Nov 12, 2012

Do you know the way to San Jose…and How’s the Traffic?

Palo Alto offices of

A few years ago while on my way on foot from the Palo Alto City Hall to a local breakfast hangout, I noticed a small, unassuming storefront office. People were working inside but there was no name on the door. When I stopped in and asked about the business (I’m always looking for customers!), I got an earful about traffic apps and was offered a “gizmo” with a suction cup to hold my “new” i-Phone upright in my car. Just think,  I could get rid of my GPS and just use my phone! The new service,, was free, and it derived traffic reports from users, like me.

Now fast forward to 2012. That same humble start-up now has over 30-million users, in 35 counties. remains in the same location, but it seems to have come of age as a reliable, useful, and ubiquitous service. Major news outlets use “virtual reports” as substitutes for traffic reporters in helicopters.  Indeed, was recently mentioned in the Apple CEO’s apology as a substitute for Apple’s own less-than-successful mapping application.

What explains the amazing growth of this upstart venture, initially funded (Series A & B Rounds) at less than $50-million? Crowdsourcing. Yes, crowdsourcing to passively collect traffic data from millions of users who also share road reports on accidents, police traps, or other hazards, helping to give all users in the area a ‘heads-up’ about what’s to come.

Is a service? Most definitely!  Some cite it is a great example of how to deliver a massively scalable service that is high value and low cost. “Our users spend an average on 440 minutes a month on the app,” said Waze Communications Director Michal Habdank-Kolczoski. “That reflects  their high level of commitment to using the service.“ 
How do users pay for the service? They use their own cell phones run the app while driving, which passively allows servers to track their speed on various roads. Collectively, this provides a high level of confidence about road conditions.

Crowdsourcing is a hot new idea that is well represented on Google. A search on the term yielded 3.3 million results. Enterprising companies today use crowdsourcing  to manage projects, sell illustrations and stock photos, and even design footwear.  But is it the service delivery platform of the future or just a fad? has just launched a program to sell ad space to businesses that you and I pass on the way to work and that targets ads only to the users who typically pass by often.  Sounds like a neat way to monetize the service and stay in the game as concept of crowdsourced traffic reporting continues to take hold.

Oct 3, 2012

You can’t squeeze the melons—selling yourself in the marketplace

I recently visited the Palo Alto Farmers’ Market. It was an amazing experience. On a Sunday morning, growers of produce from all over the region converge on one street and frantically arrange their booths and wares with an eye to curb appeal and easy access. 

“Aside from the set up and tear down, the hard work is done by the product,” said one vendor. “People like to squeeze the melons and choose from lots of samples. I just let them and take the cash.”

I wish it were as easy to sell professional services in today’s marketplace.  Helping clients choose me over the other guy for their marketing plan or branding campaign involves my doing something that makes me feel uncomfortable: I have to toot my own horn. 

Oh, I use my LinkedIn page  and other pages  to post reviews and testimonials.  But inevitably, at some point I have to tell someone why I think I’m better than the other guy.  To me, that whole conversation feels uncomfortable. 

I’ve discovered that I am not alone and that one of my favorite sales thought leaders, Carol Costello, has written a new book about the subject with advice for professional service providers like me. Her eBook, Sell Yourself without Feeling Pushy, Creepy, or Weird!  It is available on Amazon. Not only does Carol zero in on the reasons why some of us have problems selling our own services, she also offers some strategies for surmounting these problems. Spend the $2.99 and get your copy. It’s worth it.

Sometimes we need to sell our services through proxies. Have you ever had a client say, “I like working with you, but I have to present you to The Group, and they make the decision.”  Selling my service indirectly is easier for me, but sometimes the outcome is unpredictable. Sales training notable Anthony Iannarino says that success results from arming your proxy with the information or talking points they need to make your point for you. You also need to protect your in-client champions by anticipating any possible objections they may encounter, say about solution differences and price, and providing them in advance with justifications that they can deploy if challenged. They need to look smart; if they don’t, their decision to recommend your solution could reflect poorly on them.

“When you know that differences in your solution and your competitors’ could raise eyebrows, then you have to provide your prospective buyer with the reasons to choose you,” according to Iannario. The bottom line for me is that I can overcome my squeamishness about selling myself if I hold onto a few key ideas:

1.       I may not be the only choice, but I know I will work harder to deliver value for my client than anyone else. Loyalty and commitment count.

