guess-the-celebrity-earlobes contest. Sit down the smart programmer with the smart call-center person and watch what happens. The celebrity-earlobes contest ends sooner than expected, for one thing.

Another great match is ops and sales. Operations can figure out the processes to support the extra orders sales brings in before they happen. Imagine that. And because it’s part of the development of the overall product it falls under marketing’s purview – or at least, you can pretend it does. It’s your until they make it not yours, anyway.

Does this work? Well, at one organization I was associated with the marketing department went through a detailed internal process aimed at identifying the opinion leaders within departments, they were brought together in a room with an independent facilitator, they were encouraged to brainstorm way outside of their silos, they engaged in freeform discussions and more structured development sessions, and … nothing happened.

Nothing happened because the group had no power to make decisions or spend money, and it was controlled by its organizer, who wanted the group to rubber-stamp his ideas.

And there’s the rub in everyone-a-product-developer theory. Everyone-a-salesperson theory works because it suggests that everyone in an organization should be engaged with the outside world on behalf of that organization. The every-one-a-product-developer theory forces everyone back inside, to make what they sell more appealing to those on the outside. That threatens existing protocols and structures and makes people stiffen into organizational Republicans, vowing to fight to the death for the right to write SQL as they see fit.

It's hard to encourage people in an organization to think of themselves as product developers, but if they don't, the organization runs the risk of hitting the street with products that no one inside the organization believes is the best product possible. And believe me, you don't want that. That and cholera.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

... And Featuring Brett Favre As Photography Editor

There was a major problem at work yesterday involving marketing. In short, we screwed up, with consequences embarrassing to the organization. Imagine Brett Favre being in charge of brochure production, and printing 50,000 copies. Or public relations taking on an alternate, much older, meaning.

It was not, as Winston Churchill said, our finest hour. We tried to fight them on the beaches only to find they were back at the hotel. It was just one more precipitous slide to death on the roller-coaster that is marketing.

Needless to say, there were some long faces among those in the department that didn’t ditch the office in favor of the ball game. But it got me to thinking: Does it have to be a darkish hour? Can marketers put a spin like a Cliff Lee curveball onto our own stupidity?

There is something that suggests we might be able to, and it comes from jazz, of all places.

The jazz guitarist Barry Galbraith once said that a jazz musician is never more than half a step away from the right note. In other words, wherever you happen to be you can get to a good place with a fairly small amount of work.

So take our faux pas (or, as a boss of mine was fond of saying, a "foopa"). How does a marketing department hey-Jude it – you know, take its sad song and make it better?

By taking a page out of Barry Galbraith's Big Book of American Standards. By taking it a half-step up.

Start by tracing the root of the problem (assuming it was a problem and not just a random act of senseless senselessness). Was it a breakdown in people or procedure? If it's a breakdown in procedure, encourage the Powers That Are to resist like Pope Benedict at a Christina Aguilera concert the overpowering urge to add more procedures to the existing procedure.

Instead, channel the late greats Tom Bosley and Barbara Billingsley (and then they kicked Florence Henderson off of Dancing With the Stars; have the fates – and that little Italian twip -- no respect for parental units?) and guide them gently, with pearls around your neck, toward excising the surplusage from existing procedures.

For once in your life, be a Republican. Lift the onerous yoke of excessive regulation. Let the free market rule! No taxes on incomes of $250,000 and up! Opportunity for everyone! Guns for all! And I command the sunspots that cause global warming to vanish!

Sorry. I had a Sharron Angle moment there.

Marketers are creative people. They need latitude, they tend to resist layers upon layers of documentation, but they don't shirk accountability if it's leavened with empowerment. Give them the smallest amount of procedures necessary to do the job, give them control of the money and let them sign their name to the bottom, and they'll knock it out, singing Swiss mountain-climbing songs all the way.

So take a mistake as an opportunity to re-examine what you do and make it work better – even if it means instituting less control -- and then announce it to the world as a re-examination of policies and procedures.

If it's a people problem, again use it (or suggest to your supervisors that they use it) as an opportunity to re-examine who's doing what. People need to own some facet of what they do. It needs to be wholly and totally theirs and the working world needs to know it. A mistake is a great opportunity to see if the right people are assigned to the appropriate tasks – that Chris O’Donnell is in charge of communicating to your Wiccan stakeholders, for instance.

Match the skills with the duties and see how well they line up. If some need more, give them more to own out of the pool of shared responsibilities. If some need less, construct the less out of high-profile assignments that are in their wheelhouse – and get them the training they need to do the rest.

