Midweek Musings – Multi-Tools

It was many (many) years ago that I purchased a Leatherman Wave multi-tool after my buddy had spent months raving about his. So many years and lives later I must say, I feel naked without it on my belt.

I hesitate to even wager a guess at how many times in a given day I find myself reaching for it.

I do just about everything with it. I’ve repaired guitars, worked on computers, and opened more boxes and assembled more toys than I could ever count.

I’ve used it as a hammer, a door stop, a means of steadying a stubborn nail in a cramped space as I feebly try to hammer it into place. I’ve removed splinters and trimmed branches. I’ve sliced, diced, filed, shaved, and sawed just about anything you can do that to and probably things you shouldn’t.

I could probably perform minor to moderate surgery with nothing but my trusty Leatherman and a copy of Gray’s Anatomy.

Which brings me to my musing for today: Are you a multi-tool?

It’s something to strive towards.

Some may frame this concept as the old cliché that says “jack of all trades but master of none” but I don’t particularly care for that description. It suggests that by its very definition a “jack of all trades” is not or cannot be a master in and themselves.

I believe flexibility, fluidity, and adaptability to be among the most valuable character traits we can have in life, professionally or personally.

Just a cursory review of the most successful people in the world will show that very few of them are “just a hammer” or “just a flat-head screwdriver.” Those that may have been typically have clear enough vision to surround themselves with a bevy of multi-tools.

Organizations, both large and small, in every industry have armies of employees with titles like “Manager – Special Projects and Design” or “Project Specialist.” As a matter of fact, mine is “Communications and Projects Specialists.”

These titles beg the question: “So what does someone with such a title actually do?”

Well…pretty much anything.

In my case I prepare a great deal of internal and external communications collateral. It could be security white sheets, new business development proposals, internal training and education guides, data documents for clients or just a sign telling everyone when the next pot luck will be.

I also manage extensive and complex international travel logistics involving flights, planning executive-level meetings, conferences, and events around the world. I help our team by ensuring their travel visas and passports are in order and that everything has been handled to ensure they are able to get to and from anywhere in the world in order to serve our clients.

I do graphic design, new employee on-boarding, negotiate vendor contracts. Ask me in an hour and I’ll have three more, seemingly complexly unrelated tasks to knock out.

One of my most recent projects has been to create a step-by-step, easy-to-understand, all-encompassing guidebook for how our new expense management software solution works because of course the materials provided were anything but.

My company relies on me to fill gaps no matter where they may open. I’m the Leatherman multi-tool on my company’s belt.

Multi-tools are, by design, masters of being able to do anything and everything whenever the moment calls for it to do be done.

Job seekers will immediately distinguish themselves from other applicants by demonstrating their ability to be entrusted with critical but diverse challenges while delivering superlative results.

An existing employee will make themselves essential an invaluable within their organization by showing a willingness to take on any new challenge no matter how foreign or “outside of their job description.”

Small businesses become successful larger businesses when they are led by someone willing to push themselves beyond the core activity that drove them to start the company in the first place.

So again I’ll ask: are you a multi-tool?

We should all be!

That’s it for today!

Be Well and Kind,

Jason

Wednesday Morning Musings – Amazon Prime Wardrobe

Until Sunday, I’d worn the same pair of athletic shoes for fifteen years. It was time. Having a toddler with a relentless, almost maniacal, energy demands I have proper footwear to keep up.

This meant doing one of the things I dread the most: go to a store.

With a sigh of surrender I packed Young Master Oliver up and off we went to our local tan shopping center. I’ll look for shoes, maybe a pair of pants, and of course find a wicked cool toy for the young lad.

2 hours and 5 stores later what did we find? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Oh they had inventory but nothing that fit or looked right. I did find one shirt that was kind of sort of but not entirely ok…and it cost almost as much as my mobile phone bill.

When we returned home weary from the excursion, I glanced at my phone and realized something marvelous.

Amazon rolled out a new benefit for subscribers of their Prime subscription service. Prime Wardrobe allows customers to have up to 8 items sent to them, free of charge, in order to try them on and see how they look, feel, and fit. You can then return what you don’t want in the same packaging it came in with the included prepaid label. You’re only charged for what you keep.

I ordered 6 pair of sneakers. They arrived on Sunday. 30 minutes later and I found my sneakers, right in the comfort of my living room. I packed up the rest in their original resealable box and by Monday they were on their way back to Bezos and the gang. Simultaneously, another Prime Wardrobe box was being sent my way with 8 pair of pants.

I may never visit a store again.

I mention this not to throw even more business to Amazon but to highlight a strategy and philosophy that Amazon has embraced since its birth: make it easy for the customer to do business with you.

If it’s more difficult than it’s worth to purchase something then I’m not going to purchase it. I’ll either do without or I’ll find somewhere else to buy it.

Something as simple as a return can be a make-or-break moment for a retailer.

How simple is the process?

Does the customer service rep show reluctance towards accepting the item?

How many people have to walk to the register and enter codes and approve the transaction?

I returned a pair of defective headphones to my local Wal-Mart less than 48 hours after receiving them. I had the original packaging and receipt and even the protective stickers were still on headphones. It took 45 minutes, not including driving to the store, parking, and driving home.

First I got in the line with a massive sign having above it that read “online purchases and returns HERE.” Then, after about 10 minutes I was told “That’s not a line. That sign doesn’t mean anything. You have to get in this line.”

So I waited in that line….and waited.

Then the rep paged someone in electronics to ask about serial numbers and whether they accept returns on these particular headphones.

