Blog : Higher Ed

The Problem With Shoulders

Shoulders are great for a lot of things.  They help you lift big things.  They help you finish a body check.  They’re pretty good at holding up the sleeves of your shirts.

But shoulders are also a dangerous thing to have.  You see, as soon as fear creeps in, you start to use your shoulders to make hard decisions.  Instead of thinking about what you should do, your shoulders sell you out.  They tempt you to peek at your competition. You look over one shoulder and take some notes.   You peer over your other shoulder for a bit of “inspiration”.

You revel in your final product, because of its creativity.  You know it’s creative because your most creative competitors did it first.  You love the camera angles; you know they’re artistic because your most avant-garde competition did it first.  Your new thing can’t fail, because you’ve eliminated all risk.  You’ve blended the most important aspects of what everyone else has already done. The problem is, it can’t succeed either.

The blending starts slowly, but the effects are long-lasting.  Projects become templates, canvases become photocopiers; we all become average.

Take a step back from your industry, and have a look around.  Don’t wait for a movie parody to point out what should already be obvious.  We’re surrounded by grey and safe and predictable.

From now on, your shoulders have a new role in your decision making process.  They stay out of the creativity part.  They stay out of the strategizing.  They hold your head up high, because your new idea is yours, and yours alone – and it wasn’t even close to average.

Your everyday is someone’s “once”

Everyday we get up and go to work. We do the same things, we find patterns, we cut corners and naturally find ways to make things go a bit smoother for us. Clock in for eight hours, hopefully cross everything off the to-do list, go home, sleep, repeat.

Your customer wakes up, anticipating how whatever it is you do is going to change their life. They’re apprehensive, a bit worried, but more excited than anything. They’ve never interacted with your brand before, but they’re really hoping that you’re the right choice. They really need whatever it is that you’re promising.

Sure, price matters… and your glossy marketing veneer is going to get you somewhere, but their antennae are set dead-red on clearing up one feeling:

Are you treating this exchange as your everyday? Or are you respecting the fact that this is their once?

Once upon a time

This blog post started with the words “Every day”. It set the tone. Drudgery. You could almost picture the grey figures marching in unison as part of their daily grind.

Everyday is boring. We all know what everyday feels like.

Once, on the other hand, is special. Once upon a time. This one time, at band camp… Once is what makes a great story great.

Your Turn

How are you going to make someone feel like you (and what you’re trying to sell) is part of their unique story?

The customer is always active

Welcome - the key is under the mat

With all of the digital tools at our fingertips, the field of Customer Relationship Management is exploding. Whether you’re talking about email marketing, social media, or cloud-based database systems, the value of relationships is sure to be at the forefront of the conversation.

I had two encounters recently, that clearly illustrate an interesting concept in relationship management. Both situations involved businesses that were very non-technical by nature; medical, in one instance, and brick-and-mortar retail in the other.

Situation A

Last year, I visited a local dental surgeon for an assessment about a fairly major (but optional) procedure. I was impressed with the home-like atmosphere of the clinic, the friendly faces, the smiles and comforting assurance.

After two visits, I was left with an armful of pamphlets, a medical insurance quote, and a major decision to make. I decided that, although the procedure was something I wanted to pursue someday, the timing wasn’t quite right.

During the last 12 months, the thought bubbled up from time to time. I read online forums, I spoke to others who have been in my spot. I’ve even mentioned it during several speaking engagements. For a big ticket purchase, I was exhibiting behaviour that I would imagine is typical for the buying cycle: I was taking my time.

Last week, I decided it was time to move ahead. This morning, I dialed the phone, feeling a mixture of nerves and excitement.

The receptionist took my name and paused. She broke a long silence with an unexpected response. We’ve marked your status as inactive – I’ll have to have someone dig up your record and get back to you later this week.

Situation B

I visited a local retail store five months ago, looking to make a fairly substantial purchase – not nearly on the scale of dental surgery in terms of cost or consequence; but still fairly expensive. The owner struck up a conversation, explaining the story of their family business. He gave me a card, took my name, and shook my hand. There were no comfy couches or crackling fireplaces, but the authenticity of the conversation achieved the same sense of comfort and familiarity I had felt in the aforementioned clinic.

I’m sure my name was never entered into a database.

I didn’t make a purchase that day, either. I chose something else, somewhere else and he never heard from me again.

