Getting to "Know"

I owned a pedestrian marketing firm for six years (this doesn't mean I sold pedestrians, but that it was very average). I had never worked at a firm, knew not a single soul in the industry, and had no role models to mimic. Average financial performance (I paid myself $60,000 in 1988), below average ability to manage people (with employees teaching me how I could do better), and above average effectiveness of the work. One thing for sure: I had no special methods or research that I could build into a twenty-year consulting firm known around the world. Shoot, for the first few years I was drinking water from a waterfall.

I started ReCourses through an odd and fortunate series of events where someone else suggested I do it, and gave me a platform with plenty of opportunity. It never would have happened otherwise, and I will always be grateful to Cam Foote.

I felt like I didn't have much to lose, really. At least I thought so, until the first firm called, to Cam's surprise and mine. The firm was three hours away in Chicago, but first I went to Banana Republic and bought matching earthy green pants, an off-white shirt, and a dark green jacket, all made of linen. I always felt lucky in those colors, and wearing a new something always gives me confidence (to this day).

Tim True was president of Westgate, and part way through the meeting he asked what I would do for them. With some quick thinking, I made up the "Total Business Review" package on the spot. They bit by looking at each other and nodding, and the next question was naturally what it would cost. Again, from thin air, I said "$12,473" without hesitation, hoping to make it sound so intentional that it would be disrespectful to question the amount. They said yes.

For many of the following days, an unknown level of terror hung over me like winter hangs over Indiana. That's all I could think about on that long drive home in my Impala, painted a garish yellow-green by hand with a paint brush. The upcoming spotlight shoved away any thought of the money I had just been promised.

In a sense they were more victim than client. You've done the same thing countless times yourself, only your story is updated to include a panicked cell phone call to the office on your way back from the meeting. "You won't believe what I just promised, and what number I gave them when they asked how many days it would take." I didn't have a mobile phone; much less an office with anyone waiting on me. The terror was mine and could not be shared.

We tell prospects that when we now perform a service that we have offered for years, we provide more value because of all the repetition and learning. Then while the unspoken question hangs in the air, we jump ahead of it to declare that we provided sufficient value then, too, but just not as much as we do now. Or failing real, honest to goodness experience, we'll just add up all the years that anyone that has ever visited our office has ever thought about marketing, including Mom. Yes, “542 Years of Experience.”

I think it's true that we provide value at the beginning, and that we provide even more value later. Smart people can deliver sufficient value with energetic perception, unexpected questioning, and pushing the clutter back to unearth the answers already there (always interview employees for this). Listen, even just courage and not having any accent except a British one can get you through hours of manning the conference room table in their office.

It wasn't until a full four years later (1998) that I realized how much I didn't know. It wasn't hurting my consulting practice as much as it was making me squirm uncomfortably because I knew that I wasn't providing the value I could. Being wrong could be forgiven, but a pattern of not having a concise, defensible point of view on relevant topics could not be. I began to hate it and question myself even in other areas. Appearing incompetent has always been a deep fear, and the reverse of that is the only force powerful enough to shove me onto a platform years ago.

To begin remedying this, I jotted down every relevant subject where this was true, and there were more than I expected. But at least now I was organized and knew what the challenge looked like. I just needed to determine how best to tackle it.

I have come to enjoy the research and articulation in this process, but back then I really was ignorant, avoiding questions entirely, muttering borrowed content, or redirecting a client back to the safer agenda.

How many times each week do you flat know that you are impersonating the advisor they think they hired? Does standing in a room of people eager to discredit you bring terror or anticipation? If getting to "know" would make you more comfortable and effective, it is worth your time and here is one way to go about it:

  • Articulate the kernel segments for which you don't have a thoughtful point of view. Just knowing what you don't know gives you permission for that confidence about what you do know, and in the process allows you be honest about what you don't know. Heck, just whip out the list when a client asks a question about anything on it. They are fine with advice-givers who are human, and only saying "no" from time to time can give any meaning to your "yes" statements. "Honestly, I've been asking that same question and I don't think I have it figured out yet. [Reaching down] Here are my notes so far, and this will provide that opportunity to finally figure it out. Any thoughts along the way would be welcome. Thanks."
  • Determine all the methods that would motivate you, as a unique individual, to develop a given position. This might include a public speaking engagement, a repeatable section to include in proposals, an article you can place for publication, being interviewed as an expert, a seminar you will teach, some internal training to prepare for, or a handout to be used at predictable conversation intersections when talking to clients in person.
  • Group the topics by platform, order the topics in each group by descending level of importance, and assign a date to each item. About that, now: you cannot fully explore one of these topics and then craft the language to present it in less than two weeks.
  • Ignite the research (less than you'll guess) and insight generation (more than you'll guess) by articulating a compressed 1,600-2,400 words for each topic.
  • Begin what academia calls the peer review process. Release it to the brutal public for feedback, disagreement, and "this strikes me as right" commentary. If nobody reads your blog, that's like winning a race with no opponents; you can just skip that and cast it far and wide instead. Email it to everyone not already tired of you and wait. Or just let that one cynical employee eagerly make you wince as they've always dreamed of doing.
  • Over the following years, strip out what later seems like filler and replace it with more substance. Work on it long enough each time to make it shorter and shorter.

How many getting to "know" topics are on your private list? Mine had 55 that day, and I started a monthly newsletter (Persuading) to force the process and to make money as I learned ($360/year for 12 monthly issues of five pages each). This is America, after all!

How many times do you lean forward, look unflinchingly in the client's eyes, slow your verbal cadence, raise your voice a bit...and then lapse into borrowed points of view without the conviction any paying client deserves?

How will this change after so many years of your mental laziness, taking advantage of how easy it seems to impress increasingly dull clients? (Do this just for yourself, even.)

How long will it take you to conquer the initial list? It took me four and one-half years, from January, 2000 until July, 2004.

It would shock you, though, to know how many times I've built on that platform. In one case, I sent the digital files of 19 articles on financial issues to a writing firm in Dallas, who finessed them together to produce a document of 65,000 words. I added five chapters that seemed to be missing and then crafted it into a workbook that sells for $200 and that has sold upwards of $230,000. But the money means nothing like the confidence I have about financial matters for firms like yours. I love understanding the nuances of financials, holding my own with snarky accountants, and licensing the ratios to various software development companies.

The points of view that you develop will be the frequent launching pads for myriad opportunities in the future, and you'll sleep better at night knowing what you know and what you don't know. There are dozens of new topics on my current list, and that doesn't discourage me—it excites me.

Buy some new clothes and start emptying your head to make room for even more exploration. You should always have a list with getting to "know" topics on it.

Quit protecting what you learned in the past and spend that energy on new things right now.

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