Omne Trium Est Perfectum


“Every set of three is complete” (translation)

“When the facts change, I change my mind.” — John Keynes

Occasionally someone in a training class will ask me: “How many sales columns should I use on my presentation menu–three or four?”  I useed to answer “four” and explain my opinion.  I’d usually reference Sheena Iyengar’s “Jam Study” as support.  Her book The Art of Choosing  (pub. 2010) illustrates the tipping point at which the number of consumer choices help or harm sales.

If you were to ask me the same question today I’d give you a new answer: three.  I’d recommend that you pare your selling menu back to three columns, have three value building points for your company, three benefit statements for your products, three follow-up calls to customers, a three-ring phone policy, and three ways to pay for products.  I’d start looking for “three” opportunities wherever I could find them.   The facts have changed.

In 2014 two Stanford researchers, Suzanne Shu and Kurt Carlson, published a research paper entitled “When Three Charms but Four Alarms: Identifying the Optimal Number of Claims in Persuasion Settings.”  Here’s the link:

Four years after Iyengar’s work Shu and Carlson presented a slightly more refined conclusion by emphasizing that context–especially persuasive contexts–impact the number of choices that are optimal for consumer decisions.  Shu and Carlson argue that:

“in settings where consumers know that the message source has a persuasion motive, the optimal number of positive claims is three. More claims are better until the fourth claim, at which time consumers’ persuasion knowledge causes them to see all the claims with skepticism.”

Additional contextual considerations include price signals, message framing, message sequencing, and message content.  In other words there is a LOT that can be done to make a persuasive message that delivers a punch!

Nobody wants skeptical customers.  if a company is using a four product menu that is overloaded with benefits then their tactic may be inadvertently working against them:

“As such, there is tendency to want to present as many compelling claims as exist. However, there is a danger that at some level of claims consumer awareness of persuasive intent will convert into skepticism, causing the consumer to discount all the claims.  Motive is the key to leveraging “the charm of three.”  When a customer understands that the source of the interaction is persuasive then three is the perfect number.” 

The number of columns on a sales menu is just the beginning.  The research also pertains to product benefit claims.  Something as simple as a motor or a thermostat.  Salespeople tend to talk at length about these features (especially a thermostat, still basking in the fading glow of “shiny new toy syndrome”).  A salesperson can unknowingly sell him or herself out of a deal by over sharing.  According to Shu and Carlson:

“based on work showing that people can draw inference about an object after seeing three data points, we propose that consumers will see three positive claims as sufficient to draw an inference about a product or service. Since three claims is sufficient for this inference, additional claims will trigger skepticism and message coping processes that will undermine the entire message. In practical terms, this means that three positive claims will produce the most positive impression, and four positive claims will produce an impression that is less positive than the impression created by a three claim message.”

Additional claims generate a coping mechanism in the consumer’s mind resulting in skepticism and distaste.

1 is the loneliest number.  And 7 ate 9.  Then there’s 3.  3 is a whole number.  The biblical number (omniscience, omnipresent, omnipotent).  It is also an effective number in persuasive settings.  Three column menus.  Three benefit points for each product (or component if you want).  Three methods of payment.  Three follow-up calls.

As long as the context is persuasive then three claims are better than four.


Tree Fartistry: Disengaged employees harm their company brands.

tree fartistry

If you were to assess Tree Artistry, a local company in my town, by their website or their vehicles you’d conclude that they are professional, customer-centric, and proud.  My daughter and I were puttering around last week and noticed their crew trimming trees near our home.  The crew placed this sign near the job site.  Did the crew modify the sign (it IS sort of funny)?  Did a neighborhood kid do it?  Is doesn’t matter all that much.  There it was: front and center for any passerby to see.  The company isn’t as professional as they’d like us to think.  The dissonance between the marketed image and the modified sign tells us something about the things that happen when disengaged employees manage their employer’s brand.  From a business owner’s perspective it begs the questions:

“What do my teams tell others about my company?”

“How do my teams manage my company brand through their appearance, actions, conversations, and interactions with other team members, customers, friends?”

