Connect with us
mm

Published

on

These days it’s hard to escape Donald Trump. Open a paper, turn on the TV and there the presidential hopeful is. But let’s not forget how he became a household name:

“You’re fired!”

THERE IS SOMETHING “succinct and very beautiful about the words … they’re so definite and final,” he once told Newsweek of the signature line of his former reality TV show, The Apprentice.

He may find those words beautiful, but there are very few others who do. For most of us, those words are almost unutterable, no matter how badly they need to be said.

Much more likely is a rambling speech that starts off something like: “Listen John, I’m not quite sure how to put this to you, but I’m afraid we’re probably going to have to let you go. I hope you can understand. Sales are down, and it, um, doesn’t look good. And then there’s my wife. She said we need our employees to show up on time, be polite to customers, make sales, you know, that sort of thing. As for me, I’d love to give you another chance, but you understand, right? My hands are tied …”

So how’d you do there? Well, you blame-shifted, told about three lies, all whoppers, and were barely coherent to boot. And this is probably after spending weeks or even months, dwelling on the issue and thinking of ways to approach it.

Let’s face it: As a species, most humans are not very good at managing difficult situations. No matter what the situation — dealing with an irate customer, a partner we don’t believe is fairly sharing the load, a longtime supplier who is no longer price-competitive, a repair man who always charges more than his quotation, or even an employee with a body-odor or chronic tardiness problem — most of us will do nearly anything to avoid these little conflicts.

But in business, such avoidance comes at great cost. It leads to what consultant and author Susan Scott calls a “culture of terminal niceness.” Everybody evades or works around difficult employees, problems don’t get tackled, and mediocrity is tolerated.

There are also personal and psychological costs for managers and staff when issues aren’t addressed effectively or honestly. Trust diminishes and misunderstandings multiply. Festering problems consume huge amounts of emotional energy and sap creativity.

In some cases, when the situation finally becomes unbearable, we do take action. But we invariably go about it the wrong way. We vent, point fingers and lay blame, leaving hurt feelings and the seeds of a new misunderstanding in our wake.

In contrast, when conflicts or difficult conversations are managed well, better decisions are made because goals are clear, teamwork and productivity increases and workplace morale surges. Conflict resolution, done effectively, also helps foster a climate of learning that allows people to learn from their mistakes and encourages managers to provide critical feedback.

But how to do it?

Dr. Tim Ursiny, author of The Coward’s Guide to Conflict, says there are seven ways of dealing with a difficult situation:

1. AVOID IT. (Bad, for the reasons stated above.)

2. GIVE IN. (Bad, because we don’t permit our- selves a chance to properly remedy the problem. We let someone else win the argument and then we feel bitter about it. Sometimes the other per- son knows we’ve surrendered, but most of the time they don’t have a clue and go about their business as always. Grrrr…)

4. BE PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE. (Like when you huff and puff and scowl when someone uses a mobile phone in a movie theater. This is about as effective as giving in, even if we do make an effort to ensure the person knows our feelings.)

5. COMPROMISE. (Now we’re getting warmer! But still, compromise suggests that neither party got what they really wanted. After all, the focus of compromise negotiations is what you are pre- pared to give up.)

6. HONOR THE OTHER PERSON. (Sound sappy? You’re right, and this is a solution best saved for situations involving family and significant others. This is where you make a choice to give up something and enjoy the sacrifice — say, you decide to forego a disputed bit of parking space to help out a neighboring businessman.)

7. PROBLEM-SOLVE TOGETHER. (You’ve probably guessed; this is the best way to go.)
Now, suggesting that you “solve the problem” might seem excruciatingly obvious — but what Ursiny, who is an executive coach and psychologist by training, is really advocating is the use of a technique that invites mutual analysis of an issue, takes into account the emotions on both sides, and results in a win-win situation.
Easy to say, but surprisingly hard to achieve. And that’s because most of us are thoroughly inept at doing the basic things required to achieve such a goal, oh like listening properly, understanding the other person’s point of view, and refraining from making critical judgments.

We’re here to help you better navigate your way through difficult conversations, but first we need to address the 800-pound gorilla in the room. And its name is … fear.

Our behavior in times of looming confrontation is invariably driven by fear. Fear of physical harm, fear of rejection, fear of losing a relationship, fear of anger, fear of being seen as selfish, fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of failing, fear of hurting someone, fear of getting what you want, fear of intimacy, fear that people will think less of us.

Sometimes these fears are rational or based on experience. You may have tried confronting someone before and it went badly. Or maybe you worry that talking will only make the situation worse.

And sometimes our fears are irrational. She’ll be crushed and kill herself if I tell her our clients hate her coffee. He will hire a Cessna and drag a 200-foot sky banner over my neighborhood telling everyone what a cheapskate I am if I don’t give him the pay rise.

Or maybe the anxiety wells up because of something that happened way back in your formative past — something at the very core of your identity. You’re afraid what the looming conflict will reveal about you as a person.

One of the things about the problems life throws at us on a daily basis is that we know deep down inside that the best way to deal with them is to put aside our worries and tackle the situation head-on. Don’t believe us? Think about your reaction the first time you saw Nike’s old “Just Do It!” ad campaign. You probably went out and did something … didn’t you? With that campaign, Nike proved that they knew the shadows that lurk deep in our hearts. Everybody wants to act forcefully, without restraint. Few do.

And “just doing it” is still one of the best ways to summon the courage. No, that doesn’t mean that you should simply jump right into your difficult conversation without preparation. But you should commit to doing it as soon as possible, and then start taking the necessary steps to make it happen. Weigh up the pros and cons and focus on the long-term benefits. Recall a case where you confronted a problem and it worked out well. Except for those cases where there is the genuine possibility of a physical harm, tell yourself that the conversation won’t destroy you, that you
can handle it, and most important, that it is the right thing to do. The relief you stand to gain will be permanent — as opposed to the temporary respite avoidance provides.

To give you that extra edge for your upcoming difficult conversation, we’ve compiled some expert advice from masters of the art of conflict resolution. Using it, you’ll find that disagreement is not only nothing to fear, it can be healthy. You’ll grow from it. Trust us.

But first, let’s examine the nuts and bolts of the conversation you are about to have.

PREPARING FOR THE MOMENT OF TRUTH


The first thing to do when preparing for a difficult conversation is to pick the right time and place. It’s pointless to start such a conversation if you don’t have the time to do it properly or are going to be constantly interrupted.

Then, ask yourself some questions:

Why are you having the conversation? What do you hope to accomplish? If you think, “I just want to get something out in the open,” or “We just need to talk,” that’s not good enough. Your purpose is too vague, and vague goals almost always mean disappointing results. Your purpose needs to be forward-looking.

You also need to question your objective. You may think your motives are honorable, like educating an employee. But as soon as you start talking, you notice yourself lapsing into language that is highly critical or condescending. (And believe us, the employee does as well.) This is also a good time to think about how you contributed to the problem.

Work on yourself so that you approach the conversation with a constructive aim and see it as an opportunity to learn about the other person’s point of view. Think “I wonder why he keeps doing that?” instead of “That’s it. I’ve had it with the way he keeps doing that and I’m really going to let him know it!”

Second, investigate what assumptions you are making about this person’s intentions. You may feel intimidated, disrespected, or ignored. But you shouldn’t automatically assume that this was the other person’s intended aim.

Third, start thinking about the other person’s viewpoint. What might they be thinking about this situation? Are they even aware of the problem? If so, how do you think they perceive it? What fears and needs could they have? What solution do you think they would suggest? Stop looking at the other person as an adversary — instead, see them as your partner in solving the problem at hand.

Finally, ask yourself what reaction the other person might have that is most likely to throw you off balance. What if they accuse you of picking on them or acting unprofessionally? Identify which reactions would be the toughest for you to deal with and plan how you might respond if the other person breaks down in tears, gets angry, or withdraws. Don’t just “wing it.” If that’s your approach, you won’t be very effective.

GRABBING THE BULL

The best way to start is much the same way you would for a meeting: Set out an agenda. This outlines the problem to be discussed, establishes that you want to hear the other person’s perspective, that you want them to hear yours and that you would like to do some joint problem-solving. Use the opening part of a conversation to be upfront about why you’d like to talk and what your main point is. You’ll engage the interest of the other person and help them understand what follows. When describing the issue at hand, state it neutrally, the way a mediator might. For example, instead of saying, “I want to know why you insist on making the staff wear these silly Santa hats,” you can begin with, “It’s obvious we both care about the business. And we both want to do what we think is best. But you and I have different approaches to marketing. Let’s see if we can talk about that and find some middle ground.” This approach includes bits and pieces from both sides and seeks to close the gaps between your two perspectives. No one will feel attacked and you’ll be off to a smooth start.

