Author Archives: Tim Luscombe

Avoid the fake news trap

It’s not just in American politics that we suffer from fake news. It happens all the time in the business world over here as well.

Sometimes, it’s internal. Credit is taken or blame shifted from one individual to another through careful commentary and positioning.

Often, it’s external. For instance, when dealing with customers or suppliers where promises or half-promises are made in the full knowledge that they won’t be kept.

If you are getting ‘fake news’ internally, you have a cultural problem. Your team are not being honest and open, which shows there is a lack of trust. That leads to team members retaining rather than sharing their knowledge and working as individuals, rather than as part of the greater whole.

It can take some time to change the culture.  The trap here for the manager is that they act on the fake news – so reinforcing the behaviour of the guilty party. I claim credit for a job that really belongs to someone else, get rewarded, so I’ll do it again!

You can avoid this by double-checking your facts. Good journalists confirm their stories from multiple sources. If you reward the right people, the fake news will fade away – it becomes pointless because you have seen through it.

Now let’s look at the effects of fake news externally.  If you are making promises to customers that you know you can’t keep, you are just setting yourself up for failure. If I promise to deliver by next Tuesday, delivering on Tuesday or before makes me look good. Delivering on Wednesday makes me look bad – so why would I promise delivery on Tuesday?  I’m afraid of disappointing the customer, but if I don’t tell the truth I am just deferring the disappointment.

Your suppliers may be following the same route. You push for a faster delivery, they say ‘yes, we can do it’ (because that’s easier than saying no), and then they disappoint you with a later than expected delivery.

Fake news may be affecting either or both your customers and suppliers, but you can always check and challenge what’s been promised. You’ll find you won’t have to do that too often before the fake news goes away!

Is process the enemy of creativity?

I have been told more times than I care to remember that process inhibits creativity and we should just ‘let things flow’ so that creative ideas are not short-lived – or even stillborn.

Well-planned processes take into account all the ripple effects. Making a change in a business is like throwing a rock into a series of interlinked ponds. You might be able to see where the ripples end in the first pond, but what about the splash that agitates the next pond and creates ripples there?

The phrase that comes to mind is –

The law of unintended consequences

Well-structured processes and procedures are designed to take to take care of all these side effects so that the organisation remains able to function efficiently.

Organisations with poor or non-existent processes end up re-inventing the wheel. They waste time and effort working out how to do things scratch when they have been done before.

But there may be an element of truth in the assertion that process inhibits creativity. I have come across systems and procedures which are so rigid and inflexible that nothing ever gets changed. It’s just too much like hard work to introduce a new idea!

For me, that’s a good reason to change the process. It’s not a good reason to bypass the process or take shortcuts, which is what my creative colleagues often seem to want to do!

Getting a new idea up and running in an organisation will always mean there are going to be hurdles or barriers to be overcome. For example, it might be that you are required to have a fully costed budget, or perhaps you need to be championed by someone higher up in the organisation.

Creativity is stifled when those hurdles are set too high, too soon. If too many approvals are required early on, it’s much easier to say ‘no’ and kill the project.

Why not take a leaf out of Metro Bank’s book? They have a rule that it takes two managers to say ‘no’ to a customer, but only one to say ‘yes’.

That’s a process, by the way, and I don’t see it inhibiting creativity!

Are you proactive or reactive?

Have you noticed how busy everyone is?

When you walk down the street or sit somewhere for a coffee, look around, and you’ll see most people engaged with their devices. Mobile phones and tablets are wonderful tools that keep us in touch with what’s happening in the world, and with our contacts nearer home.

We’re all busy. When you’re trying to get someone’s attention with an email or another piece of marketing material, the gurus will tell you that you have to try seven or more times before you should expect a result.

If you follow Twitter, or you’ve tried to do so, the sheer volume of comment can be overwhelming, and the same can be said of Facebook. Keeping up to date with the minutiae of your friends’ lives would leave you with no time to do anything else!

Even if you don’t use social media, it’s really easy to spend all day just reading and responding to emails.

The danger with this is that you are only ever reacting to inbound information – or noise – and not being proactive and moving towards your objective.
You do have an objective for today, don’t you?That sounds like such a big thing. The objective. It’s rather a grandiose term and perhaps a little intimidating, isn’t it?

Let me simplify it.

At the start of each day, ask yourself: “What am I going to achieve today?’

How you answer this will set your objective for the day. It’s not complicated, but it is important – important enough to write down and remember it.

When you’re taking a break – perhaps when you go to get a coffee, or perhaps at lunch, take a look at the objective and measure how much progress you’ve made towards it.

Repeat the exercise at the end of the day.

You’ll be amazed at how much more you get done when you stick to the task you’ve set yourself!