“Is  my belief about our culture actually enhanced by my team or are there detractors that have become tolerated fixtures?  At what cost?”

From an employee’s perspective it begs another set of questions;

“Do I actually know what my company culture is?”

“Even if I know what my company is do I care about it?”

“Do I feel a sense of ownership regarding this culture and brand”

“Have I ever behaved in a manner that is contrary to what the company stands for?”

“Have I ever tolerated disparaging behaviors from my colleagues?”

“How engaged am I in living the company brand and culture every day?”

Gallup’s recent “State of the American Workforce” provides disheartening evidence: More than one-third of American employees described themselves as “actively disengaged” while more than half of American employees say they are “actively looking for a new job.”  This, despite the well-inteded team-building efforts that employers pay for on a regular basis.  Breakfast for installers, birthday recognitions, after-work paint-balling . . . they don’t improve employee engagement.  Disengaged employees will manage their company brand as disengaged individuals manage anything: lackluster, unenthusiastic, occasionally negative.  But if the 50th employee appreciation potluck doesn’t work then what does?

First, research indicates that people want to do a job that they’re best at.  Asking a person who doesn’t like working with people to perform customer service functions is a recipe for disaster (and irresponsible hiring).  The employee may put his best foot forward at first but when the halo period wears off then the disengagement begins (and becomes an example for others as to what they can get away with).  Asking a person who loves data to generate reports, however, will likely extract the very best from the individual.  Engaging employees (and keeping them engaged) starts with hiring and training people for positions that they’re good at or one in which they have a natural aptitude or interest.

Second, employees want a greater work-life balance or to work for a company that improves their personal well-being.  That may include flexible scheduling, working remotely, sponsored health and wellness programs.  Lunch walks, morning yoga, anti-smoking incentives, and things along these lines help engaged employees feel that their employer cares about them beyond their vocational abilities.  Bear in mind, this isn’t about open office concepts or ping-pong tables in the break room.  Silicon valley learned the hard way on that one.  Rather, it’s about demonstrating a holistic commitment to the employees life in and out of the office.

Stability matters to engaged employees.  When another month of crummy sales results rolls out people get nervous.  When the boss says that he’s going to be evaluting the necessity of all the positions in his company people feel scared (and in some cases that might be ok).  Engaged employees increase their level of engagement when they feel stability and security.  It’s probably human nature as much as anything else–we all want to feel safe.

Fourth, employees look for a significant increase in income.  “Significant” is relative.  For some it might be a few more dollars an hour.  Others may look for much larger increases.  Gallup reports that even engaged employees are looking for significant wage increases.  In blunt terms: if an employee feels underpaid then she’ll disengage fairly quickly.

People take pride in who they work for IF the company that they work for has a great brand and reputation.  People love to tell you that they work for Google.  Or Tesla.  Or Apple.  Engaged employees want to work for a company that is respected and has a respected brand. That’s a cultural outcome that leadership is responsible for generating and living.  It can’t be outsourced.

I wonder how the owner of Tree Artistry would feel if he knew (and I hope he does by now) that his crews were making fun of his company and were eroding the brand.  How would he feel if he went “Undercover Boss” out there?  Embarrassed?  Disappointed?  His crew probably doesn’t think they’re doing anything wrong, and that’s the problem.  They cash their checks every other week while  biting the hand that feeds them.

I hear it all the time:  “I can’t find good people” or “People get hired and then they quit” or “You can’t find anyone with a work ethic that doesn’t want X per hour.”  These complaints may be true.  But they may also indicate that the employer needs to ask him or herself: Am I running a company built for long-term engagement?


Necessary fallacy, ignorance, and ineptitude: Why failures happen in your business.