Then, invite the other person to share their side of the story first. Don’t feel compelled to dive in with your perspective. You’ll actually be more persuasive if you let your counterpart get their side out first.

This way, you get to learn what they care about, how they see the problem, and you can respond accordingly. Also, until the other person feels heard, they don’t have the mind-space to hear you. It’s infinitely harder to persuade someone who hasn’t felt heard than someone who has.

Remember too, as Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, says, “to listen to understand and not to reply.”

Often one of the things blocking our pursuit of the truth is that we think we not only understand our own point of view, but we also believe we know for sure what the other person did, said, and thought on the subject. He always does that because he knows it irritates me. She intentionally came in late to make me mad. She knows exactly what is expected of her, but doesn’t want to do it.

The problem is, such tough discussions are not about things that can be shown to be right or wrong, say Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen, authors of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. They involve facts, but they are not at heart about facts. They are about conflicting perceptions, feelings and values. They’re not about what a contract says, they’re about what a contract means. They’re not about which sales technique is most popular; they’re about which sales technique the store should employ. Finally, they’re not about what’s true, they’re about what is important.

If you automatically think you’re right, the conversation becomes one of trying to get the other person to admit he’s wrong. As strategies go, this is a poor one — the other person immediately becomes defensive and closes down.

The mistake of assuming we’re right leads to a second common error: We don’t ask enough questions. Studies have shown that about 90 percent of what is said during a failed conversation is advocacy, and only 10 percent inquiry. That means, the two parties find a lot of different ways to state their own views over and over again. Understanding is never reached. And too often, poor decisions result.

One of the first things you’ve got to do to get through a tough talk is to understand how the two of you see things differently. And doing that requires questions, questions and more questions.

YOUR TURN

When you sense that the other person has been able to unlock some of their energy and express the essence of what they want to say on the topic, it’s your turn.

From what they’ve told you it should be clear what they don’t understand about your position. Start by trying to clarify your view without minimizing theirs.

Be quick to identify the problem areas that remain. Be authentic too. There is something in us that responds to people who level with us, who speak from the heart.

Regularly summing up what you’ve said can boost the quality and accuracy of the dialogue — and eliminate many of the problems caused by misunderstandings.

Use words that reflect the other person’s meaning as well — “What you’re saying is that you feel that when I’m busy, I’m prone to treating people like they don’t exist. Am I understanding you right?” This way you demonstrate empathy and also get the chance to confirm that you’ve got it right.

If the conversation becomes heated or adversarial, go back to asking questions. Asking for the other person’s point of view usually neutralizes emotions. The challenge is to reframe the conversation from “whose fault is this” to “where did the misunderstandings occur, and how can we correct them so we can move forward?”

If the other person keeps saying everything is your fault, you can say, “I know I’ve contributed to this problem. Let’s talk about that, and we should also make sure to discuss ways that you’ve contributed to the problem as well.”

Be persistent in your efforts to keep the talk constructive.

FIX THE PROBLEM

Once you know what the other person wants and they know clearly what you want, then it’s time to find a solution. There is no guarantee this will be easy but at least both sides now are aware of all the factors in play.

Remember to keep asking questions. Ask your colleague what they think would work. Whatever they say, find something that you agree with and build on that.

Often such discussions get caught on the question of what’s fair. But, remember, fair is a subjective matter. What is a fair salary when the economy is doing badly? What is a reasonable vacation policy when the company is under-staffed? Your opinion and that of your counterpart are almost certain to differ. Of course, this scenario is specific to employee conflict, but the underlying principles remain the same.

The best, most straightforward way to approach any issue is to put on the table what both sides want and then brainstorm to see what is doable. In this instance, maybe a higher rate of commission based on achieving a new sales target would better reflect the economic conditions and the employee’s performance.

PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE

A successful outcome will depend on two things: how you act — centered, curious, persistent — and what you say. Don’t expect to handle every difficult conversation with ease and poise. At the beginning, you may be tongue-tied, scared and inarticulate. That’s OK. Your goal is not eloquence. It is openness and honesty. As with any other skill, you will get better with practice. Keep in mind that failure is the best teacher.

It is also worth noting that there are times you should walk away from a difficult conversation. There isn’t enough time to confront your partner, boss, staff or clients every time they annoy you.

But if walking away ends up being your response most of the time, you’re on the wrong track. Yosur feelings will fesstrongr. And in the long run, if you don’t raise important issues and have those difficult conversations, you will damage the relationship you were hoping to protect.

 

TOUGH TALK TIPS

Here are some more tips and a few conversation starters to help you:

Don’t aim for perfection. Difficult conversations are tough for a reason. Aim for gradual improvement each time.

You don’t win a difficult conversation. Your goal is not to get the other person to capitu- late and admit that you were right all along. It’s to express your feelings, allow the other person to express theirs and hopefully reach an understanding you both can live with.

Need to deliver bad news or fire someone? There are no magic words that will somehow make it less upsetting. The best you can do is be honest, to the point, and sympathetic. You can’t take responsibility for the other person’s feelings. If your accountant is inept and messed up your books, you need to let him go. His feelings are immaterial to the outcome. It is only the facts relating to his poor performance that matter. The success of a conversation should not be judged by whether someone gets upset or not. (And don’t try to trick the person into accepting blame first.)

Don’t waste time and energy defending the weak parts of your argument. In any tough conversation, no one is 100 percent right or wrong. Each side has weaknesses, and it is wise to acknowledge the problems. Take responsibility for your share and focus on a solution.

Controlling your emotions is crucial to avoiding a destructive argument. You need to look forward — not try to defend a position or win an argument. If a conversation is getting heated, use silence to slow it down, says Scott.

Stay with the issue; straying will always sabotage your mission. You’ve had a great year and you would like to discuss bonus levels with your sales manager. But he notes how two years ago, he didn’t get a bonus when (he believes) one was promised and doesn’t feel he can trust you in this discussion. Suddenly you find yourself debating your role in the conversation. In such situations, refocus on the future.

Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements when discussing your thoughts and feelings. “I” clarifies for the other person what you think and feel while “you” can make them feel criticized. “I” reduces defensiveness and fosters communication. Good “I” statement: “I feel uncomfortable when you interrupt me during meetings. I feel it shows a lack of respect.” Bad “you” statement: “You always interrupt me during meetings. You have no respect for me!”

Say “and,” not “but.” The word “but” has the power to erase everything good said before it. For example, “Joe, I really liked the way you closed that sale, but next time don’t spend so much time talking about how bad insurance reimbursements are.” Far better to say, “Joe, I really liked the way you closed that sale and I think it would be better if you didn’t mention our issues with the patient’s insurance provider.” This is something improvisational actors are taught. The basic premise is not to reject what is proposed and focus instead on elaboration, to create new ideas and move forward.

Similarly, avoid negatives and absolutes as they shut down communication. Example: Negative: “Why can’t you …” Positive: “What if we …” Absolute: “We must do it this way.” Non-absolute: “Here’s a good idea to consider…”

Avoid judgmental words like “bad,” “ugly,” “wrong,” and any that imply fault like “unprofessional” and “inappropriate,” Ursiny recommends.

The same goes for you. Many misunderstandings arise from faulty assumptions. So when in doubt, say what you mean. Hinting isn’t good enough. Don’t rely on subtext.

Remember that acknowledging the other person’s feelings is not the same thing as agreeing with them. Saying “I can understand this is really important to you” indicates an effort to support the other person, but doesn’t mean you’re going to go along with the decision.

In cases where you find yourself poles apart, use the “100+1 approach.” Find the one percent of the other person’s position you can agree on and endorse it 100 percent. That suggests that you are committed to finding middle ground.

Research shows that we spend a lot less time talking to people close to us than we imagine. These same studies also show that many of our more challenging dialogues could be avoided by staying in more regular contact.

Blaming the other person for not understanding you — or for you not understanding them — is pointless. Be willing to recognize when you don’t understand or need to know more. If you don’t have a clear understanding of what the other person is saying, keep trying until you do. It could be that their thoughts are unclear. Encourage them to be specific.

What if it’s someone you’re going to have to work with again — for instance, a high-performing sales associate who is suddenly suffering a five-alarm case of body odor? Same deal. Take him aside and let him know his new antiperspirant isn’t quite up to the task. Of course, he’ll be embarrassed but eventually he will thank you. Knowing that you can’t control the reaction of the other person in a conversation can be liberating, say Stone, Patton and Heen.

