The Perils of the Comfort Zone

Comfort ZoneThe comfort zone is a dangerous place to hang out.

One can rock along day-to-day with little to no disruption. Sure, once-in-a-while there might be a hiccup or two; but for the most part life is pretty good. The figurative trains run on time, Performance seems as good or better than last year. The climate / culture is pleasant enough.

When the comfort zone is good, every day is like a day at the beach.

But doesn’t something inevitably interrupt life as we come to expect it? It might be a competitor infringing on once-sacred territory. Or an unforeseen turn by the market. Or a client reorganizing.

Not to worry. We’re still plenty comfortable.

Then something else happens. What seemed nothing more than a hiccup turns into an issue. Or a crisis.

It rarely happens overnight. It creeps. And seeps. It is hardly noticed at first. Then it is the subject of analysis.

By the time we huddle, dissect and debate solutions, things aren’t so comfortable anymore. We find ourselves smack-dab-in-the-middle of an uncomfortable new normal.

This is what the comfort zone does. It distorts perspective. At its most insidious it messes with my view of my reality. Rise and shine in the comfort zone day after day, and soon one begins to think this is the only reality that exists.

The comfort zone is insulated. The idea that cornerstones might be shifting, or that structural change might be necessary is impossible to fathom. What we do has always worked.

The reasoning is often that the topsy-turvy of disruption won’t last forever. The pendulum will swing. Things will return to the way they were.

The comfort zone can stifle innovation.

The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the longer everything rocks along at an acceptable level — though disruption abounds — the more perilous conditions can become.

When It Becomes Uncomfortable, It’s Too Late

If you’re reading this, chances are you have some first hand experience with the comfort zone. And let’s be clear — its amenities are to be enjoyed. But fail to respond to consequential change until things are uncomfortable, and we’re susceptible to  the peril of knee-jerk attempts to fix things overnight.

And quick-fixes rarely fix anything.

So how does an organization, a team, or for that matter, an individual avoid the perils of the comfort zone?

Whatever might be said about Steve Jobs, it is doubtful he spent much time in the blind spots of a comfort zone. In his famous and oft quoted 2005 Stanford commencement address, Jobs spoke to the challenges that often accompany achievement. His advice?

“Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”

And while (at least from where I sit) his daily walk hardly seems a model for exuberant living, Jobs’ admonition is taken from the title of a book by entrepreneur Rashmi Bansal. It is about maintaining the spirit and vision that characterize the early hours of new adventure.

We can debate the use of terms like “foolish.” But while we’re debating, we know the reality — everything changes. Empires fall. Once revered companies disappear. Even what seem to be the best personal relationships can fail.

At least one antidote to the perils of the comfort zone is the appetite that characterizes new adventure.

Perhaps what we need — individually and institutionally, personally and professionally — is a youthful vision that sees beyond successes and challenges of the moment, and perceives the new beginnings that accompany each day.

Thoughts On The Lawyer / Marketer Dichotomy

Corporate rivalryThere are exceptions; but the fact is that for many lawyers, marketing is an annoyance, if not anathema. And there is good reason. CLICK HERE TO CONTINUE READING

(This week’s post is a guest shot at Managing Law Firm Transition, the blog authored by my friends Roger Hayse and Andy Jillson of Hayse LLC.  Thanks to Roger and Andy for the invitation.)

The Key To Identifying The Best Targets For Your Business Development Efforts

Marketing segmentationIn our last post — You Say The Market Isn’t Beating Down Your Door — we suggested two things that are often true of professional service providers wrestling with how to develop new business — an anemic network, and the absence of strategic targets. The post suggested the way to address the network issue.

The next question is — once a robust network is in play, how does one identify the best targets for business development?

Even with a great network, unless we are engaged in calculated pursuits, we’re still in the uncomfortable position of waiting for the market to choose us.

On the other hand, when you are focused on consistently delivering value, your network can become a target rich environment. So two things are critical.

First, how do you deliver value? Here are 3 ideas (summarized in the top panel of the Illustration below).

  • Become a connector — providing introductions, references, referrals and recommendations to others in your network (and think personal as well as professional).
  • Share your expertise (versus simply talking about it). For starters, use CLE events, timely seminars, newsletters and social outlets like blogs to deliver thought leadership, analysis and insight.
  • Become a curator — accumulate and share content that is important and relevant to your network…including content from sources other than you or your firm.

These are just ideas. There are no cookie-cutters. Be attentive and creative. And remember that relationship trumps everything. This is not about checking items off a to-do-list. Delivering real value to your network is the most eloquent marketing message you can deliver, creating visibility with staying power.

