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Navigating through difficult times

In difficult times, as in good times, I think it’s important to focus on the basics. Perhaps more so.

What are the essentials for a sustainable business? I can feel a list coming on.

Firstly, be agreed on what you are trying to achieve. Knowing this can get you through the toughest times.

Secondly, believe in profit. I know this is a little controversial. Some will say it is obvious. Others will not like the idea of profit as essential.

Profit is such a emotional topic, although mostly we don’t admit that. For many it has a bad name. And on the other extreme, even those who seek it above all else might be feeling a little guilty about it now.

But for a business to be sustained, whether it has a social or a purely economic goal, profit is needed. Profit builds reserves. When reinvested it creates strength – primarily through skills and knowledge. Excess profit can be harmful. But reasonable profit, reinvested, is essential.

Beliefs about profit are often so deeply held they’re hard to shift. But unless everyone in your company shares a positive view of reasonable profit, then you really do have difficulties if you want your business to survive and meet its mission.

Thirdly, everyone involved has to have a can do/will do attitude. It’s easier to believe that if things get hard we can give up. But to succeed we have to believe there is a way to get through – even in the hardest times. And we have to believe that we, and we alone, control our progress.

This is somewhat related to understanding that fear is normal. Fear of meeting people. Fear of doing new things. Fear of failure. And most of all fear of change. Know that fear is normal, and you are part way to overcoming it. If you know it and admit it, then you can ask for help, as just one example.

Being open to learning more generally – not being afraid to look a fool, and being unafraid to duck difficult things – is part of the same skill.

I believe even the strongest among us are afraid of change. We all fear the new and unfamiliar. Some like to change the world; but few are brave enough to change themselves.

But in an ever-changing world, what could be a more essential attribute for a sustainable company or an individual?

Fourthly, do the right thing. This doesn’t mean moralising. It’s more of a felt sense. For me, it mainly means overcoming fear so you can move towards a bigger goal. It’s about knowing what that bigger goal is. And sometimes taking the time to check the goal, so that it doesn’t get too big for its boots.

It also means a sense of proportion in other ways. For most of us in the developed world, it means remembering how lucky we are even when things look bad. Most of our lives contain many good things. Remembering to be grateful for them helps keep everything in balance.

Fifthly, do what you say you will, most of the time. Avoid promising to others; but if you make promises to yourself, then keep them. It’s all too easy in times of uncertainty to let a fog settle over us. And that fog provides the perfect shield to hide away, to let things slip, to quietly drop promises – even the most important ones.

Holding on to and reinvigorating your vision is one way to dispel that fog. Another is simply not to let yourself or others off the hook.

One way we let ourselves off the hook is by failing to “bottom-out” things. To me, this means starting a conversation, but when it gets a little hard, giving up. It means failing to push through the mental pain barrier to get at the roots of a problem.

The antidote might be stopping and declaring a time-out, and admitting one is lost. With no idea which way to go.

Being right, knowledgeable and on the ball is so important to most of us that sometimes we’d rather let confusion reign than admit we are lost.

But if you are wandering around in a mist, you are unlikely to get out of it by just wandering around. You need to get a grip. Work out what you know and what you don’t. Assess your resources. Form a plan. And then move steadily forward.

Another way of saying this? Tell the truth. Not just any old truth. But THE truth. The truth that is true for you right now.

However hard that may be.

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Selling, new style

A new year and a new president. Change is in the air. And as lots of people are saying, now is also the time for a new type of business.

A new type of business needs a new type of purpose. Sustainability is one.

A new type of purpose also needs a new type of marketing. Maybe not exactly a new type. But at least a return to a truer, more authentic type of marketing. Marketing that is about figuring out what people really want and giving it to them.

There’s been a lot written and said about more authentic marketing in the last few years. And in my opinion, social media is one of the opportunities to make that goal of authenticity much more real. What better way, for example, to find out what people really want?

But as well as marketing, every business needs to sell something. So what does a new type of selling, one that’s suitable for a new type of business, look like?

Again perhaps it’s not exactly new. But it’s definitely a change from the used-car salesman type of selling we have come to associate with all sorts of products from financial services to …, well, used-cars.

According to Huthwaite, for example,  the new type of selling is consultative. I’m a fan of their approach. Maybe I take it further than they intend but for me most selling techniques they and others suggest can be practiced authentically and honestly.

Asking questions to find out what a customer’s problems are? Don’t invent problems. And don’t project your own or others problems on to them. Instead really listen. Yes, really, really listen. Find out what those real, deep-down problems are, and you’ll find gold.

Asking questions to find  out the impact of these problems? Don’t manufacture fear. Don’t scare the customer into buying your solution. Instead, work with them to uncover what the real risks are. Write them down, agree them, quantify them if you can.

There’s absolutely no point in manufacturing fear. As soon as the customer cools off, if they’re half-sane, they’ll go back to a more balanced point of view. And forget any dangers that seemed real during your oh-so-clever sales call. You’ll lose the sale and waste everyones’ time.

Another well known sales technique is to answer a question with a question. In the trade this is called the “porcupine”. A trivial and annoying gimmick, a way to buy the salesperson time? Or a way to better uncover a need?

When people ask questions, sometimes it doesn’t really come from curiosity. Sometimes they have a point to make. So “how quickly does your product degrade?” may really mean “I am concerned about damaging the environment”. Use the porcupine to further understand this concern, in all its depth, and how it relates to the broader set of needs the customer has.

“Always be closing” – the salesperson’s mantra. Isn’t this just another way we recognise pushy sales technique? Another abhorrent bit of behaviour that means that sales people are so low in status that we have to artificially compensate them (with loads of money) for their otherwise valueless job?

Not for me. Good sales people learn to love the word “no”, offered in response to any close. “No” is simply a sign that you haven’t fully understood the needs and the drivers and the circumstances. It means you haven’t  found a way yet to give that customer or client what they really, truly and deeply need. You’re probably not even conscious of that need.

But it also means you’re on the way. Keep going, keep working with the “No”s, keep a true heart and you will find the way.