The Entrepreneur’s Zone of Doom

What do we dread most in our business and personal lives today? No, it’s not losing. When that happens, we simply pick ourselves up and go after it again. And it’s not being overwhelmed by our workload. We solve this with a few adjustments to time management and delegating to other team members. Our biggest “dread” is insidious and frustrating beyond belief. Here’s an example of what happens. We’re attempting to do business with someone. We’re past the cold calling stage and actually have been interacting with other party. We send an e-mail and wait a day or two. Then we call and leave a voicemail. Perhaps we even send a text. A week goes by with radio silence. We’re officially in the Zone of Doom.

The Zone of Doom is the black hole of non-responsiveness. Unfortunately, it’s become an epidemic. With caller ID many people simply ignore calls from those of us with whom they do not wish to speak. Blowing off e-mails is even easier. I know I sound like an old geezer, but when I was growing up in the business world, I quickly learned that protocol dictated the return of every phone call the same day or next morning. We didn’t have e-mail back then, so letters and memos were the standard for written communications. The expectation was that the response be immediate. There never was any thought of not responding at all. In fact, when someone slipped and failed to provide a timely response, the word usually got back to corporate leadership and there was hell to pay.

The biggest challenge relayed to me by members of our team is that their interactions with so many people outside the company are one-way. Simply trying to reach people is so much harder than ever before. Long ago, I resolved not to fall into this category. I think I’m about 95% true to this resolution. I do return my phone calls in a timely fashion – though I will admit that there may be a cold call here or there from a salesperson that I miss. I believe most people will attest to the fact that I usually return all my e-mails the same day if not the same hour.

So how are we supposed to deal with the Zone of Doom?  How are we supposed to do business when people are so unresponsive? There’s no question that failure to respond is not acceptable. But we must ask ourselves what might be the root cause for our receiving the silent treatment? This goes beyond the fact that people are busy. It all boils down to priorities. Think about how we develop our own set of priorities. What goes at the top of the list and what goes at the bottom? I find that the things that are most important are those which are most impactful to my business and my life. It’s a pretty good bet that others set their priorities in the same manner. When I’m trying to reach someone else, I try to bear in mind whether communicating with me will make that much difference to the other person. There’s the word . . . difference.

We must be able to differentiate ourselves when competing with someone else’s priorities. Is what we are attempting to communicate really that important to them? If not, then what can we do to push it up toward the top of the ladder. This is where relationship building becomes so important. I’ve written many times that relationships are all about service. I’ve found that the harder I work to establish and serve a relationship the more likely someone will reciprocate my attempt to communicate. You may be thinking, “How can I possibly build and serve relationships with everyone with whom I come into contact?” No one said it would be easy. Relationships take time to build and there’s no time to waste. Any and every little thing that can be done to help someone else builds that relationship. Many businesspeople seek to establish relationships to benefit themselves. If we do it differently and make every attempt to help others, our efforts will be recognized as genuine and authentic.

We can avoid the Zone of Doom by building relationships for the purpose of serving others. And through our relationships, we move up the priority list of those we are serving.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Entrepreneur and Internet Flamers

Social media has many advantages for the entrepreneur. It’s a cost-effective way to reach large numbers of potential customers and can be a key element in building a brand. Online stores can be a huge advantage to sellers who wish to bypass the traditional bricks and mortar channels. However, there is a dark side to the Internet and entrepreneurs must be ever mindful of how it can rear up and bite us at any given moment.

We experienced the “dark side” on a small rural apartment community. Our maintenance technician had a serious health issue that took him out of action. After several weeks he informed us that he would not be able to return to work. During his absence, we were covering the property with a maintenance technician from a property in another town, 42 miles away. The on-site property manager was also located in another town and traveled between three properties within this 42-mile radius. Unfortunately, there were some maintenance items that were slow to be resolved as well as a lack of adequate communications with the residents. There’s no question, we dropped the ball with these issues.

One day while visiting my LinkedIn page, I noticed that a woman had “flamed” me and our company. Apparently, she was the daughter of one of the residents of the apartment property previously mentioned. She made several allegations in her post that were incorrect. Threats were made to contact the state housing agency. But here’s the kicker. Never once did she attempt to reach out directly to me and make me aware of the issues. Instead she simply offered her inflammatory post for all to see. Several individuals (they must have been her LinkedIn connections) jumped on the bandwagon. One person wrote, “horrible.” Another wrote, “What a disgrace!” Still another posted, “Just awful! I hope this post results in his immediate actions and corrections.”

