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bldg on fire

Recently I was privy to a set of emails from within a company which are undoubtedly predictors of its inevitable demise.

The email trail went something like this:

Hi Team, to boost our brands online image and reputation we need your help. Your assignment over the weekend is to sign-up to e-commerce sites and leave a positive review for our (brand xx name removed). Be creative.

Mix it up by posting positive feedback on (brand xx) using competition review pages. Go to the (competitor mentioned here) review page on (e-commerce site mentioned here) and say: “I used (competitor’s product) without much effect, a friend of mine turned me on to (brand xx) and it’s amazing. I’ll never go back.”

This was followed with a list of the sites the team members should go to with specific directions on how to set up an untraceable account.  It ended with a demand for every person to send copies of the reviews they posted to the CEO and the General Manager by Monday.  It was very clear that this assignment was not optional.

A few weeks later the CEO sent out another email with a link to a competitor’s testimonial page with the following:

Look at these testimonials, we need the same.  I need to see some from each of you!

There are so many things wrong here.  It blows my mind that an owner and a senior executive in a company would direct this kind of behavior.   They are clearly setting up their company to fail.  Here’s why:

  • It puts the product and the company at risk.  That lesson was learned years ago when companies were raked over the coals for creating false blogs and reviews – Walmart’s flog back in 2006 is a great example.   If the fake product reviews are discovered, the brand and the company will lose all credibility.  They risk having their product pulled from the retailers’ shelves and/or experiencing significant consumer backlash.
  • The company underestimates their consumers.  Posting made up reviews assumes that the customers are too stupid to figure it out.  You cannot build a brand with that kind of attitude.  Respect is paramount to the success of every business.
  • It is a waste of valuable time.  The team is spending time creating false endorsements and not focusing on what the real issue is – why aren’t they getting these reviews from their own consumers?  The marketing team’s efforts should be focused on creating relationships with the users of their product; implementing programs, incentives and meaningful conversations so their real consumers are the ones doing the talking.
  • This is short-term thinking.  If their consumers aren’t saying what they want to hear, marketing and sales need to be doing some serious listening and start making real and necessary changes to the product, the positioning and the marketing plan.
  • They are careless.  The email went out to a large list of people in the company, as well as some that should not have received it.   Hiding you are doing something like this is difficult enough even when you only ask a few people to take part.  When you blanket a large part of the company, people are going to start talking.
  • It’s unethical.  If they are willing to be dishonest here, it’s probable that they have other questionable business practices.   Even if no one discovers that they falsely created those endorsements, it’s clear that taking duplicitous shortcuts is part of their corporate DNA.  They are setting a standard of questionable ethics with their employees.  If the owner insists it is okay to lie, most assuredly the employee will learn to lie to the owner.

There are so many hurdles that need to be overcome to build a highly successful brand and company.  Not the least of which is persuading your customers to carry and/or buy your product and continuously earning their trust to keep their loyalty.  A relationship based on lies is doomed to failure.

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According to dictionary.com, an opinion is “a belief or judgment that falls short of absolute conviction, certainty, or positive knowledge; it is a conclusion that certain facts, ideas, etc., are probably true or likely to prove so.”

However, opinionated has a very different definition: “obstinate or conceited with regard to the merit of one’s own opinion; conceitedly dogmatic… asserting opinions in a doctrinaire or arrogant manner.”

Ultimately, whether or not you are viewed as expressing a valuable opinion or being opinionated comes down to delivery. The same statement, expressed differently, can establish you as knowledgeable or obnoxious. I sat in meeting not too long ago where a woman, a new employee to the company, was asked to offer her insights on a proposal from an outside service. This proposal was in the area of her expertise and it was well within the manager’s right to assume that the woman’s opinion would be very valuable. To her disadvantage, the new employee had not really had any time to review the proposal. However, rather than taking a step back and creating credibility with an objective analysis such as “I think we should look into the company’s methodology a bit further as I am not sure that they can achieve the results they are promising,” she took a hard stance and claimed “the company is totally bogus; they are full of it and could never achieve those results.”