A mistake is not just an opportunity in disguise. That’s being too kind. It’s also not one more thing to be spun. That’s too crass. A mistake is another chance to do what marketers do best: apply common sense to a situation that needs it. Even if it’s a situation of your own making.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Return Of Ziggy Salesman And The Pimple-Flavored ABC Gum

My friend Skip was telling me about strategic planning at his place.

You know strategic planning. That's the process you don't get to take part in because that would be the end of it right there and a million billion consultants would be out on the street, begging for your watch so they can tell you the time, at $275 an hour.

Really now: Is there anything you do in the course of carrying out your assigned marketing duties that isn't strategic planning? You're always strategically straddling departments and responsibilities and projects, and reconciling manufacturing and operations and sales, speaking pinto to the bean-counters and CAD/CAM to the engineers and faux jive to the sales dudes, and toggling between the quark-level view and the view from heaven, which provides definitive evidence that the CEO is not God.

Because you're doing strategic planning all the time I'll bet you're good at it, whereas when executives try strategic planning they look like pitchers batting, and their sessions deliver the goods about as well as amateur night at Beansnappers.

And guess whose recommendations get served up to the CEO on a silver tray? Certainly not the recommendations of the guy who just played the role of the cheek-biting native girl in The Man Who Would Be King.

(Spoiler alert: The cheek-biting native girl draws blood, thereby proving that Sean Connery is not God. Connery is pitched off a cliff. No comment on real-life applications of this information.)

That's neither here nor there, but in the immortal words of The Ol' Duke, it does get to sticking in your crawl after a while.

So anyway, my buddy Skip relates that part of his company's strategic-planning process involved role-switching. The head of operations became a designer, and the head engineer became a customer-service chief, and his boss got to deal with IT and the HR director became a salesperson.

On one level it was no sweat for these highly trained executives, because they could simply tell their subordinates to do what needs to be done, just like back in their own cozy departments.

On a different level, Skip reports, it was far more interesting, primarily when it came to other departments' perceptions of how money actually comes in the door.

The predominant perception was that products dropped from the sky like frozen turkeys in an episode of WKRP In Cincinnati, and money flowed up to the sky on an electron beam, at which point it condensed and fell back to earth, where it was sucked up by bankers carrying large gasoline-powered contraptions that resembled Rush Limbaugh.

In other words, there was no disconnect quite like the disconnect between the stuff and the sale of stuff.

Distribution force? Forget it. They might as well be the Power Rangers Strike Force? Third-party resellers? You mean, like H. Ross Perot back when he was running for president with that senile Army guy?

Companies that ultimately have to sell things often forget the most basic premise of their operation: that things actually get sold. And the burden for educating them falls, like all burdens, upon marketing.

Why marketing? Because marketing, rightly or wrongly, is positioned as the mouthpiece of sales. Sales is the New Headshrinkers; marketing is Captain Lou.

So what can marketing do to bridge such a basic knowledge-and-reasoning gap?

First, get other areas of the organization involved in the sales process. Start by having executives from other areas of the organization accompanying the sales force on calls.

Oh, yeah. I can hear the howling from here. Sounds like Hüsker Dü. The executives aren't going to understand why and the sales force is going to flat-out hate it. Anything that brings home-office staff into a salesperson's territory is going to get the same rousing reception as a Barack Obama appearance at a National Association of Loudmouthed Chuckleheads convention.

They way to handle that situation is with some strategic planning. While good salespeople believe they could sell anything, even pimple-flavored ABC gum, they don't mind having better products to sell and a more compelling story to tell. Sending people from other areas on sales calls will at the very least give the salespeople more stories to tell. Most of them will be flat-out lies about how they licked IT or Operations with one hand tied behind their back, but fine. That's how salespeople manage to work up enthusiasm for the latest piece of industrial hot lunch foisted upon them.

You would hope on the other side that the ops person would come away with a firm knowledge of how money actually comes in the door, but don't be too sure. You may also hear something like, "Well, all they did was talk." Yeah, it's nowhere near as substantial as clicking and dragging a trapezoidal shape, but it'll pass.

It's never stated in your job description, but an essential part of your job is making sure all the silos in your organization share the corn. Sometimes you have to physically haul it from one silo to another. But the payoff in understanding is worth the effort.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

How To Communicate Practically Anything To Practically Anybody. For Less Than $100,000. Guaranteed.

