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Archive for October, 2010

I was reading a Maureen Dowd op-ed in the NY Times on October 5th. It was enjoyably full of her scathing, bitchy observations, on this occasion commenting on a recent “Get Motivated!” seminar at the Verizon Center in Washington. As usual, Dowd was funny and more than a little mean. And right on.

My general feeling about these massive feel-good inspirational gatherings is that they’re a bunch of hooey. Not wrong in their stated insights, just shallow and quite temporary in their efficacy. Kind of like a business pep rally. Certainly not my cup of tea.

However, amidst Ms. Dowd’s cynical reportage on talks by Terry Bradshaw, Rudy Giuliani, Steve Forbes, Dan Rather and Rick Belluzo, I was caught by some business advice shared by General Colin Powell. His advice? Simply to be nice and particularly to be nice to the little people like the folks who clean your office and park your car. He also avers the value of small details. For instance, Powell reports writing thank you notes on personalized 4-by-6 inch cards. “I write with a fountain pen. Never a Sharpie. Never a ball point pen. A fountain pen.” Dowd reports.

It seems to me Colin Powell is quite on to a real truth here. It’s the little things that set the tone for sales–little considerations, little details. Focusing on the small decencies creates an ambiance of service and real carefulness in business dealings. It becomes reflected in the larger actions of a company.

To expand on General Powell’s concern for the small things, I always recommend to my sales outsourcing clients at Corporate Rain that any missive or serious communication they send out go on high-quality stationary and be sent by snail mail, ideally with a commemorative stamp. This is sometimes cause for eye-rolling impatience by some of my cutting-edge clients enamored of the wonders of tweeting, friending and linking-in. But there is a method to my antediluvian madness. Yes, it takes extra time and money to communicate in such qualitative ways, but the very effort communicates care and valuation on a subconscious level. There is a sensual subconscious statement that is communicated by the very feel of high-quality stationary. It creates an aura of seriousness, reflecting both respect for your client and the general business process. It unspokenly says exactly the manner you would represent a client and effectively serve.

Additionally, the very fact that the personal letter is increasingly not used gives special notice to those who use it qualitatively. It is not a dinosaur inefficiency. It is a notable differentiator that, in the long-term, makes a branding statement, as well as creating a subrosa gravitas.

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I’m insecure, dammit. I sure wish I wasn’t. Pathetic, huh, for a guy posing as an expert in such a testosterone-fueled, masculine-imaged, aggressive profession as sales. But when I started my career as an entrepreneurial salesman my hands used to shake when I met with the c-suite folk I was pitching. That doesn’t happen any more, but the inner feeling of not being quite enough is an ineluctable closeted demon still lurking somewhere beneath a late-blooming polished professional.

That said, I know everyone suffers at least occasional feelings of powerlessness and low self-esteem. To this point, I was caught recently by an interesting article about the work of Professor Amy J.C. Cuddy of the Harvard Business School. In an article titled “Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance“, Professor Cuddy reveals that holding “power poses” for brief periods stimulates higher levels of testosterone (the hormone linked to power and dominance) and lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone that can help cause hypertension and impaired immune functioning).

Reporting on Cuddy’s research Julia Hanna, Associate Editor of the HBS Alumni Bulletin, states,

“Controlling for subjects’ baseline levels of both [testosterone and cortisol], Cuddy and her coauthors found that high-power poses decreased cortisol by about 25% and increased testosterone by about 19% for both men and women. In contrast, low-power poses increased cortisol about 17% and decreased testosterone about 10%. Not surprisingly, high-power posers of both sexes also reported greater feelings of being powerful and in charge.”

I’m trying one of Cuddy’s power poses right now in my office at Corporate Rain International. I have my feet up on my desk, hands behind my head and it does seem to have some emotionally salubrious, empowering effect. (Begone low self-esteem!  Get thee to a nunnery!  I abjure your presence!)

At any rate these power poses might at least prove a useful, practical preparation for those fragile, not-at-your best days when you still have to sally forth to kill the sales dragon.

William Hazlitt says in “Characteristics” (1823), “As is our confidence, so is our capacity.” Thank you, William.

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The past three years have been among the most trying and dispiriting for business in American history. The numbers recently have turned murky again, arousing fears of a double dip recession, permanent high levels of unemployment, and the passing of the American baton of entrepreneurial and economic pre-eminence to China, India and Brazil, where the passion for success and growth seem to have blossomed while ours has waned. According to Robert Schiller, Yale’s famous and most visible economist, things will not get materially and emotionally better until “animal spirits” return to the market. We all know exactly what Schiller means.

The trouble is that animal spirits cannot be arbitrarily conjured into existence. Unlike dogs who merely need a nice day to spontaneously experience their own animal spirits, we humans need reasons to feel enthusiastic and to then commit to plans and actions. The current administration may have saved the economic system from its own worst excesses and self-delusions–the infinite expandability of leverage–but in many ways it has acted in inhibitory, controlling and arbitrary ways when it comes to a return to growth, employment and consequently, optimistic actions.

One could argue that the government in Washington has used this financial crisis to “socialize” as many sectors of American life as possible. That means more control, more regulation and a consequent reduction in entrepreneurial options. That depresses those responsible for turning their desires into action. People like me.

It is essential that small businesses look to the future as a time of renewed, worthwhile endeavors and not submit in anger and frustration to the current anti-business atmosphere. Acceptance is defeat.

Tim Askew has expressed the desire to periodically invite fellow entrepreneurs and small business colleagues to contribute to this weekly blog. This week’s guest blogger is Robert Millman. Robert is the owner of Wine Executive Seminars. He tastes and rates over 5000 wines per year. In addition to his successful small business, he is also a professor of philosophy at Pace University.

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There was a very nice personality profile of William Shatner in the New York Times last month (September 9, 2010–Pat Jordan). Shatner, of course, came to fame in 1966 in Star Trek. He speaks with a charming combination of resignation and bemusement about how his life has been ruled by his type-casting as Captain Kirk. This role defined Shatner more than any actor’s role I can think of. He got wildly rich on stock options from his 1997 commercial for discount travel company Priceline, playing a preposterously pompous exaggeration of his real pomposity as Kirk. “I.  Am. Captain. James. Kirk.” There is a sweetness in Shatner’s wry acceptance of his lot.

The article on Shatner got me thinking about sales and type-casting. Type-casting is something that only very successful actors need to worry about. Nevertheless, it’s a thing that anyone touching on sales should think about. To wit, successful sales pitches can lead to sales failure if one falls captive to them.

One of the things I noticed early in my life as an accidental salesman was that if I started pushing myself too hard or too long without a break I sometimes drifted into a kind of catatonic gibbering, gobbling Tim Askew imitation, lacking spontaneity and any sense of being humanly present. The words were the same, only uttered by a ghostly empty shell. I learned to take regular breaks and look for opportunities to change my patterns of speaking, listening, and being. I became very willing to fuck it up, if that kept me in a place of reality and spontaneity. This allowed me to remain free, happy, unbored and compelling in my work. Real.

These days, in my own executive sales outsourcing company Corporate Rain International, I prefer that my associates not work over 25 hours/ week formally selling, unless there is a client emergency. You just do better if you stay fresh.  I even tell them not to worry about selling success, just to tell the truth simply and fiercely. Though I know hundreds of sales books disagree, I honestly don’t personally see sales as much more than that.

Call me simple. Thanks, Mr. Shatner.

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