The best decisions are the ones that people reach themselves. So be lean on the advice, but generous with help and support.

Don’t just listen to the words, listen to the “music” as well, including body language and voice quality. Also, look for clues in what is not being said. Ask yourself and the other person, “What is it they really want, really mean?”

Being genuine is at the heart of all worthwhile communication. Don’t be afraid to share your feelings. Author Scott recalls a conversation with a friend who said: “I notice I’m becoming defensive, and I think it’s because your voice got louder and sounded angry. I just want to talk about this. I’m not trying to persuade you in either direction.” The acknowledgment helped the two to re-center, she says.

Not sure how to open the conversation? Consider some of these lines:

  • “I need your help with something. Can we talk about it?”
  • “I think we have different views about [insert topic]. I’d like to hear your thinking on this.” “I have something I’d like to discuss with you that I think will help us work together more effectively.”
  • “I’d like to talk about the recent changes to our compensation structure with you, but first I’d like to get your point of view.”
  • “I’d like to see if we might reach a better understanding about our store’s dress code. I really want to hear your feelings about this and share my perspective as well.”

Final tip. Realize difficult conversations are part of life. They aren’t going away, but they can become easier, less anxiety-causing and more constructive if you work on it.

Chris Burslem is the group managing editor of SmartWork Media.

Advertisement

FEATURED VIDEO

hhhvideo
PETS+ Live with Candace D'Agnolo

This North Carolina Pet Business Thrives by Creating Unforgettable Customer Experiences

Catch the replay of this PETS+ Live! webinar hosted by Candace D’Agnolo of Pet Boss Nation. This episode featured Wendy Megyese of Muttigans in Emerald Isle, NC. Learn about ways to combat the big boxes and online — the key is to give your customers an experience they can’t get anywhere else — and learn why the business was honored in the 2018 PETS+ America’s Coolest Stores contest.

Promoted Headlines

Cover Stories

Big-Box Busters

mm

Published

on

PetSmart. Petco. Target. Sam’s Club. Walmart. Costco. Heck, let’s even throw Bed Bath & Beyond, Marshalls, HomeGoods, TJ Maxx and grocery store chains into the mix of big-box stores that compete for pet parents’ dollars.

But as you prove on a daily basis, bigger does not always mean better. As small-business owners, you offer more personalized customer service, including a deeper knowledge of the pet products and services you sell. You are invested in your communities. And you quickly adapt in an ever-changing industry.

All of this allows you to stay competitive.

But if you are having trouble in this area, or you want to find different ways to beat big-box stores, we invite you to find inspiration from your fellow indies.

EMBRACE BEING SMALL

1 Bark on Mulford in Rockford, IL, measures just under 1,000 square feet, and that suits Kaye Busse-Kleber just fine. The size of the store keeps customers where she can see them — and they can see her.

With that in mind, Busse-Kleber shares the story a pet parent told her about shopping at a big-box store.

“She was at [a big-box pet retailer] looking for a collar, had to track down an employee to ask the price. He had no idea and asked what section it came from. She had to show him, and then he told her the price, but said it looked used. She put it back and came to see us.”

Customers never have to search for Busse-Kleber or a member of her team. Nor do they feel like they are not valued.

“We have a smaller selection of collars, but she came in telling me about the lack of customer service and that her experience with them ‘not caring if they sold something’ would keep her from going back.”

Limiting staff to just herself and two part-timers allows for a personal connection also not found at big-box stores.

“I can guarantee, that employee didn’t ask about her dogs. The customer has only been in my store twice, and I already know she has two dogs: a Rat Terrier named Theodore and a Jack Russell Terrier named Angel.”

Another way Busse-Kleber touts the benefits of shopping small are by bragging about unique items on social media with the hashtag #YouCantFindThisAtTarget.

Toni Shelaske of Healthy Pet Products in Pittsburgh, PA, also uses her store’s small size as a selling point.

“We convey it in as much of our advertising and social media as possible. Small Business Saturday is our second-highest volume day of the year. We ask our vendors for support and offer a basket raffle, and we debut new holiday items and discounts on most of our products. Food and beverages for humans — our customers really enjoy the day!”

Support other small businesses

2Woof Woof Pet Boutique & Biscuit Bar in New Bedford, MA, and Bristol, RI, gives shelf space to several local small businesses. Among them, Dylan Giampaolo says, are “Quincy & Co. We have a seamstress that handmakes all of our bandanas and bowties for different seasons and sports teams. She also makes leashes and collars. Matisse Jeans is a cat toy handmade from recycled jeans that have a custom catnip blend from Cape Cod, and 100 percent of the proceeds ben- efit Bristol Animal Shelter.
“We truly are a small business trying to carve out a place for ourselves, and we believe in supporting other small businesses!”

Tout locally owned & operated

3 Toni Shelaske of Healthy Pet Products in Pittsburgh, PA, spends as much time as she possibly can on the sales floor working with customers.
“I want people to know that I am the owner and that I greatly appreciate their business,” she says. “So the funny thing that has happened because of that is that customers come in asking for me and say ‘I know Toni.’ When it was time for me to have my own personal Instagram page, my employees decided @IKnowToni had to be my handle.”

EARn IN (EXCLAMATION) POINTS WITH IN-depth knOWLEDGE

4Shane Somerville of Paddywack in Mill Creek, WA, was more than prepared when a customer emailed her about canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).“I sent her a fairly long response with some info, attached the document I wrote for our customers (including an FAQ and links to resources from vets) and talked about the different options she could check out. She wrote back very quickly and said, ‘Shane, This is why we love you!!!!! Thank you so much!!!!’”

SURPRISE WITH PERSONAL SHOPPING

5 Annabell Bivens orders for The Dog Store in Alexandria, VA, with specific customers in mind.

“We have an all-black Basset Labrador (Bassador), and he rocks his clothes, but his parents wanted something super visible since they spend a lot of time in the mountains at their cabin. So, in addition to the regular colors of the new line of RC Pets Polaris sweater, we ordered him the red sweater in his size and showed them the photos of the reflective stitching. They were so excited! (His color is red). I mentioned it to them when I ordered it, and it came in about four months later. They even asked when they saw winter stuff coming out because they remembered our conversation.”

Such personal shopping does not happen when big boxes do their ordering.

TAKE PRICE-MATCHING TO THE NEXT LEVEL

6How does Fetch RI compete on price with the big-box stores? Johnna Devereaux does not advertise price-matching, but she does it when possible and sees the practice as an opportunity on multiple fronts. She shares what happens when a regular customer alerts her to lower prices elsewhere:

“First, it allows me to look at the specific item and provide a lower price to this customer, who is clearly showing loyalty by bringing this to our attention. Second, it allows me to reach out to my brand rep and discuss how I can buy better at a discount, which then allows me to reduce the price of those items for all of my customers. I do advertise that to my customers, letting them know that we pass on the savings to them from our purchase bargaining, and so they now have a lower price! Win-win!”

The Store at Paws ’N Effect in Hamden, CT, also price-matches, but Sandy House simply makes the adjustment.

“We price-compare about every six to eight weeks by both physically going into the stores and then checking online, if they sell that way as well. If I find a local brick-and-mortar store is selling something for less than us, I check what our wholesale price is, and then I make the adjustment before a customer asks.”

DIVERSIFY COMMUNITY SUPPORT

7 The national pet stores in Delavan, WI, donate to local animal-welfare organizations, but Karen Conell of The Bark Market in Delvan, WI, sees the importance of investing in her community as a whole.

“We support many local not-for-profits, such as a therapeutic riding program, school for the handicapped, vocational school for adults with disabilities, wildlife rehab center, child advocacy center, playground for children with disabilities, and multiple animal rescues and shelters. We are local, and our customers are involved and reach out to us often.”

While altruistic, these efforts create positive word of mouth, giving her an advantage against big-box competitors.

“We don’t do it for recognition, but it happens and we are grateful!”

PROVIDE FREEBIES

8 When converting customers to frozen raw — still an excellent way to compete with big-box stores — Conell of The Bark Market makes it hard to resist.

“We have manufacturers who encourage us to give away a free small bag to get them started,” she says. “Let’s just say folks are stunned by the free offerings and the gentle shove in a new direction.”

Freebies can also be fun activities to draw in customers. Sue Hepner hosts a variety of events at Cool Dog Gear in Roslyn, PA.

