Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Networking Lessons from a Bad Break: Lesson #3

Continuing with my lessons learned from my "failed" triple board break, watching my efforts in the video, I can see that my kick wasn't aimed well. In the first attempt, it was way too high. In fact, I think I might have clipped one of the holders' fingers.

Ouch. Sorry about that.

Lesson: For success, aim is 90% of the effort.

The funny thing is, I've held for little kids and had them miss by even more and still break the board. The difference is that they were using boards which snapped relatively easily -- practice boards which were very thin to get them used to the process -- whereas my triple board break was much more difficult. It not only required significantly higher force, but that force had to be directed to the exact correct spot (about the size of a dime).

Networking Lesson:
In networking, your aim is 90% of the effort, too. This is especially true for bigger requests. If I really need a personal, face-to-face introduction with Al Jones, the CEO of ABC Corporation, then that is what I should be asking for from my networking contacts. Of course, that request has to be to members of my network with whom I have the strongest connections.

The mistake that most people make is just asking for a connection in the ABC Corporation and hoping, somehow, that the CEO will miraculously appear. In fact, quite often they can't even be that specific. All they can say is they want someone who wants to buy their stuff, whatever it is. That's the kind of ask that just bounces off, just like my foot did with the boards.

So to give yourself the best chance of success, learn this lesson: Know what you are aiming at then focus your network on that exact, specific spot. There's no guarantee, but you've got a better chance of breaking through if you do.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Networking Lessons from a Bad Break: Lesson #2

In the last post, I told you about a "failed" board-breaking attempt that I made as a part of the many tests I am going through for my next belt. As with many of the so-called "failures" in our lives, it's only truly a failure if we don't learn from it. In this case, I walked away with a whole slew of lessons. Some were about martial arts, but many applied to other areas of my life, including networking.

Yesterday, the lesson was about not bringing enough people to the task. Today is why that happened.

Lesson #2: Success comes in the long term.

I had fewer people holding my boards than I needed in order to have a successful break. In a demonstration like this, the breaker has a number of responsibilities: Choose the technique, purchase the boards, set up the holders, etc. This also includes making sure you've got your holders lined up ahead of time. If they aren't in the school when you need them, then the rest of it falls apart.

This requires that you focus more long term. It wasn't until that morning that I realized I had never spoken with anyone about holding for my break, just assuming that they would somehow magically show up.

Networking Lesson:
Making requests of your network takes time. The bigger the ask, the more time it will probably take.

We all run into challenges in our lives. Sometimes they seem so great that it puts us into survival mode. Maybe we lost our job, perhaps there's an illness in the family, or possibly it's something as simple as a newborn who won't sleep through the night for more than the first year of her life, leaving you perpetually exhausted and fuzzy-headed (for a hypothetical example).

When we are in the midst of these challenges, we feel like we are walking on the edge of a cliff. We start looking very carefully at where we are placing each foot. A misstep could send us over the edge, so this makes perfect sense. The problem is, if we do it long enough, we start thinking that this is the way we are supposed to be all the time, even after the danger has passed. Unfortunately, if we are focused on each footstep, then we aren't looking at the horizon to make sure that those steps are leading us toward our long-term goals and not into long-term trouble.

The real-world example of this is the entrepreneur who focuses on completing his short-term projects, pushing off his networking to "when he's not busy". Unfortunately, this ignores the fact that networking takes time to pay off. Instead, while he does need to devote time to those money-making efforts, he must also dedicate some time and effort (and usually not that very much, really) to:
  1. Maintaining his network. Weak connections can't help as much as strong ones.
  2. Looking for ways to help his network. Helping them deepens the connections faster.
  3. Asking them to help. If they don't know where he's going, they can't help get him there.
In order to achieve real success in our lives, we need to keep our eyes on the horizon. Our efforts today need to take us to those long-term goals of tomorrow. A powerful network can almost always bring you what you need, so long as you give it enough time to work.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Networking Lessons from a Bad Break: Lesson #1

With a mighty "Hiyaa!", I drove my foot toward the waiting planks of wood...

... and bounced off.

As one of the tests for my next belt at Keith Hafner's Karate, back in the Spring, I did a board-breaking -- actually a triple board break (three at once).

If you check out the video, it wasn't a rousing success.

At least it wasn't a success based upon whether the boards actually broke. Grand Master Hafner believes that the successful board-breaking is one where you learn lessons you can apply to your training and to your life.

Believe it or not, this "failed" break reminded me of a number of lessons about networking.

Lesson #1: The more people involved, the better

As you could see in the video, there were only three people "holding" -- two in front holding the boards, and one behind in the center to brace the two of them. None of them were heavyweights. You may have noticed when I kicked (both times) their bodies moved back a good three or four inches. It doesn't sound like much, but with three boards, I needed a larger, heavier group to hold that could handle the strength of my kick without moving.

By the way, this is no fault of the holders. They are all great martial artists. They just didn't have enough body mass between them.

Networking Lesson:
Just as with my break, if you want help from your network, you need to make sure that it's big enough and strong enough to absorb the effort. If you've only just started bulding your network -- perhaps it's still relatively few in number or most of the connections are in the "development" stage -- then making a big ask just isn't going to happen. Your network won't have the depth or breadth to be able to help out.