2.       I know my clients and their needs very well. I know that I am recommending a service (provided by me) that can improve their business.

3.       In today’s marketplace, it is important to share the sandbox. Companies that succeed are able to blend good ideas and services from a number of providers. Knowledge worker integration is the key to measurable success. I know that I work well in that kind of setting and my client will benefit.

Selling professional services is not like selling fruit. After all, a vendor needn’t rave about his fruit but just lets customers tap a melon, sample a strawberry or a grape.  So unless what you’re selling is strictly your looks, unless you’re a model, you’re going to need to speak up to stimulate an appetite in prospects to give you the chance you need to prove your worth.

Jul 18, 2012

Nothing says “We Love you, Mr. Customer!” like 31 years of Onions

Onions for distribution
I walked into my local bank the other day and by the window I found a huge pile of produce.  Turns out that these 10 lb. bags of Walla Walla onions are this year’s supply to continue a customer gift tradition begun 31 years ago by the then-owner of this small bank in Silicon Valley, University Bank and Trust. Carl J. Schmitt, who attended college at Whitman in Walla Walla, hit on the idea of gifting his customers with something unique. Each year his customers left each one of the three bank branches with a bag of onions personally conveyed to them with thanks and a handshake from a bank employee.  Although Schmitt’s UniversityBank and Trust was acquired in 1995 by the far larger, multi-branch Comerica Bank, Comerica decided to continue giving away onions at the former University Bank branches. 

Since 1996, one 10 lb bag at a time, Comerica Bank has sent out its doors more than 370,000 pounds of onions. 

“Comerica is committed to our customers,” said J. Michael Fulton, President, ComericaBank--Western Market. “By giving away Walla Walla sweet onions, we can thank our customers for their patronage.”

Other customer “courting” tips from University Bank

Onion love offerings may seem an unusual way to honor customers, but, as a customer myself, I can tell you that they build brand loyalty and strengthen personal relationships between the bank and its customers. I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Schmitt, but he seemed to think like me with regards to customer delight. I did some research on some of other practices he employed that helped triple the stock price of the old bank within its first 4 years of operation:

  • ·         Free shoe shines provided at a stand in the bank lobby
  • ·         Pens not chained down and easy for everyone to use
  • ·         Oriental rugs and fresh flowers in the vault of safe deposit boxes
  • ·         Stamps sold by tellers and all statements mailed on the second day of the month
  • ·         Non-cash deposits picked up from some customers’ office by drivers of vans humorously decorated with lifelike paintings of safe-crackers at work.  Customers appreciated the wit and not having waste time going to the bank.
  • ·         Free traveler's and cashiers checks
  • ·         Free photocopies of papers and signature verification
What about your service business? 

Should you be doing more to court your customer and let them know you value and appreciate them? It seems to me that Schmitt had some great ideas about making it easy to do business with University Bank. Is there more you can do to make it easy and enjoyable for customers to do business with you?

If you’re interested, I know where you can get a good, bulk deal on some onions.

Jun 21, 2012

Disrupting the Loop

No, I’m not talking about a physics or chemistry experiment. I’m describing a very successful sales strategy that is used every day by many and that you can use at the right time to help you succeed when competing with another provider.

Many of us have seen professional engagements that we thought were “a sure thing” unravel at the last moment.  Often, the client brings up an idea or concept that had not been part of our original discussion. Frequently, this happens when a competitor has successfully shifted the decision loop away from areas of our strength to areas of his strength.  Sales pros have a name for this—Disrupting the Loop—and it works.

Take a look at this video of a BASKETBALL team using a FOOTBALL play on the court to score. The other team looks totally sandbagged! They weren’t expecting it, weren’t ready to respond, and were unsuccessful in defending against it. 

How does this work in real life?

One client shared with me how he used this technique to his advantage:

“I was competing with another and larger firm for an O & M (Operations and Maintenance) training contract. I had the advantage, I thought, since I knew all the operators and used to be one myself. But my competitor had raised the issue of perceived quality: he could offer a group of trainers so that the material would be presented by several people, with different styles, and at a competitive price. My contact pointed out that learning styles are diverse and suggested the wisdom of offering operators training from a team of trainers.

“I successfully countered that having the training presented by ONE trainer would make it easier to film and edit the training so that it could be shown to operators who might be hired later, thus reducing the cost of future training sessions . Filming or remote viewing, however, was not part of the original RFP. My having successfully changed the discussion let me continue to compete for the business, which I ultimately won.”