“We just had a Winter Fashion Show: Dogs on the Cat Walk. We used customers’ dogs as our models. These awesome dogs strutted their stuff in front of the crowds, highlighting all of our winter fashions while their people modeled our human line of gifts and clothing. We also offer free pet and family picture-taking opportunities with our fall and winter backdrops. And for the first time we will be having storytime for kids. Our first story will be all about teaching children about dog safety and, of course, we’ll have a special visit from our mascot Cool Dog — always a crowd favorite!”

And Southern Barker in Lexington and Louisville, KY, has begun hosting breed meetups in its stores.

“We do get a sales boost during our meetups,” says Leslie Stewart. “They are socializing, but also shopping because they are right in the middle of the store, so they can’t help but look around! We also offer 10 percent off during the meetup. Our first meetup was for Doodles, and we had over 30 dogs!”

Finally, be sure to take advantage of manufacturer loyalty programs not available to big-box stores.

HUMBLE BRAG ON SOCIAL MEDIA

9 Big-box stores don’t share customer pet pics on social media, at least not on a regular basis or from a local store’s page. Independents do, and Bubbly Paws stores in the Minneapolis, MN, area takes it a step further.

Keith Miller says, “We regram posts from many of our customers on Instagram. Social media is the best way to brag without looking like we are bragging. We just post happy customer pictures or quotes from reviews.”

OPT FOR THIRD-PARTY SAFETY TRAINING

10 Big-box stores have in-house training programs for their groomers. Third-party training and testing can provide a competitive advantage for independent salons. Knotty Dog in Chelsea, AL, staff go through PetTech First Aid and CPR training. BowMeow Regency in Sheffield, MA, is an American Kennel Club S.A.F.E. (Safety, Assurance, Fundamentals, Education) Certified Salon, and grooming staff are AKC S.A.F.E.-certified groomers. Both salons tout their status.

pARTNER WITH VETERINARIANS

11 With more and more big box locations offering veterinary services, it only makes sense to consider doing the same. Mike Murray has created multiple partnerships for Bonnie’s Barkery in Phoenix, AZ.

“We partner with a holistic vet to do a monthly anesthesia-free teeth-cleaning clinic, in conjunction with dental hygienists,” he says, sharing that the store gets a percentage of fees. “We also created an office in our last remodel that our vet partners utilize to see patients.”

And after the Food and Drug Administration released its report on canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and related foods, Murray invited a holistic vet to give a seminar on the topic.

“It went very well!” Murray says. “We had 30-plus customers attend. It was very interactive, with lots of questions asked and answered.

“Most who attended had a much better understanding of the potential risks of their dog getting DCM and learned ways to mitigate that potential risk.”

Some customers did ask about changing foods, Murray says, “but a lot of the discussion was around using toppers that can provide additional nutrients and taurine to the pet’s diet,” resulting in new regular sales of the products.

Mark Vitt has also created such partnerships for his six Mutts & Co. stores in Ohio.

“We have a mobile vaccination clinic, coordinated by a local vet office, at our stores every other Friday to provide low cost vaccination and wellness checks.”

TAKE A RISK ON UNIQUE, HIGH-END PRODUCTS

12 “You find unique products in our store,” says Connie Roller of The Feed Bag Pet Supply in Grafton, WI. “Department stores and big-box pet stores all have the same old, same old.”

Roller says her staff works hard at trade shows, looking for unique, fun or even quirky products.

“We are willing to gamble with slightly more high-end products because although our customers can squeeze a nickel to death, they won’t hesitate on a $195 ortho dog bed that matches their décor perfectly,” she says.

“We also have some handcrafted wood products like pet steps and diners, along with handcrafted cat trees that we drive a few hours to pick up. These are definitely on the higher-end of retail, but they actually look and feel more like furniture than what you can get at [big-box stores].”

The store carries most of these higher-end products year-round, but, Roller says, “we sell more during the holidays because people can justify splurging when they can call it a gift.”

The Hermitage, TN, location of Nashville Pet Products is a former convenience store and doesn’t try to hide it.

DON’T DO COOKIE-CUTTER WHEN DESIGNING YOUR STORE(S)

13 Nashville Pet Products has six stores. While signage provides brand consistency, each location has a different look and layout — partly because of commercial space availability, but also by design. Perhaps the most unusual is the Hermitage, TN, location, which is a former convenience store.

“We keep each store unique to avoid a cookie-cutter, big-box feel,” Keefer Dickerson says.

This advice also applies to stores with one location: Don’t try to look like a mini-big box.

Danielle Wilson of Bath & Biscuits in Granville, OH, explains.

“I had a vision in my head of how I wanted my store and salon to look. I didn’t want to look cookie-cutter. I wanted to decorate with vintage items and displays, to have real hardwood floors and inviting rooms to explore. I had been watching for my building to become available for a while and jumped on it as soon as I saw the ‘for rent’ sign.”

TREAT YOUR CUSTOMERS LIKE EXTENDED FAMILY

14 Customers at The Wagging Tail in Las Vegas, NV, get asked about their pets, but Kimberly Gatto also asks about the people.

“With our loyal repeat customers, we get to know them and their family. When their two-legged kids come in with them, we engage the kids (How was school? What did you learn? How’s the team going? etc.). If customers have brought up issues, we try our best to remember and ask how it is going (How’s your mom doing after her surgery? How’s the job hunt going? How was the Stones concert you saw last week?).

Gatto is not afraid to tell folks that she doesn’t think of them as customers, but as an extension of her family.

“We care about their entire family (human and animal). We mourn when they mourn. We feel joy when they feel joy. It’s all about community. Being a part of a community and being totally vested in it.”

Nancy Okun of Cats n Dogs in Port Charlotte, FL, shares that sentiment.

“One customer shared that she doesn’t have the best home situation, so when she comes into the store, we give her a big hug and let her know how great it is to see her. She talks. We listen. She leaves feeling better. It’s not about selling dog food.”

Nor is it all about selling with Charlsye Lewis of Metro Animals in Fort Worth, TX. Among the many practices at her store are “introducing them and their kids to our shop macaws, Baby and Blueberry; genuinely complimenting something about their dogs; and offering the Southern hospitality of greeting them when they come in, and as they leave.”

And Jack Carey of Food for Pets in Manchester, NH, has gone so far as to loan his car and money, in a sense, to customers.

“A few years ago, a customer locked her keys in her car. She had a second set at home, so I let her borrow my vehicle to go home and get the spare set. We’ve had a few cases of customers forgetting their credit card at work or home, and we tell them to take the product with them and call us with the credit card info. We appreciate our customers’ trust and want to return the favor.”

Continue Reading

Cover Stories

Best Day Ever: Readers Share Their Most Memorable Days in the Business

A few responses even had us reaching for the tissues.

mm

Published

on

Best day ever. It’s a phrase used often. But what if you had to pick just one? A day above all others in your pet business. Could you? We asked you to do exactly that in a recent Brain Squad survey. And you didn’t disappoint.

Your answers moved us, as they all revolved around helping the dogs, cats and other pets in your communities. A few responses even had us reaching for the tissues.

Like this one from Charlotte Petrey of You Lucky Dog in Houston, TX: “The day we flooded and saved all the dogs.”

Digging deeper, we learned that during the unexpected Memorial Day Flood of 2015, water rose to 2-1/2 feet inside this family-owned boarding facility. Overnight staff moved all 23 guests to safety in higher areas of the building, continuing in the dark after power went out. Pet parents and the community were so grateful that they contributed more than $25,000 via gofundme to help Petrey rebuild.

Now that most certainly counts as a best day ever. Read on for more.


“In January 2018, my then 9-year-old daughter was sitting with me in a snowstorm here in Connecticut with our chocolate Lab, Harley, and we were discussing sports we would like to participate in with our Lab in the spring. She said she couldn’t throw a Frisbee and wanted to try agility. Then she asked if she could do swimming with Harley.

So we researched sports involving dogs and swimming, and found dock diving! We soon learned that there were no dock-diving pools for dogs in our state. And a pet resort and spaw we own is on 6 acres with plenty of room to add a pool. And what’s a resort without a pool? Right?

From my daughter’s desire to spend time with our loving Lab, an idea was born, and we spent the winter designing, planning and ordering 13,000 square feet of artificial turf, pool, dock, etc. while learning all about the sport.

In June 2018, we opened Connecticut’s only Ultimate Air Dogs dock diving pool, a 45-foot saltwater pool at one of my resorts. I have added a 40-foot dock to it and offer the pool as a Dock Diving facility — with swimming lessons, hydrotherapy, daily swims for guests, private pool rentals and pool pawties. We recently had our first-ever competition weekend. Fox 61 News came to cover it. People couldn’t believe how beautiful the facility and location are, and compliments flowed all day.