Recently, I wandered back into the store. The conversation picked up where we had left off, many months ago. He knew my name, and he recognized that I had chosen to shop elsewhere after our first interaction. No problem – I’m so glad that gift worked out. I have a few things that I think you’ll love… let me show you.

Your customer owns the relationship

No matter how shiny or fancy your database might be, you never actually own any relationship. Any status you apply to a customer is ultimately just your best guess of their future actions; not a reflection of their true state.

It’s an odd juxtaposition: As technology has advanced for businesses to manage relationships, that same technology has put more power in the hands of the consumer; weakening any “ownership” that the business may have once had.

Your old signals might be broken

Once upon a time, a customer had to rely on the business for all information and consultation prior to taking the next step. Status was quite simple – the business owned the funnel, and could count the customers they had traipsing along the pipeline.

The game is different now, and the pipeline is full of holes. Your customer can look up any technical specs, access reviews, and comparison shop from the palm of their hand – on their own terms. Traditional signals of “inactivity” (aka: we haven’t heard from them in awhile) might not apply anymore.

Look for new signals

This is where our shiny new tools can come in handy. What’s the ROI of Facebook “Like”, Twitter Follow or Email subscriber? So often, people stumble here, debating dollar values. These asymmetrical, loose-tie relationships represent a juicy middle ground between the on-or-off customer status that businesses might have applied in the past. They symbolize I’m still here, just not quite ready. They allow you continue to educate. They also allow you to note new changes in a potential customer’s life; data that could very easily be factored back into a database system client status.

How are you equipping your potential customers to keep you on their radar? Do you have a communication plan for loose-tie connections, beyond “add them to email blasts?”. Be honest.

Open your arms for inactives

No one likes to walk into a room where no one knows their name. We like to fit in.

Perhaps, a less comfortable sensation is the thought that the room of people who once knew you might have forgotten you exist. We like to be memorable.

While Pareto might espouse the value of focusing on your top 20% of customers, you also need to pay close attention to those who might seem to be “inactive”. These represent relationships that are hanging on by a thread.

How do you welcome them back?

How do you ensure that they don’t feel like outsiders?

How do you make the next conversation feel like home?

Photo credit: alborzshawn

Remember your rookie season

Most of you have probably never heard of my favourite hockey player before. He wore #15 for the Montreal Canadiens. He stood 5’8″ and weighed in at a spritely 180lbs. In his NHL career, he tallied 31 goals and 80 points over 192 games, before disappearing into the depths of international leagues.

His name was Paul DiPietro.

Moments of attention, frozen in time

I’ve written before about how autographs are nothing more than souvenirs from moments of individual attention. This is a story about how that single moment can shape a relationship forever. This is a story about remembering the little things, if you’re lucky enough to become a big thing.

Hearing the name Paul DiPietro, will invoke dusty memories of the early 1990′s for hockey fans. The kid blazed into the league and sparked the Canadiens to a Stanley Cup victory in 1993; scoring twice in the championship clinching game.

Kodak Moments

I was probably one of the first fans to send him a letter asking for an autograph.

I know this, because there was no hockey card to send; he hadn’t been around long enough to have one.

I know this, because the response came back in a matter of days; he obviously wasn’t getting a lot of mail.

I know this, because the response I got was real: a hand-written letter folded around a photograph. A 4×6 photograph, signed with ballpoint pen, printed on Kodak photo paper – as if freshly developed from a roll of film (I’m sure it was).

It was so fresh, so real, so exactly what a sports-crazed-kid wanted. As we grew up, my friends went through phases of sports heroes; jumping on bandwagons, following trends. Although he disappeared from the spotlight as soon as he entered it, my favourite hockey player was locked in.

That photo hung on my wall for the next 10 years.

We were all rookies, once upon a time

There’s more here than a romantic tale about boyhood heroes – a lot more.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane; back to your rookie season doing whatever it is you call your job.

Think about your first sale. Think about your first satisfied customer. Think about the first email you received; your first phone call; your first opportunity to make someone’s day.

Think about what it was like when you were hungry; when everything was new, and every single person mattered.

Are you still there? Or has the daily grind transformed you into a grizzled veteran, with shortcuts to get things done faster, content just knowing the cheque is coming at the end of the month?

We desperately need more rookies. Keep your eyes open for the next potential kodak moment. You could gain yourself or your organization a new fan for life.