What's a big ask? How about a personal introduction and endorsement to the CEO of a Fortune 500 company? If your network is too small, chances are no one in your network can make the connection. If the connections aren't strong enough, they won't be willing to make the connection.

What's the solution? Well, you can (and probably should) do several things:
  1. Grow your network. Add new people. This means attending more networking events and following up on introductions.
  2. Deepen your network. You may already have plenty of connections, but none of them may know you well enough to think that helping you is a priority. You need to start deepening the relationships. Stay in contact -- more one-to-ones. Find ways to help them. Make yourself a valuable part of their lives.
  3. Reduce your ask. The holders I had that day would have been sufficient for a single-board break. Similarly, you can reduce your ask to fit the strength of your network. Instead of the personal introduction and endorsement to the CEO of ABC Corporation, you might instead ask for advice on who to approach in the company.
Networking is not just a numbers game. Still, the more people you know who are looking out for your well-being, the stronger your network is and the more powerful results you can ask of it.

Of course, before you can call on your network, you have to build it first. That takes time and forethought. We'll talk about that lesson next time.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Sometimes You Get What You Need

Sometimes we need to hear it.
If the emergency sirens start sounding that severe weather is near, perhaps it's time to set aside your plans for the family picnic. Heck, if the weather forecaster is telling you that there's better than a fifty percent chance of thunderstorms, you might be better off trading in the picnic blanket for tickets at the nearest movie theater. In both cases you want to hear one thing, but you need to hear something else.

Consulting with your network can go the same way.

Your network can be a great source of advice, recommendation, and expert opinion. After all, it's made up of people who have taken an active interest in you and your success. The challenge is to be willing to listen when they tell us, not what we want, but what we need to hear.

Maybe you've decided on a new target market. You're pretty excited about it. You want to hear how easy it will be to break into this sector. You need to hear what your connections in that industry think. Maybe that  class you were about to teach has to be certified by their national association first. That would certainly save you some embarrassment.

Perhaps you come up with a new product for the market. You want to hear how great it is. You need to hear what problems it has so you can fix them and really be ready to sell -- unless you like angry customer service calls.

It's possible that you've gotten tired of your logo. It's time to rebrand and bring a new face to your business. You want to hear how the new look will drive new customers to your door. You need to hear how the new look might drive your old customers away.

For many of us who are solo-preneurs or have very small businesses, we don't have an official board of advisors. That can lead to some lonely decision making. That's when we can look to our closest network connections to be an extra sanity check on the directions we are taking -- an ad hoc board, if you will.

One caveat to this recommendation, though: Remember that your network can only advise you. You are the ultimate authority and must take ultimate responsibility. I was reminded recently that truly great innovators sometimes have to go against the established wisdom. Ask for advice, certainly, but at the end of the day, if you still believe that you are right, make your decisions accordingly.

You may still get what you want, but by consulting with your closest connections, you may also avoid some of the obvious pitfalls.

And we pretty much all need that.

Image by Cecile Graat

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Personal Message

In a post from a while ago, I talked about some bad behaviors regarding communicating with your customers through a form letter. My friend Victoria Kamm, President of Obviously Brilliant, commented on the post and wondered about how one would actually go about creating a personalized snail mail piece. It's an excellent question and I think the answers apply to almost any customer communication.

Before we go any further, though, I do need to make a stipulation. All of these ideas are based on the premise that the purpose of the communication is to establish a better relationship with the customer. If all you really want to do is advertise to them, then you can ignore this stuff (just like your customers will ignore your advertisement).
  1. Use their name. Never, ever, ever address the letter to "Sir", "Sir and/or Ma'am", "Policy Holder", or "Client". You need to be personal. Most word processing programs have a "mail merge" capability. Use it. Oh, and wherever possible use the name they prefer to be called. I know when something comes in that says "Dear Gregory", that I can usually safely dump it in the recycling bin.
  2. No advertising. I know I mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. What you send should never be just one big advertisement. It must be information which will be useful to them without necessarily trying to convince them to buy from you. If you present the recipient with truly useful material, they will see you as an expert in the topic area and they will want to talk with you. Advertising is interruptive and most people today have learned to ignore interruptions.
  3. Be useful. This is something I learned in a recent seminar I attended by former National Speakers Association President, Mark LaBlanc. He told us that we have one, maybe two, opportunities to capture their interest and attention before they begin to ignore our communication. This means we need to make sure that those who are receiving information can use it. These means one of two things:
    1. Be general. The information has to be so general as to be useful to everyone on your mailing list. This has the danger of the piece being so general as to be obvious (and therefore not particularly useful). Still depending on the topic, it is possible.
    2. Segment. If you want to communicate some topic which is specifically useful to some smaller segment of your mailing list, only send it to that smaller segment. They will love you for addressing their specific needs. Those who aren't in that segment won't view you as being irrelevant to their lives and start ignoring you.
  4. Be generous. Many of us who provide information as a part of what we do, have a tendency to want to hold back that information. After all, if we give them that information for free, why would they bother paying for our services later? Listen, if that one piece of information is all they needed from you and they weren't ever going to need anything else, then they can go out and buy a book to discover what they need to know. They were never a prospective client in the first place.
  5. Close with you. The signature should be from a specific person -- preferably you. Poeple connect with people, not with companies. You may want to appear bigger than you are by signing "ABC Company, Customer Service", but that makes the recipient feel like just another account. Not a good lasting impression to leave them with.
I will warn you. I am not an expert on direct mail advertising. There are those folks out there who know that stuff cold. I'm only telling you what I've experienced as the recipient of my share of form mailings. Be useful. Be personal. Make an effort to make me feel like this is a letter from a friend and I will be much more likely to respond.