BizDev InfographicThe Second Challenge: Choosing Where To Focus

Effective business development plans revolve around smart targeting — putting time and effort in the right place.

So what are the keys to being smart with your business development resources? The bottom panel of the Illustration above is a quick-reference guide.

First, remember that there are at least three types of targets.

  • Individuals who can hire you
  • Those in a position to refer / recommend you
  • Coaches — individuals who can provide insight and intel relevant to the hiring targets you pursue.

Given the complexity of today’s marketplace, the proactive business development plan should include all three.

As a practical matter, when it comes to managing the database of information about your network (and a robust network should be tracked in some form of database / CRM system), divide your targets into these three groups (or groups corresponding to designations that work for you).

Once you’re able to sort by type, choosing targets wisely brings rhyme and reason to where you invest the resources for effective pursuit. Here are just a few of the criteria that can help you prioritize, and build a target list that maximizes your efforts.

  • Subject matter expertise — identify targets whose business drivers overlap with your area of experience / expertise (or that of someone in your firm).
  • Decision-maker relationship — all other things being equal, investing where you have a direct relationship with an individual empowered to hire you should take high priority;
  • Consider the arithmetic — do enough homework to know the rate, project costs and timeline will not end up being an issue when your pursuit is successful.
  • Extended relationships — draft a relationship map that shows all known connections between you/your firm, others in your network, your target’s organization, and the decision maker.
  • Personal Affinity — work that touches on areas you care about will almost always help make a pursuit more organic.

Smart targeting helps establish priorities — what events to attend, when to say no to “opportunities”, and where to invest resources. It helps map the shortest distance between where you are today, and the existence of a pipeline of the kind of work you signed up for.

You Say The Market Isn’t Beating Down Your Door?

Knock on DoorIf you find yourself wondering where the next piece of work will come from, two things may be true about your marketing and business development efforts.

Your professional network is anemic; and you have a shortage of strategic targets.

Easy to say from the comfortable confines of a blog post, I know. But it is not, in my experience, a far fetched hypothesis. And here’s why.

Many have been led to believe that a quality work product combined with excellent client service will automatically result in a successful, practice. Capable and willing on both counts, optimistic professionals shop for the best place to plant a practice and proudly hang a shingle.

But left to build a practice in today’s marketplace, it doesn’t take long to realize that, contrary to the old saying, the possession of the greatest mousetrap in the world is no guarantee the market will beat a path to your door.

Combine competition and volatility with aspirations to serve a market that presumes expertise and quality, and an increasing number of professional service providers are left to wonder what it takes to differentiate, and become relevant.

And hoping the market will somehow find them.

Would that it were a mousetrap we were marketing.

We could shoot a video, create a slick brochure, and add some copy that focuses on effectiveness and efficiency. We could build a cool website, add some state-of-the-art SEO, and just sit back and wait for the phone to ring.

Or, if budget is a factor we could print some fliers and coax the neighborhood kids to slap them on car windshields in the supermarket parking lot.

Even if one assumes that is ever a workable strategy, the professional service we offer doesn’t come in a box. It can be difficult to quantify, and much of the time there’s not much tangible until a matter closes, a contract is signed or a case won.

Stop Waiting For The Market To Find You, And Take Business Development Into Your Own Hands

For everyone tired of waiting for the phone to ring, there is a much more productive and proven approach to business and practice development.

It begins with a focus on your network. Before you tune out, consider this.

The care and feeding of a strategic network is the key to developing a pipeline of biz dev opportunities.

How large does your network need to be? Ideally, large enough so that there will always be someone in your network in need of the service your provide.

A robust network — one you faithfully nurture — is key to eliminating those periods where the silence of the market can be deafening.

If this seems like a reach to you, think about the rainmakers you know. That thing you think of as an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time is, more likely than not, reflective of a robust network.

Where to begin if you don’t have this kind of pipeline? What to do next if you haven’t been working on your network?

There are no cookie-cutters; and specifics will depend in part on the stage of your career. But here are two ideas to consider.

image1. View your business development efforts in two layers. Layer one (see Illustration above) is macro in nature, and focuses on growing a network. Begin with groups you’re already plugged into — alumni associations, civic clubs, servicei groups, professional affiliations, and churches are a few of the most common.

2. The second layer is where you become strategic, and begin to identify specific targets, and actually plan a proactive pursuit.

How do you choose your targets? That’s the subject of our next post.

Dialogue Is Dead (And Our Ability To Disagree Is Disappearing)

skeleton on computerI remember when we used to be able to disagree.

Friends could vigorously debate, and go home friends. We could go to school, work alongside, and build neighborhoods with folks with whom we held differing views, values and convictions. We could even talk about it.