Say 20% Less

Did you know that Spanish contains 20% more words than English? I didn’t. Not until it was too late. Not until my translators let me know – with a slight hint of frustration in their (out of breath) voices.

I had just completed my first speech with simultaneous translation, at an incredible event in Mexico City. I thought it had gone pretty well (and it had), with the majority of the room giving all of the usual signs of being on board: heads nodding, eyes and mouths smiling, notes scribbling; all happening at the right times.

But for those who weren’t quite able to speak my language, I had presented them with a situation where they could have potentially missed one out of every five words. Lesson learned.

Say 20% Less

Think about how often you communicate with audiences who might not be fully fluent in your language. For marketers, this happens a lot. If you’re trying to teach someone about a new product or service – there’s always going to be elements of your communication that are foreign to them.

By saying 20% less, you give them more time to think about what you’re saying.

  • You give them more time to write things down.
  • You give them space to ask some questions.
  • You give them less information to process and remember before they ask you for more.
  • You give the conversation room to breathe.

I’m taking this into account for all of my future speaking and writing. How can you communicate more by saying less?

Photo Credit: Julius Mourlon

Where’s the manual for always on?

When I started high school, I didn’t know how to touch-type. I hunted and pecked my way around the keyboard in a way that would be embarrassing to see now. In 9th grade, as part of a business curriculum, my fingers were introduced to the home row and with daily assignments, testing and refinement, I was soon able to type “properly”.

It wasn’t until a year later, when I discovered online communication worlds of iCQ and IRC that I put in enough practice to truly become proficient at putting words on a screen – but I was able to do so because the basics were in place. My formal education had provided me with the fundamental skills that I could then burn into memory through real-world practice.

They don’t teach typing anymore

Have a look at the high school curriculum these days, and you won’t find the basic typing requirement that existed 10 years ago. A new generation of young people has grown up with keyboards at their fingertips; we don’t need to teach them what they already know. In fact, I’m certain that many 6th graders can type faster with their thumbs than my teacher could with all ten digits.

Curriculums have been adjusted to meet the new reality of their students. But have they gone far enough?

Swimming in information

Just as they were in 1995, students of 2010 are facing a major technological hurdle. However, I’m not sure this situation is being taken as seriously as it should by our education systems.

I was prepared for a world of word processing and digital literacy; given a boat and a paddle so I could get where I needed to go when bits and bytes are concerned.

That slow stream of bits and bytes, available when necessary, has given way to a raging flow of information, from which it is impossible to escape. Think of the number of channels in which information is constantly entering into your conscience. An email inbox alone is often deep enough to drown in. Add in your web browser, Twitter account, Facebook friends and a glowing iPhone, and you quickly see that if you manage to survive email, your world is quickly flooded again.

Students leaving formal education now must be able to swim in the middle of the ocean while sitting underneath a waterfall.

….But at least they can type.

Learning to swim

There are a lot of ideas floating around about how our education system needs to change to meet the new realities of our society. Seth Godin and CC Chapman have both expressed concerns and suggestions for changing how we teach and what we prepare our young people for.

I propose we start with a single course: Organizing your digital world.

• Teach people how to absorb information once it reaches their personal space
• How to survive in a world of constant interruption
• How to manage your inbox and multiple social networks
• How to take the most important information out of a message and determine appropriate next steps; separating the signal from the noise.
• Basic project management
• How to turn it all off and escape (this could be the most important skill of all)

Education happens everywhere

If this is the single most important skill that someone can learn in order to thrive in our digital world, why should we restrict it to schools?

Here are three ways to start:

  • Business leaders should stop sharing best practices about how to block access to information in the workplace, and instead invest in their employees and include coping strategies as mandatory training. The improved productivity will more than pay for itself.
  • Teachers should propose new courses and push for change (I’ve been there, I know how difficult this is). Host a workshop for colleagues at your next professional development day.
  • You (yes, you) can start right now. Leverage the information that you have access to. Watch Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero. Read Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits or David Allen’s GTD. Find a workshop and invest in yourself.

When you get organized, a funny thing will happen: those around you will notice. As they’re thrashing around trying to stay afloat, they’ll see you meditating under the waterfall. And they’ll ask you how you do it. Teach them.

Here’s your chance to share – what skills/tools/rules have you used to survive in the age of always on information?