The electronics rep didn’t know so they paged someone else. Meanwhile my rep paged another rep. While this was all playing out I googled information on the serial numbers and went to walmart.com to find their return policy. I gave the representative the information she was looking for. She then paged a third person, presumably a manager, who came over to approve the return, issue my refund, and sent me on my way.

It seems every time I try to give my money to another retailer I walk away thinking “I should have just bought this from Amazon.” This trip was no different because by the time I walked back to my car I had placed an order for new headphones from Amazon.

Whether it’s  a matter of just wanting to get it over with and avoid waiting two days or if I’m attempting to “support independent local businesses,” it always seems that I go through more trouble than it was worth. I couldn’t find what I was looking for despite being told it was in stock. The item was defective and the return process was tedious. No one in the store could answer questions about the item they purportedly specialize in selling and supporting.

So what ends up happening? I order it from Amazon anyway. I’ve almost entirely stopped bothering with brick-and-mortar retailers.

News and opinion pieces are published, seemingly on an hourly basis, bemoaning the continuing struggles and failures of our beloved retail stores in the wake of Amazon’s rise. Steeped in nostalgia, these pieces attempt to evoke some measure of Rockwellian tender longing for some bygone era that I’m not convinced ever actually existed.

What will happen to our society in the absence of our most cherished centers of community, the shopping mall?

Every click of the “Place Your Order” button is another dagger into the heart of the retailing traditions that have bound our culture of commerce for centuries.

Or maybe, Amazon just makes it easier to buy stuff.

Now, I don’t expect a small independent shopkeeper to have the selection or buying power of Amazon but what about a store like Wal-Mart?

Amazon has approximately 330 domestic facilities devoted to fulfillment, warehousing, returns, sorting, and delivery with $51 billion in 2018 1st quarter revenue.

Wal-Mart has 42 distribution centers and over 4000 locations, not including Sam’s Club. They reported over $120 billion in revenue for over the same period.

Despite having every resource available and over twice the revenue, Wal-Mart continues to struggle with both their in-store customer service as well as their e-commerce platform.

Wal-Mart has every resource needed to offer a Prime Wardrobe service. Wal-Mart has just a robust product selection as Amazon. Wal-Mart revolutionized logistics and supply chain. Wal-Mart, like Amazon, allows third-party vendors to sell items through its website. They employ over 1 million people in the United States while Amazon’s entire workforce is less than half that figure.

Their acquisitions of Bonobos , was supposed to signal a new era in which they would attract a fashion-savvy and younger customer base away from other retailers. Yet, Bonobos’ servers aren’t exactly failing beneath the traffic of all these new online orders.

Bonobos’ website boasts that if you happen to live near a one of their “Guideshop” you can try your clothes on before buying them. You can even return online purchases at these local storefronts.

Wal-Mart and Bonobos aren’t exactly disrupting the marketplace with these bold strategies.

The Prime Wardrobe program, by contrast, is another example of Amazon being more creative, more forward-thinking, and more willing to take risks on ideas that seem unheard of to traditional retailers.

I mean really? Who thinks it is a good idea to just ship product to a customer without them paying for it first? It’s so absurd that it’s brilliant.

So while traditional retailers continue to rebrand their private label clothing lines or develop new pricing strategies in hopes of attracting customers that have long since fled, they ignore what Amazon teaches them every day: make it easy for your customers to do business with you and they will keep doing business with you.

Too many companies are entrenched in a belief that business should be done on their terms and then struggle with the reality that business is being done elsewhere.

The marketplace is no different than our normal lives. Agility and flexibility are two of the most important attributes to have.

That’s it for today. Have a great rest of the week!

Be Well and Kind,
Jason

Midweek Musings

Perhaps this will become a regular feature here but I’ll definitely be posting this type of format on a regular basis moving forward where I discuss topics that have come up over the last few days or weeks that I think merit discussion. So…here we go.

Graduation Day…

Graduation season is upon us. #SNHU2018 has been trending my twitter feed and it reminded me of last year when I graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with my MBA. My experience as a student was tremendous, my visit to campus for commencement was revelatory, and this last year as a member of the alumni community has been truly enriching. I continue to feel that SNHU should be looked to as a template for centers of education ranging from high school through to colleges, trade schools, and universities.

 

One of the true pleasures of being an alum of a university so focused on outreach and engagement is that I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with current and prospective students as they decide whether or not to attend, what degree they may pursue or what life may look like after graduation. That the university goes to such great lengths to connect students is emblematic of their entire philosophy.

One of my recent conversations with a student led to perhaps the most enduring question concerning employment opportunities and job applications:

What’s more important: Education or experience?

I won’t try to dig too deep into this rabbit hole given today’s format but I’ll give a short answer and an anecdote.

Answer: It depends. (I know, I took the cheap way out. haha)

Here’s the anecdote:

I worked with an incredibly talented leader who had been charged with righting the proverbial ship for a national retailer. The first thing he did when given the rather robust stack of applications for sales positions was look for those that listed non-sales experience or were students.

He was attracted to applicants studying communications or philosophy. He wanted to talk to waiters and waitresses. His philosophy was that it would be easier to teach someone how to sell than it would be to “unteach” them.

Experience can sometimes be a hindrance. It can bring bad habits or preconceptions about strategies and culture that may not apply in a given work environment.

Within one year our location led the entire region in gross sales, gross profits, and number of unique transactions….with a sales team comprised almost entirely of people lacking any sales experience. Not too shabby. 🙂

I’ve found similar opinions regarding education.

Over the years I’ve spoken with many managers and human resource leaders who agree that diplomas do not necessarily equate to subject mastery. They place little-to-no emphasis on whether the applicant’s degree is directly related to the position…or if they even have a degree.