“I can’t get everybody on the same page.”  “She started out strong but then her performance just fell off a cliff.”  “He’s a big help around the office but he’s not actually making management decisions.”  All common problems I’ve heard from my clients.  It’s not easy to implement initiatives  with 100% buy-in–especially across large organizations. Even with aptitude tests it’s impossible to know precisely what an employee’s long-term capabilities will be.  Not everyone is cut out to lead people.  Furthermore there are costs associated with lackluster performance, turnover, and additional trainings.  So when failures happen, many business owners assume ownership of the problem, try a slightly new approach, or settle for less-than-optimal results until such a time that a given problem is exacerbated beyond repair.  Unfortunately, many business owners and managers are not addressing the real issue as to why failure happens in the first place.

In 1975 Samuel Gorovitz and Alasdair MacIntyre published an article entitled “Toward a Theory of Medical Fallibility.”  The philosophers intended to isolate the deeper causes of medical error in an effort to understand why brilliant surgeons and teams of surgeons frequently failed, lost lives.  There are, they determined, three reasons why catastrophic failures happen: Necessary Fallacy, ignorance, and ineptitude.

Necessary Fallacy causes failure.  I’d like to surf like Kelly Slater, play chess like Magnus Carlsen, and golf like Good Tiger.  I don’t live near a coast line, I’m not a prodigy, and I started playing golf in my 40’s.  Still, I try hard at each and fail at each on a regular basis.  Necessary Fallacy: failure happens because I try to do something that’s beyond my given capabilities.  I wasn’t born a natural athlete or a genius.  Jim Collins described this as having the right people in the right seats on the bus.  Just because a person wants to be/do function X does not mean that he is capable of excelling in that role.  I’ve seen a lot of outstanding installers become average salesmen and I’ve seen too many people with inherently average communication skills become average customer service representatives.

Ignorance causes failure.  Not knowing how to perform a function or a service–legitimately not knowing–is ignorance.  It’s not a bad thing, it’s an opportunity.  As Gorovitz and MacIntyre point out:

“And since ignorance is a precondition of progress, where there is the possibility of progress there is the possibility of error.  The ignorance of what is not yet known is a permanent state of science . . .”

In other words, failure and mistakes happen because a person or team may simply not know the entire scope of information, skills, etc. necessary to succeed.  Failure due to ignorance can be expected–even tolerated.  Businesses are often overwhelmed with change and the rate and quality of disseminated information may at times be inconsistent.  Additional training may be required.  Improved process management can help.  It is the company’s responsibility to identify ignorance-related errors and to repair information or skills-related gaps that cause failure.

Ineptitude causes failure.  When a person or team willfully and knowingly disregards management directives, cuts corners, skips procedural steps then that person or that team has become inept.  A business owner or manager should forgive ignorance so long as corrective actions are taken.  But as Atul Gawande writes, “If the knowledge exists and is not applied correctly it is difficult not to be infuriated.”  Ineptitude-related failures happen when individuals or teams ignore proven-protocol because of their experience or pride.  Ineptitude happens out of laziness.  Ineptitude is a choice that person makes and it should be managed in to compliance.  Gorovitz and MacIntyre write:

“Willfulness and negligence will arise when those motives which are to be restrained by the external norms of natural science–ambition, impatience, competitiveness, a great anxiety to do good–are allowed to override the internal norms.”

In the United States, roughly 250,000 people die from surgery-related complications every year.  An intense focus on error-reduction has improved this number year over year and death statistics are trending downward around the world.  In so much as surgeons are hyper-specialized experts dedicated to saving lives they’re not perfect.  By understandng the causes of surgery-related failures the medical community has significantly improved.  Business owners want perfectly functioning organizations.  Managers want perfectly performing teams.  But that rarely happens.  Owners and managers that isolate and identify the causes of their failures: Necessary Fallacy, ignorance, and ineptitude–can take smarter corrective action.fallibility

The Age of Alexa: Is it time for contractors to join the AI revolution?


“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” 

“Alexa play lullaby music.”  “Alexa, what’s the weather going to be like this weekend?”  “Alexa, add milk to the grocery list.”  “Alexa, find me a plumber . . .”

This morning I asked Alexa to find me an HVAC contractor.  Alexa provided three recommendations.  None of them were the “big” players in town.  Traditional SEO practices would have provided predictable, seemingly nepotistic search results.  Not Alexa.  Alexa’s criteria is notably different than other search engines. Alexa is not a “pay to play” info-system.  Alexa’s criteria are democratizing search results in favor of the consumer rather than the search engine.

