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Are you selling to a professional or an amateur?

A professional is going to buy from someone like you. They’re going to have a process to review the process, a method, an experienced approach to obtaining what they need. A professional isn’t going to think she can do it herself and isn’t going to make it an emergency.

An amateur, on the other hand, may or may not follow any of those principles. An amateur is comparing you to what? A miracle? To free? To something in between?

Professionals run the procurement process at Pottery Barn. Amateurs buy a new house every fifteen years. Professionals buy from other professionals. Amateurs ask friends for advice.

At scale, a large company in B2B selling has a multi-year approach to finding and working with professionals. Many talented soloists often can’t afford to work as patiently and so they often are exposed to amateurs.

It’s okay to sell to amateurs, but one should do it with open eyes.

When you don’t get the gig, it’s not because of something you did wrong at any particular meeting with an amateur… the mistake might simply be that you’re having these meetings with amateurs at all. Or that you’re going to amateur meetings expecting to be meeting with a professional.

There’s a way to optimize the sales pitch and even better, the service itself for when you are hoping to acquire an amateur on the way up, a chance to turn him into a pro. But perhaps your frustration is that you thought he was a pro in the first place…

Different stories for different people.

The $37,000 latte

If you live in the city and grab a coffee or a snack every afternoon for about $4, it’s a vivid example of the cost of debt.

You’re either a little behind or a little ahead.

Over ten years, if you’re funding that daily purchase with ongoing credit card debt, at $1,000 a year, it’ll cost you $24,408.40, and you might never find the means to repay the debt.

On the other hand, if that same $1,000 went into a low-cost investment fund that paid about 7% a year, you’d end up with $13,816.45 in the bank.

That’s because interest compounds. It’s because banks like to charge more than they pay out. And it’s mostly because we’re very aware of the short-term and happily ignore the long term.

The repetition of stories

It’s not difficult to maintain a grey cloud and a sullen outlook. The event is long over, but the story remains.

A proven approach is to keep repeating the narrative that led us ever deeper into this memory hole. As with a missing tooth, we probe that spot, over and over, examining it from all angles, again and again, in order to keep the story fresh.

On the other hand, forgotten stories have little power.

And the same approach works for a feeling of optimism and possibility. Repeating stories (to ourselves and others) about good fortune and generosity makes those stories more powerful.

What happens to us matters a great deal, but even more powerful are the stories we repeat about what happened.

Opportunity costs just went up

Every choice has a price.

If you have $100 to invest and you buy this stock instead of that bond, the interest you gave up in making your choice is your opportunity cost.

At the dinner buffet, you can take as much food as you like, but you can only consume so much food. Which means that eating the jambalaya means you won’t have room to eat a dosa. That’s your opportunity cost.

Opportunity cost is the key to making decisions. Once you know the value of the alternatives you’re giving up, you can be smarter about what you’re choosing to do.

Time is finite. We only get the next hour once, and then it’s gone forever. So choices about how we spend or invest our time come with real opportunity costs.

A car with a bumper sticker that says, “I’d rather be surfing,” tells us a lot about the driver (including the inconsistency of his or her actions). But it’s proof that each of us wrestles with opportunity costs every day.

With that in mind, the cost of watching a cat video on YouTube is real indeed.

And the internet has raised the opportunity cost of time spent.

Our access to the world of learning and online resources means that the alternatives are far more valuable than they used to be.

You’re about to spend 11 minutes perfecting an email to a customer. You could do a 90% ideal job in one minute, and the extra 10 minutes spent will increase the ‘quality’ of the email to 92%.

The alternative? Now, you could spend that ten minutes reading a chapter of an important new book. You could learn a few new functions in Javascript. You could dive deep into the underlying economics of your new project…

Or perhaps you’re about to spend an hour manually cleaning a database or tweaking some image files. You do this every day.

Today, though, you could invest an hour in learning to build a macro that will do this recurring job in just a minute a day from now on. Or you could figure out how to hire a trusted freelancer who will do the job on a regular basis for far less than it’s costing you to do it yourself.

Next week, the choices you made at the buffet won’t matter much. But if you learn a new skill, you own it forever.

Human beings don’t like thinking about opportunity costs. As they approach infinity, it’s easy to get paralyzed. As they get harder to compute, it’s difficult to focus and be mindful of the choices already made. That’s a challenge.

But worse, far worse, is to ignore them and fail to learn and connect and level up.

Contractor yield

Imagine you’ve got a set of plans for a simple one-family home. And imagine that you’re a developer with acres of land waiting to be subdivided.

You could hire four different contractors and have them build that house on four corners of your land.

Within weeks, you’d know which ones were efficient, careful and effective. You’d easily be able to measure their productivity, because they have access to the same suppliers and are building the same house.

Is there any doubt at all that the best of them would be dramatically better than the worst? It’s not hard to imagine a 3x difference between the two.

And yet, in most fields, like heart surgery, copyediting and continuing education, we fail to do this. In others, though, once we start doing it, it feels like we get carried away and can’t stop.

Just because it’s easy to measure doesn’t mean we should (and the opposite is even more true).

Relentlessly lowering expectations

We always compare performance on a relative basis. “Well, it’s better than it was yesterday…”

Toddlers, for example, seem like geniuses compared to the babies they used to be.