I posted a brief explanation of the situation along with a full apology for what had transpired. I tip my hat to one individual who wrote, “Before you plastered this on this Internet, have you contacted Lee Harris directly? The man has had this business for 44 years . . . hard to believe there isn’t a back story to these issues.” I am most appreciative that this gentleman offered this comment. While the mob mentality was in full mode, at least there was a single voice of reason.

The danger of social media is quite evident in this experience. The daughter of our resident decided for reasons unknown, that she would rather attempt to shame (and flame) us on LinkedIn than to contact me directly. She published inaccurate (and untrue) information on a public forum. She found my LinkedIn page and could easily have called or e-mailed me – but didn’t take that approach. She posted a follow-up response to a comment from one of her connections, “We are now able to articulate the issues and have a direct line with the company – and will be working to create true delivery on brand promises.” Does that seem a little bit smug to you? She could have articulated the issues and had the same direct line with the company had she picked up the phone and called me.

As entrepreneurs, we understand that there are people who literally live their lives on social media. They share everything – large and small – that they encounter. Our businesses are now fishbowls more than ever before. We’ve had people write lousy Google reviews that were well-deserved and correct. And we’ve had disgruntled residents who have been evicted, and team members who were terminated, write ugly reviews posing as upstanding victims. Whether it’s Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or any of the other social media platforms, there is always a mob ready to pounce and shriek about the purported injustices that are being posted. I wish this wasn’t the way of the world, but it’s a condition we must live with.

Here’s what I have learned. There’s no point in trying to rebut a flamer. A calm response that offers a sincere apology is the most appropriate course of action. Hopefully someone will speak up as a counter to the mob. Most importantly, we must make certain that we are always delivering the highest quality products and services as possible.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Cumulative Effect of Little Things

Customers quit all the time. Many entrepreneurs work extremely hard to prevent the big screw-ups that alienate and enrage customers. Yet, even with this effort, there are still customers that leave and don’t come back. What’s up with this?

Consider this scenario. An entrepreneur has opened a new restaurant and works 24/7 to develop a loyal clientele. Over time the restaurant grows and enjoys success – it’s even profitable! But then its trajectory levels off. It’s not growing like it was and some of the regular faces aren’t there anymore. The entrepreneur studies his operation but can’t find anything glaring that is causing this trend. His puzzlement and frustration grow. Why isn’t he winning like he used to?

Had the entrepreneur taken a much closer and more granular look, he might have discovered the root cause of his problem. Had he followed one of his oldest customers – we’ll be original and call him Mr. Smith – he might have observed the following occurrences. On one occasion, Mr. Smith made a reservation in advance, but when he arrived the time was wrong. The hostess apologized profusely, but it did cause minor inconvenience to the customer. In another instance Mr. Smith’s credit card was declined. After an embarrassing moment for Mr. Smith, the server found that the credit card terminal was on the fritz. A few weeks later Mr. Smith was in a hurry to leave for a business appointment and his lunch was delayed due to a mix-up in the kitchen. Another time his steak wasn’t properly prepared. In still another instance, one of the side dishes he ordered was forgotten.

These seemingly small and inconsequential issues continued to occur over a period of months. Mr. Smith did not encounter problems every time he ate at the restaurant. But they happened often enough that he began to feel as though this eatery wasn’t the bright and shiny object that it had once appeared to be. Gradually Mr. Smith came to the restaurant with less frequency. The final straw came on a day when Mr. Smith noticed he had been charged for an appetizer he hadn’t ordered. The bill was corrected, but that was the last time Mr. Smith ever patronized the restaurant.

I call what happened here The Cumulative Effect of Little Things. The entrepreneur who owned the restaurant was prone to look at each minor problem on a stand-alone basis. And when viewed in this manner, it’s a mystery to see how a slightly undercooked steak here or a credit card snafu there could be enough to chase away a customer. He was looking for and trying to prevent, much larger issues. What he failed to understand is that the small stuff contributes to an overall customer experience. If Mr. Smith had visited the restaurant only once, he probably wouldn’t have given much thought to the fact that his meal arrived four minutes before that of his dining companion. But Mr. Smith was a regular customer and his impression of the restaurant was driven by an accumulation of experiences.