My family uses artificial intelligence for simple things like playing bed time music for our daughter.  We are starting to test it for slightly more complicated tasks such as ordering groceries or finding a service provider.  We are one of over 50 million households who have seamlessly adjusted to our talking black tube (has anyone questioned the weirdness of that?).  That number–50 million–is forecasted to double by 2020.  Contractors should take note.  AI is re-shaping lead generation and the relationship between consumers and technology in as much as e-commerce is challenging the power structure between businesses and consumers.  It is time for contractors to consider capitalizing on the potential advantages of AI as a lead source that customers trust.

Alexa, Cortana and similar AI devices utilize unique criteria when recommending products and services.   For example, Alexa will only give a contractor’s website consideration if Amazon has certified the site metrics.  Sound fishy?  Don’t you have to basically open your books to participate in certain box store programs?  Here’s the link if you’re interested in certification:  Non-certified web sites will not be considered as a search results option.  Additionally, Alexa’s algorithms give preference to contractors who are participating in its home services program.  Non-participants will most likely not be considered or be given tertiary attention at best.  Low traffic websites will not be well ranked.  Finally, Alexa considers three months worth of unique visitors and page views in order to determine a “Long Tail” score.  Information about the importance of the “Long Tail” effect can be found here:

At this time Alexa is brand agnostic.  Notably, so are most HVAC consumers.  Alexa doesn’t care if a contractor is affiliated with a dealer loyalty program.  Alexa doesn’t read Consumer Reports.  Alexa cares about consumer behavior more than contractor of manufacture talking points.  It evaluates contractors from the consumer’s point-of-view.  Alexa recommends a business based on traffic, the company’s site metrics, and the Long Tail behaviors.  This may very well be the new face of lead generation: Populist optimization.

For the time being manufacturers and their marketing partners will be flummoxed by AI.  Some companies have already built relationships with Amazon and others, attempting to embed their home control devices with AI.  That’s a good start providing that contractors operate in a manner that is compliant with AI discovery criteria.  For now the dog is still wagging the tail.

Two days ago I asked a friend if he’d consider joining an AI home service group.  “I’m already in X, Y, and Z” box stores and I don’t need another expense,” he said.  It’s a valid point.  Box store programs are incredibly costly without considering the additional management and personnel requirements that owners are expected to assume.  Leads generated via artificial intelligence devices represents potential cost savings–reduced staff, paperless processing, and speedy on-line payment systems.  It may also represent another version of subjugation for the contractor who refuses to see a lead as the point of entry in to a cross-selling and long-term relationship with the consumer.  Consumers are increasingly attracted to seamless, high-touch purchase experiences.  I’m unconvinced that box store lead generation and sales models satisfy those descriptions.  As box stores stridently adopt e-commerce options I’m not sure they are either.

I remember when box stores started selling heating and cooling equipment.  There were a few smirks and a few skepticisms.  We all know how that experiment worked out.  Most of you reading this remember the bomb-drop effect that Nest had on the HVAC industry as well as its frantic response to a non-traditional competitor (despite a bevy of beneficial functions the industry has yet to market their products with similar efficacy).  AI represents another non-traditional shift in the HVAC industry.  It may also be the next iteration of the box store.  Amazon is playing a long game.  They have what every business wants: incalculable amounts of consumer data.  Contractors need to decide if they are ready to integrate artificial intelligence in to their marketing and advertising strategy.  Personally, I think it’s time.


Podcast #10: Felicia Simmons is one of the best Territory Managers in her company (and probably the country).


For this week’s podcast I interviewed Felicia Simmons.  Felicia is a Territory Manager and a recent recipient of her company’s “Top 10” award–an award given to the top 10% of salespeople nationwide.  In other words, she’s very, very good at her job.  In this podcast we talk about empathy, new business, and the best practices she utilized in order to be one of the best (as well as what to do with your career after that happens).  I hope you enjoy it and thanks for listening.