It was a dream come true to see my children participate as youth handlers in dock diving events that weekend. Watching my now 9- and 10-year-old daughters participate in a sport with their dog, on my property, while observing so many other competitors enjoying quality time with their families and dogs in such a fun sport, definitely qualified as a Best Day Ever.

Daycare and boarding guests enjoyed their stay, and veteran dock-diving competitors, who traveled to Connecticut from Delaware, Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island for the event, were blown away by the beautiful facility and pool, welcoming staff, cleanliness of the place, smooth registration process and professional atmosphere. It was over 100 degrees, and the event went on without a bump or complaint. It is always a lot of work putting on events. And we do have many. But this was our first dock diving event. To see it come to fruition July 2019, after a child’s idea was offered in January 2018, is a dream come true and best day ever for me! — Krista Lofquist Wagging Tails, Wolcott, CT

“One Christmas, a little girl came in with $100 to spend on our favorite dog charity. She couldn’t have a dog, so her mom told her she could do this. We loaded her up and gave her all kinds of things. The warmth in this little girl’s heart was so overwhelming. All of us were crying of happiness. That’s a good day!” — Debbie Brookham, Furry Friends Inc., Colorado Springs, CO

“Best day ever was when I looked out onto my doggy day-care floor and realized that all 50-plus pup clients were not any of my family or friend’s dogs. My ‘field of dreams’ really had become a profitable biz without any help from my loved ones. Cool stuff!” — Angela Pantalone, Wag Central, Stratford, CT

“I had a client who brought her two Gordon Setters and one Miniature Poodle in for grooming regularly. The dogs were so tuned into the process and pickup. One night, the parking lot was full and the owner parked her big SUV in another spot. I checked the dogs out and helped her take them to the truck. Both big dogs jumped on the top of the car hood that was parked in their usual spot. I laughed so hard, but the mom was clearly mortified. Nobody saw. Just made the end of the day fantastic for me. I’ll never forget that day or the dogs.” — Rachel Diller, The Poodle Shop, Littleton, CO

“The best day ever was when I came to the conclusion that I had too many customers. For the last year, I have had to stop taking on new customers due to a full schedule. Just a few months ago, I ordered my second van to convert (should be on the road by end of the year) and am working on expanding!” — Amanda Bowman, Fairy Tails Mobile Grooming, Cherry Hill, NJ

“When a family had to move away and told me I was the one who changed their kid’s life — an autistic kid who no matter what they tried, nothing helped. When they came to my store, everything came together when they picked out a bird, realized not all dogs were bad, (we had a store Mastiff at the time) and life seemed better. I had no idea until they thanked me and told me how it has changed “Nick.” — Paul Lewis, Birds Unlimited, Webster, NY

“When I hosted my first Backyard Luau for the dogs. Not only did each and every one of them wear leis, but they were all so calm and happy. I was such a proud ‘earth mother’ that day.” — Vanessa Cruz, Dawgs All Day, Brooklyn, NY

“We shut down our location to pamper over 40 shelter dogs, and the staff morale was so strong.” — Jessica Cooke, Yuppy Puppy, O’Fallon, MO

“We had a customer in tears. His daughter’s dog was failing and suffering from cancer. His daughter was still away at school, and this was the love of her life. He asked if we could recommend something that would help. After much discussion of the circumstances, we recommended Pet Releaf and Allprovide Gently Cooked. He followed our advice and came in with his daughter the following Saturday, and with “Root Beer” the Jack Russell Terrier. He was jumping around and full of life, and his daughter thanked us with a big hug. Root Beer lived for almost 9 more months and was comfortable and pain free. We were so thrilled to be able to offer this as an option.” — Christine McCoy, The Natural Pet Enrichment Center, North Royalton, OH

“Our best day ever was during one of our breed meetups. During Doodle Day, there were approximately 50 dogs and their owners in the store. Thankfully, it was a beautiful day and many of them hung out outside on the porch or in the parking lot. It was not only our best sales day, the general vibe in the store was happy, as people got to meet other owners. I saw many of them exchanging contact information. Connecting people through their pets always brings me joy.” — Wendy Megyese, Muttigans, Emerald Isle, NC

“There are many ‘best day evers’ in the independent pet food retailer industry. I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by the things that I love and motivate me for 34 years, not to mention the customers who share the same passions and interests. There are now second-generation customers who have parents who have shopped in the store for many years. I always remind myself to focus on those things when the occasional stressful situation arises.” — Jack Carey, Food For Pets, Manchester, NH

“Every Black Friday! We love the excitement of the shoppers. It’s truly the official kick-off to the holiday season.” Tammy Vasquez, Bark Life, Seminole, FL

“We are fortunate to be in Salem, MA, which gets very good tourist traffic most of the year, especially in October. It is so rewarding to hear from customers who visit the city yearly and make it a point to visit us, to both say hello and purchase our hand-made treats and cookies. With all the things to do and see, to know they make our shop a destination makes us feel very proud. Kimberly Barnes, New England Dog Biscuit, Salem, MA

“Probably receiving a pile of magazines with Mumsie and me on the front cover winning first place in PETS+ America’s Coolest Pet Store 2018!” Leel Michelle, Bow Wow Beauty Shoppe, San Diego, CA

“We just had our best sales day ever this July. It topped the previous best day ever by more than 12 percent! We discount our whole store by the same percentage as number of years old we are. This year it was 14 percent off since our store is 14 years old. We have VIP swag bags — customers can pre-order to guarantee their bag — and a prize wheel for when they spend certain amounts, and we host multiple nonprofits/rescues as well as demo reps with freebies. It’s a big festive atmosphere, and our customers love it! Next year we’ll have to come up with something else to make it even more special to celebrate 15 years! — Shane Somerville, Paddywack, Mill Creek, WA

“One of my best days ever was when after months of step-by-step encouragement (and courage building), one of the dogs in our workout program finally went across the balance beam on his own! The pet parents and the dog were both elated! I know that dog was happy because he kept circling around and doing it over and over again with ‘Look Mom, No Hands’ excitement! Everybody in the store came over to watch him run through the course like a kid in a candy store!” — Sue Hepner, Cool Dog Gear, Roslyn, PA

“I have adoptions most Saturdays, and the best day is when the shelter leaves empty-handed.” — Ron Keller, Captivating Canines, Westerville, OH

“The day our Boston store really lifted off/went into the black. We opened during the recession in 2010, and it took way longer to get up on its legs than I expected.” — Kathy Palmer, The Fish & Bone, Boston, MA

“Having multiple customers come in and be so happy they were crying, based on proper nutritional guidance from my team. We had five customers in one day!” — Jennifer Flanagan, Nature’s Pet Market Sherwood, Sherwood, OR

“When my little Chihuahua, Cocomo Joe, went into the Burke & Herbert Bank, located in Old Town, Alexandria, VA, and helped me convince them that a dog bakery and boutique was just what Old Town needed. Cocomo Joe gave a few little looks with his Burberry shirt, and they were sold. Cocomo Joe was asked to sign the loan with me, and he eagerly did for a treat.” — Kristina Robertson, Barkley Square Pets, Falls Church, VA

COCOMO JOE

“The first day my pet facility opened for business and earned the first $5 bill in cash. I still have it taped in my check-in desk. — Tammi Bui, Wishbone Pet Care, Missouri City, TX

“Any day that I get a customer coming back to tell me that their dog or cat has changed drastically for the better simply because we suggested a different food, or suggested trying CBD for whatever ails them, is a fabulous day! Knowing that our experience and knowledge was able to help another pet parent find their way and change their fur baby’s life for an astounding better is always our best day! For us, it’s about community that drives us to do what we do, and of course, for the love of all fur kids out there in the world.” — Kimberly Gatto, The Wagging Tail, Las Vegas, NV

“Any day that I have helped an animal and its person live their best life.” — Honor Blume, BowMeow Regency, Sheffield, MA

“Grand opening day is what stands out to me. The adrenaline, the positive vibes, meeting the community, seeing the team and how excited they were. And how even under extreme stress, we all made it through with smiles. (Nothing would scan, our POS didn’t sync with inventory and was a disaster!) — Jennifer Larsen, Firehouse Pet Shop, Wenatchee, WA

“Our best day ever in business was just before the Fourth of July this year, when people were out and about taking their dog to the dog park, then coming over to our shop next door to give a self-serve bath and buy treats. We were staffed up for it, and everyone was moving and grooving, keeping customers engaged and served all day long. We provided pizza for the staff as a thank you for their hard work that day. We made a few hundred more dollars than we normally make, but more importantly, made new and existing customers happy to do business with us.” — Charlsye Lewis, Metro Animals, Fort Worth, TX