Both statements ultimately carry the same message, but the first one would have provided her with a level of credibility that would have empowered her to establish the value of her opinion. The statement she made, however, left no room for a real evaluation of the proposal; she expected everyone in the room to just accept her statement carte blanche and eliminated any opportunity to demonstrate an educated expertise.

Now admittedly, this is a huge pet peeve of mine so I have an extremely low threshold for people who speak in generalities. But in this situation, I was not the only one who found it ineffective. It was clear the manager did not find her contribution very helpful as he suggested she take a bit more time to look at the proposal and get back to him with her specific concerns.

There is nothing wrong with having an opinion; most employees are hired for the way they think. Friends and family are respected for the advice and insights they bring to our lives. However, in our effort to make decisions quickly or to appear knowledgeable, we often resort to personal judgments expressed as facts; we resort to gross generalities delivered with conviction.

Using an opinionated statement works to shut down a conversation, making it extremely difficult to garner meaningful information. While the opinion expressed may be true, the way it is delivered does nothing to establish any level of factual knowledge. It can result in a perception of tyranny if you have the power over others in the conversation – reducing them to silent pawns, afraid or unmotivated to express a dissenting view. Or, if power is equal or reversed, the conversation can become confrontational or your contribution is discounted.

When offering or asked for your opinion, think twice about the way you put it forth. Respect that an opinion is not a fact or a proven statement, but is a reflection of your personal thoughts and ideas. Be aware that there is a fine line between your opinions establishing you as either informed or irritating.

A few years back I walked away from the corporate world to get my Master’s in Persuasion and Social Change.  I loved it!  Getting that degree was one of the most challenging and satisfying things I have ever done.  I did it for a number of reasons, one of which was to change the way I think and therefore change the direction of my career.  But after I graduated I chickened out and took another VP Marketing job.  I told myself that since it was in a different industry than I had worked before, it was a different direction.  But ultimately  I wasn’t able to persuade myself that the job was the right thing for me no matter all the financial, practical and professional arguments I threw my way and I ended up leaving after 6 months.

I have spent decades persuading people and I am even more enamored with the process since I got my Master’s.  I love marketing because it is all about finding a way to resonate with and compel people to do something that you, and ultimately they, want to do.  So it was extremely frustrating to me when I recently faced my inability to persuade and convince myself to change careers.

I realize that I am not alone in this conundrum.  People face this a lot when making big decisions, like getting a new job or moving away, and small, like working out.  I have friends who are constantly telling me that they should be exercising, they want the benefits of it, they feel great while they are doing it, but they are just not able to convince themselves to get out there and start sweating.  Same thing when it comes to diets, the desire is there but they can’t close the deal.

More often than not, we blame these situations on outside forces; I’m too busy at work, I don’t have time to cook healthy, there isn’t anyone to work out with, or it’s too risky to quit my job.  But realistically what it comes down to is that we have not given ourselves a good enough reason to do it.  We can’t persuade ourselves to break our own routine, step out of our own comfort zone and make the change.

This inability is why best sellers lists are filled with self-help books; we are all looking for someone else to convince us of something we cannot convince ourselves of.  When deciding to go into business for myself, I investigated 7 highly effective habits, talked to my lizard brain, stared uncertainty in the face, searched for the tipping point and thought about growing rich.  Yet I didn’t finally decide to make the entrepreneurial jump until I stopped looking outside myself to find the push I needed.  Once I realized that the person I had to persuade was me, I was able to analyze and counter the arguments I had made for why I shouldn’t quit the corporate world and started to focus on why I should start my own thing.  This helped me to see that what was in my way was the financial risk of a start-up as well as feeling overwhelmed by the big picture.  Understanding that, I created a financial plan that left me with a necessary safety net and I broke the process down into its smaller and much less intimidating parts.  It was then that I heard the voice arguing that this would be quite an adventure and I have never been able to turn down a chance to go exploring.