These employers look for skills that transfer from one industry to another or for soft skills developed through a candidate’s background. A history or philosophy graduate may be the perfect fit in a change management consultancy despite a lack of “business” experience, academic or otherwise. Their personality and skills honed during their academic career may provide them with a sense of context and strategic fluidity that are essential with helping organizations implement new strategies and navigate complex communications projects.

This will make a great topic for a longer piece. It’s a fascinating concept and one that is dynamic in nature, has different answers depending on the industry and position, as well as the culture of a given organization.

So what would you say you do here?

It comes up all the time doesn’t it? Maybe it’s time to introduce yourself to a new employee. Maybe you’re at yet another party or at your child’s school function.

What do you say?

Do you know what you do? Can you describe it in a sentence or two?

It seems so simple and for some maybe it is.

What do you do? I’m a doctor. I diagnose and treat pulmonary disease.

What do you do? I’m a communications manager for a Montessori school where I write newsletters and announcements for parents and the community.

For others, myself included, the answer can be a tad more…nuanced shall we say.

I joke to some that I’m my organization’s multi-tool.

I don’t like the “jack of all trades” moniker because it begs the coda, “master of none”. If I’m a master of something it’s at being flexible and agile.

There are many of us who at any given moment could be doing forensic analysis and reconciliations of expense and invoicing data, preparing client data presentations, writing annual reports, taking bids from telecom, office equipment, or real estate vendors, or planning international special events.

These hats, however, are not rotated as a result of a lack of mastery but rather because the individual has the agility and versatility to fill gaps across the organizational structure. They can, in short, put those fires out that pop up all over an organization.

Not every company has the capacity, budget, or need to have a full-time communications or purchasing department. Many companies outsource the bulk of their human resource needs but still require someone in the office to field all those inevitable questions that pop up that don’t necessarily merit submitting an inquiry or calling the hotline.

From a company’s standpoint having a “utility player” can be vital and for an individual seeking employment it is essential to demonstrate your ability to perform multiple tasks, simultaneously, under different timelines, across the organizational structure, collaborating with different stakeholders.

That’s about it for today. Have a productive rest of the week but most of all…

 

Be Well and Kind,
Jason

 

 

Russ Freed – Carving Out a New Chapter in Life and Business One Handcrafted Wooden Bowl at a Time

Russ Freed is never at a loss for words. His passion for carving out stories from his eclectic and successful life in business is as elegant and complex as the array of hand-crafted woodwork to which he has devoted this chapter of his life.

A New Jersey native who earned his B.S. from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania Russ may not at first glance appear to be the sort of person who would so enthusiastically embrace Texas, or woodworking for that matter.  However, if anything is true about Russ Freed it’s that in business as in life, one must cultivate opportunities, embrace change, and follow your passions wherever they may lead.

For over twenty years he had a successful career within the chemicals industry that found him traveling the country until 2001 found him at somewhat of a crossroads, both figuratively and literally. Leaving the company he co-founded and sold, as well as his career in the rearview mirror, Russ decided to hit the open road on a cross country motorcycle trip from Houston to Canada and back again. Perhaps weary from the long journey, he agreed to take a step into his next professional adventure, this time in the auto industry where he became one of the most successful sales representatives within the Audi dealer network.

Over 10 years and countless cars later however, Russ needed another challenge, another story to tell. This new journey however would mean going back to the beginning, to his childhood learning woodwork at his father’s side.

Russ fondly recalls his youth and initiation into the world of woodwork:

“When I was a kid, I enjoyed helping my Dad with his various projects around the house.  If we needed a fire pit to barbeque hotdogs and burgers, my Dad made it.  Need a fence around the house? Sure, let’s build it.  So, at a very early age, I remember a picture of me at age 4 with a set of plastic ‘tools.’   Using saws and hammers, and other tools was second-nature for me.”

This DIY spirit planted by his father started Russ on a path that has seen him craft everything from custom cabinetry and fine furniture to one-of-a-kind jewelry boxes like the one he made as a birthday gift for his then girlfriend Amy, who is now his wife of 37 years.

Russ credits his father with not only inspiring his woodworking but also as being his biggest influence in life and business.

“He taught me the importance of honesty, integrity, and a solid work ethic, which have led me ably in my entire career. He taught me the importance of staying true to your values, regardless of outside forces to sway you away from center.”

Completely self-taught aside from the tutelage provided by his father, Russ has developed and refined the philosophy that guides his woodworking by pouring through every issue of the classic Fine Woodworking Magazine and imbibing everything from great woodworker and writer James Krenov. Russ enthusiastically describes his affinity for those old magazine articles and how he’s kept so many copies of articles:
“I was mesmerized by this magazine and bought all of the older issues I had not seen, and read them over and over again.  I still have hundreds of articles I cut out through the years in a dozen binders as referral guides.”

Years of working in his garage finally ceded to a proper woodworking shop when Russ and his wife made the move to Montgomery County where they designed and built what the couple hopes will be their forever home after years of living inside the Houston Loop.

Where the magic happens

Russ, finally free to explore the depth and range of his inspiration and talents in a proper workspace made the decision to devote himself full-time to crafting wood. The result was establishing a new company (nearly 25 years after his first) Baxter Blue Woodworks, named for his chief assistant, a Wheaten Terrier.

Russ was always hesitant to sell his work but was finally prodded into doing so by friends and family. His work was inspired by his creative spirit and love of crafting wood, not by a desire for profit but reconnecting with an old friend would help bring a new mission and purpose to his life and work…one which was close to his heart.