Some people around us have embraced a strategy of always lowering expectations so that their mediocre effort is seen as acceptable. Over time, we embrace the pretty good memo or the decent leadership moment, because it’s so much better than we feared.

And some? Some relentlessly raise expectations, establishing a standard that it’s hard to imagine exceeding. And then they do.

If you’ve been cornered into following, working with or serving someone in the first group, an intervention can be rewarding. For you and for the person trapped in this downward cycle.

Raising our expectations is a fine way to raise performance as well.

Magical technologies

Cars are many times more dangerous than airplanes. More dangerous per mile, more dangerous to bystanders, more dangerous in every way.

And yet there are very few people who say that they are afraid of being in a car. And yet we spend a fortune on the FAA and more than $8 billion a year in the US on the security theater we do before every flight. We carry life jackets on planes even though they’re needed about once every 33,000,000 flights.

That’s because flying is magic and driving is just riding a bike or a horse, but with a motor.

The challenge of the self-driving car isn’t that it’s a car with no driver. Actually, the self-driving car is an airplane with wheels.

Magical technology.

When a magic technology (one that we don’t believe we can understand) arrives and it feels like life or death, our instinct is to freak out, to make up stories, and to seek reassurance. Vaccines have had this challenge for generations. Because they’re long-lasting, involve a shot and feel like magic, we treat them totally differently than the unregulated market for placebos and patent medicines, regardless of their efficacy.

If you’re lucky enough to invent a magical technology, be prepared for a long journey.  Decades ago, I worked with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke on two different projects. Asimov was truly embarrassed that he was afraid to fly. And Clarke was famous for saying, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

What he left out was, “Magical technologies that involve media-friendly disasters are the hardest ones to sell.”

Your customer service strategy

Customer service isn’t simply an expensive, time-consuming obligation. It’s a strategic marketing investment if you want it to be.

When Tony built Zappos, he invested in having his customer service people spend hours on the phone with customers, rewarding them for going to great lengths to create memorable interactions. It created a billion dollar shoe store.

When Fedex was building relationships with busy businesspeople who would become the backbone of their customer base, they answered the phone on the first ring, every time.

When Apple needed to save the Mac from Windows hegemony, they installed experts at the Genius bar and encouraged them to spend the time needed to humanize a traditionally inhuman interaction.

Tesla saw that Ford and GM were working to increase the profits that their dealers would make on service. So they chose to seek to make no money at all on service, using that as a key marketing message to their luxury audience. It’s cheaper than TV ads.

Of course, the strategy doesn’t always have to be expensive.

When Google launched their search engine, they made it impossible to contact them. They set the expectation that there was zero human customer support. That expectation is a promise made (and one that’s easy to keep). It puts a lot of pressure on the product, of course, but they were up for that.

What promise does a local deli owner make? Or the freelancer who drives an hour out of her way to deliver the project on time?

A b2b insurance agency spent two million dollars ripping out voice mail from their agency. Every call gets answered by a human every time. It paid for itself in four months. That’s a strategic investment, not a cost-cutting shortcut.

Comcast and the other cable companies led the way in treating customer service as nothing but an expense, one that they work overtime to decrease. And so now, it’s not unusual to spend an hour or two trying to get help from Adobe or Apple. Fedex now takes more than two minutes (up from 2 seconds) to connect a valuable customer to a human operator. Apple, the most valuable company in the world, has shifted its customer support promise to one of denial, delay and disrespect. Was that an intentional strategic act?

The thing about strategies is that you and your team can work to maximize them. If answering on two rings is good, then answering on one ring is better. If 10 helpful salespeople are profitable, then 20 very helpful salespeople are better.

The truth about strategy in a competitive environment: If you are doing what everyone else is doing, if you are inside the band of common, then it’s not an approach that will move you forward. The only way to use customer service as a growth strategy is to be outside the accepted norms.

The question I want to ask the Silicon Valley CEOs that are caught in the uncanny valley of cutting their customer service costs while also puzzling about why consumers don’t like them is: What’s your strategy? Specifically: What’s the reason you’re treating your frontline customer service people as cheap human flotsam, protecting the folks who actually know the answer? What’s the business case for high lifetime value, high acquisition costs and a mindless disregard for customer satisfaction?

You can treat your customers like they don’t have a choice, but in the long run, customers always have a choice.

The job interview approach

That meeting on your calendar, the one scheduled for tomorrow. What if it were the final interview for a job you care about?

Would you show up on time?

Where would you sit?

What sort of questions would you ask?

What would you wear?

Would you reschedule it at the last minute?

Why is it okay to act any less professionally than that for a meeting with a co-worker, a salesperson or an entrepreneur looking for funding?

It’s entirely possible that we can honor a reflexive property. When we are contributing we can show up with the same enthusiasm we use when we’re asking for something.

The thing about the chickens

Evolution, whether by natural selection or artificial, whether in species or in ideas, is all around us.

It happens slowly. Usually more slowly than we’re aware of, and definitely more slowly than we have the patience for.

The Economist has a short article about how the price of chicken has fallen by almost 50% in real dollars over the course of my lifetime. We didn’t see it happening, didn’t vote on the benefits and the costs, didn’t realize it was transforming a species (and us).

I’m doing a two-part podcast on how creatures (and culture) evolve. You can hear last week’s episode here, and the second part goes to subscribers on Wednesday, January 23.

Drip by drip isn’t a crowd pleaser, but that’s what makes real change happen.