We can keep The Cumulative Effect of Little Things from causing our customers to quit. How? There are two ways. First, we must be sticklers for the small details. With the right systems, processes and team member training, we can eliminate the small mistakes that seemingly happen every day and yet are excused as too minor to matter. Second, we must be joined at the hip with our customers. It’s crucial that we know what they are experiencing at all times. Continuing with the restaurant example, when the owner or general manager shows up at my table at some point during the meal; chats briefly with me and asks (genuinely) what can be done to make my dining experience better, then I know I’m dealing with someone who really cares about me as a customer. I generally don’t ever encounter problems in those restaurants.

Customers leave more often than not as a result of The Cumulative Effect of Little Things rather than a major malfunction. Caring about the little details AND the customer will go a long way to creating a loyal following.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Anatomy of an Entrepreneur

As entrepreneurs exactly who are we? What makes us tick? Is there some sort of DNA gene that we can point to? I’ve thought a lot about some of the exceptional entrepreneurs I’ve known over the past four decades and have identified some of their traits and tendencies that stand out.

Let’s start with creativity and innovation. Entrepreneurs use their creative powers to innovate and find a better way to do something. Elon Musk has to be one of the most prolific entrepreneurs when it comes to innovation – Tesla Motors, SpaceX, Pay Pal and Solar City come to mind to name a few. Often, creative entrepreneurs are also visionaries. They have an uncanny ability to see into the future and understand what their customers will want and how their company needs to be designed to win. GoPro CEO Nick Woodman is one of the foremost visionaries in America today. Who could ever have imagined a series of high definition video cameras that are small, durable and light enough to capture our daily adventures – daring and mundane? And successful entrepreneurs understand risk. Rather than taking risk they are adept at managing it.

When they get knocked down, great entrepreneurs get back up – over and over and over. They are amazingly resilient and don’t see failure . . . only opportunity. Walt Disney was fired by his employer, the Kansas City Star, because he supposedly lacked creativity. That didn’t seem to impact his storied career. When things don’t work out as planned, they are flexible and know how to adapt and make the best of every situation. Top-flight entrepreneurs are persuasive and can convince others to say yes. They do so through the power of their passion. Does Steve Jobs come to mind? Look what he convinced us to buy! Along with their persuasive powers, successful entrepreneurs are strong communicators in both verbal and written formats.

Entrepreneurs are assertive – the great ones are less aggressive than assertive. They have a healthy degree of empathy and are sensitive to the feelings of others. Entrepreneurs at the top of their game have a certain amount of charisma. They can be sociable and gregarious – even if those aren’t their core tendencies. Without charisma an entrepreneur will find it tougher to raise money, develop important relationships and influence others. Billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson is one of the most charismatic leaders on the planet. And he has woven his charisma into a tapestry of empathy and caring about other people.

Culture King is another descriptor for the cream-of-the-crop entrepreneur. Ben Chestnut, founder and CEO of MailChimp fits into this category in the ways he has empowered the 500+ members of his team. Hand-in-hand with a strong culture is a smart entrepreneur’s ability to delegate. According to a 2013 Gallup survey of Inc. 500 CEOs, an average three-year growth rate of 1,751% was realized where the CEO had a high Delegator talent. Entrepreneurs typically have a high sense of urgency and tend to be very self-structured – there’s no way anyone is going to tell them what to do! Entrepreneurs simply don’t want to be a cog in someone else’s machine. Most entrepreneurs also have the ability to juggle many things at once and in fact need to feel the rush and excitement of pursuing multiple projects and initiatives simultaneously. Finally, ultra-successful entrepreneurs are generally positive and optimistic people. They don’t dwell on mistakes and never play the victim.

Remember the DNA thing I mentioned at the beginning of this blog? Well, there may be something to it. A February 17, 2016, research paper published in the Austin Journal of Molecular and Cellular Biology reported on the Dopamine Receptor D4 Gene and concluded that entrepreneurs have a higher tolerance for risk-taking in part, due to this gene      (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/294874673_Entrepreneurship_and_its_Genetic_Basis). Apparently genetics govern approximately 30% of what makes one an entrepreneur. But that leaves 70% to a wide range of personality traits and tendencies.