You don’t charge enough

Nearly every business leader I meet is keen to tell me how good they are at what they do, and how much their customers value them. That’s great, but often that value is not reflected in the financial results for the business for one simple reason.

You don’t charge enough

In the speaking world, I advised a speaker to charge almost 3 times as much for an event as some of my colleagues thought she should. Her message to me was “I went for it. But only because you gave me the confidence to do so”

If you don’t ask for it, you won’t get it

It’s probably obvious that if you are a speaker or a business advisor what you charge is fundamental to how much you take home.

In every business, pricing can make a really significant difference to the bottom line. Imagine a high volume, low margin distribution business that has a turnover of £10m and a net profit of £1m. (I am keeping the numbers easy!)

If that business could increase its prices by 10% their profits would increase by £1m. Their profits would double.
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You may be saying “I can’t put my prices up by 10%, I’d lose too much business” but I’d encourage you to think carefully about that and take a look at your model.

If my distribution business is making a 20% gross profit now, that means every £1 of sales generates just 20p in gross profit. When they put their prices up, the 20p becomes 30p so you would have to lose an awful lot of business to be worse off

If 10% is too much for you to risk, how about 2%? Increase your prices by 2% every year and the effect on profitability is amazing in a very short period of time.

All your secrets are revealed

In any business and in any department managers will be concerned to reduce doubts and remove fears and uncertainties from them their team. That’s great when the news is positive, but what do you do when it is not so good?

I have learned that in many businesses there are no secrets and trying to keep secrets just creates more problems than it is worth.

The fastest method of communication has always been the rumour mill. I think it breaks Einstein’s laws and is actually faster than the speed of light!

The messages sent and received by the rumour mill are like those on an old radio. They are subject to heavy distortion, some of which may be intentional and some accidental. There are individuals who seek to benefit, if only emotionally, by spreading their distorted view of events. 

Who are you thinking of, right now?

If you want to make sure that all right message goes out to your team you need to control the message and the only way to do and that is to get ahead of the game.

There will be times when you don’t want the team to know everything but if you say nothing they’ll make up their own minds.  The trick is to give them enough to keep them feeling they are “in the know” without revealing the sensitive information.

This is never more relevant than when you are selling your business.

It is self-evident that you don’t want to tell the whole team you are considering selling. If you do, the next question will be some way towards “What does that mean for me?” which you, as the vendor, cannot answer. What the new owner does with the business and the team is down to them!

The acquirer is quite likely to want to see the business, so you need to tell the team something and the closer to the truth the better.

How about “We are exploring how our businesses might work together?”

It’s a lot more credible than the old “prospective customer” especially when you don’t usually have customer visits.

Look for the cause

Whatever business you are in, it is worth considering cause and effect whenever something good or bad happens.

It’s a bit like a doctor diagnosing the illness that is causing the fever, not just treating the fever, but far too often we focus on preventing the bad stuff, not repeating the good stuff.

The same principle applies to quality systems. There are procedures and processes like root cause analysis and the 5 whys principles that help you determine the real cause. Once you have done that you can prevent the root cause, which prevents the effect.

I am at least as interested in what went well as I am in what went badly. Eliminating errors and preventing problems is great, but doesn’t move the business forward.

A few months ago I had a meeting with a prospect who was initially quite hostile, so much so that I struggled to get him to agree to a meeting at all. I’d been introduced by a colleague, so he had expressed an interest in getting his business ready for sale, but even so he was difficult.

The meeting went OK. It was not the most positive experience, and I think if you’d asked me to rate my chances of securing work immediately after the meeting I would have said perhaps 30%.

Two days later, I had a phone conversation with this same person. He was really enthusiastic, telling me that he was just off on a business trip but that he would be in touch and we would be working together.

I like the effect – having a prospect tell me that he will be engaging with me is good news, but without knowing the cause I could not repeat it.

When you have a sales meeting that fails or a marketing campaign that didn’t work, I suspect you have a review process to determine why. Do you have the same process when you win?

(By the way, I think my prospect became my fan as a result of reading my book, Deal Finance)

What’s new about social proof?

At your local fruit and veg market, the stall holder doesn’t just serve you and take your money. He or she is quite likely to loudly tell everyone in earshot (and that’s a long way for a market trader) what you’ve bought. The other prospective customers hear that you bought a lovely bunch of bananas (or even coconuts.)

When you’re looking for somewhere to eat in unfamiliar circumstances, you are likely to look for the restaurant that is busy and avoid the one that is empty. You can see that other people are eating there, so it must be ok.

If you go to a trade show or an exhibition, you will pass by the stands with no visitors but if there’s a crowd gathered around a stand, you will wonder “What’s going on there?” and perhaps join the throng.

I keep hearing about this new thing “Social Proof” which I think of as “the reassurance that people like me are buying this product that I am considering” and examples abound all over the internet, from Amazon reviews through to holiday sites offering user ratings and the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) with film and TV show ratings.