Facebook is a Flaming Dumpster but Your Business Should Stick with It.


“The question isn’t ‘What do we want to know about people?’, it’s ‘What do people want to tell about themselves?'” — Mark Zuckerberg

“Distraction serves evil more than any other mental state.” — Stefan Molyneux

I don’t think anybody was shocked to learn about the data scraping scandal and subsequent Congressional hearings.  Mr. Zuckerberg’s behavior during the hearings  confirmed many people’s opinion that he’s very similar to his character in The Social Network–an insecure, spiteful, and lonely genius.  Our society is already facing a loneliness problem and Facebook only seems to make it worse:

Furthermore we cannot ignore Facebook’s literally murderous potential.  Every Facebook user is complicit to a degree:

“A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now  than people dying in Africa.” — Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook is not apolitical.  You cannot use the platform and exonerate yourself from the fact that it was used and is used to foment mass murder in Myanmar:

Consider the following letter written directly to Mark Zuckerberg on behalf of various Myanmar human rights organizations:

Dear Mark,

5 April 2018 Yangon, Myanmar

We listened to your Vox interview with great interest and were glad to hear of your personal concern and engagement with the situation in Myanmar.

As representatives of Myanmar civil society organizations and the people who raised the Facebook Messenger threat to your team’s attention, we were surprised to hear you use this case to praise the effectiveness of your ‘systems’ in the context of Myanmar. From where we stand, this case exemplifies the very opposite of effective moderation: it reveals an over-reliance on third parties, a lack of a proper mechanism for emergency escalation, a reticence to engage local stakeholders around systemic solutions and a lack of transparency.

Far from being an isolated incident, this case further epitomizes the kind of issues that have been rife on Facebook in Myanmar for more than four years now and the inadequate response of the Facebook team. It is therefore instructive to examine this Facebook Messenger incident in more detail, particularly given your personal engagement with the case.

The messages (pictured and translated below) were clear examples of your tools being used to incite real harm. Far from being stopped, they spread in an unprecedented way, reaching country-wide and causing widespread fear and at least three violent incidents in the process. The fact that there was no bloodshed is testament to our community’s resilience and to the wonderful work of peacebuilding and interfaith organisations. This resilience, however, is eroding daily as our community continues to be exposed to virulent hate speech and vicious rumours, which Facebook is still not adequately addressing.

Over-reliance on third parties

In your interview, you refer to your detection ‘systems’. We believe your system, in this case, was us – and we were far from systematic. We identified the messages and escalated them to your team via email on Saturday the 9th September, Myanmar time. By then, the messages had already been circulating widely for three days.

The Messenger platform (at least in Myanmar) does not provide a reporting function, which would have enabled concerned individuals to flag the messages to you. Though these dangerous messages were deliberately pushed to large numbers of people – many people who received them say they did not personally know the sender – your team did not seem to have picked up on the pattern. For all of your data, it would seem that it was our personal connection with senior members of your team which led to the issue being dealt with.

Lack of a proper mechanism for emergency escalation

Though we are grateful to hear that the case was brought to your personal attention, Mark, it is hard for us to regard this escalation as successful. It took over four days from when the messages started circulating for the escalation to reach you, with thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, being reached in the meantime.

This is not quick enough and highlights inherent flaws in your ability to respond to emergencies. Your reporting tools, for one, do not provide options for users to flag content as priority. As far as we know, there are no Burmese speaking Facebook staff to whom Myanmar monitors can directly raise such cases. We were lucky to have a confident english speaker who was connected enough to escalate the issue. This is not a viable or sustainable system, and is one which will inherently be subject to delays.

Reticence to engage local stakeholders around systemic solutions

These are not new problems. As well as regular contact and escalations to your team, we have held formal briefings on these challenges during Facebook visits to Myanmar. By and large though, our engagement has been limited to your policy team. We are facing major challenges which would warrant the involvement of your product, engineering and data teams. So far, these direct engagements have not taken place and our offers to input into the development of systemic solutions have gone unanswered.