There are many such traits and tendencies that are identified with entrepreneurs. No one person possesses them all, but the more to which we lay claim the closer we come to attaining world class status.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Entrepreneur and the Dirty Diaper

Let me set the scene. We get a call from a customer and boy is he mad. He rants and raves about how he’s been wronged by one of our team members. “She was so incredibly rude to me!” he exclaims. “And she even laughed at me when I explained my issue.” Honestly, what is our first thought? It may be that we can’t believe our team member would act in this manner. We may also prepare ourselves to have a serious conversation with this team member and really lay down the law. Perhaps we are even ready to put a note in the personnel file about the incident. What happens next? We’re plenty steamed, so we track down our team member and lay out the situation in a somewhat accusatory fashion offering plenty of righteous indignation in the process. Except . . . it turns out that the customer was all wrong. What happened here? I call it the “The Case of the Dirty Diaper Tossed Over the Cliff.”

In this situation, we heard a complaint (the Dirty Diaper) and immediately jumped to a conclusion (the Cliff). We failed to gather solid evidence in a calm and reasonable fashion and instead rushed into an unpleasant encounter with our team member half-cocked. In this specific scenario, had we conducted a proper investigation we would have discovered that there was a witness – another customer – who observed the whole thing. And after talking to this customer, we learned that the accuser had an axe to grind with our team member and called her names and said ugly things to her. Not the other way around. Unfortunately, we failed to give her the benefit of the doubt when we launched into our accusation which of course caused unnecessary tension.

In the “heat of battle” aka/confrontational situations – it’s easy to sympathize with the party that is upset. Perhaps our team has had the type of issues in the past that are being presented in the current situation. We instinctively may have a tendency to jump to erroneous conclusions and even worse, act upon them. The fallout from this approach can be devastating. Our team member felt that we weren’t supporting her and the feelings of trust she had for us were broken. Other team members learned of the incident and the trust with them was damaged as well. Ultimately the team member involved quit – all because this matter was so incredibly mishandled.

Maybe this has never happened to you. I truly hope that is the case. I’ve seen it occur in my own organization and I’ve even been the “accuser” in a bit of a milder way, but nonetheless I didn’t do my homework first. I’ve resolved to listen carefully to information that is being provided by the complainant and ask questions sufficient to fully understand this person’s point of view. I also try to glean as many facts as possible. Often there’s a lot of emotion involved, and the “diaper” gets really dirty very fast. It’s critical to be adequately sympathetic without taking sides and try to focus on the facts. Then, rather than taking the “dirty diaper” and “throwing it off the cliff,” I try to factually determine the other side of the situation without accusation or condemnation.

There will be times when the facts presented by the two parties are vastly different. Let’s assume for a moment that there are no witnesses and there’s just no way to corroborate either version of the encounter. We have to be very careful passing judgment in such situations and determining that one party is right and the other is wrong. Instead, we offer our counsel with the intent to coach our team member, and we do what we can to placate the party who is aggrieved. In a sense, we need to operate as would a judge or jury. If the evidence is insufficient, it’s pretty hard to render a clear decision. Should a pattern develop with our team member where we learn of similar issues occurring on an ongoing basis, we may need to take stronger action based upon such a pattern.

Strong teams are built on trust. We must protect this trust by handling contentious issues in a calm and measured fashion; gathering evidence and resisting the inclination to jump to conclusions.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Entrepreneurs Beware!

We live in a hypersensitive society today. It seems as though every time we turn around someone is being offended by something. It may be words, actions, facial expressions or even the way someone looks. The whole notion of being offended stems from a belief that we are somehow victims. Victims of what, I’m not really sure. But our culture is at a point where it promotes victimhood and all that goes with it. This is a very dangerous place for entrepreneurs to be.

Many of us Baby Boomers raised our children in an environment where everybody wins and there were no losers. I remember sporting events in which our daughters participated, and each child received a ribbon or a small trophy. Obviously in the real world there are winners and losers yet somehow, losing has become linked with victimization. I’m not saying that this is the sole reason for the hypersensitivity we are experiencing but it may be a contributing factor.

Entrepreneurs are in a tough spot. On the one hand we want to be sufficiently sensitive to saying or doing things that others could perceive as a slight. And yet we are in a rough and tumble business world that takes no prisoners. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to simply treat others as we would like to be treated. I’ve grown pretty thick skin over the years and as others will attest, it’s pretty hard to offend me. A few years ago, I took a computerized test that measured resilience among a number of traits and tendencies. My score was 97 out of 100 which I’m told indicates that I have very strong self-acceptance. My point in sharing is to demonstrate that I may be somewhat oblivious to attempts by others to offend me. So, what to do?