Nancy Riviere, a dear friend he met during his tenure with Audi, created WIGOUT, a non-profit organization that provides cancer patients with wigs, scarves, and hats as they battle breast cancer and other diseases being treated with chemotherapy. Nancy herself is a two-time breast cancer survivor who selflessly started the organization during her second bout with the horrific disease.

After having lost his mother to breast cancer at an early age and his wife’s recent battle with the disease, Russ decided to donate all profits to this incredible organization and with that, Baxter Blue Woodworks found its role within the marketplace and community.

Baxter Blue Woodworks focuses on custom one-of-a-kind cheese boards, cutting boards, and fine lathe-turned bowls. Armed with his successful career in sales and marketing and development and implementation of business strategies Russ has set out on his newest and perhaps most important chapter in his life and business.

Though new to social media and ecommerce, Russ has the benefit of a lifetime spent in developing sales and marketing strategies, establishing brand awareness, and cultivating customer loyalty. By approaching his customers with the same individual care and attention to detail that he does each piece of wood in his workshop he is able to both educate and inspire his clients. Like his finely lathe-turned bowls, each customer is unique with their own expectations, tastes, and style. As Russ puts it, “I find that too many artists and craftsmen in the world have amazing talents and skills, but don’t successfully communicate their talent to the outside world.  I have seen countless examples of amazing work at craft shows that doesn’t get sold because the artist doesn’t know how to relate to their buyer.” He continues, “Fortunately, my career experience of selling, managing others to sell, and teaching sales training, have all helped me in my new venture.  Engaging customers when they are looking at my woodworks helps us to form a bond that makes them want to buy something.”

While Baxter Blue specializes in a variety of bowls and boards, Russ is also able to provide unique custom work such as a one-of-kind coffee table he is currently working on for one of his clients. These custom orders provide Russ to further showcase his skill while still keeping with his belief in avoiding mass-production of identical pieces. For Russ the creative component of wood working is as essential as the wood itself. His commitment to quality, originality, and honoring the uniqueness of each piece of word he uses shines in everything he creates from a simple cheese board made of maple to a gorgeous custom made coffee table made from a massive plank of walnut.

“It’s hard to explain, like a musician trying to explain how they write a song,” Russ states. “But, the grain pattern, color, and texture of the wood all seem to combine to send me signals as to what that piece of wood should become.”

Currently Baxter Blue can be found every first and third weekend at the Farmers Market in The Woodlands, TX where Russ enjoys engaging everyone that walks by to answer questions about his work, tell the stories behind each piece, and spin yarns about with the same care and joy he spins his gorgeous bowls. Though new to social media strategies, he is finding success in sharing his stories through Facebook and Instagram and is looking forward to establishing a new ecommerce site for Baxter Blue in order to further expand his presence in the marketplace.

While some may not see a connection between his extensive background in the chemicals industry or the automotive industry with his current life as a wood worker, Russ is enthusiastic about how much his background continues to form the foundation of Baxter Blue’s current and future success.
He has six key points that he credits for his success throughout his career:

  1. Working harder than anyone else because I was far from being the brightest among my coworkers
  2. Develop a reputation for being straightforward and consistent
  3. Honesty and Integrity
  4. Fast response to customers and coworkers, people know they can count on him
  5. Take your work seriously but not yourself
  6. Value “street smarts” as much as any formal education…it’s important to be able to quickly assess individuals and have common sense.

When all is said and done, while Russ may be humble about Baxter Blue’s future growth, his commitment to quality, devotion to his craft and to his customers, and the mission of assisting Wig Out all ensure that Baxter Blue Woodwork will be as successful a venture as everything else Russ has engaged in during his long career.

 

Visit Russ at the The Woodlands Farmer’s Market at Grogan’s Mill every first and third weekend of the month, reach out via Facebook, Instagram, or visit Baxter Blue online at www.baxterbluewoodworks.com.

You got your foot in the door…now what?

Over the years I’ve sat on both sides of the conference room table. I’ve listened to sales presentations from vendors related to technology solutions and business process improvement and conducted employment interviews in a multiple environments. I’ve also been the one pitching to prospective customers or being interviewed for a position.

The biggest lessons I’ve learned about these engagements all revolve around audience, preparation, and purpose.

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE

Whether you’re going into a sales meeting or a job interview, it is essential to know who you’re meeting, what they are looking for, and where they stand within the organization. Are they decision maker? Are they a gatekeeper? Is there something unique about them or the organization that you can use in your presentation? This brings us to our next point because they are very closely linked.

PREPARATION

In order to know your audience, understand their needs, and identify how you can fill them, you have to do some homework. It seems silly to say it, but it’s important to remember that we live in the age of Google and LinkedIn. There are trade magazines that serve every industry imaginable. Most companies have a “news” section on their site where valuable information can be found related to changes in leadership, financials, acquisitions, and other business activities. Trade magazines will give fascinating insight into the company’s activities and performance in relation to peers, interesting events they may have taken part in, new business solutions the company may have adopted, and economic factors impacting the industry as a whole.

LinkedIn provides insight into who you will meet with. Have they published articles about their business philosophies? Maybe they shared an interesting story that you can mention at a strategic moment during your presentation. Perhaps they even posted something about the position for which you’re interviewing or about a particular challenge your product or service can address.

In a sales environment, all this information will help shape your “pitch”. You’ll learn valuable information about how your solution fits into their business structure, and more importantly, how your solution provides value! What challenge or obstacle can your solution help this organization overcome?