Those were the days.

But that kind of dialogue may be dead.

These days hyperbole and name-calling have replaced honest give-and-take. Today cranking up the volume, and soundbites scripted for the talk-show circuit pose as discourse.

When was the last time you heard (or participated in) a thoughtful debate around deeply held perspectives. How did it end?

What Dialogue Sounds Like

When I was a know-it-all kid I thought Dad was just being disagreeable when he’d advocate for a view or idea that I knew he did not believe. Years later I came to realize that those debates were training exercises — Dad’s way of engaging us in the art of dialogue.

Taking unpredictable positions, he forced us to listen first. Canned positions were rarely sufficient. It took some give-and-take to understand where he was coning from.

Of course, I didn’t appreciate the exercise. It was tedious, and no one ever won. What was the point? I came to realize, intentional or not, it was a practicum in what Mom called disagreeing without being disagreeable.

I am not good at it; but I learned what it sounds like. And if it isn’t dead, the art is fading fast.

These days it’s about nailing the soundbite; sticking to the talking points no matter what the question might be; being audacious in 140 characters; or producing the coveted viral moment.

It’s about Sports Center and WOW. And controversy that is passed off as discourse.

It’s about a headline, a spotlight, or a reality gig.

It is about winning the moment. Without respect to implications on the next opportunity, it is about laying claim, staking territory.

And before we know it, we’ve gone a day…or a week…or a month without a single real conversation.

This isn’t how-was-your-day-mine-was-okay stuff; or comparing golf scores and vacation itenaries. This is about honest explorations and intentional bridge-building.

If we seek more than attention…if we care about meaningful movement…if our communication is more than posturing or pandering…we can rescue dialogue from the brink of extinction.

Where and how to begin?

Step away from the podium. Spend some time listening — not for ways to shoot holes in what you hear; but for common ground…for shared aspirations.

This is where dialogue begins. Without it, very little of real substance will change — whether the venue is personal, business, social or political.

Will we disagree. Certainly.

But I remember when we used to be able to disagree…without being so disagreeable.

A Tale Of Two Movers (And How To Deliver A Brand Message That Resonates)

Basic RGBIt was, to paraphrase, not the best of times. But it served to remind me that, when it comes to marketing, talk is cheap; and the experience delivered is as eloquent a marketing message as there is.

We were moving, and Dave was selling the services of a moving company.

His pitch struck all the right chords. Deep experience — he’d orchestrated hundreds of moves just like ours. He spoke of transparency through out the process. And partnership in the midst of upheaval.

Dave the Sales Guy was personable, passionate and persuasive.

And the minute he had a done-deal, not only did he disappear, but almost none of what he promised squared with what we experienced. There was constant confusion over timing and terms. And endless excuses that focused on their processes and challenges.

In the end, Dave’s bid — theoretically born of deep experience — wasn’t close — barely 65% of the final cost.

Given a little time I have to concede that the execution of the move itself — getting stuff from one place to the next — was pretty good. Turns out the practitioners actually knew what they were doing.

But the experience the company delivered at every other turn did not live up to the promise to ease our pain. The marketing and sales pitch had simply been smoke and mirrors — soft focus and photoshop.

Promises are a dime a dozen. Better. Faster. More for your money. Service after the sale. Client-centered.

But does anyone believe the claims? Or has the pitch simply become noise?

The Second Mover

When, based on personal experience, someone recommends a product or service, the message has a shot at rising above the noise, and connecting.

A couple of weeks after our adventure a new neighbor was moving in next to us. The moving van of a brand different from the one we’d used boldly displayed a company name, logo and service slogan.

Referencing the slogan that appeared on the side of the truck, I asked the new neighbor whether it bore any resemblance to reality.

She gushed with praise. The best. Worked their tails off. This was her second time to use them; and she would call them the next time.

And though she used no clever marketing copy or campaign slogan, I became an instant believer.

In a marketplace where everyone can produce a message and become a broadcaster, the claims are ubiquitous. But word-of-mouth remains the coveted gold standard. We hear the ads — even remember some of the lines, but we don’t much believe the promise.

Doubt this? How often do you remember creative copy but struggle to recall the product, service or company?

But a voice of experience can change the discussion.

Want to cultivate a brand promise that has long-term viral qualities? Deliver an experience consistent with your promise. (And watch the rest of your marketing and advertising efforts suddenly deliver a much better ROI.)

The Possibilities Of A Better Conversation

Having their classes in a cafeFace it. Most of us have hands-on experience with the truism, those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

Or how about this one — repeating the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.

Yet, with desperate conviction we strive to instigate or choose to engage in the same conversation that changed nothing yesterday.