Presumably your data team should be able to trace the original sources of flagged messages and posts and identify repeat offenders, using these insights to inform your moderation and sanctioning. Your engineering team should be able to detect duplicate posts and ensure that identified hate content gets comprehensively removed from your platform. We’ve not seen this materialise yet.

Lack of transparency

Seven months after the case mentioned, we have yet to hear from Facebook on the details of what happened and what measures your team has taken to better respond to such cases in the future. We are also yet to hear back on many of the issues we raised and suggestions we provided in a subsequent briefing in December.

The risk of Facebook content sparking open violence is arguably nowhere higher right now than in Myanmar. We appreciate that progress is an iterative process and that it will require more than this letter for Facebook to fix these issues.
If you are serious about making Facebook better, however, we urge you to invest more into moderation – particularly in countries, such as Myanmar, where Facebook has rapidly come to play a dominant role in how information is accessed and communicated; We urge you to be more intent and proactive in engaging local groups, such as ours, who are invested in finding solutions, and – perhaps most importantly – we urge you to be more transparent about your processes, progress and the performance of your interventions, so as to enable us to work more effectively together.

We hope this will be the start of a solution-driven conversation and remain committed to working with you and your team towards making Facebook a better and safer place for Myanmar (and other) users.

With our best regards,”

I was hopeful during the Arab Spring.  The promise of a grass-roots digital uprising was inspiring.  I don’t feel that way anymore.  We’ve all been duped.  Google and Twitter will also probably come under investigation.  Hopefully these organizations will sincerely begin to live their principles, adopt a pay-per-use format, or agree to institute internal and external oversight.  Or, as Google claims, “Don’t be evil.”

Considering Facebook’s irresponsible and complicit violation of individual data, why aren’t businesses running from Facebook?  Should you run?  Mozilla and Pep Boys have announced that they’re pulling their spending.  But that’s about all I could find.  Businesses in general are giving Facebook a pass.  “We at Clorox stand by Facebook as an essential partner in building our brands,” said Eric Reynolds, CMO.  AT&T, Proctor & Gamble, Verizon, PepsiCo have all decided to stick with Facebook.

Perhaps these companies differentiate the relationship an individual has with other users rather than individual users and brands.  More likely is that these companies believe that demonizing Facebook is wrong because it could have been any platform, any user base.  More likely, and hopefully, Congressional hearings will create real accountability–“Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

It’s too early to see if the #DeleteFacebook movement will find traction.  It feels lightweight–if 50 million users quit there’d still be another billion regular users from around the world, in places where social communication is important.  There are too many people who don’t feel an affront to the Cambridge Analytica controversy.  There are too many people who say, “Go ahead and take my data, I don’t have anything to hide.”

To its credit Facebook has already taken action.  Last week it announced that it would remove ad targeting options that rely on consumer data from outside companies.”  Given Facebook’s dominance, they probably don’t need outside data for ad targeting.

For businesses, Facebook will continue to be another means of extending their brands with connected consumers.  Facebook branding helps a business create a holistic view and connection of their consumers.  Well-told brand stories improve loyalty among target demographics.  The Cambridge Analytica controversy will pass–it will not dent Facebook’s dominance.

Ultimately, business owners will have to come to terms with privacy and personal data issues on their own–reconciling the risk and reward and return.  For me and many others it business owners it leaves the question: Is it better to work with the devil that you know than the devil that you don’t?




Selling is Storytelling


“Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.” — Hannah Arendt

The first 30 seconds of Star Wars Episode IV.  The first ten minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The music in Jaws.  Unforgettable ways to tell incredible stories (which may be both dating myself as well as admitting that I’m a fan of 70’s classics).  Any  film maker’s goal is to tell the best story out of pride or artistic sensibility as well as to keep the audience talking about the film and seeing it repeatedly.

Storytelling is the best and most underutilized method of selling something.  It’s narrative, engaging, educational and immersive.  Storytelling replaces the obvious “feature, function, benefit” method with collaboration and the tacit participation that occurs between the storytelling and the listener.  As such the listener becomes part of the production, co-creating the meaning.  It’s also enjoyable to listen to a well told story.