After all, we'll do things for friends that we would never consider doing for a faceless company that treats us as just another number.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

They May Still Hate You

"This is rubbish."

That was how a comment from a reader began to a recent article I posted on AnnArbor.com. She then went on to cast aspersions on my business style, location, credentials, and, yes, even my wardrobe.

This is the payment you will sometimes have to make when you try to give back.

AnnArbor.com does not pay me to post articles on their site. A couple of years ago, a friend recommended me to one of the community editors at the time. That editor liked what she read of my material and gave me a shot at a regular spot. Do I gain benefit from this?

You bet.

I have a regular column now. Every Sunday, people who read the Business Review section of the site get to see my smiling face. Is it advertising? Nope. Except maybe in the strictest interpretation. The final paragraph of each article is the "about the author" blurb which does give some of my credentials and links back to my website. Other than that, I do not hawk my services in any way.

If you are considering getting your name out there by writing or speaking. Be aware that there are people out there who will hate you no matter what you write or talk about. As my hero Scott Ginsberg would say, you've got to love the haters. They will tell you when you are on the right track. He should know. He writes about people being more approachable and friendly.

And some people still hate him.

The challenging part of this whole situation is your goal, in addition to recognition, is to engage your audience. You want people to comment on your posts or come up to talk with you after a presentation. If they are less than kind at times, the best way to respond (in my opinion) is to strip away all the vitriol and ad hominem attacks and address only the core issues they bring up.

They will probably never be satisfied, but your other readers and followers will see you as a classy person who rose above your attacker and make them that much more likely to want to connect with you.

One of my new heroes, Larry Winget, said in a presentation I attended, if you want rabid fans, you have to be willing to have rabid enemies." So, just remember, when someone pulls out their poison pen on you, they're just telling you that you are doing something right.

Photo by Diego Medrano

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Good E-Introductions

You wouldn't ask a recent acquaintance to help you move. No matter how nice it would be to have them help, the time and effort involved exceed the levels of that relationship. The same is true for asking them for a personal, face-to-face introduction to someone in their network. It's a lot of work and they don't know you that well yet.

Still, if they offer to connect us, we want something more powerful than them just giving us the other person's contact information. That feels a lot like a cold call. Brrrr.

What lies in between is the e-introduction.

The challenge is that, while most people are willing, most also aren't particularly effective at it. Have you ever received an e-intro that went something like this?
Hi, Bob 
You should meet Greg. Here's his contact information.
Greg Peters -- gpeters@gregsbusiness.com 
 Worse is when you don't even see it because you aren't CC'ed on the message.

So that we don't make the same mistakes with the people we are trying to help, let's look at the make up of a good e-introduction.

  1. Copy everyone. Everyone involved should know what's happening.
  2. Salute both parties. "Dear Bob and Mike"
  3. A little boilerplate. Tell them this is an introduction. "I'm making this email introduction because I think you would both benefit from getting to know each other."
  4. Bio block #1. Tell person #1 about person #2 briefly. Include the reason you think they should get to know person #2. You might also include how you met person #2.

    Bob, meet Mike Smith. Mike is the owner of The Dogs Are In The House, a pet boarding facility here in Ann Arbor. I met Mike through at this amazing workshop about good networking practice. The real reason I wanted to connect you, though, is I found out that he shares your passion for Alpine chainsaw juggling. Who knew?
  5. Bio block #2. Now do the same thing in reverse.

    Mike, meet Bob Jones. Bob is an attorney with Jones, Jones, Jones, & Shoppenflueger. In addition, he is the president of the local chapter of the Alpine Chainsaw Jugglers Association. I've known Bob from back when he only juggled knives.
  6. A little more boilerplate. This depends on how much you want to assist with the connection. For most it's enough to say something like "I've included your mutual contact information below. I'll leave it to you to continue the conversation." If you want to be more helpful, you can offer to set up a meeting for a face-to-face intro or even go so far as to suggest particular days and times which would work for you to facilitate such a meeting.
  7. Their contact info. Name, business (if appropriate), email, and phone number. Basically the information on their business card, you should be willing to share.
I know this might seem like a lot of work, but once you've done it a time or two, it really doesn't take that much longer than one done poorly. Do you really have to go to all this trouble for your e-introductions? No, not unless you want to be remembered as a great connector.

Oh, wait. That's kind of what networking is all about, right?