With the highest of motives, we stick to our guns. Retrench. Turn up the volume.

(Then there are those moments when motives are not all that lofty; but let’s assume the best.)

In presentations, pleas, and efforts to motivate, it is so easy to rely on a defined, albeit tired narrative…crossing fingers in hopes that today’s response will be better than yesterday’s.

Whether selling, courting, or just determined to let our voice be heard, we pull out a worn script, talking point outline, or manifesto with a track record of marginal success.

A quest for something that connects might prompt an edit or a tweak; but much of the time this is little more than moving the deck chairs. Words shift. Visuals are updated. And we roll it out one more time, hoping for a new outcome.

And the problem is that every-once-in-a-while it works…just enough to make us believe we are moving the needle.

But if connecting once-in-a-while isn’t good enough, changing the conversation might be worth exploring.

A Clean Whiteboard

A fresh start should be at least a little enticing to creative communicators. What could be more exciting than a clean slate?

This isn’t about fun and games in the creative suite. It isn’t about a soft-focus lens, Photoshop, or a silver-tongued devil.

It is about rethinking the dialogue, and recommitting to listening. It is about identifying the language necessary to connect. And nurturing a different conversation.

Where does it begin? With the most basic idea in communication theory — that real communication begins in that (often tiny) space where experiences are shared.

When meaningful conversations do not ensue — when we fail to connect — the root cause is almost always that we are missing, misunderstanding or completely disregarding the identification of what we share.

Instigating a new conversation is not easy. Some will suggest there are seasons or situations where it is impossible. Maybe.

But maybe what is required is an honest desire to connect, to search for common experience and shared aspirations.

What if the objective was not to win…or convince…or convert? But to connect? What if this is where change begins?

Is Your Business Development Strategy Really Just To Hope The Market Picks You?

Does the success of many of our marketing or business development plans hinge on the hope that our market somehow finds and chooses us?

Oh, we talk about strategies and grand plans. We might even flirt with data, throw a few targets up on the whiteboard, and make a pass at mapping relationships.

But reality sets in.

Daily demands distract. Working a plan…reaching who we need to reach…connecting with decision makers…it requires time. And tenacity.

At the same time that issues and obstacles are becoming clear, a seductive opportunity comes along. It can reach thousands in one fell swoop.

Or a new pay-to-play effort will put you in a room with 20 GCs.

It is oh-so-tempting.

An Uneven Trade

It’s not as if we forsake the targets on the whiteboard. We still want them; they will be the subject of our next strategic planning weekend.

But we test the waters of too-goood-to-be-true marketing.  And every time we bite on one of those opportunities, we chip away at anything that might resemble a strategic approach to growth and development.

It’s not a good trade-off. If nothing else, experience should underscore this. Have you ever received the value you bargained for?

Sometimes we’ll rationalize. If our name was just out there more. If the market just knew of our capability. If our brand was more recognizable. Or we determine that making contact is someone else’s job. The Company or the Firm should be generating leads.

And if you’re marketing an international cola, a global tech leader, or a regional car dealer, you might be affiliated with a visibility budget large enough to move the awareness needle.

But if you’re the corner donut shop, the neighborhood cleaners, or a regional accountant or corporate attorney, you will probably find it difficult to spend what it takes to create awareness. Let alone, motivate anyone to subscribe to your product of service.

One-off ads — while they might make us feel like we’re doing something — will not move the needle. Even In the fantasy world of Mad Men they speak in terms of campaigns. If the arithmetic won’t sustain your visibility efforts over time and with high frequency, not even the best Don Draper has to offer is going to help.

How Do We Make A Dent?

We don’t really believe any of that works . . . do we? Has one super ad ever worked on us?

If the objective is to build a client or customer base, and we’re not working with a plan that names specific targets, and is built around action steps designed to connect, we are, in effect, hoping the market will (somehow) find and pick us.

A Strategic Formula

Unless you’re spending a boatload and/or dealing in a commodity, your business development strategy should:

  • Begin with specific (and strategic) targets;
  • Include action items that create visibility;
  • Deliver value as visibility grows;
  • Repeat the visibility and value steps (you’re working on a relationship);
  • When you know enough about your target to develop a solution to what “keeps them up at night“,  orchestrate a presentation and pitch.

Sure…you can get lucky along the way, and happen upon a short sales cycle with someonoe that found you; but the truth is, we often make our own luck.

Wthout exception, every long-term rainmaker I’ve known who isn’t selling a commodity will, upon quizzing, confirm that the best business develeopment — the most fun, challenging and enduring work — comes by way of relationship.

