When you shouldn’t give 100%

We’re taught that practice makes perfect. Cleanliness is next to godliness. Give 110%.

I was a straight A student in high-school. I remember being devastated when I got my first B ever (Geometry) and I was brought to tears in college when I got the first C of my life (Microeconomics). Even when I got an A minus, I was a bit miffed. I’m not sure what I thought: did I really think anything less than an A-plus was a complete and utter failure on my part? Did I think it meant I hadn’t mastered or learned the content?

Math was especially challenging for me. I was more of a vocabulary and English gal. But I was good at memorization so many of my math classes were about nailing down the formula and replicating it – even if I didn’t understand the theory or reasoning behind it. Not the best way to learn, is it?

Sometimes that goal of perfection – of the A-plus – can hurt us. If we are such perfectionists, we may never get our newsletters out each month, or write that novel, or take a chance on that new business pitch. We may never launch that website. Waiting for perfection is an impossible task, since perfection is never possible. And that means you’ll spend your life and career planning to do things rather than making them happen.

There is a reason software companies release new versions every year. Version 1.0 is never going to be as good as 5.0 or even 10.0. They roll out something that is mostly complete, learn from their mistakes, and gather feedback, tweak and refine. Rinse. Repeat. If companies had not failed when trying to introduce tablets in the past, the iPad may never have been so successful now. If that first brick of a cell phone had never seen the market until it was “perfect”, we’d never have had generations of phones leading up the sleek, small, powerful smart phones of today.

Seth Godin always talks about the importance of shipping. Strategy and planning is vital, don’t get me wrong. But at some point, you have to tell the inner perfectionist to shut the hell up and ship your product, launch your website, open your shop or start your consulting practice.

You’ll learn. You’ll get feedback. And you’ll evolve. Recently, I spoke at the New York Times Small Business Summit on a panel called Evolve Your Brand. We spoke about the fact that, while a brand should stay true to its core values and mission, it can and should evolve. The world changes too fast for you to ever keep up with some mythical perfection standard built on shifting sands. It changes by the second.

So are you going to wait and wait and wait for 100% perfection before you do anything – and be the best-intentioned business or person who never accomplished a thing? Or are you going to put in the strategy work, get to a solid 80% and push those efforts out the door so you can keep on going, keep on improving and keep on innovating?

Doers DO. It really is that simple.

If you want to stop spinning your wheels and make your brand irresistible, ensure your messaging is clear and attract more clients or customers, then stop the excuses of being too busy and get into shape at my next Branding Bootcamp!

Which problem is killing your business?

As a new book author, I have learned a ton about the publishing industry over the last year or so. I’ve pretty much been riding by the seat of my pants and unspoken rules are revealed to me each day, much like an onion shedding its layers. I used to think publishing a book was fairly straightforward – and it can be if you self-publish and have millions of devoted fans ready to devour your product. But you have to work to get to that point, as Seth Godin just announced: after millions of best-selling books  he’s able to bypass the traditional publishing establishment and self-publish direct to his legions of fans.

Sure, anyone can do this. But do they have the base that Seth has to make that a successful proposition? Well, guess it depends on what your goals are and the size of your tribe.

Putting all that aside, I’ve heard a lot of hoopla casting eBooks, Kindles and iPad’s as the assassins to the traditional brick and mortar stores and your lovely independent bookseller around the corner; That publishing as we know it is a dying due to the new vehicles and opportunities that people with good ideas have for spreading their words.

Well, I have a different theory: it’s not these new technologies or shrinking margins that are going to kill the traditional publishing-bookseller industry: it’s going to be their willingness to adapt and get the heck out of their own way. I present my exhibits to the court below.

Is your business suffering from any of these ailments? If so, better change course before it’s too late:

Exhibit A: Refusal to Acknowledge: At the recent 600 person Pacific Northwest Writers Conference, the elephant in the room was self-publishing and alternate options. While the conference focused heavily on how to sell your book, build your marketing platform, etc, two funny things happened: A breakout on alternate publishing forms erupted in a minor mutiny when attendees demanded to know why the conference was focused on the “song and dance of pitching to big agents and editors” but no one was talking about eBooks and self-publishing as credible options. In this session, a so-called book marketing expert even said: “I don’t believe in social media or authors needing websites. It’s a waste of time.”

Is there a market change or customer need that you are ignoring or refusing to see to protect the status quo?

Exhibit B: Refusal to Adapt: In the large editor panel, I asked what they thought about the long time to market when going the traditional route when I was able to publish with an independent press from contract to book in four months? The response: “Given that reviewers want galleys 3-6 months in advance of the publishing date means you’ll always need a long lead time. Plus it helps with quality control and editing.” Really? The reason we are not going to adapt the model is because the REVIEWERS (Publishers Weekly, et al) won’t adapt their models to current market dynamics? By the time my book’s “galleys” were ready, so was the final book!

Are you allowing the tail to wag the dog when it comes to adapting your manufacturing, marketing or distribution model – instead of adapting to what your customers want and need?

Exhibit C: Refusal to Trust: I had to convince my publisher to post an excerpt on Scribd. She said she’d heard bad things about it and forwarded me an article about an author suing them for copyright infringement. I explained that Scribd itself did not pirate the work; someone else must have posted it and that Scribd is just the channel (like YouTube). I also explained why we should get in front of it and post our excerpt ourselves to control the marketing and message. After all, Chapter 1 is already available on the publisher’s website: What’s to stop someone from stealing it from there? At least on Scribd, people will actually see it who would purchase the book. This fear of piracy and infringement is real, but the upside of promoting the full book is so well worth it.