“We’ve done a couple on-site fundraiser meet-and-greets with local rescues. The Greyhound rescue is my favorite group. They come in numbers and they shop, tell stories, encourage meeting the dogs and are generally great people to be around, and the rescued Greyhounds are amazing.” — Brett Foreman, Eupawria Holistic Pet Center, Owego, NY

“The day that we opened up our second location! Greatest thing ever knowing that you are doing well enough and helping enough people out and they are recommending people to you, that you then have the capability of opening up another location to make you reach even farther and help out even more people.” — Dylan Giampaolo, Woof Woof Pet Boutique & Biscuit Bar, New Bedford, MA

“Pretty much any day that I get to spend outdoors at a community event. I do a lot of event marketing, and I love setting up the booth early in the morning, talking to new, potential customers and playing with their dogs.” — Keefer Dickerson, Nashville Pet Products, Nashville, TN

“The Saturday before Christmas. Everyone is in shopping mode, but in a pleasant, not ‘mall-crushing-crowd’ way. And it’s great to know that their pets are being treated just like family. You can almost imagine the puppy stockings hanging on the mantle and wrapped gifts under the trees. It doesn’t hurt that it’s one of the busiest revenue days of the year, either.” — Mark Vitt, Mutts & Co., Delaware, OH

“Every day is great, but nothing beats the day we opened and realized our dreams had come to fruition. Ten years going strong now with loyal staff and awesome customers.” — Rosi Ladouceur, Barrkhaven Pet Boutique And Spaw, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

“The best days I have are when clients rave about our services or when we get any sort of recognition. For instance, winning the Best of the Best in pet care award for our county, which is a voting-based award.” — Ashley Cook,Viva La Pet, Dover, NJ

“We are fortunate to be in Salem, MA, which gets very good tourist traffic most of the year, especially in October. It is so rewarding to hear from customers who visit the city yearly and make it a point to visit us, to both say hello and purchase our hand-made treats and cookies. With all the things to do and see, to know they make our shop a destination makes us feel very proud. — Kimberly Barnes, New England Dog Biscuit, Salem, MA

“Probably receiving a pile of magazines with Mumsie and me on the front cover winning first place in PETS+ America’s Coolest Pet Store 2018!” — Leel Michelle, Bow Wow Beauty Shoppe, San Diego, CA

“When a client told me that a friend she had referred to me told her that they found someplace that was way cheaper. My client told her that [her dog] Daisy likes likes Corey. I’m not changing.” — Corey Heenan, Corey’s Canine Creations, Altamont, NY

“I feel every day is our best day in business, and every day stands on its own for different reasons!” — Johnna Devereaux, Fetch Ri, Richmond RI

“Every anniversary. Feels awesome to make it another year.” — Lisa Vella, South Bark Dog Wash, San Diego, CA

“My best day ever is when I ring a lot of sales, which is usually around the Christmas holiday season and everyone is generally happy!” — Laura Haupt, Bark & Meow Inc, Tarrytown, NY

“I could say the day Judi walked into the store and told me I needed her. But, the all-time best day ever was when Judi adopted Buddy and brought him to the store with his e-collar on to meet my dog Taylor. The two dogs became besties right away. Why not? Judi and I are! — Nancy Okun, Cats N Dogs, Port Charlotte, FL

“I’d have to say the best for me was the day my husband was able to quit his job and join me full-time.” — Nancy Guinn, Dog Krazy, Fredericksburg, VA

“One day that stands out above others are our customer appreciation days. They are a lot of work, but we serve lunch — deep-fried cheese curds, ice cream — and offer store discounts, a discount dartboard customers can throw at to get a larger discount, free items and more! It is fun watching customers enjoy themselves, and all flock to the store. — Lisa Keppers, Sauk Centre Country Store, Sauk Centre, MN

“Most of the best days ever are when customers come in and treat us like family, and tell us happy and sad things that are happening in their lives. Because they consider us family, they want us to know. — Paula Gorman, Pet Supplies ‘N’ More, Muskego, WI

“Whenever we get to welcome families who rescue dogs is our best day ever.” — Asha Olivia, Hoby Dogy Pet Care, Boca Raton, FL

“The day I won second place in America’s Coolest Pet Stores” contest in 2017.” — Patricia Boden, Animal Connection, Charlottesville, VA

Continue Reading

Cover Stories

The 27 Contrarian Rules of Business

mm

Published

on

T o make a point about how our brains operate, the American neuroscientist Gregory Berns likes to encourage people to close their eyes and imagine the sun setting on a beach. If you just tried that, odds are the image that arose was the clichéd one — a warm tropical island scene, most likely framed by the frond of a coconut tree, awash in orange, as opposed to, say, a dark, wind-whipped pebble beach off the coast of northern Scotland.

The brain “is fundamentally a lazy piece of meat,” Berns writes in his book, Iconoclast. It needs energy to operate and has evolved to use it as efficiently as possible. As a result, it defaults to shortcuts as it can — past experience, other people’s opinions, common practice — to avoid the taxing effort of perceiving or imagining afresh.

There are, of course, people who make it a habit to buck convention, who have a knack of seeing something no one else does. Berns refers to these disruptive original thinkers as iconoclasts. We like to think of them as contrarians. These are the brave, sometimes downright odd souls whose questioning of the conventions of society or their professional field have repeatedly caused history to change course or leap forward.

In business, entrepreneurs are often contrarian by definition — they see value and opportunity where others do not. The contrarian investor Bill Gurley notes that “you can only make money by being right about something that most people think is wrong.”

The idea of being an independent spirit appeals to many. In a recent Brain Squad survey, 96 percent of our readers identified themselves as contrarians compared to 4 percent who said they were conformists. Of course, by definition, it’s not possible for the majority to be contrarian. We suspect the result reflects most pet pros considering themselves as independent operators, charting their own destinies in a world where most of their fellow citizens opt for the security of more conventional employment.

It is not easy being a true contrarian. There is the risk of ridicule, having to live with constant uncertainty. Being contrarian for the sake of contrarianism is pointless. There’s no inherent benefit in being unconventional.

There is, unromantically, much to be said for doing the things the timeworn “best practice” way.

We thus begin our exploration of contrarianism with a caveat — doing something differently is exciting, possibly liberating, sometimes more lucrative than the conventional way … and often dangerous.
Go charging away from the herd with care. Ultimately, you want to choose the ideas — new or old, intuitive or rational, bizarre or conventional — that serve you (and your business) best.

The customer is not always right.

1 It’s actually irrelevant if a customer is right or wrong. This is, after all, a commercial transaction, not a debate. Just because a customer wants, needs or expects something does not mean that delivering it is the best thing for your business. Indeed, “keeping certain customers happy can be a horribly inefficient and downright distracting way to run a business,” note Brent Adamson, Matthew Dixo and Nicholas Toman in the Harvard Business Review. It’s also not much fun.

As a business owner, you need to make decisions that best apply your company’s capital, intellectual energy and product capabilities. Rather than customer satisfaction, the ultimate goal should be running a sustainable business. Have a written, legally defensible terms of service statement, warranties, guarantees and a simple process to determine which clients or customers deliver the strongest ROI and which are actually costing you money. In some cases, it’s better for long-term growth (not to mention morale) to jettison a high-maintenance client and focus on improving the quality of your customer base.

Ignore terrific opportunities.

2 One of the dangers of business success is that it leads to more opportunities. Pursue them at your peril. In business, there is always a trade-off. Doing one thing well invariably means you can’t do another at a high level as you spread yourself too thin. The result is a damaging mediocrity.

In his book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown cites studies that show the loss of focus is a key reason companies fail. The antidote? Spurning good opportunities. “Not just haphazardly saying no, but purposefully, deliberately and strategically eliminating the nonessentials. Not just getting rid of the obvious time wasters, but being willing to cut out really terrific opportunities as well,” he says. “Few appear to have the courage to live this principle, which may be why it differentiates successful people and organizations from the very successful ones.”

Don’t give your staff the resources they need to fix a problem.

3 Constraints breed resourcefulness. This is an idea that has been gaining influence for the last few years. “Is there something in the nature of constraints that brings out the best creativity?” writes Scott Berkun, the author of Mindfire: Big Ideas for Curious Minds. Consider a good haiku or sonnet, and the answer is obviously yes: It’s precisely the limits of the form that inspire new ways of working inside them. That means no more “blue sky” brainstorming: If you want the best answers to a question, focus it narrowly; consider a time limit, too. Google sometimes puts fewer engineers on a problem than it needs; it inspires ingenuity. Behind all this is the counterintuitive insight that discipline and structure are often the path to freedom, not its enemy. See constraints as a game. Not only are games about fun, but they are distinguished by the rules that govern them.