Advertising and maybe even some of those pay-to-play opportunities to sell can support a disciplined strategy; but if it is the meat-and-potatoes of your effort, you’re really left to simply hope the market picks you out of the maddening crowd.

Not a comfortable place to be.

Listen Up! Great Communication Does Not Begin With The Message

Magnified Hearing(Note: This article was written for and originally published by Brand Quarterly in March 2015.)

We are preoccupied with messaging.

From 140 characters to sixty seconds; Pinterest to YouTube. From the candidate to the evening news anchor, we place a premium on what we say, and how we say it.

The preoccupation is understandable. Personal experience underscores the value of being able to get our point across. Consider how quickly an infant learns that loud and frantic crying is a sure way to relieve the pangs of hunger.

But as innocent as its genesis might be, the obsession precipitates an approach to communication that, when mature, actually limits effectiveness.

We begin to believe that message delivery equates to the art of communication.

Oh, some of us enjoy discussing and hypothesizing over the science of it all. We query focus groups, pour over research and flirt with Big Data. But all too often this is simply prelude; what we really want…what we are infatuated with and will invest in mightily is the art of it all.

From the moment we realize we have a point of view, let alone a measure of conviction or a product or service to sell, we want to do whatever it takes to get the word out. Narrative, elements of design, and channels for distribution are the subject of attention and investment.

Possessing a message is exciting, invigorating. And we rush to cast it about. Hear our message world.

Yet, often when all is said and done — in spite of award-winning creative, jaw-dropping production and distribution genius — marketers are left to wonder what went wrong when efforts fall short. Or completely miss the mark.

If even part of this resonates, stick with me for a few more paragraphs. This is not about the problem; but about a solution.

Remembering Where Communication Begins (click here for full article at Brand Quarterly)

The Best Business Developers I Know Share Four Characteristics

There are markets where sales is little more than a numbers game. Make enough calls, knock on enough doors, ask the question over-and-over, ignore objectionns, and you’ll close some deals.

But you won’t build many relationships.

And that means that next month…or next quarter…or next year you get to start all over again. Call. Knock. Ignore. Persist.

In a recent keynote before the Legal Marketing Association, best selling author and speaker Dan PInk shared the results of a survey of 7000 individuals who were asked to say the first word that came to mind upon hearing the word SALES.

Without seeing the results, you know what dominated the list. It was words like Pushy, Hard, Sleazy, Slimy, and (my favorite) Yuk.

(For excellent perspectives and summaries of Pink’s LMA presentation, see posts from legal marketers Lindsay Girffiths and Heather Morse.)

This distaste certainly isn’t because we don’t like to buy. Most of the time it isn’t because we aren’t seeking information about products or services.

It is, at least to a significant degree, a visceral reaction to a pitch that is little more than one more call made by someone playing the numbers game. We get enough of them. Every day.

In the stereotypical cases all that is required is tenacity; and though this is a valuable characteristic, when it is the foundation of a churn-and-burn strategy, it isn’t going to help build a vibrant professional services practice.

So, visceral responses aside, here are four characteristics that have been present in the best professional service sales and business developers I’ve known.

They are PEOPLE people. Over the long haul — through market dips and drastic turns — if this is just a job…if you don’t like people that will eventually come through loud and clear. All things being equal (read if you’re competing with another excellent lawyer) the market is going to opt to work with a qualified professional who is easy to work with. If you don’t like them, you can’t fool enough prospects enough of the time to build a practice that will last. Be prepared to move from one commodity to the next.

They derive satisfaction from assisting. The best business developers find ways to deliver value to those with whom they work — whether in the context of a billable matter or not. I know a lawyer who, upon learning that a client’s child was looking for an apartment in his city, spent his weekend scouting out locations to recommend. Not billable. Not conditional. But at the heart of why the attorney is a good business developer.

They are Connectors. Define your network as those who need the specific service or product you offer, and your network will almost certainly be too small. Service providers become trusted advisors, in part, because of a propensity for connecting dots…facilitating solution without respect to whether the problem is in my practice or not.

They have super powers. No leaping buildings in a single bound here. But while scores of excellent advisors can see every facet from one perspective, rainmakers see the big picture. Even in the midst of chaos, they listen between the lines, hearing what others miss. Master these powers and the struggle to differentiate your firm or practice becomes much less daunting.

One of Pink’s best sellers is titled To Sell Is Human. There are other important characteristics, of course. But one of the reasons these four are on my list is they go a long way toward communicating humanity — the kind of humanity that connects and motivates.

You can fake it and do okay. Maybe. But if you want to be a better business developer, work on these characteristics. Build your plan of action with these as foundational elements. You will be onto an approach to practice development that you can actually stick with. One that will deliver.