It’s important to note that there’s a certain amount of savvy necessary for these interactions because the last thing your audience wants to feel is judged. You certainly don’t want to lead with something like “So, I read in your last financial report that you lost 3.2 million dollars in your XYZ division but let me tell you how you can improve that!”

Not the best way to curry favor. 😉

Similarly, if you arrive for your job interview, don’t lead with something personal. If you checked out your interviewer on Facebook and found that they have a new child or adopted a new puppy, you’re not going to want to use that. You won’t appear prepared; you’ll look like a creepy stalker. Stick to LinkedIn and be strategic in how you use the insights you discover.

Preparing for a job interview requires a deep understanding of the posted job description and determining how that position fits into the larger organization and its activities. Has the company announced a recent initiative that involves the division within which you would be working? If so think about how you can connect that to your skills.

Basically, never walk in dry. Know what’s going on. Know who you’re talking to.

PURPOSE

Have a point. You worked hard to get this meeting or job interview. Whether you’re speaking to a “low-rung” employee or the CEO, they are taking the time to meet with you.

Job interviews are really quite similar to a sales meeting. In both settings you have to answer a series of questions that may not be directly asked but form the foundation of the entire interaction.

What can you do for them that they can’t do for themselves?

Why does any of this matter?

Why should your audience care?

What’s the point of all this?

You’ve given them your resume, or your sales material. You’ve gone over everything: features, benefits, experience, skills, price. Your materials are on quality paper, great graphics…everything is polished from your shoes up to your pitch.

And? What’s the point? Why should any of that matter to the person on the other side of the table?

SO WHAT?

“So what?” is a more powerful and important question than “How much?”

Whenever we are preparing for a job interview or sales call (remember they’re essentially the same thing) we must keep that question in mind.“So what?”

Explaining all the details, features, and benefits isn’t enough. Recounting your expertise, your extensive background, and academic credentials is not enough.

So what?

Don’t assume your value as a prospective employee will be self-evident to a hiring manager.

Don’t be so confident as to believe the value of your product or service is obvious.

This seems to be the single most taken-for-granted concept in all of communications, sales, and interview prep.

And don’t get me wrong, I’ve made this mistake myself.

I’m sure we all have and I’m sure we can all think of a time where sat through a meeting asking ourselves the same thing, “Ok…so what?”

TIE IT ALL TOGETHER

Everything you do in anticipation of the meeting or interview should lead you to being able to answer that question, “So what?”

Yet, all too often, we fall victim to getting caught up in the chase.

“All I need to do is just get my foot in the door!”

Ok…so you fought and clawed your way to getting on an executive’s calendar, or that of a hiring manager’s. Are you going to make the most of it?

What’s more important, getting the meeting or the result of the meeting?

I hate wasting time. Even more, I hate leaving a meeting feeling like I wasted someone else’s time.

So to close, I shall leave with you a bit of a mantra I’ve been repeating to myself lately:

Define your purpose and pursue it with passion, patience, persistence, and perseverance.

As you do, use communication, creativity, collaboration, and compassion.

Until next time…

Be Well and Kind,
Jason

How Instacart turned a customer into an apostle

One of the most influential people in my professional life is a man named Shane Frame. He’s one of the men behind the incredible Guitar Sanctuary in McKinney, TX…and one heck of a country guitar picker!

One of the lessons he taught me was the difference between customers and apostles or brand ambassadors.

He used to tell me, in that loveable twangy tone of his “Jason, we don’t want customers. We want apostles! We want to be so good at what we do that they go and tell everyone they know about us.”

That has always stuck with me. We shouldn’t strive for employees or customers. Anyone can do that.

Instead, we should strive to be so good at what we do (whatever that may be) that through sheer respect and appreciation people spread the story of who we are, what we believe, and how we do things.

No advertising campaign, no slogan, no amount invested in marketing of any kind can reap the benefits of incredible customer service.

Which brings me to Instacart.

Now I admit that I embrace crowd-sourcing and mobile apps more than anyone I know.

I jumped for joy when the press release about HEB and instacart serving my zip code hit my news feed.

I had been searching the web for food and grocery delivery services but found no one worthy of repeat business either because of ridiculous fees, clunky apps, or just the lack of that certain “wow” factor that draws us as consumers back to a given brand.

I also admit that I am not the kind of person that will use a service like instacart with significant frequency. Neither my budget nor my preference for picking out my own bananas make me the “typical” customer for same day grocery service….and I feel a little guilty about asking someone else to do something like grocery shopping for me.

But we all have “those” days (or weeks…or months haha) where we need a hand and instacart has been there on more than a few occasions.

Yesterday was just such a situation.

The Wife and I had been dealing with a sick pet, a sadistic (yet ridiculously adorable) toddler, our full-time careers, and everything in between. We had an exceptionally busy weekend with my school assignments, my nephew’s birthday party, all that sort of stuff.

I found myself out of baby food, out of bananas, out of pretty much everything so I logged into instacart, “did my shopping” and set a delivery time for the evening. Oh the wonders of our modern suburban lives!

The evening came and “Veronica” dutifully brought my kid cuisines and cold cuts right to my door and as I unpacked everything I stopped dead at the site of my shampoo and conditioner bottles. They were TINY…slightly bigger than a trial sample but not by much.

I had paid about the same as I would have paid had I gone to schmancy salon to buy my own schmancy brand shampoo and conditioner but I got about a third of the quantity.

I opened my app ready to shout to The Wife, “They brought us the wrong size!!”

Instead I shouted “I’m an idiot. I ordered a tiny size and they just charge as much as the regular size. Ugh.”