Forget trying to fix your weaknesses.

4 In a series of bestselling books, consultant Marcus Buckingham has made a persuasive case for a strengths-based approach to life and business: It’s both more effective and more enjoyable, he argues, than struggling to fix your weak spots. According to Buckingham, most people try to “plug” their weaknesses, while the really successful focus on exploiting strengths. The weakness-plugger is the employee who goes on courses to become less awful at public speaking, when she’d be better off in a job that calls on her written skills. You’ll rarely improve a weakness beyond mediocrity, argues Buckingham. If you truly know what you’re bad at, you’re already ahead of the pack. Don’t throw that away by wasting your time getting slightly less bad.

Think small.

5 In his 1994 book Built to Last, Jim Collins introduced the world to Big Hairy Audacious Goals, or BHAGs, his term for the ambitious long-term goals that he argued galvanized successful companies. And it seems the term is rolled out in every discussion of good business practice. But the problem is that the excitement, energy and envelope-pushing boldness stirred up by such endeavors often dissipates quickly in the face of the day-to-day running of business. Worse, such big-picture thinking, telling yourself something is epic and of crucial importance, often leads to fear, resistance and ultimately inertia and disappointment. As the psychologist John Eliot writes in his book Overachievement, “Nothing discourages the concentration necessary to perform well … more than worrying about the outcome.”
The marathon runner who’s reached a state of “flow” isn’t visualizing the finish line, but looking through a narrower lens, focusing on one stride, then another, then another. Like the formula for contentment (happiness = reality – expectations), it’s often better to forget the end goal, aim low and just focus on the process if you really want to get things done.

This can apply to everything from setting low targets for salespeople (spurred on by achieving the goal, they will often break through and hit a higher number) to big projects. Jerry Seinfeld’s writing technique involved marking an X on a calendar for every day he sat and typed. His goal was an unbroken chain of Xs. If he’d aimed instead to write masterful jokes, he’d have been distracted and intimidated. Forget audacious. Just go do it.

Get rid of the rules.

6 Too often, managers assume the key to improvement must be clearer procedures, more exactingly enforced. But the result is organizational structures that permit zero autonomy — and extremely annoying customer service (“Sorry, sir, our policy doesn’t allow you to …”). Perhaps even worse is that such management fails to capitalize on the talents of those lower down the hierarchy. Zappos founder Tony Hsieh made headlines a few years back when he said he was rolling out “Management by Holacracy,” which relies on the employees themselves to decide how to get their day-to-day responsibilities completed on the basis that they probably know best. That may be too much for most business owners, but striking the right balance between autonomy and control is very likely the essence of being a good manager.

Don’t believe in long work.

7 Few things are as American as the belief in the merit of hard work. The problem is too many small business people confuse work and progress. A day when lots of things get done, when you arrive home exhausted after holding six meetings with staff and vendors, clearing 300 emails from your inbox and finally straightening those old files in the backroom, sort of feels like a productive day, but it’s unlikely to have helped your business take the next step forward. Marketer Seth Godin calls this “the trap of long work.”

Long work is what the lawyer who bills 14 hours a day filling in forms does. Hard work is what the insightful litigator does when she synthesizes four disparate ideas and comes up with an argument that wins the case — in less than five minutes.

“Hard work is frightening because you might fail. You can’t fail at long work, you merely show up.”
The management guru Peter Drucker suggested the best way to address this issue is by constantly asking yourself the question, “What’s the most important thing for me to be doing right now?”

Give away your time.

8 Overwhelmed by work? Feel you are in a constant race against the clock to get things done? Try making some time for others. “While it might seem counterintuitive to sacrifice some of the very thing you think you don’t have enough of, our research shows that giving a bit of time away may, in fact, make people feel less pressed for time and better able to tick things off their to-do,” Cassie Mogilner Holmes, an associate professor at UCLA , and Michael Norton, a professor at Harvard, told the Wall Street Journal. Another hack to deal with time scarcity: Erase a day from your schedule. Busy? Don’t schedule anything for Fridays. The work you didn’t get done will flow over … and you’ll finally knock off those to-do list items.

Hire more introverts.

9 On the surface, introverts don’t seem to have the makings of great salespeople or even managers. Social interaction tires them, they have trouble with insincere flattery, they don’t like to push people, and they don’t tend to contribute vocally to meetings or brainstorming sessions.

But there aare upsides to all this: Introverts tend to demonstrate a higher degree of sensitivity in emotional interactions, they are more likely to be experts in their field, they are less likely to be yes-men or women, and as for managing people, they do better than extroverts when the staff itself is full of go-getters.

“Although extroverted leadership enhances group performance when employees are passive, this effect reverses when employees are proactive because extroverted leaders are less receptive to proactivity,” says Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

Be last to market.

10 Among business gurus, few things are as unquestioned as the notion that innovation is the path to success. “Innovate or die!” goes one mantra.

Yet if innovation was a surefire way for companies to achieve dominance, the world might look very different. White Castle, RC Cola, and Diners Club were all innovators, but think of fast food, soft drinks and credit cards, and those are unlikely to be the first names that come to mind.

The upsides of unoriginality are clear: Imitators let others make the costly mistakes, and if they’re clever enough, can incorporate the lessons learned into a far better product.
In his book Copycats, the management theorist Oded Shenkar argues we need “to change the mindset that imitation is an embarrassing nuisance.” Rather, it’s a “rare and complex” capability, one we could all do with cultivating, he says.

Run annoying ads … often.

11 There’s a reason that grating TV ads work: The more they grate, the more you’ll notice them, and noticing — thanks to what psychologists call the “mere exposure effect” — leads to liking.
Depressingly, whatever we’re repeatedly exposed to, and regardless of any other reason to like or dislike it, we’ll end up growing fond of.

According to Roy H. Williams, author of The Wizard of Ads, there’s actually no way for successful advertising to avoid being irritating to some degree. “Ads that twist our attention away from what we’d been doing are always a bit annoying,” he says. But if you fail to get your audience’s attention, your ad has failed at the first hurdle. “Consequently, most ads aren’t written to persuade; they’re written not to offend. But the kinds of ads that produce results make us answer yes to these three questions: Did it get my attention? Was it relevant? Did I believe it?”

Williams claims 98.9 percent of all the customers who hate your ads will still come to your store and buy from you when they need what you sell.

“These customers don’t cost you money; they just complain to the cashier as they’re handing over their cash.”

Stop holding meetings.

12 Jim Buckmaster, chief executive of Craigslist, has a simple policy: “No meetings, ever.”

There are several reasons why meetings don’t work. They move, in the words of the career coach Dale Dauten, “at the pace of the slowest mind in the room,” so that “all but one participant will be bored, all but one mind underused.”

A key purpose of meetings is information transfer, but they’re based on the assumption that people absorb information best by hearing it, rather than reading it or discussing it over email, whereas in fact, only a minority of us are “auditory learners.” The key question for distinguishing a worthwhile meeting from a worthless one seems to be this: Is it a “status-report” meeting, designed for employees to tell each other things? If so, it’s probably better handled on email or paper.

That leaves a minority of “good” meetings, whose value lies in the meeting of minds itself — for example, a well-run brainstorming session.

Drop some F-bombs.

13 Swearing, when done judiciously, according to various psychologists, boosts endorphins, promotes social bonding and makes people more persuasive. Periodically, let your staff — even customers — know you’re human.

Stop asking, “Where do you want to be in 5 years?”

14 Hiring employees who will challenge management is another staple of business advice, but everyone has probably worked with “yes, but” employees who basically oppose every new idea and approach. To find true contrarians, Peter Thiel in his book Zero to One, recommends asking the following question when interviewing employees: “Tell me something that’s true that nobody believes in.”

Don’t ask for the sale.

15 The traditional approach to selling says tout the benefits, close throughout, close with an assumption and then push for the add-on followed by another. You’re just efficiently taking the customer in a direction she wanted to go anyway.

In contrast, the “slow sales” movement, which has been gaining ground recently, argues that there are intelligent, deliberate customers who prefer an almost “do-it-yourself” zero-pressure environment. Granted, getting them to the cash register may take longer.

But according to Inc. magazine, this technique alleviates the extra costs of post-purchase dissonance from returns, customer service time, negative feedback and customer churn.