If you’re looking for a better way to sell your products, try replacing the traditional pitch with a five step storytelling process:

Start by asking yourself: “How are people using my product?”  Consider the various ways in which they are not only using the product but enjoying the product.  For example, they may have purchased the product in order to save money.  But how does saving money make a person feel?  Responsible?  Smart?  Safe?  Remember, people don’t buy products, they buy how products makes them feel.  Start with the feeling.

Next, when have your customers experienced a “moment” when they know they’ve made a great decision buying your product?  Was it when they came home from a long day at work and their home feels perfectly calm and cool?  Was it when they opened a utility bill and realized they’d saved money that month?  Was it when they opened their phone and accessed the product remotely?  Every customer has a moment when they smile and silently say to themselves, “This was a really good decision.”  Isolate one of those moments and use it to introduce the conflice.

Conflict is the basis for action.  The second step in storytelling is to identify the problems that your customer wanted to resolve before meeting you.  This is the conflict: The customer wanted X and had to resolve Y in order to accomplish their goals.  Be specific.  Use a true-to-life scenario.

Third, how did the customer find you and your product?  What brought you together?  Why were they interested in your product or your company or yourself?  Clearly there’s something preferential about this process and this is your chance to highlight that preference (not in a boastful manner, please).

Now it’s time to let go of the “FFB” part of the story and replace it with a description–not of valves and motors–but choice and reason.  Remember the old adage: “People don’t buy a two-inch drill bit, they buy a two inch hole.”  Talk about choices your customers have made and the reason behind those choices.  The reasons will be logical and emotional.  Here’s what they won’t be: technical.  Furthermore, this illustrates the correlation between price and value without you having to do the tedious work of explaining it to the customer.

Finally, your story will have a resolution.  This is the impact of using your product.  Ideally it will be expressed in terms of a return: time, money, convenience.  It’s always positive.

As a young salesman I was taught to sell benefits rather than features or functions.  It’s still ok advice assuming that you’re familiar with the product and use it on a regular basis.  Selling the benefits of a new car makes sense because the customer most likely has a base line for conceptualizing improvements.  Selling benefits is more difficult if the customer doesn’t have prior experience with the product.  At that point benefits become esoteric–so we look for comparisons (gas mileage, dimmer switches, etc).  Comparisons are fine but they still assume the customer is interpreting them accurately.  Stories are the best.  Based on real-life scenarios an inexperienced customer can project himself in to the narrative.  Told well, stories carry emotional heft that’s otherwise lost by comparison or data.  Stories are immersive in that the customer will project himself in to the conflict.  And we all appreciate a story that ends well.  There’s relief.

Before you sit down for your next meeting consider the audience.  You’ve hopefully gained their attention.  Ask yourself: What are they most likely to be interested in?  Another one-dimensional product pitch or a four-dimensional, well told story that illustrates the product without committing the error of defining it.



Editorial Update/Correction: E-Commerce for contractors is happening right now. My interview with Justin Riley.

Your comfort zone

CORRECTION: My original blog post had an incorrect URL for Mr. Riley’s e-commerce website.  I have included the correct address here:

Thank you and apologies to Mr. Riley.

I’m very excited to share this interview with you.  The guest is Justin Riley.  Justin is at the forefront of contractor-driven e-commerce sales.  In the podcast we discuss his journey in to the e-commerce world, the lessons he’s learned as well as how  e-commerce is re-shaping his sales and customer service model.  With all the current “sturm and drang” regarding this topic I encourage you consider the impact that e-commerce will have on your company in the near future.

Thanks for listening,


Please note: there are a few scratchy parts of this interview because I was recording because of my phone connection at the time.


“If young people love it then it’s the future.” E-commerce becomes a mandate for contractors.

ecommerce global earth internet world word


The World Economic Forum at Davos is underway.  This morning a panel of experts including Jack Ma spoke about the importance of e-commerce in small businesses.  His remarks forecasted the e-commerce future–one in which smart contractors will be viable and thriving because of their e-commerce capabilities.  To be even more clear: e-commerce is a mandate and the next small business accelerant.