So we get our wildly gorgeous yet more than a little unruly baby to sleep and I’m fidgety. I got the “will you rate your transaction” email and I thought to myself…”why not?”

I clicked 4 stars and then hit “other” and explained that I thought it more than a bit lame to charge so much for such a small size but oh well, mea culpa.

I thought nothing else of it and fell asleep.

This morning I awoke to the standard “thanks for your feedback” acknowledgement and again, thought nothing of it and went through my day.

What happened next is what turned me from a customer into an apostle.

Instacart reached out to me to apologize for the issue. We had a thoughtful exchange about pricing policies and strategies, Veronica being awesome, and my own lack of attention to item descriptions.

With no reason to do so, instacart gave me a credit…waaaay above what was necessary and thanked ME for my loyalty and understanding.

Understanding? I understand that I didn’t read the description. I understand that you have very clearly stated pricing policies that state prices vary from those in-store. I understand that they did absolutely nothing wrong. I also understand that I was entitled to nothing.

BUT – they understand that they didn’t want me walking away from a transaction just feeling OK.

They understand brand ambassadors are worth more than a few bucks on a single order.

So I write this for two reasons – 1. It’s been a topic I’ve been mulling over for a while because Shane’s influence will last forever and 2. Because I believe that not it’s important to give credit where it’s due and to make sure we are shouting from the rooftops when companies do things RIGHT just as much, if not more, than we do when they do something we dislike.

If you haven’t tried instacart please do.

If you tried them and were happy, tell 10 people.

If you tried them and weren’t so happy tell THEM! Give them a chance to turn you around. They can’t help you if you don’t let them know…and be realistic and honest.

Get your message across to them and be willing to hear them out.

In the end, not every company is going to blow us away and not every company is going to get it right every single step of the way.

Instacart hit a homerun today and for that they get my incredible thanks and have earned a devoted customer. I’m now MORE likely to shop MORE often than I was two days ago…because I know they value me and they want to not just do good business but they want their customers to walk away feeling like they’re doing business with honest, devoted people.
And the idea of having my groceries delivered by someone listening to “In Bloom” by Nirvana is pretty freakin’ awesome.

Anyway – that’s my piece for today. I love instacart!!!
Who do you love?

Until next time…

Be Well and Kind,
Jason

Dear Sir or Madam will you read my….thoughts on opening and closing emails

We do it every day, often without even thinking about it.

Some of us do it over a hundred times a day.

I’m talking about email. We send and receive and respond and forward endlessly in a variety of contexts and environments but are we doing it right?

We all know the basics of email communication – try to be concise, keep it on point, don’t say anything you would feel even slightly uncomfortable about if it were to be forwarded to your boss or grandmother, right?

Check for typos – check.

Subject line is tight and meaningful? Check.

But there are two things that can make or break your email…two things that seem so simple but can render your message dead on arrival…they can go so far as to offend the recipient outright.

How should we open and close an email? The short answer is it depends but here are some thoughts to keep in mind for general, professional communications via email.

First things first….before you even open your email client, make sure you can answer these questions:

Who are you emailing?

What is their gender?

What’s their name?

Do you know how to spell it? Are you sure?

What is their role in the organization?

Why are you contacting them?

Where are they from?

What is their religion/culture? (Yes that matters.)

If you’re emailing, for instance, an executive (or a prospective employer) it’s best to keep things somewhat formal and definitely professional.

Mind you, you don’t want to be too stuffy. Don’t hearken back to a bygone age of literary elegance. You’re not Voltaire or John Locke. Likewise, you’re not writing a love letter so leave “My Immortal Beloved” off the list of greetings as well. This isn’t poetry.

“Dear” is perfectly acceptable and it’s probably the safest play.

In the US, stick with Mr/Ms (not Mrs unless you know she’s married and is ok with being addressed as such) and the last name.

Some do debate whether “Dear” too personal, or even romantic, but most agree that is a well-established, safe, and professional greeting.

The tricky part is region/culture. Mr/Ms isn’t the norm everywhere.

For instance – if you’re communicating with someone from Thailand, it is appropriate and respectful to address the recipient using “Khun” in place of Mr. or Ms.

You may notice that it’s common for Chinese associates to place their “last” name first. In comparison to US names that would look something like: Smith, John.

In other regions titles are incredibly important and excluding them may be taken as a slight or insult.

For instance, if they are a doctor, address them as such in your greeting. Another one that comes up for me within my organization is “Captain.” In these cases, use Dr. or Captain and the last name.

Avoid using first names in your initial communication, particularly with international recipients until you know it’s OK to do so. The recipient will either sign their response as such or they may say “you may refer to me as (first name).

In many regions of the world, first (or common names) are only used between close acquaintances and friends.

Greeting someone by their first name within a professional context via email can be insulting and kill your message before they even read the body of your email.

You may be tempted to start your email with “Good Morning” but understand that your morning may be their afternoon/evening/middle of the night. If you want to do something more than just “Dear” I’ve found that “Greetings Ms/Dr/Mr/Khun/ Last Name is typically well-received but it may come off as overly formal or awkward so tread lightly when veering too far from the standard “Dear” until you’ve built a rapport and rhythm with your recipient.

How about when you’re signing off?

Again – remember you’re not writing a classical, formal letter to your beloved while fighting a war overseas so leave “love,” “forever truly,” “yours always,” and all that jazz out of it.

If it’s a casual email where you are asking a quick favor – say an internal communication where you’re requesting quick action on something like correcting the spelling of your name in a company directory – then “thanks” is fine.

BUT…if you’re emailing a potential client, particularly an executive level individual, asking for a meeting or further information – thanks isn’t going to cut it.