Early in my sales career, I sold Rx health products in hospitals. I hated it. Everyone was forced to follow the same procedure and had the same access; in other words, we all had to play the same game. If you all start from the same place, speak for the same amount of time, and offer roughly the same alternatives, there’s really no competition. In the Rx business, the situation is even worse: price and even “product claims" are controlled by regulation.  I like having the freedom to call a football play on the basketball court.  Don’t you?

Just because you are selling professional services (training, legal representation, engineering studies or drawings, etc.) to a long standing,friendly client, or selling into a situation that you have worked on for weeks, don’t assume that you won’t have competition. You still need to SELL your expertise, capability, and unique abilities to your client. If the opportunity is a great one, there will probably be at least someone else also pitching for the contract.  Ask yourself how can you present yourself in a unique way.  If you are smaller, or newer, or not as well known as your competition, how can you frame the challenge in a way that will play to your strengths, not your weaknesses?

One powerful way to frame your challenge is to reframe it!  When you disrupt the loop, you no longer compete on product, performance, price—all those areas in which you may offer no advantage.  Be creative: envision a scenario in which you DO possess some unique merits—and you’ll come out on top.

Jun 5, 2012

Tell Me Your Story and I Will Trust You and Buy from You

email address of photographer is
Charles Bridge in Prague by Martin Procharzka
“What I did during my summer vacation?” You’ve probably had to tackle this subject in an essay for school. I feel that’s what I’m doing now. My wife and I traveled 6000 miles, and I learned a lot of interesting facts about the places we visited., I also re-discovered a truth far away that was in front of my face all the time.

Luda and I visited three Eastern European countries that had long been on her “bucket list”-- Hungry, Austria, and the Czech Republic. It was a fascinating trip, full of exciting places to visit, new places to walk, and great restaurants (our family grew tired of all the restaurant pics I kept posting on Facebook). But of all its sights, sounds, and tastes, I will remember the longest the 20 minutes I spent with Martin Procharzka. 

Luda and I were walking across the Charles Bridge—the oldest bridge in Prague—and confronting vendor after vendor who had set up small souvenir stands on the bridge.   I stopped to admire a photograph and asked, “This isn’t your work, is it?” The middle-aged man answered in the affirmative. We began to discuss photography in general and the details of how he had captured this amazing image of this  famous bridge.

“I came out here early, around 5 AM, to get a good spot for the foot traffic. There was just a dusting of snow. After I had set up, snow really started to fall, and I got this great shot.”

Martin’s story behind the shot anchored my visit to Prague, made the whole adventure more real for me, and certainly more memorable. It also tied into the bigger story of a city and a people released at last from the confines of their previous system and free again to be creative individuals pursuing their dreams.

The power of narrative is a great truth that we sometimes forget as business people when we focus on our accomplishments, customer testimonials, or exciting product features. We all need to remember the “story” that helps our customers anchor our “truth” and remember it.  All businesses, but especially service businesses, can benefit from becoming skilled in telling their story to customers and prospects. 

But it is not just about telling your story. You need to link your story to a bigger theme that resonates with your prospect or customer. Storytelling marketing pioneer Michael Margolis has made this point in his book, Believe Me! You can download a free PDF copy with this link. 

Margolis believes that “Only when people can locate themselves inside [your] story will they belong and participate in your narrative.” By “participate,” he means remembering and retelling.  Sometimes it’s tough for business owner to overcome our own pre-conceptions about our businesses and think about them in a new way to harness the power of storytelling.

One of our engagements from several years ago illustrates the point. A computer firm in Silicon Valley was puzzled. No matter how much it promoted the new and improved versions of its industry- leading hardware, its existing customers—the largest businesses, with the biggest networks—kept buying at the same rate, year after year. Why were they not responding to the firm’s considerable investment in marketing? We did a research study to find out and determined that, in most cases, the customers were most influenced by the firm’s service and not its hardware, which was expected to keep pace with market trends.  Since the firm’s service offerings had not changed but were generally satisfactory, the customer buying habits remained unchanged.

By combining this Voice of the Customer data with powerful storytelling, the company added new service offerings to make its brand of hardware and services indispensable and part of a compelling larger story of a labor-saving, time-saving, and money-saving solution. The results?  This firm grew its hardware AND service revenue and profits so much that within a year it was acquired at a large premium.

As you think about how to grow your business in the coming months, think about your story. How will you tell it to make it engaging? How will you link it to a larger theme?