Contractors are often reluctant to accept the idea that e-commerce is feasible.  It’s time to let go of doubts or skepticisms.  E-commerce is happening.  The question a contractor needs to be asking is: “What are the implications if I sit this one out?” or “What will my life look like if a manufacturer sells products directly to the consumer?”  As Jack Ma put it, “If we cross our arms e-commerce is going to belong only to the Big Guys.”  

Consider the fact that in 2016 Amazon accounted for 53% of on-line retailing.  Or that Alibaba generated 750 BILLION dollars in revenue in 2017.  While Toys ‘R Us announces additional store closures and Nordstrom is downgraded because of their worst financial performance since 1972, a 29 Filipino woman named Theresa Fernandez-Ruiz builds Rags2Riches as a way to help community artisans sell low-cost products around the world.  Theresa Fernandez-Ruiz made the Forbes 30 under 30 list last year.

“Imagine if the barriers to doing business aren’t there.” — Theresa Fernandez-Ruiz

Everyday contractors deal with the clunky process of generating leads, dispatching sales people, service technicians, calling customers, following-up, installing equipment, servicing equipment, repeat, repeat, repeat.  E-commerce simplifies many of the traditional customer service and sales processes.  And while the applied side of the industry will be resilient to tectonic shifts contractors who want to capture an early advantage should take heed: Business as usual isn’t going to last forever.

“E-commerce is going to replace traditional ways of doing business.” — Jack Ma

There is a generational shift happening as well as a shift in the ways consumers rely on e-commerce to simplify their lives without a middle-man.  People in their 20’s and 30’s are buying homes and making home improvements.  They are digital natives and will be so forever.  Raised on e-commerce platforms, many view the traditional purchase process as a nuisance.  Contractors should use e-commerce to increase accessibility and ease-of-use among these buyers.  Equally important is the fact that e-commerce is a perfect growth engine for small businesses who can act nimbly, monetize their web platforms, and create an entirely new level of consumer engagement in order to capture a broader audience.

“This (e-commerce) is for young people and small businesses.  If young people love it then it’s the future.” — Jack Ma

All of this–e-commerce, the internet of things, direct-to-consumer selling–it’s all daunting.  But it’s here and any contractor who wants an advantage in the market should quickly move in this direction.  It challenges all of the traditional talking points, from quality control to workmanship, to the necessity of a sales team, to the manufacturing of equipment itself.  But have these talking points really worked?  Have they really been so earth shattering that they cannot be rewritten or in some cases abandoned?  Most likely  the contracting industry is going to learn how to layer these stories within their e-commerce platforms.  People want quality products, a low-hassle experience, and a price-to-value ratio that makes sense.  Ma’s closing remarks at Davos provide a snapshot of this new world:

“In the future there won’t be ‘Made in the USA’ or ‘Made in China.’  There will only be ‘Made on the internet.’

Empathy, Listening, and the Small Business Roller Coaster.

life of an entreprenuer

Very few B2B professionals that I’ve worked with have owned a business.  It matters in that this inexperience may truncate an understanding of the volatility inherent in small business.  As Phil Knight wrote, “For an entrepreneur every day is a crisis.”  That’s an important thing to keep in mind.  It should change the way you sell.  When you ask for a customer’s time you’re asking them to not do something else–and there’s a cost associated with that detraction.  Talk a whole lot less.   Listen for understanding and respect that their agenda (stay alive and grow) may be different from yours (buy my products).  Don’t ask glib questions.  Ask well-prepared questions and take excellent notes.  Follow through like your life depended on it and honor 100% your commitments.  Don’t show up empty-handed to a meeting.  Swag does not a meeting make.  Share provocative content that improves their business in some way.  Be incredibly easy to do business with.  Learn how your customers make money.  Thicken your value by deepening your empathy and improving the quality of your engagement.  Go on the roller coaster ride with them instead of standing on the sidelines.  That may not having anything to do with features, functions, or benefits.  But it will eventually.