I was far away from home, training a customer in Kaiping, China into the late hours on a Friday night. It was at the new Chinese operation of an American company. I was giving the lab manager, Mr. Li, extra training on our installed system. Although I spoke Chinese during much of the week’s training, Mr. Li asked that we only converse in English so that he could practice and improve his language skills.
“How are you Mr. Li?”
“I am fine, Mr. Lio.”
“That’s good. How many children do you have?
“I have one daughter.”
We continued this banter back and forth for a few minutes until…
“Yes?” I replied.
“Mr. Lio…What does ‘F--- You!‘ mean?”
I froze for a few seconds. I was very tired after training two shifts for a week coupled with the time zone change. Did I hear correctly?
“Um…Mr. Li, can you repeat your question?”
“Mr. Lio…What does ‘F--- You!’ mean?”
“Mr. Li, those are very bad words! Can you tell me where you heard that?”
It turned out that an Italian company sent an engineer to install some equipment. One of the local employees picked up one of the engineer's tools and dropped it. The engineer must have been in a bad mood since he proceeded to say “F--- You!” to everyone he came across there. (In hindsight, I could have had fun by telling Mr. Li that those were nice words which he should immediately use to greet his American managers the next morning.)
This brings up the question of profanity, particularly in business. Is it ever proper? Over the years, I have often wondered about the use of profanity and four letter words in business.
My first job was working in a company where the founders were still actively managing the business. It was a quintessential family run business where everyone was collegial. As times changed, as the owners got older, the board hired an external candidate as the new CEO. Was everyone in for a surprise when the new guy showed up! A man raised in Texas and a former CEO in New Jersey (perhaps a bad combination). He cussed up a storm. The “F---” and “S---” words flew out of almost every sentence uttered. Meetings with him were like Eddie Murphy concerts. He seemed to get a rise out of people’s reactions. I don’t think that it made employees work any harder than they did or lead to better results. In fact, it made me think less of him as a person and leader.
Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel is known for his propensity for “salty language”. During a disagreement over lengthening the school day, Emanuel reportedly said, “F--- you, Lewis.” to Karen Lewis, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union. I don’t think that Dale Carnegie taught that in “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. (Does he kiss his mother with that mouth?)
As a native New Yorker, I know my fair share of swear words - in four different languages. I do hear some profanity from some colleagues, very rarely, as some of the “cussing” has become colloquial. I would make the case that purposeful directing of profanity at others and using crude language has no place in business. For me, quite simply, I said the “F” word once in front of my father and never again. He slapped me. That was the only time when my father ever slapped me. His look of disappointment was far worse than the actual slap itself. I don’t say those words in front of my family and I don’t want my children to use such terms (although they probably learned them after finishing first grade). Since I don’t really know how another person feels about such language, it is best to be respectful and find an alternate way to phrase things. If it has no place in my home, it has no place in my business dealings.
Note – when certain words do fit the situation:
There was one memorable Saturday morning at 1:30 AM in Japan. I was setting up a high speed impact test instrument for a very important customer demonstration happening in a few hours - I had flown to Japan specifically to meet the prospect in our Tokyo demonstration center. I did one last check before my local colleagues and I could leave for a few hours of precious sleep. Everyone gathered around as I pressed the “Start” button to run a high speed 22 meters per second impact simulation. The machine fired and broke the test specimen…and tore through the test fixture. I remember a moment of complete silence and then a collective “Oh s---". (I didn’t even know that they could all say that in English). Perhaps there was no better phrase to describe that moment but this was an exception to the rule.
Many companies have the philosophy of “if we build it, they will come”:
This is the typical, sad, predictable path:
1. Spend years and tons of money developing a new innovative product.
2. Create a hugely optimistic forecast that can justify the amount the amount of R&D and money spent.
3. Solicit some positive reviews from a few, friendly alpha customer sites.
4. Do a splashy release, train your sales force worldwide.
5. Get a few orders from early adopters (some of these orders are due to huge discounting to place the product at high profile sites while others are simply order conversions which would have received the older product being replaced).
6. Then…nothing. The original forecast gets cut drastically. Sales and Marketing pull out every excuse in the book: “It’s too new.” “It’s too expensive.” “The customers can’t see the value.” “They’re happy doing it the old way.”
This is exactly what Geoffrey Moore pointed out in his book: Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling Disruptive Products to Mainstream Customers.
You can have the most innovative products but you have to get past the relatively small number of innovators and early adopters that made up your initial sales and sell to the bulk of the customer base – two-thirds of which will be your “Early Majority” and “Late Majority” (aka "Pragmatists" and "Conservatives"). Couple this with the fact that today’s innovation is tomorrow’s commodity. Technology changes so fast that you have only a very brief head start for an innovation to be a clear differentiation.
As Moore states, the “Early Majority” “share some of the early adopter’s ability to relate to technology, but ultimately they are driven by a strong sense of practicality. … They want to see well-established references before investing substantially. Because there are so many people in this segment—roughly one-third of the whole adoption life cycle--winning their business is key to any substantial profits and growth.”
This important customer base is thinking: “I don’t want to be your guinea pig.” “I don’t want to rock the boat.” “Show me the money. Don’t make me try to figure out why this is good for me.” You must reach this group of prospects or your product will never gain momentum and fail.
In today’s business environment, this means mind-share and thought leadership. At this stage, you must show thought leadership and be able to articulate why your innovative approach is superior. The ultimate goal at this stage is to have early-stage, innovator-type customers who are enthusiastic champions of your solution. So how do you do this? You develop collateral such as case studies, customer testimonials, third party articles that can articulate how the solution would work in the reader’s environment and show the benefits. The reader must gain understanding and confidence in taking that step to purchase. A strong, established company with a good brand name may have some advantage here over a newer, smaller supplier.
Let’s take pharmaceuticals as an example. New drugs are usually not prescribed by the majority of practitioners if there is an existing solution. The doctor is familiar with the older prescriptions and their risks - they have no impetus to change. So a drug company has to push hard with case studies, seminars, testimonials from established experts to buy the doctors' mind share and change their perspective. This may include direct ads to the prospective patient to “talk to your doctor about the possibly of taking XXX” which forces the practitioner to at least learn about the new drug. (Drug companies are fascinating studies in marketing.)
So don't blame your sales force if you haven't done the groundwork for them.
Remember: You must have “Mind Share” before “Market Share”!
Note: I suppose that a Boston cab driver who drove me from Logan Airport years ago would be classified as a typical “Early-Majority” or “Pragmatist”. We were going through the Boston Sumner Tunnel and he told me that he would not take the new Ted Williams Tunnel when that was completed. He reasoned that there was no guarantee that it would be 100% safe and he did not want to drown with no way out. He was sticking with what worked. (Unfortunately, he was correct. A woman died when a section of ceiling fell on top of a car traveling through the connector tunnel due to failure of adhesives used.)
Frank Lio is a Product Manager, Strategist, and Change Agent in the Hi-Tech industry. His growing track record of successes include creating 3 winning software products, leading nationwide seminars, and turning around a failing business unit. He is currently serving a dual role as Product Manager and Business Team Support Manager at Instron ITW.
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