While the young business grad was outwardly enthusiastic, I sensed an undercurrent of fear. With bright eyes and animated hands, she had spent 10 minutes describing her plans and goals. However, I could tell that–staring into the abyss of her adult life–she was a bit uneasy about her future.
She was right to be a little afraid. When carving a niche in the world of business and entrepreneurship, academic knowledge is rarely enough to guarantee success. To actually compete and win–particularly as an entrepreneur–you’ll need some additional skills.
I’d like to share three I picked up along the way.
We’ve all heard of the “fight or flight” response. There’s a third F-word (no, not that one) that often accompanies career fear: “freeze.”
When faced with an uncertain future, many people choose to do nothing. They worry and whittle away time on meaningless make-work. They’ll tell everyone about their great plans, but will spin and spit and do almost anything other than take positive steps to move their lives forward.
The simple truth is that every monumental endeavor can only be achieved in increments. In business, perseverance means leaning forward, walking one foot after the other into the chill entrepreneurial wind until you’ve reached your milestones and eventually achieved your goal.
Many people fail because they give up at the first sign of difficulty. On the other hand, almost every success story includes an element of endurance and determination. I’m no exception: I landed in Hawaii in the mid-1980s, down and out and in need of a job. A radio station news director rightly rebuffed me because I could hardly pronounce the names of the streets. Rather than complain or criticize, I bought a Hawaiian dictionary, promised myself I would learn five words a day, and worked like mad. Three years later, I was managing that radio station–and overseeing the guy who’d earlier turned me away.
Bonus tip: If you promise yourself to do at least one thing every day to further your plans, at the end of a year you will have made almost 400 positive steps to achieving your goals.
When someone says, “You don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” what they’re really saying is, “The wheel already exists–and it may be just fine as it is.” It’s good advice.
While there may be an opportunity for improvement in every corner of the business world, that’s not the same as saying that all corners need improving. Every industry has history. Study it. Understanding and respecting what has come before will help you identify core strengths, recognize new opportunities, and avoid a rehash of old failures.
The best single piece of management advice I ever got was over a cup of coffee with one of my company’s directors, billionaire developer and speedboat racer Tom Gentry. He told me, “Make the right hiring decisions in the first place, and a lot of other decisions never have to be made.” That gem has saved me a lot of grief over the years.
Bonus tip: Seek out the stories of the veterans, the founders, and the ground-breakers. Take them to coffee and take notes. You won’t be replaying their stories in your life’s plan, but you will benefit by understanding their experiences, missteps, and successes.
Of course, you’ve got to be ready when “opportunity knocks.” In tough economic times, however, you could be waiting a long time for that tap on the door. You’re much better off making your own opportunity with a little bit of personal innovation.
Innovation is a specialized form of creativity in which the creation is both new and useful. Sending a birthday cake to the CEO of the company you want to partner with might be creative, but it’s not likely to succeed. To be productively innovative in that situation, you must come up with a new idea or method that will also work to further your goal of getting the deal.
Here’s a case in point: Back in the early ’90s, my production company wanted a business-oriented radio network to syndicate our new technology feature. Believe it or not, back then some people still didn’t believe technology news was important to business. Rather than pitch the network CEO with a couple of generic pieces, we produced a special series highlighting technologies that could directly benefit his company. As we played them for him, his eyes lit up–and because he got the idea, we got the contract. (We later learned the network actually purchased one of the software packages we profiled in the demo.)
Bonus tip: Ask yourself, “What are this person’s needs, beyond the obvious business deal?” Then, figure out how you can fill those needs in a creative and innovative fashion.
Of course, there are hundreds of other helpful skills for entrepreneurs; no single one will be a magic carpet to success. These three, however, will help any would-be entrepreneur get started in the right direction.
Ron Burley is a nationally recognized consumer advocate and serial entrepreneur. He is the author of Unscrewed: The Consumer’s Guide to Getting What You Paid For and senior partner at Brushfire Consulting. @consumerrebel
5 Worst Things You Can Say to a Customer
Never let these phrases pass the lips of your customer service team.
Almost nothing leads to a customer service meltdown more quickly than the use of one particularly offensive phrase. You know it. Heck, we all know it. I don’t really even need to write it. However, just in case you’ve been hiding-out in a California commune or were raised in upper Albania, here it is:
‘That’s our policy.’
I’d wager that even as you read those words, you flashed-back to a past personal experience in which someone spoke them as if they were a magic wand that would miraculously make you go away. But, of course, you didn’t go away. You just became more frustrated, and more convinced that particular company had little interest in your eventual satisfaction.
In seminars, I call it “TOP,” and it is a phrase that is less than useless. It is destructive. TOP is the customer service equivalent to “That’s tough” or “You’re out of luck.” It’s primary purpose is to shut down a conversation. TOP only accelerates the transformation of current customers into a former customers, and was undoubtedly crafted by someone completely oblivious to the value of customer retention. Even worse, for some customers it’s a declaration of war. Every dispute-gone-viral tracked by my firm has involved some version of that terrible text.
Whenever someone tries TOP on me, I respond with a carefully crafted policy statement of my own, “Your internal policy decisions have nothing to do with my expectations of customer satisfaction.” And that’s the point, customers should not accept contract verbiage as an excuse for a less-than-promised product or service. “That’s our policy” might save a current sale, though all future business will likely be lost.
Now that I’ve lambasted TOP, here are a few more quips that should never leak from the lips of your customer service team:
‘There’s nothing I can do’
Your soon-to-be former customer replies, “Then why did I spend the last forty-five minutes on hold with you?” Plus, there’s always an option—returning the customer’s cash. Focus your team on problem solving rather than problem diverting. Give them the freedom to find creative alternatives. Reward them for innovative solutions and brushfires doused.
‘Would you mind holding for a moment?’
Of course they mind, and what if they say “No.” Better to be specific and direct. “I’m going to put you on hold while speak with my supervisor, and I’ll check back with you in a minute or so if I haven’t an answer by then.” Sure. It’s long-winded, but considerably more satisfying for your already frustrated customer.
‘You’ll have to go to our website.’
This is just another way of saying “I can’t help you.” Instead of making your customer hunt around with their browser after they’ve already waited on the phone, email them a link directly to the page or necessary file.
‘That’s the manufacturer’s responsibility.’
Or, as it’s sometimes put: “Our business partner will have to help you.” You’re telling your customers that while you’re happy to take their money at the time of sale, you’re not willing to back them in a crunch. The underlying principle is that your customer doesn’t have a financial relationship with your partner, supplier, or manufacturer… and therefore no leverage in negotiating a remedy. You took the customer’s money. So, whatever the problem is, it’s your responsibility to fix.
Those are my top five offending phrases; feel free to chime in below with a few of your own.