Are there marketing channels (like social media) or new technologies you are ignoring out of fear, when they could be prime ways to reach your customers?

Exhibit D: Refusal to Coordinate: Because my book is a short run printing (my publisher is not Random House and doesn’t print 50,000 at once) it is listed in a separate “small press” database (DB) on Ingram, one of the distributors in the business. This same DB houses self-published and Print on Demand (POD)  books, and the retail bookstore chains refuse to carry those, mostly because of the lack of return policies and quality concerns. We had to make it very clear to local booksellers that my book is NOT a POD or self-pub and that it’s 100% returnable to convince them to carry a local author. Borders in downtown Seattle agreed and I just did a signing there; Barnes & Noble, however, marked it as POD in their system and the stores are saying they physically can’t order such books through the system and we have to talk to NY. NY has said they will fix the issue, but that the stores are wrong and can order anything they want. I’ve since learned that basically forward-thinking managers can “go rogue” and order the local authors their customers want but it’s not “policy.” We’re stuck in the middle  – trying to give local booksellers great content and signing events to help them boost sales. So now Borders gets me for a signing, while B&N competing down the street can’t get out of their own way. Borders even told me, “People are craving local authors right now – similar to the local food movement!”

Are you not communicating effectively with multiple locations, partners or employees to the point that the only people who lose are your customers? Are your policies getting in the way of you staying competitive or giving your customers what they want?

Be careful how you sell

This may sound like an odd title, but HOW you do business really is just as important to your brand as WHAT you do, or your logo, communications, etc. Take a lesson from a business owner who I am sadly watching destroy their brand through pushy, in-your-face promotional tactics.

This person is an expert in their field. They have years of experience and have gotten real results for people. But somewhere along the line, this person got some bad advice from a coach, or colleague or guru and has started to destroy their hard-earned brand image. Someone must have told this person that in order to make more money they needed to sell, sell, sell. Which, of course, one does need to do in order to make money and we talked about being an effective salesperson in a previous post. But you can’t be a robot about it if you want a brand that still needs to stand for excellence, expertise, and influence. You need to practice good judgment and tact as well.

This person is now in 100% sales mode at every waking moment – to the point that they are selling at inappropriate times and speaking engagements.  And when I say inappropriate, I really mean it: we’re not talking about the good sense to promote yourself when you are networking or speaking. We’re talking highly inappropriate as in, you have not respected your audience enough to know when to pull back. The well-respected brand is now eroding into an infomercial. Which is okay, if that is the business you are after, but given this person’s value and years of experience, I’m not sure that is what they want their brand positioning to be.

This truly makes me sad as I watch this happen and I hear the rumors and see people distancing themselves from this brand. Remember, how you behave and how you do business is probably more important to your brand promise than any graphic or website ever could be. Brand is visual, verbal AND experiential. And this person could be hurting themselves in the long haul. Sure, maybe they are making tons of money and then, what the heck do I know? There is certainly a market and a place for such a brand and maybe that is indeed what this person wants to go after.  But personally, I’m not sure I’d want to forsake my reputation for some short-term gains in a way that might cause me to miss the boat on being the kind of business I really want to be.

Customers are not scary

Why do businesses spend tons of money, time and effort on compiling market data, analyzing trends, conducting expensive focus groups with people who have never bought from them, or spend hours combing through research data, when they ignore a prime source right in front of them: their own customers?

Your customers, especially repeat ones, like you. They want you to succeed. They have found that your product or service fills a need for them, or your message has resonated with them. So when it comes to figuring out what will work for 2010 , just ASK them.

This can be as easy as sending an inexpensive (or sometimes free) online survey via Surveymonkey or Emma. If you have a store, offer an incentive to all customers who come in to fill out a quick questionnaire. Invite your customers to an informal focus group with some drinks and snacks and offer them a coupon as an incentive. If you’re an online or service business, offer a discount code, or 50% off their next service, or heck, even a drawing for a Starbucks card (worked for me). Always offer some type of incentive for their valuable time and participation.

Stop guessing about what you are doing right or wrong and ask them. People love to give their opinion, especially if you can incent them a little bit. Keep your questions unbiased, don’t ask leading questions. Try to keep any surveys to less than 5 min for a small incentive or 10 minutes if you’re offering a larger incentive. Even 5-8 questions can do the trick sometimes.

One client even just sent old fashioned emails direct to a select group of customers with an incentive to respond. Or you can use social media as a great way to get feedback. But you have to ask.

Focus groups or surveys with your customers (past or present) can be super easy to implement. Working with one client on her brand strategy, she was not sure of the primary reasons people came to her (of the many reasons she promotes in her marketing), so I had her send a survey and ask, “What caused you to seek out my services?” and offer 5 possible answers. She found some pretty surprising results that caused her to rethink her marketing messaging.

I don’t recommend testing actual ad creative with focus groups or surveys, as people will be consuming them in an unnatural way and the results will be skewed. No one dissects an ad in real life they way they would in a focus group session. But you can test ideas, messages, what they think of your brand, ask why they bought from you, ask them what you could offer or do better, what incentives would they respond to, etc. They are a wealth of information for making brand improvements so don’t fear them – embrace them.