First, we need to measure our intent when we are interacting with others. Do we say certain things to another person because we want to make them feel inferior? Do we take certain actions because we want to “send a message” to a specific individual that we expect could result in hurt feelings? A compassionate leader will communicate honestly and openly while doing so with sufficient empathy. His or her ego will be totally eliminated from the interaction. If our intent is pure and we’ve separated from our ego, then it is less likely that we will offend someone.

Second, it’s important to understand what behavior is unacceptable. This is especially challenging from a generational perspective. A young female colleague of mine was at a luncheon recently. She shared that she sat next to an older man (Boomer generation) who was nice but commented as they were leaving that he was pleased to have been able to sit next to such an attractive young woman. My colleague was not offended but related that she thought the comment was unnecessary and inappropriate. What was intended as a compliment by an older man was interpreted as mild condescension by a younger woman. While I doubt that it was his intent to be condescending, it was clear that he has not learned that you just don’t say things like this.

I’m not advocating for political correctness. We’ve gone completely overboard with PC and it’s causing huge problems in our country. But I do think that we need to pay closer attention to how we might be perceived by others. And let’s do our own gut check. Do we find ourselves being offended with any frequency? If so, we might benefit from exploring what we see when we look in the mirror. Do we have a positive or negative self-image? Are we preoccupied with conflict or feelings of inferiority? If so, we may be prone to being easily offended.

As entrepreneurs we must develop thick skin through a strongly positive self-image. At the same time, we need to measure our intent when interacting with others as well as understand what is unacceptable to society. Doing so will minimize the likelihood that we will offend others.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Credible Entrepreneur

I’ve had many aspiring entrepreneurs express frustration over their inability to gain traction in the marketplace with their products or services. Sometimes they tell me that others in their organizations won’t take them seriously. I can remember my early days in business – especially during my twenties – when I was treated like a little boy and being patted on the head periodically. I would work my tail off only to have the client want to talk about his property with our CEO and not me. At times it felt downright condescending.

I finally (and painfully) realized that everyone at my age was experiencing the same thing and much of this treatment was simply a function of youth. But the other lesson I learned was that of credibility. While there are many elements to credibility there is a primary formula that I discovered.

Results + Consistency = Credibility

Let’s break this down further. Results do not necessarily correlate with effort. Yes, I like members of our team to work hard and make a great effort but that doesn’t mean the job gets done. There were times in the past where it was difficult to terminate an employee because I knew that person had given his all and no one had worked harder. Unfortunately, even with all of the blood, sweat and tears this person still wasn’t getting the necessary results. It was kind of like studying diligently for an exam in school and still getting an F. The professor really didn’t care about the three all-nighters; only that in the end the answers were wrong.

Results are produced through a combination of skill, perseverance, creativity, timing, risk management, training, attitude and yes, effort. If any aspect of this combination is out of whack we might fail or barely produce an acceptable outcome. This leads us to the second factor in the formula – consistency.

Here’s an obvious statement. When we are hit or miss with our results we are thus inconsistent which damages our credibility. The goal is always to produce high quality, consistent results. How does McDonald’s turn out the same identical hamburger no matter what store we visit? It’s accomplished through a fanatical adherence to specific standards and delivered through comprehensive systems and processes. McDonald’s uses the very same equipment at every location. They purchase in bulk the ingredients used to make the hamburger and are extremely exacting in their specifications for the quality and composition of these ingredients. Employee training is intense and standardized. Quality control measures are baked into their culture. Everything they do is geared to providing a consistent high quality customer experience.

When we can “McDonaldize” our operations we greatly improve our chances to achieve consistency. But it’s not enough to just be consistent. There are some companies that are consistent . . . they are just consistently terrible. For example, why is it that so many of the cable television providers receive consistently terrible customer service ratings? Ditto the U.S. Postal Service? When I send a document via FedEx or UPS I know that it will arrive exactly when it is supposed to. But a similar delivery by the USPS has always been consistently inconsistent for me. I speculate that this may have something to do with business models and customer focus. A business model that is designed around selling a product or service – i.e. cable TV or overnight letters, is less likely to generate consistent quality results. By contrast, an enterprise dedicated to delivering an amazing customer experience is more likely to far and away be the winner.

Our credibility is built on a foundation of producing consistent high quality results. Implementing strong systems and processes focused on wowing the customer helps maintain our hard-earned credibility.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.