Pin the Tail on the Donkey

"Hey, Dave, do me a favor - tell your team not to tell Customers that they can X if they have a Y."

"Who told a Customer that?"

"I don't want to say; I don't want to get anyone in trouble."

"Okay. Can you give me the Customer's name? I can work backwards from that."

"Can't you just send around an email or something?"

No. No, no, no.

First, because if that actually worked, they would have gotten it right to start with. Second, it's clear that only one person is getting it wrong. Why waste the time of team members who already get it right? Are we deliberately trying to kill their morale?

There are a lot of things wrong with our current Avoidance Culture, and one of the worst is not trying to correct a problem at its source. If anything less than the entire team is getting something wrong, it's an abdication of your responsibility as their manager if you don't sit them down, face to face, and say: "This is something that you need to correct."

"But it's hard!" you cry. "I don't want to hurt their feelings!"

How will they feel when their bad habits accumulate to the point that you have to let them go, when you've given them no indication that they were doing anything wrong? Is that fair? Is it right? And how will your HR staff feel when that dismissed employee turns around and litigates? As far as they knew, everything was peachy.

If there is an issue, it's your job to coach your employee regarding how to correct it. Yes, they still have to do the heavy lifting, but you're not doing your job if you don't even tell them where the log jam is.

You Can't Change Customers

Where did the Muppets go wrong?

If you saw the Muppets' latest TV outing, chances are pretty good that you were repelled. Aside from trying to turn the characters that we grew up with and loved into something that they're not - tabloid-worthy - the show failed because it tried to change us. We don't want to think of Kermit and Miss Piggy as sleazy paparazzi-bait. We want to forever believe that they represent what we really hope we are.

Buried deep in all of us is a hard-wired monkey brain that hates change. When asked what we believe and polled about what we want, we routinely lie. Our response to gun violence is a perfect example: If as many of us were against mass shootings as the polls suggest, there would already be universal background checks.

It's not what we say that matters - it's what we do.

Rod Serling understood that; the Twilight Zone was nothing if not a textbook of human behavior. All of the best storytellers have an innate grasp of what we are - Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Winston Churchill, and even Donald Trump. They lead not by trying to steer us in a certain direction, but by finding out where we want to go and pointing the way.

Any venture that contains the words "We'll get them to..." fails. The secret to selling anything, whether it's a product, an idea, a service, or a persona, is to find out where your Customers are already going and beat them there.

Do anything else, and you'll wind up alone in a cul-de-sac.

The Culture of Can't

Resistance to change is a natural, programmed human response. As a rule, people hate change, and will go to ridiculous lengths to avoid it. They create a Culture of Can't, and present excuse after excuse for why change is not only a bad idea, but downright impossible.

But change is necessary and healthy - it helps us adapt to ever-changing conditions - and resistance to change has a cost.

In the days before Mount St. Helens erupted, the authorities and the folks who lived nearby were told by volcanologist David Johnston - a scientist who had studied the mountain for years - how devastating the inevitable eruption would be. He told them that it was going to explode with the force of a nuclear weapon. He said that it would release rivers of mud, avalanches of snow, and super-heated ash at hundreds of miles an hour, killing anyone in the area.

The local government still took weeks to decide to close the park - and tried to reopen it again when the eruption didn't happen right away. 54 people who lived near the mountain refused to leave. Most of their bodies were never recovered. That included David Johnston, who was in an area that was thought to be relatively safe.

Change happens; it's how the universe works. There is nothing that anyone can do to prevent it. The trick is to find a way to make change work in your favor - to create a Culture of Can. Instead of wasting your time and energy pushing back or dragging your feet, pick the change apart to find the opportunities that it presents. If you dig, there are diamonds in that mud. You want to be the one who finds them before someone else does.

Because there is always a volcano, a change in the social or political landscape, an asteroid, a disease, or a predatory competitor more than happy to make you extinct.

'My' Customers

One of the biggest and most destructive mistakes that any manager can make is to let an employee think of any Customer as 'theirs'. They can certainly take ownership of a Customer's needs and issues, but not the Customer, ever. The Customer belongs to the business, not to the employee, no matter how terrific they are.

The only thing that stops you from putting this into practice is fear. But is that really how you want to run your business, doing anything to keep employees and Customers? Because if you do, it's not your business any more, no matter who signs the checks.

"Nonsense!" you say. "What harm can allowing an employee to bond with a Customer cause? So what if they do things outside of our established process - they bring in results!"

What you're missing is that it's just another version of the 'special situation'. If you allow one employee to work outside of what is normally allowed, it creates extra work for everyone involved down the chain, and breeds resentment among the employees that are not so privileged. It's likely that your star player is only a star because they're allowed to circumvent the rules. But if that's true, why not do away with the rules entirely and let everyone do what they want with 'their' Customers?

Because you fought long and hard to get away from that chaos - remember? - and now you're backsliding.

"But it builds employee loyalty!"

Nonsense. What it breeds are bullies who make life hell for everyone else when they don't get their way, setting impossible Customer expectations that cost your organization time, money, and yes, Customers. And if Customers know that they can get whatever they want by going to your bully, why would any of them go to anyone else?

And then, of course, your bully leaves, and takes all of 'their' Customers with them, while you curse them for being exactly what you made them.

Stop being co-dependent! If there are rules, they apply to everyone, and anyone who can't succeed by following them doesn't belong. Stop allowing employees to run your business - that's your job. If you don't do it, nature abhors a vacuum, and is more than willing to put someone else in your chair, whether you realize it or not.

Eliminate GAS

Something that happens once you’ve been in any job awhile is that you start to notice patterns in what Customers want and do. Human brains are hard-wired to spot patterns. That’s what helped you remember your mother’s face when you were two weeks old, and that’s what helped us spot the leopard in the grass 30,000 years ago. Pattern recognition is one of the things that has made us such a successful species.

Once you’ve been on the job a little longer, though, you start to make assumptions about what Customers want, and that tendency only gets stronger over time. We think we can guess what Customers will say if we tell them that they need $800 worth of brake work, or assume they don’t want leather seats, or speculate about the state of their credit based on the clothes they wear.

The trouble is, we’re often wrong. People are individuals, not pre-programmed robots. And it’s not just that we’re wrong with our first guess - a single Customer’s answers can change over time, too. And they may not want to tell a complete stranger what they really think right out of the gate. That’s part of why many sales classes teach you to ask the same question three different ways.


Don’t guess. Don’t assume. Don’t speculate. Find out. Ask, and ask more than once, and in different ways. That’s the only way to know.