Do Your Homework

I don’t know how many others out there have experienced the joy (ahem…) of looking for a new position, but I know I have in the past. It is never really any fun. It is an effort. The uncertainty creates discomfort. I have noted in the past that I am not especially good at asking others for help. I have met several other people who seem to be very good at asking for help and it would seem that they almost prefer others to do their work for them, but me not so much. I have tried to compensate for this by trying to freely offer help and thus enabling others to avoid the issue of having to ask me for help. On several occasions this willingness to offer help to others in their job searches has caused some unexpected problems.

I think the basic equilibrium point for most of us is to be a contributing member of an organization, a business and society in general. That simply means that most of us like to work and be employed. When we are not employed, or face the prospect of not being employed we are well out of our comfort zone. After all, just because we may not be currently employed doesn’t mean the bills and expenses associated with our lives will stop or be put on hold.

Much has been written regarding the requirement of people to be flexible and able to change when it comes to employment. On a conceptual level this is an admirable goal. When it comes to forced practical application for specific individuals it may be a whole other story. It is difficult to maintain a professional equilibrium when you are both figuratively and literally out of your employment comfort zone. How people handle this discomfort varies. I have found that there are a few factors that affect an individual’s performance during these times.

The first is experience. Have they been in this situation or position before? Knowing how the process works and how to both ask for and accept help is important. The second is duration. The longer people are looking the longer the twin (and opposing) factors of the (calming) understanding the situation and the (stressing) desire to return to employment equilibrium have the opportunity to take effect. The final and for me most important factor is preparation. How prepared were they for this situation, and how prepared are they to be able to deal with it?

The effects of the experience and duration factors, as one would expect, can only be learned with time. Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want. The only way you get it is to actually go through it. I think it is the preparation factor that everyone to one level or another can affect. With a little preparation and homework, it may be in fact possible to at least partially mitigate the effects of the other two factors.

I have also noted in the past that with the possible exception of sales, which is has a performance rating that is primarily quantifiable (i.e., how much was actually sold, or the amount of orders received) almost all other disciplines have a qualitative aspect to their measurement. That means that an individual’s performance perception will at least partially be opinion based.

And as we all know, opinions do vary.

Just ask western figure skaters when it comes to eastern bloc judges.

We all must understand that while we all may feel we are operating at the peak of efficiency and performance, there are potentially always eastern bloc judges in management that may not agree.

We must also understand that companies are always under cost reduction and performance pressures. Market and competitive fluctuations may also drive corporate employment decisions that may not be based on performance, but rather on financial necessity.

There is the doing of your homework and being prepared for the potentiality of needing to find a new role, and then there is also the doing your homework in the actual search. As I said I like to try and offer my help, such as it may be, to those that may be in the search mode.

Something about “There but for the grace…go I” sort of comes to mind, meaning if I were in a similar position I would definitely appreciate those that freely offered their help.

There have been many times where I have met people, networked and asked how I may be able to help, when I have had some variation of the following conversation:

“Get me a job in your company.”

Really? I am here to try and help you get a job, not get one for you. What do you do?

“I can do anything.”

Really? Do you have a resume?

“Not with me. It’s a few years out of date and a little long, but I’ll be glad to send it to you. When do you think I can start?”

Here is a simple rule for networking or meeting with someone who might able or willing to help you in a job search: Do your homework. Help them help you.

Be concise. Do a little self-analysis and understand what it is you do and are good at. Accountants normally don’t make good sales people, and vice-versa. They normally have significantly different skill sets involved in their roles. Don’t tell anyone you can do anything. It makes you sound like either an egotistical braggart, or at the end of your rope desperate. Neither is a good image to portray.

Have an up to date resume ready. It should be two pages, no more. It doesn’t matter how many years you have worked. It doesn’t matter what you think you have done. Most people or companies are really only interested in your roles over the last fifteen or so years. Adding much on your accomplishments and positions before that doesn’t add to your value as they may be considered somewhat dated. If you have won a Nobel Prize or a Congressional Medal of Honor, it may be acceptable to extend the length of your resume to two and a half pages, but only if you have one, or both of those awards to document and explain. There really are no other excuses for a resume of greater length.

Do some homework on the company that the person you are meeting works for. All companies post many of their open positions on their websites. Have an idea what might be available. Be knowledgeable about what they do and where some of their openings are. Give the person you are meeting something to work with.

Many industries may be big, but the business world can be surprisingly small. Look up who the company’s competitors might be and check their sites for potential openings. It’s called “Networking” for a reason. People know other people in the industry and may be able to give you a referral if you can articulate what it is that you want, where it might be, and why you think that.

Many times when networking we forget just how many different people we know and the various companies that they work for. Providing this type of information does wonders in jogging memories and getting things moving.

It’s been said that you only get one chance to make a good first impression. This is especially important in the somewhat higher stressed environment of a job search. Coming to a networking meeting unprepared does not help with the first impression. You will be asking someone to give you some of their most valuable resource: time. Don’t make them feel that you, or they may have wasted it.

Take some of your time first and do some homework. Anticipate what questions you may be asked, and prepare your answers ahead of time. Do your research on companies and positions so that when asked you can identify the opportunities that are a good fit for you, and minimize the time that you are actually requesting. Document who you are and what you can do. Provide it. Don’t make them ask for it.

People understand that when you are out looking for a position that you are also looking for help. Make it easy for them to help you. It is all about time. Don’t expect that everyone will have all the time you need in order to be helped.

Please reread that last sentence just to make sure you get the meaning. People will be willing to help you, but they probably won’t attribute the same priority to it that you will. Time is of the essence and will be the medium of exchange. Spend a little of your time doing some homework so that you make it that much easier (and that much less time involved) for them to help you.

It will be time well spent.