The shrink was in yesterday, talking about personality styles and what they mean, and the tactics a good and faithful employee needs to employ to communicate successfully with the people around you. This information was filed dutifully with the last go-round from this particular shrink, and the Watson-Glaser results, and the Meyers-Briggs, and the Good Whale guy, and the Five Love Languages, and the Flag Page dude, and the Women Are From Mars, Men Are From Venus schtick, and the lessons learned at the fall-backwards-I’ll-catch-you workshop (lesson No. 1: don’t fall backwards), and the reams of academic stuff from grad school, and the proposal for a dreamstorming session at church involving large Post-In Notes and a potluck, and the last missive from my wife wondering why I don’t listen better.

How can I listen? I’m way too busy trying to figure out what to say and how to say it.

Not only are the hills alive with the sound of music, they’re alive with the peripatetic movements of communication consultants brandishing their valid and reliable instruments and practically giving away the secrets of how your employees can talk more gooder at only $100,000 per secret. But only if you act now.

There’s an academic term for this: ick. That money should by all rights be going to you, because you know how people can communicate more effectively, and if you don’t now you will soon, because I’m going to tell you.

There’s no discounting the importance of good communication. Good marketing is based on consistently effective communication. Unless you’re selling Lady Gaga on a stick you can’t just hold up your product and have people flocking to you waving fistfuls of cash. You have to tell them something about your product in such a way that they want your product. And that goes whether you’re indoors, in the friendly confines of your office, doing reenactments of Care Bears episodes with the folks from Operations, or outside, making sales calls.

Okay, so what’s good communication?

Good communication successfully delivers all dimensions of a message successfully to its intended recipient. So in order to make that work you need to understand all the dimensions of a message and how they’ll be perceived by the person on the other end. And in those two components you can find all the contents of the highfaluting theories being peddled by so-called communication consultants.

Or, simply, think before you speak.

Think about what you want to say, boil it down to one or two essential truths, and then think about how to say it in such a way that those essential truths come across unsullied.

One of the reasons bombshells are so heavy is so that the explosive will explode when it’s supposed to. Yes, the shell makes a fine crackling noise when it explodes, and the boiling-hot, deadly shrapnel is a huge bonus, but it’s all about the gelignite, and getting that to go when and where it’s supposed to.

Think of your communication acts as bombshells. I realize it’s almost illogical flattery to think that a memo informing the design team that lines 12 and 13 have to be moved a eighth of an inch would be a bombshell, but the person who put lines 12 and 13 there for a reason would like to see you outside. And bring your playbook.

Something is always going to be offensive to someone. Ham it up and a vegetarian sees red. But if you enter into your communications knowing there’s a risk of offense you can plan a defense. It might be for you to tell them to – in one of my favorite phrases of all time, courtesy of the Canadian parliament – go forth and multiply themselves. If the essential truth you want communicated is, “You’re an idiot,” and you decide upon careful consideration of all alternatives that saying, “Go forth and multiply yourself” is the best alternative, then by all means, be my guest. Here are your white gloves and opera hat. But leave me out of it.

So step one is understanding that your message is the chocolate that melts in their mouth, and the medium and the words chosen are the candy shell that guarantees the chocolate melts in their mouth and not in their hand. Step two is realizing that some people don’t like brown M&Ms.

The shrink would tell you some people don’t like brown M&Ms because their brains are wired to not like brown M&Ms, and you have to avoid brown-M&M-speak when talking to these people. I’m telling you that there isn’t some sort of psychiatric field hospital where you can tie these people down and perform a Meyers-Briggs with the spring from a ballpoint pen and some dental floss. You have to communicate on the fly to a broad spectrum of M&M lovers, and you have to push the chocolate through the candy shell, regardless of its color.

Understanding that someone will invariably misunderstand your intent and your content, here’s what you do: Use short sentences. Avoid adjectives. Eschew surplusage. Offer to show your work, but don’t show your work. Stress tangible outcomes. And always communicate via the richest media channel available.

Media-richness theory is one of the pet concepts I got out of grad school in exchange for $20,000 and a permanent case of writer’s cramp. It basically states that certain communication channels can carry more information than others, and that a key to effective communication is choosing the appropriate channel to carry the message.

Simple, but I can eschew even more surplusage: Say it face-to-face whenever possible. Walk down the hall and talk to people. Don’t send an e-mail. Don’t pick up the phone. Don’t hide behind convenient media because they’re convenient. Do the hard work, take the extra step, and you’ll be rewarded for it.

Face-to-face is not a panacea. One of my clients could reduce a Harvard MBA to a plate of aspic in face-to-face settings, and he knew it. But those people are far between, and the alternative is often worse.

So there you go. Say it in person, keep it short, emphasize the bottom line, offer more. Do that and you can communicate professionally with just about anyone.

Try it, and if it works, don’t thank me. Just send me the hundred grand you don’t send the communication consultant. Heck, I’ll settle for fifty.