It is so easy to come up with a lot of reasons why we can’t do something and a lot of people use that as the basis for their arguments.  But focusing on the negative is not effective when it comes to persuasion.  True persuasion happens when we finally understand why we want to or should do something, when we focus on the good and the benefits of the argument.   It rarely happens when we focus on the why nots.

There are some lessons we learn the hard way – like not touching a hot stove when you are a child.  There are some we accept without having to have it proven – such as not stepping out into traffic.  But then there are those lessons that we seem to never quite internalize.  One of the lessons I seem to continually need to learn over and over is when to keep my mouth shut.

I am a strong advocate for communications and the power of words.  I believe that in most jobs you are hired to have an opinion and speaking your mind, writing words, making presentations and being passionate about what you know is integral to your success.

I also believe that relationships and friendships are stronger when you share thoughts and feelings.  And, history has shown that conflicts and wars are not ended through silence but through negotiations and increased understanding.

So I operate from a place of always wanting to talk everything out.

And while for the most part this is a very effective philosophy, there are times when the best thing you can do is know when to stop talking.

I am pretty good at this when it comes to business. When trying to convince clients to take a direction different from the one they are personally connected to, I put forward an alternative and then retreat from the conversation. I have learned that it is important to give people time to mull over a different idea so they can find a way for it to mesh with their mindset. This results in their being more open to further discussion rather than being shut down immediately from pushing too soon.

However, I struggle much more with using silence and distance as a positive tool in personal relationships. Somehow, when it comes to my partner, family and friends, I often forget this concept and, instead of backing off, I say everything that is in my head right away – often making a situation worse than it would have been if I had just counted to 10 – or better yet – 7,200.

When my nine-year old nephew starts to throw a tantrum because the adults are all ignoring him, not taking the bait would be far more productive than my teasing him and getting kicked (literally) as a result.  Rather than staying out of it and letting him calm down on his own, I only goad him on into a  full-blown frenzy and quickly become the bad Aunt.

When having disagreements with my partner, I push to ‘clear the air’ when really it would be far more prudent to retreat to separate rooms. Rather than giving each other space to let the flames of anger and frustration die down, my push to keep talking only provides further fuel for the fire.

Sometimes putting a conversation on-hold is a far more effective tool for ensuring that what you want to say gets heard.  Letting people process information for themselves and giving them time to think can soften and remove some of the emotional quotient that stops people from being open to differing ideas or difficult conversations.  And, as I have once again been reminded, in the case of nine-year olds, silence is far less painful.

As the guru Shirdi Sai Baba said “Before you speak, ask yourself: is it kind, is it necessary, is it true,” and most importantly, “does it improve the silence?”

My step daughter was killed in an automobile accident when she was 21; I was in China on business when it happened.  I was supposed to have gone out to dinner with her the night before I left but I cancelled because I felt too pressured to get things done before the trip.  I wish I had said yes, I wish I had made her the priority and seen her that one last time.

A young woman I know was enlisting in the Navy.  One day her recruiter was driving her to an appointment and he started asking her really personal questions about her sex life.  When she didn’t respond, he proceeded to tell her in detail about the women he had slept with.  When he asked her if this was making her uncomfortable and if she was a prude, she didn’t really answer, just shrugged and made some awkward comment.  She wishes she had spoken up and told him that he was totally out of line.  It still bothers her years later that she didn’t.  She wonders how many other female recruits he treated like that.

A friend of mine had a boss that was really abusive; he was always putting down his employees and yelling at them in front of everyone.   He made it an incredibly difficult work environment and she was miserable.  Eventually she went out on medical leave and never returned to the job.  She wishes she had told her boss what she thought of him before she left.   By staying silent she didn’t get any closure and the thought of visiting friends at that office still gives her anxiety, not to mention the impact that unresolved relationship has had on subsequent bosses.

We all have things we wish we had said to someone –a proclamation of love that went unsaid or standing up for oneself in an awkward situation; times where, in hindsight, we would have said things differently.  In some cases, like my stepdaughter’s accident, there is no way to know that you are going to regret the lost opportunity and there is no chance to change that.  But, more often than not, we have another chance to speak up and say what we want.