Look for mentors and staff who do it the “wrong way.”

16 Tim Ferriss has an interesting approach to considering contrarians: Be on the lookout for the anomalies, like the wispy girl who can deadlift 405 pounds. They’re performing with techniques rather than genes. “These iconoclasts show the differences in techniques and attributes,” he says. “If someone has become really good at doing something in a very nonstandard way, you can infer that the standard path isn’t necessarily the best methodology for learning a skill.”

Don’t promise excellent customer service.

17 Ask independent pet stores what is their point of competitive advantage, and they’ll overwhelmingly say excellent customer service. But something big corporations know (but never publicly say) is that delivering excellent customer service ultimately results in unhappy customers. Thus the field of “expectations management.”

“If you want satisfied customers, it’s certainly wise to act in ways that will satisfy them. But it’s also wise to pay attention to (and, if possible, influence) their criteria for feeling satisfied,” writes Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian. Training customers, employees and partners not to expect a “yes” in response to every request might be crucial for preserving sanity.

Ask customers for favors.

18 The “Ben Franklin effect” states that if you want to get someone to like you, you should ask him or her to do you a favor. The strategy, named for the founding father’s habit of borrowing books from opposing politicians to win them over, works because humans hate cognitive dissonance: We can’t stand a mismatch between our actions and thoughts. So if we find ourselves helping someone out, we’ll unconsciously adjust our feelings for them. The implications are striking. Don’t suck up to your customers — ask for favors or even just their opinions (“What’d you think of that new food topper?”).

Don’t be so professional.

19 We live in an era with more opportunity than ever to burnish the image we’re projecting, and more pressure than ever to do so. But in her book, Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, Melissa Dahl makes a persuasive case for celebrating those times when “someone’s presentation of themselves … is shown to be incompatible with reality in a way that can’t be smoothed over.” Awkwardness pierces that facade, exposing the imperfect life behind it. Quoting the words of the philosopher Adam Kotsko, she says it creates “a weird kind of social bond” — a solidarity arising from seeing that behind the fakery, we’re all just trying our best to seem competent.

The awkward you, then, is the real you, the one without the defensive performance. And people will like you for it.

Be an underachiever.

20 A related idea: try to do less, and you might find you get more done. There are two reasons for this: 1) the planning fallacy, which describes a psychological weakness that nearly always results in humans underestimating how long something will take to do, and 2) our nature as rhythmic creatures; we need rest to perform at our best. Running around in what appears to be a hyper-productive whirl looks impressive, but it’s usually self-defeating. You tire yourself out, resulting in work that needs to be done over, or in little getting done the following day. Or you neglect so many other duties that you’re forced to take an extra admin day to catch up. Ironically, the more time you give yourself to do individual tasks, the more things on your to-do list you actually get accomplished, says Elizabeth Grace Saunders, a time coach and author of THE 3 SECRETS TO EFFECTIVE TIME INVESTMENT: ACHIEVE MORE SUCCESS WITH LESS STRESS. It was an approach Pablo Picasso, who got a bit done in his life, endorsed: “You must always work not just within, but below your means. If you can handle three elements, handle only two … In that way, the ones you do handle, you handle with more ease, more mastery, and you create a feeling of strength in reserve.”

Lighten up when it comes to business.

21 The Protestant work ethic, as every first-year humanities student knows, is what made western capitalism so “great”. When it comes to amassing wealth, what could be more perfect than hard work, self-denial, plus the threat of eternal damnation for the lazy? But the implicit logic of the Protestant work ethic — if it’s hurting, it must be working — all makes for a rather dour workplace. And there’s much evidence to support the idea it’s not even effective. There is much to say that levity supports a better workplace — it encourages people to take risks and come up with more imaginative ideas. Moreover, happy staff are more productive, healthier and less likely to leave.

Dump the detailed business plan.

22 Too much business advice starts with “take the 20,000 foot view,” with clearly established objectives and milestones. But there are four problems with this counsel:

  1. The future doesn’t play along. The first casualty in the heat of market battle is the plan.
  2. Compare it with the insight of Stephen Shapiro, whose book GOAL-FREE LIVING makes the case that you can have some kind of direction without obsessing about the specific destination. “Opportunity knocks often, but sometimes softly,” he says. “While blindly pursuing our goals, we often miss unexpected and wonderful possibilities.”
  3. It contrasts with what actually works. Overwhelmingly the approach of successful U.S. entrepreneurs, according to University of Virginia business scholar Saras Sarasvathy, is to give short shrift to long-range business plans and scorn market research. Instead, they go for quick wins — a few sales, then a few more. Ready, aim, fire!
  4. The biggest things — the partners we marry, the careers we end up pursuing — are often the result of happenstance. For guidance, consider the line attributed to the scholar Joseph Campbell: “We must be willing to let go of the life we had planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

To be sure, it is necessary to do some planning. Even a bad plan gives you a mechanism for a feedback loop, experimentation and revision. Just don’t spend hundreds of hours trying to account for eventualities that will more than likely never come to fruition.

Nice guys finish last … and first.

23 Dog-eat-dog world? While you might assume someone who spends their time helping others has a hard time climbing to the top of the ladder of professional success, people who prioritize others’ interests tend to be some of the most successful in the world, according to studies done by Wharton professor Adam Grant and which were used as the basis of his book GIVE AND TAKE. “Takers” (people who consistently place their own needs before others) and “matchers” (people who reciprocate good deeds but keep the balance even) occupy the middle of the ladder, and the bottom is populated, again, by “givers,” Grant found. “Rather than blindly giving time and energy to anyone, a successful giver will adjust their reciprocity style to avoid becoming a doormat. When confronted with a taker, they become matchers, maintaining their integrity. In a group, however, givers give more, and do so publicly, helping to establish a norm of giving within their community.”

Big decision? Toss a coin.

24 Bad decisions are generally the result of a lack of information, which is what makes many business choices so agonizing. As Princeton psychology professor Tania Lombrozo, a regular on National Public Radio, notes, if no single option clearly stands out — if they’re roughly equally appealing and you can’t reduce the uncertainty by doing further research — then your decision doesn’t much matter. You could just flip a coin. When a decision turns out to have been bad, remind yourself that you truly couldn’t have known. Your agonized decision-making process may have made it feel like you were weighing the pros and cons, a task you should have performed better, but really you were taking a stab in the dark.

Sometimes bad things just need to happen.

25 As THE 4-HOUR WORKWEEK author Tim Ferriss has written, it’s worth learning to “let small bad things happen,” so that big good things eventually come to pass. There are many situations in which you need to act fast if you want to avoid a negative outcome. But if that negative outcome doesn’t matter much, avoiding it might not be the best use of your time. This viewpoint reflects a line by the economist Thomas Sowell about business and life in general: “There are no solutions; there are only tradeoffs.” You’ll never solve all your problems. So which ones are worth putting up with, in order to solve the others? The new technology you want to buy might be really good, but it’s also very expensive. Or it’s really easy to use, but it doesn’t do everything you want it to do. Or the software does what we need it to do, but the way it does it is really convoluted. These are all trade-offs. The perfect solution doesn’t exist, but acknowledging that you are making trade- offs will help you make decisions and keep a project or plan moving.

Live the contrarian life.

26 Asked how to live a contrarian life, the investor and blogger Fred Wilson suggested the following list:

  • Use an Android phone.
  • Go where no one else does (he’s a venture capitalist in New York, not Silicon Valley).
  • Take the job nobody else wants.
  • Figure out how to get out of the echo chamber to think differently. (Meet and befriend artists, engineers, people who think different.)

The first three points all seem examples of “confirmation bias” and rather suspect business advice (but that’s contrarian thinking for you).

The last one is important, though. Our pattern-seeking brains send us off on old paths, which is why social media sites like Facebook or even Amazon Books that reinforce such behavior and tastes are so dangerous. To be a contrarian, it’s vital to expose yourself more often to serendipity, or even, specifically, to the people, things and ideas you don’t think you’ll like. The Zen version of this pursuit for a fresh understanding is “beginner’s mind.” As the priest Shunryu Suzuki puts it: “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few.”

Accept some losses.

27 The “sunk cost bias” — which says that once you’ve invested cash in something, it feels wasteful to stop doing so — is conventional business management. But it has applications beyond steeling yourself to get rid of underperforming inventory, staff or a location. Consider the customer whose repair is already three days late. It’s the holiday season, more orders are piling in … that customer is not going to say nice things about you anyway; might as well make sure new orders get out on time.

Continue Reading

Most Popular