Arguing With Customers

If you have dealt with customers for any length of time you have probably run into a situation that is similar to this: You have a perfect solution to a customer’s problem. It can involve a product or a service. It can be minimally disruptive or invasive to their organization. It has a good business case and a quick pay-back for the customer. There is only one problem: The customer doesn’t see it your way and wants to do something else that is far less effective, and wants you as the vendor to foot the bill for their solution’s lost efficiency.

And now the argument starts.

The phrase “The customer is always right” was originally coined in 1909 by Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of Selfridge’s Department Store in London. It is a mantra that we in business have all had drummed into our collective heads since we left school and started working. So what do we do when we know in our heart of hearts that in this particular instance the customer is most assuredly wrong, or at the very least not as right as they could be?

I think the above quote might be an edited version of Selfridge’s original idea. There is absolutely no proof of the following, but I still feel the original quote probably went along the lines of something like the following:

“Depending on who has last spoken to the customer, and what they personally believe, what time of day it is, what they ate for dinner last night and the recent incidence of sun spot activity, the customer may be misguided, misinformed, misunderstood to the point of being potentially ignorant of all relevant information associated with the topic, but they are always the customer, and therefore that makes them right”.

In case you are wondering, I added the “sun spot” part myself, just for extra impact.

I think you can see why Mr. Selfridge condensed down the original concept into his now famous quote. The original was a bit of a mouth full and probably wasn’t as customer friendly an idea as he was trying to convey. I’m only guessing here as 1909 was a long time ago and Mr. Selfridge is no longer around to confirm or correct my position.

The point still remains however. Since the precept is that the customer is always right, we probably ought to rephrase the question to: What do we do when the customer has not arrived at the correct right answer?

One thing you can be certain of is that there will be no shortage of people trying to tell a customer what to think. Between you, your competitors, the customer’s internal peers and management, family members and pets, just about everyone will be expressing a view as to what the customer’s proper direction should be. Against this type of backdrop, it is easy to see why a direct confrontation or argument with a customer will not be the most beneficial course of action.

The simplest step in this situation is to check and see if that despite the fact that the customer wants something that is different from your most efficient, effective and elegant of solutions, are they correct? As rare as it may seem there are recorded incidences of customers actually knowing what they want and being correct. It does happen more than one might suspect.

If you can prove to your own and your management’s satisfaction that what the customer wants is indeed a wrong solution, then the next step is to determine who the solution is wrong for. Is it wrong for the customer in that it does not adequately solve their problem, or is it wrong for you the vendor in that it for whatever reason it cannot be defined as good business.

Good business is usually defined as a solution that can be provided (as opposed to one that cannot be provided or does not exist), can be provided profitably and within the time-frames desired by the customer. If the vendor cannot provide the solution or cannot provide the customers desired solution profitably, it is probably not good business.

Unfortunately, there are many recorded instances where despite knowing better, vendors have agreed to and accepted business that does not meet the “good business” hurdle as defined above. These not good business decisions are normally defined as “strategic business” opportunities. A good company can normally stand only so many of these types of “strategic” deals.

If the desired solution is in fact the wrong solution for the customer a logical argument can occur. If it can be empirically proven to the customer that the solution does not solve their problem, then a direct approach can be taken. Empirical proof usually involves numbers and financial comparisons, and not so much on the assumptions and estimates. When it comes to assumptions and estimates, unless there is some very good backing data, who is to say that yours are better than anyone else’s, especially the customer’s?

If you can show a customer numbers, and prove that something else might be a better solution, or save them more money, or (more difficultly) provide them increased value, then the pending argument rapidly just becomes a discussion.

If it turns out that the customer desired solution is wrong for the vendor, then the argument gets a little more involved. While much has been written about solution quality and functionality and such things, it seems that in these days of rapid product and solution turnover, price is the primary driving customer decision factor. If there is a vendor profitability issue associated with a customer desired solution, modifying or increasing the solution price is rarely an acceptable approach to resolution.

When I have encountered this situation, and after ascertaining that no amount of logical discussion is going to change the customer’s mind, I have found it best to at least partially change sides in the argument. By that I mean that instead of pitting one solution against another in some sort of winner take all sweepstakes, I have tried to decompose the customer’s preferred solution into its component parts to see which parts may be congruent with my solution, and focus on those as the opportunity to discuss.

Everyone likes to feel that they are right, and by focusing on the points where there is agreement instead of the overall solution where there is not, a vendor can focus on the aspects of the opportunity that can provide them “good business” while accepting that the customer wants a different solution. This approach is essentially the de-scoping of the aspects of the overall solution that cannot be profitably provided. It highlights where there is complete agreement between the customer and the vendor and where there is not. It also clearly, but not in a confrontational manner quantifies what the cost and value of the disagreement is.

I learned some time ago that all mutually healthy dealings between customers and vendors occasionally requires either party to tell the other “no”. Customers can very easily do this by simply selecting another vendor to fulfill their needs. This approach can be a little drastic but it is definitely guaranteed to get a vendor’s attention very quickly. Vendors on the other hand can only afford to act in a similar manner, i.e. firing a customer, if they have the entire market for the desired good or service cornered where they are the only supplier, or they risk such behavior at their own peril.

By breaking down the customer’s desired solution into its component parts it is possible to tell the customer both “yes” and “no” at the same time. A vendor can say yes to what makes sense, and no to what doesn’t.

When there is contention between a customer and a vendor over a solution, look at the subsets of the total solution where there is agreement, instead of the total offered solution where there is not. This approach serves the twin functions of communicating to the customer where the issues are with their desired solution as well keeping focused on the primarily profitable business that is beneficial to the company.

Just be prepared for the phrase “You have to take the bad with the good”, but that will be another discussion. At least at that point you are negotiating.