It takes guts to confront someone but it can be done effectively by moving beyond the emotionality of the situation.  When someone says something that upsets us we have an immediate mind-body reaction.  Our blood gets pumping, our anger or embarrassment rises, we can feel it in our stomach and we want to lash out.  And in that case, it’s a good thing we don’t immediately say something as reacting from a place of emotion doesn’t usually have a positive outcome.  But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever speak up.

Avoiding conflict may be the right thing to do in the moment; however, as with my friend with the abusive boss, not ever addressing it can cost you dearly.  Don’t view waiting as a missed opportunity, and don’t let it be your excuse for never addressing it.  Taking the time necessary to calm down will allow you to formulate a rational response and alleviate a lot of future angst.  Sometimes it can just take a count to 10, a brief pause to calm your nerves and let your mind sort through your reaction so you can respond.  Other times, you may have to take a day or two to until you find a statement that feels right.  Addressing an issue later, when it is less volatile, can be far more productive for all parties.  Living your life saying “I wish I said that,” not so productive.

I stumbled upon a networking group (seemingly for mothers who have started businesses) while having breakfast at Hof’s Hut last week.  I couldn’t resist ear hustling a little and, not surprisingly, the conversation involved the same social media admonitions that I hear ad nauseum these days – “how many have a Facebook page for your business, how many Twitter?”  And then, “everyone should be using these forms of social media.”  Really… should they, should everyone just put up a page, upload a post, and send out a 140 character Tweet?

At the risk of being cast as a heretic, I disagree with the business pundits who keep pushing that anyone with a desire to succeed should have a presence on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, create a blog and fight for hits, clicks and likes.  I get it; I got it the first 500 times I heard it – social media, done right, can be invaluable.  But honestly, some people just shouldn’t use it.  They and their businesses would be much better off if they just kept their virtual mouths shut.

Social media advocates are yelling for everyone to jump into the lifeboat without noticing that it is full of holes.  The focus continues to be on getting the message out with very little emphasis on what’s and how it’s being said and, more importantly, how it’s being received.   You absolutely should not join the social media melee if what you create is boring, meaningless and actually has the opposite effect from what was intended.

Recently a fellow consultant asked me to join her on Twitter, she told me that it wasn’t really her thing but the company she’s working with wants her to ‘up her profile.’  So far she’s Tweeted numerous links to articles that I have already seen and/or I have no idea why I should read.  I have always liked my colleague but I’m beginning to think she’s not very enlightened or interesting.

A former classmate of mine is searching for a new job and is very active on LinkedIn which she feeds from her Twitter account. I now know when she goes to the gym, where she gets her mani/pedi and that she has time for facials every week.  Busy woman, but the message I’m getting is that she’s not working very hard.

Great messages, presented in a meaningful way, have amazing power.  But even the best message will fall on deaf ears if it doesn’t offer something of value.   Creating a meaningful message takes time, re-Tweeting someone else’s article doesn’t.  Rather than just sending out links, create a summary of what the article said and tell why you think it’s worth my reading.  And don’t just tell me why you found it interesting, it isn’t interesting if it is only about you.  No one likes sitting next to the person who does nothing but talk about themselves at a dinner party, why would anyone want to be subjected to that online?

The same thing applies to messages on Facebook, websites, e-blasts and blogs.  Don’t throw out generic appeals to an autonomous audience hoping something will stick.  If you’re telling people about your newest product, or latest meal, or most recent project and you’re not finding a way to make it valuable to them, you’re a bore.   There are a lot of appeals you can use beyond just providing information:

–          be entertaining,  make them laugh, cry, think

–          be educational, show them how the product can improve their social life, health or income

–          make their life easier, offer a better solution to a problem

–          do the research, show them how to cut through the red tape

–          make the reader feel important and understood!

Yes, social media can be extremely beneficial to building a business or career, but as Abraham Lincoln said, “Better to be silent and thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”