Consider using something along the lines of “I truly appreciate your time” or “Many thanks for your attention.” “With Thanks” is something I see regularly.

In general a safe closing is simply “Sincerely.”

I’m not a fan of “Sincerely Yours” in a business context.
As for “Regards” and everything we’ve all put before it…”warm(est)” “best” “kind(est)” etc…
My suggestion is stick with “Best Regards.” It’s simple, clean, and covers most situations. If you want your closing to be a tad more gentle but still professional, “Kind Regards” is a nice way to do that.

There seems to be a small but growing trend towards avoiding closings altogether….just finish your last sentence, hit return, and then your name.

Again – beware.

When dealing with such diverse contacts closing with just your name can seem overly abrupt…harsh even. It could even seem like you didn’t finish your thought and accidentally hit “send” before wrapping up your email.

My personal rule of thumb is to err on the side of formality and respect until the recipient creates a more casual environment…let them lead this little dance.

Wait to see how they responds before shifting to more casual/friendly closings like simply “all the best,” “Have a great day,” or “cheers” or moving towards simple “Hi” and first name greetings.

Sometimes when emailing certain individuals they may respond by addressing me simply as “Jason” and close with their first name but depending on the context of the communication I may stick with using Ms/Mr/Dr – last name until I know for sure they will not be insulted.

Again – it’s about building a rapport and in order to get your message across you have to build a healthy one.

Once that rapport is established you’ll be able to read their cues and respond in kind…and make sure you do. Again, when dealing with diverse cultures it’s vital to apply yourself a bit.

Don’t go overboard though. If you go out of your way to close an email using a colloquial phrase used in any given region of the world that you looked up online you run the risk of coming off as trying too hard. Even worse, you may appear insulting or patronizing.

So that’s my piece for today – when in doubt, err on the side of restraint and professionalism when opening and closing your emails and let the recipient dictate the tone.

What are some of your best practices? What works for you when interacting with your business clients and associates, particularly ones you don’t already have a relationship with? What are you best “ice breakers” for initial contact?

Until next time…

Be Well and Kind,
Jason

 

 

 

 

It’s ALWAYS and NEVER the same…EVERY TIME….LITERALLY!

Hyperbole, its use as a literary device and its examination as such, are as old as language. Even Jesus was known to utilize it more than a time or two.

As social media has (d?)evolved, as text speak has become entrenched in our collective vernacular it appears that we’ve reached a point where there may not be able to actually exaggerate anything any further than we do in any given moment.

Think for a moment…someone posts a relatively cute .gif to your Facebook page. It’s a toddler stumbling in the yard as dad struggles to balance his whatever in one hand and another child in the other only to save the toddler from sudden death by using his foot to balance the child before he fell on a paver stone….or whatever.

The comments start flowing. “OMG I’m DYING!” “LITERALLY the FUNNIEST THING EVER!”

Perhaps you’re in the parking lot at work. A coworker pulls into his space and his breaks squeal. Obviously he needs to have the pads replaced. Someone next to you says “Oh GOD. That’s the WORST SOUND EEEEVVVVERRR!!”

Hyperbole, and its effectiveness as tool to express the author’s or speaker’s intentions and meaning, hinge upon creativity, context, and perhaps most of all – restraint.

When your communications are riddled with exaggerations you run the risk of being seen as a “drama queen” or the boy who cried wolf.

Think about it. If every time you get a cold you feel like you’re “DYING!” and you’ve NEVER felt this bad EVER IN YOUR LIFE…until your allergies act up in a few weeks, how is everyone else supposed to react?

In relationship counseling one of the first things therapists say is for the couple to erase words like “ALWAYS” and “NEVER” from their vocabulary because really…does your wife ALWAYS “act that way”? Is your husband truly NEVER “good” to you?

The same is true in marketing or advertising. Just enough creative exaggeration and you attract audiences with your wit and savvy. Go overboard and you’re the monster truck rally on Sunday SUNDAY SUUUUNNNNDAY!!!!  

So that’s the lesson for today. Don’t be so quick to exaggerate when you’re trying to get your message across. Subtlety, particularly in an environment when hyperbole is the norm, can make your message more impactful. I won’t say you should NEVER use hyperbole though. You should ALWAYS know when to pull it out to make your message resonate with your audience. 😉

Until next time…

Be Well and Kind,

Jason

Changing the narrative

Yesterday, a really smart lady brought up the subject of “changing my narrative” and how necessary it is to reprogram my outlook on a couple things about my life.

It got me to thinking about this notion of controlling your narrative and being self-aware enough to know when you need to change it. It’s not the first time I’ve thought about it but it’s the first time I’ve thought about it in such a specific way in a long time.

Our narratives are often dictated to us when we’re kids. Our parents, our schoolmates, teachers, bullies, the cool kids, the smart kids, the assistant principals, coaches, and everyone in between all have a hand in shaping our narrative. As times have progressed and society has become more aware, there’s been a lot of emphasis on The Media and how it can negatively frame our narratives related to issues like weight, “beauty,” and gender stereotypes.

As we get older there are other figures that help shape our narrative, sometimes for good, sometimes not. Our professors, coworkers, and supervisors feed us input that go into our narrative.

Then at some point it’s written. Our memories and experiences and the emotions attached to them become codified in our minds and hearts and our narrative is set. It becomes the story we tell ourselves and the story we tell about ourselves and for better or worse, it guides us and shapes how we navigate through life.

But our stories are every-changing. Our narrative doesn’t have to be permanent. It’s incumbent upon all individuals, and organizations, to be self-aware enough to identify those key moments that demand we take control of our narratives.