I don’t buy anything without checking the reviews, and I don’t think I am alone. How many times do you see the word “trust” used in marketing efforts today?

If your marketing material and your website don’t contain customer testimonials and reviews, you are like the lonely exhibitor with no one to talk to. They are all over at the busy stand. Worse than that, the prospect who is considering you may look at the lack of reviews and decide they are the one making the mistake. No-one else is buying from here, that’s a big risk, too big a risk for me. I’ll find an alternative where there’s some proof.

Social proof isn’t new – but gaining access to it as a buyer is easier than ever. Ignore it at your peril, get those testimonials and reviews

Sometimes it is good to wait

When we are in conversation, there’s a natural rhythm and most of the time we read the signals, we know when the other party has finished speaking and make our comments at the appropriate time. When that goes wrong, we end up interrupting each other and failing to listen.

If you are not a fearsome interviewer called Paxman or Humphreys that is probably accidental, or it is driven by emotion – usually anger.

Interrupting someone by speaking over them is bad manners, and can provoke the speaker being interrupted.

It can be necessary, especially if you have someone veering from the point of the discussion, to bring them back on track but you don’t have to speak over them – or worse shout to get your voice heard.

Often, a quizzical look is enough, but if that doesn’t work try raising your hand and waiting. Most people will pause, and that pause offers you the opportunity to comment.

You can use one of several phrases at this moment. You might say “That’s interesting, can we come back to that in future?” or perhaps “Fascinating, but we were discussing XYZ and I’d like to complete that discussion before we move onto this topic”

The pause is one of the most powerful – and underutilised – conversational (and public speaking) techniques.

Try inserting deliberate pauses into a conversation when you are trying to elicit information, or want to convince your conversation partner to contribute more. We don’t like silence and the temptation is to “fill in the blanks”

Combine it with the technique of asking open questions – simply questions to which the answer cannot be Yes or No – and be patient.

In a one to one or small group conversation, the other parties will feel compelled to share their thoughts.

Make Meetings Fun

Sometimes we think that having fun and being serious are opposite ends of a scale, but if you consider it carefully the opposite of fun is gloom, and the opposite of serious is frivolous.

The words that go with gloom (in a business sense) are boredom and oppression. Do you really want your meetings to be boring and oppressive?

You don’t want the meetings to be frivolous, where the definition is “not having any serious purpose or value” but far too many meetings are just that. Meetings must have a purpose!
Giving a meeting a purpose is straightforward in principle if a little more difficult in practice!

Create an agenda, and ensure that each meeting spends more time focused on the future rather than the past. The summary of the meeting should be the points agreed and the actions resulting from the meeting. The chairman’s job is to move the meeting on, not just from item to item but also from focus on the past to the future.

Making meetings fun and enjoyable also requires some effort. Break the ice – even with an established team – by a few light-hearted remarks at the start of the meeting. There’s always something – and you can use events in the attendees’ personal lives such as birthdays, upcoming holidays or even a liking for a biscuit!

Celebrate successes from the past. We feel good when we are recognised and lauded, so find something to praise.
Offer support for problems. There’s very little benefit to be had by “tearing a strip off” in a meeting. Public criticism of a team member should be the last resort, but that doesn’t mean you don’t hold them to account. Explore the situation in some detail and ask the question “What can we do to help?” or “What help do you need?” so that no one is in any doubt who holds the responsibility.

Next meeting, you will be celebrating the successful resolution of the problem. You’ll find the team working together to eliminate the problems before the meeting – so they really do become fun!

Subtle approaches

There are times when you see a colleague struggling, or perhaps just not making the grade. You may not be directly responsible for them, so in many ways, it is not your problem and they probably won’t ask for help.

There are also individuals who are closed, and not receptive to advice or guidance. They react very negatively if you try to tell them how to do something or suggest a better way.A phrase that you can use in both these circumstances is “If I were you I would…” It works by inserting a qualifier – you are making your suggestion conditional upon being the other party – which means it is not a direct instruction. It’s a suggestion for consideration.
In a similar vein, when I am approaching business owners on behalf of a potential acquirer, I find the direct approach can lead to high levels of rejection.The instinctive answer to “Would you like to sell your business?” appears to be “No”

If I ask a slightly different question “My client would like to explore a closer working relationship with you – is that something you would consider?” the answer is nearly always yes.That allows me to enter into a conversation, find out more about the company and make better decisions based on that additional information.
I’m reminded of the saying “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”

I am instinctively polite and would feel uncomfortable asking anyone to do anything without adding a “please” 
If you have the opportunity to use slightly more subtle language, try to do so.
It’s very rare that your meaning doesn’t come across loud and clear!