What’s in a name?

The Beatles autographs

When I was younger, I wrote a lot of letters. Most of them were to professional athletes. The pattern was always the same: Write a letter, stuff a baseball card or photo into the envelope, send it and wait. I was after one thing: a signature.

The majority of those envelopes were met with silence. But some came back, with a name scrawled in glorious black ink across the image. What was once a piece of cardboard was now a work of art; its signatory transformed from an athlete into an idol.

What’s in a name?

What is an autograph? Why do we place such value on the signing of a name?

It’s not the scribble of a sharpie on the photo that instantly multiplies its value. Nor is it the signature, the shape of the words, or the style of the writing. In fact, if someone else were to make the exact same marking, with the exact same marker, the photo would be defaced and plummet in value.


The value of the autograph is not in the signature, the photo, or the marker. The gold comes from the fact that someone paid enough attention to participate in an experience.

While we’re on this philosophical trip, let’s take this a bit further…

You can’t duplicate authenticity

What if we wanted to duplicate our prized signed photo? Fire up the photocopiers and produce an identical clone. This one is easy and obvious – the copy is completely devoid of all value.

Yet if our super famous celebrity signed two identical photos, each is granted the hallowed magical status.


Collectors refer to this as authenticity. You can’t photocopy attention, you can’t duplicate a moment. The interactions have to be unique.

The moral of the story

All of the fuss that we make about autographs boils down to this:

We place incredible value on authentically unique moments of attention paid by individuals of perceived importance.

The value is entirely in the interaction. The actual signature simply serves as proof that it occurred.

Put your signature to work

Here are some thoughts on how to apply this to your business:

We’re all stars, sometimes. You don’t have to make movies or sing pop songs to be important. In the time of need… at the point of sale…in moments of confusion, your importance skyrockets. To someone whose cable was broken, Frank Eliason might as well have been a super hero.

Be on high alert – Keep your eyes and ears open for moments where your attention can increase your value. Twitter search and google alerts get all the fame these days – but giving people attention is equally valuable in your store or on the street.

Sign authentically. Every time - People can detect a fraud from a mile away. Even if you’re answering the same question for the hundredth time, don’t hand out photocopies. Value requires authenticity. Blue Sky Factory does a great job creating authentic customer experiences.

Grow more armsChris Brogan talks about growing bigger ears. But that’s only half of the equation. Signing autographs all day long takes energy. It takes strength. It takes time. To finish the play authentically, as the number of potential interactions increase, organizations have to grow more arms.

How much time and money is your organization spending on becoming famous?

Are you putting an equal amount of thought into what is happens when you get there?

Architects, Carpenters and Hammer Swingers

Hammers are great tools. There’s something satisfying about a nice sharp nail sinking into wood. That’s the great thing about hammers – repetitive simplicity, with great results: as long as you swing hard enough, you’ll accomplish your goal every time. Wonderfully, mindless work. Swing after swing after swing.

Until you encounter a nail that’s not so straight, a board that’s not so true, or, worst of all; something that a nail can’t fix.


Carpenters can do more than swing hammers. There’s something satisfying about wearing a belt full of tools, and knowing you can build big things according to plan. That’s the great thing about carpenters – give them a map and the necessary materials, and they’ll transform a blueprint into a palace. Wonderfully capable workers. Blueprint after blueprint after blueprint.

Until you need some extra rooms, find a flaw in the plan, or worst of all, run out of blueprints entirely.


Architects can do more than follow directions. There’s something satisfying about the confidence of solving new problems, strategically sketching and considering different ways of doing things. That’s the great thing about architects – give them a blank canvas and a goal, and they’ll take care of the rest. Wonderfully strategic work. Solution after solution after solution.

Who are you?

Being a hammer-swinger is as easy as falling in love with Foursquare, Twitter or Facebook. Hammer swingers close their eyes and swing their favourite tool at every problem. Understandably, these folks produce as many holes in walls as they do homeruns.

Being a carpenter is more difficult. When presented with a plan, you use your well worn tool belt to tackle the plans placed in front of you.

Being an architect allows you to solve new problems, define objectives and map strategies. We desperately need more architects, if we’re ever going to drown out the sounds of all the banging hammers.

Are you swinging hammers, using tools, or building maps? Regardless of where you stand on the spectrum, what are you doing to hone your craft?