At some point we just can’t let ourselves be that kid who lived on the fringes of all the cool groups, desperate to be included. At some point we can’t let ourselves be the adult who is constantly chasing some nebulous definition of success.

Organizations face this challenge every day. Social media has proven to be a blade that truly cuts both ways as some companies are able to get their message out and engage their audiences with a personal and creative touch that pays dividends. Others have seen consumers take control of the narrative with viral shares of negative reviews and screen caps of poorly phrased statements by a social media manager who was in over the heads or having a particularly bad day. Once lost, control of the narrative can be difficult to regain.

Last year I had the pleasure of speaking to the corporate leadership of a oil well drilling services company that was struggling to survive the incredible drop in oil barrel prices. When drilling throughout the United States slowed down, and in many cases simply stopped, demand for their services ended. They wanted to take this as an opportunity to do a bit of a reset.

They wanted to lay the groundwork for the time when oil prices would rebound so that when the drilling resumed, they would be well positioned as the most recognizable, customer-oriented service provider in the industry.

They wanted to change the narrative. They did an incredible job redesigning their website, they made some key decisions related to how they approached their corporate partners and suppliers, and they hired a couple of incredibly talented people to help shape their marketing strategy and training programs. As oil prices have crept back up, they have begun to reap the rewards of their bold decision to take control of their narrative. They refused to let circumstances dictate who they were going to be.

Every day we decide whether or not we will own our narrative or if we will allow others to write out stories. Every day we have to decide whether or not we’re willing to finally put periods on sentences that have had question marks on them. Every day we have the opportunity to close the book on the story we’ve been writing for too many years and start crafting a new one.

Take that opportunity. Take that opportunity to tell your story, the way you want to tell it to everyone who needs to hear it….especially yourself.

Be Well and Kind,
Jason

 

Digital tech with an analog soul

When I was a kid I had pencils, chalk, crayons, and paper. I rode a big wheel there were two knobs on the TV, one for UHF and the other for VHF…or just the “top” and “bottom.”

I listened to music on vinyl records and cassette tapes.

Basically what I’m saying is that I’m old enough to remember a time before all of this…all of it.

I know, I’m dating myself but hang in there.

That said, I’m also young enough to have grown up as everything happened. I had Atari, then Nintendo, and now there’s an XBOX One in my living room…Cortana too but we aren’t on speaking terms. I get along much better with Alexa.

Though I fought it until the bitter end, I did give in and made room in my life for a CD player, then a portable one for the car that connected via an adapter inserted into the cassette deck.

Now…well I subscribe to Amazon Prime Music and Google Play.

My entire life has been lived with one foot in either world – the analog and the digital. I’ve never firmly committed to either, fighting the transition only to embrace it in the end.

Years ago, ever frustrated with the limitations, expense, and complications of analog recording in a home environment I broke down and invested in a digital recording system…something, like a CD player, I had sworn never to even consider.

So here I am…living in both worlds…enjoying and embracing all that the digital world bless me with but clinging to the analog spirit I grew up with.

The Beatles recorded on tape. Brian Wilson produced Pet Sounds on tape. George Orwell didn’t have Microsoft Word…he didn’t even have Word Perfect.

Yet…I have access to almost every song ever recorded simply by saying Alexa play… or OK Google!

There’s a lesson here though. There’s something important that I think should resonate with all of us…particularly those of us who work in communications.

It’s critical for us to engage our audiences using the most effective and modern channels. We must go where our audience is already waiting. If that means MySpace then MySpace. If they move to Facebook, or Instagram, or Snapchat, or wherever else…that’s where we go.

If it means using emojis or limiting our message to 140 characters, that’s what we have to do because part of being an effective communicator is delivering that message in a method that is well received and understood by the audience.

It doesn’t matter that you manufacture the best product, provide the best service, offer the best workplace. If you can’t get your message out in a way that is heard and appreciated, no one will know or care.

BUT….in our race to embrace the newest and fastest we must never lose sight of what connects us, what binds us…that analog soul.

We are analog beings living in a digital world.

The warmth, the grit, the rough-around-the-edges integrity that makes us each who we are should never be sacrificed at the alter of technology.

Rather, we should use technology to enhance and amplify our analog spirit.

We should let our analog souls and need for warm interaction determine how we utilize the tools that technology provides.

We’ve all seen the home buying shows…we’ve all been in restaurants with a “clean, modern feel.”

By and large, as a people, we leave those trends behind. Why? Because there’s a sterile, coldness to those sleek, gray, clean lines.

Only when that modern avocado and mahogany cabinet has been around the block does it become a cherished “mid-century modern” antique. Before it reached that ripe old age and revered title, well, it was just tacky.

The same is true with how we choose to communicate our messages.

Internally yes, sometimes an email blast is fine. Sometimes that’s all you need. Other times, maybe you should take the time to engage people one-on-one. Perhaps a printed letter in an envelope left at everyone’s desk is the right touch.

Externally, whether engaging prospective clients or a mass of would-be customers, think about what you want to say, how you want to say it, how you want it to be received, and then assess your strategy.

Maybe a mass email dump with addresses exported from Excel is just fine. Maybe though, maybe you should spend that extra time to look up the weather in each city of each client to whom you’re marketing your business. Maybe actually put pen to paper, maybe hand write the address on the envelope.

Almost all of us crave connection. Almost all of us notice when something is different.

When tailoring your message keep that in mind. Offer people more than a widget or a great deal. Offer them a connection.

Don’t reach out to them the same old way everyone else does.

Be different.

Be analog in a digital world.

Be Well and Kind,

Jason