What’s Your Problem?

Whether your customers are B2B, B2C, or B2G, no matter if you sell products or services, tangible or intangible, you will, through trial and error, lost sales and big paydays, develop good stories that convince customers and make sales. Over the years you will trot these warhorses out again and again because they take you to the bank.

Your selling stories can take any number of approaches depending on what and to whom you sell, but one tried-and-true selling story category is the Problem Story. In a Problem Story you demonstrate that you can relate to the prospect’s pain points, you understand what is driving the prospect’s situation and you’re prepared to work with him/her to come up with an effective and reasonably priced solution (that just so happens to reside in your product or service line).

The best Problem Stories have a basic format that you can then adapt and apply to any prospect. Learn to personalize your Problem Story with a visit to your prospect’s website, an internet search to read what’s appeared in the press and if you met the prospect at a business association meeting or similar event, a call to the membership chairperson to get additional info about the prospect and his/her business. Get the back story and begin to comprehend the big picture of your prospect’s goals and understand what really matters. Now you can put together and customize a winning Problem Story.

For example, I provide event planning and PR services for a couple of large annual art events that are sponsored by an artist’s organization. The project specs describe the event planning responsibilities and event promotion public relations campaign that I’m hired to manage, but the unspoken purpose of my job is to persuade art lovers, art dealers, museum curators and the curious public to attend the event and buy art. My service enables the meeting of the relevant parties, so that business can be done.

When I write for the women entrepreneurs magazine where I am a staff writer, my unspoken purpose is to provide compelling content that persuades readers to click on my articles. Those clicks are tallied and they measure both my value to the magazine and the magazine’s value to advertisers, whose budgets sustain the publication.

Problem Stories communicate your understanding of what the prospect is facing and why s/he needs your help. Problem Stories communicate your authenticity because they entail sharing and not just telling. You “get it” and you care. A Problem Story is the opposite of a canned, impersonal sales pitch.

BTW, problem Stories can have a life beyond your conversations with prospects. With client permission if you’d like to reveal names, your Problem Stories make excellent case studies that you can upload to your website, Facebook page and LinkedIn profile, or share with the listening audience when you are a pod cast guest. Make use of your Problem Story wherever and whenever you’d like to demonstrate expertise, build trust and grow your customer base.

Thanks for reading,

Photograph: Academy-Award winning actor (“Network,” Best Actor 1977) Peter Finch (1916 – 1977) as Howard Beale in “Network” (1976). Directed by Sidney Lumet.


The Art of the Sale: How Marketing, Branding and Advertising Help Revenues

Today, I respectfully offer you a tutorial. Our inquiry will focus on the essence of doing business: selling. The purpose of starting a business is to generate sales, produce revenues and earn a profit.  If a business cannot generate a certain threshold of sales, business expenses cannot be paid and the owner’s investment will be negatively impacted. To curtail mounting debts, the business must close.

Over the past 10 years or so I’ve noticed, sometimes with amusement and other times with dismay,  that the word selling seems to make people feel uncomfortable.  I noticed that frequently, aspiring business owners and Freelance solopreneurs, who must find customers and earn money that is derived from the exchange of money for the products or services that their ventures would produce and provide, avoided the word sell. Instead, the word market was substituted.

Many self-employed professionals are uncomfortable with the process of selling, so they’ve decided to banish the very word. It’s as if selling is now perceived as crass or pushy. That is a shame.  The sales profession is one of the oldest on earth and honorable. Selling is one of the foundations of civilization and selling skills are among the most useful anyone can have; it is the ultimate transferable skill.  Selling makes the world go round, because we wouldn’t have much of a world without it. The ability to sell is far more valuable than the ability to code (yes, really!).

So we can agree that the success of a business is dependent upon sales?  Now, let’s go back to the process of marketing.  The American Marketing Association defines marketing as:

The activities and processes for creating, communicating and delivering information about products and services that have value for customers. Marketing is a set of processes that are interconnected and interdependent with other business functions aimed at achieving the interest of (prospective) customers.

Marketing consists of using information, in words or pictures, to promote products and services and persuade potential customers to make purchases.  Customers have an array of motives that drive their purchases.  Marketing campaigns are designed to appeal to the motives of selected customer groups (e.g., parents, young professionals, adolescent males) that research has shown are potential customers for the product or service in question.  The purpose of marketing is to communicate with and appeal to targeted customer groups and persuade them that (your) products and services will satisfy one or more of their needs or desires.

So we can agree that generating sales is dependent upon marketing campaign promotion that is directed at the most promising customers for your products and services? I hope we can also agree that marketing and sales, while on the same continuum, are not one and the same.  Let’s move forward on the path and consider branding.

Branding campaigns are designed to enhance and expand marketing messages by differentiating and distinguishing the reputation of products and services available in the marketplace.  Products, services and individuals can, through an effective branding campaign, acquire a powerful reputation, recognition and loyalty among customers, fans and the general public.  That reputation is known as the brand.

A company logo is usually associated with products that have acquired sufficient popularity and sales to be considered a brand. That logo is instantly recognized and conveys the essence of the brand to its loyal fans, as well as those who may not use the product.  The product name itself will come to symbolize a powerful brand, as does Coca-Cola.

Now let’s take your marketing and branding messages to the public and that brings us to the next stop along the marketing continuum, advertising.  There are more ways to advertise than ever before, thanks to the digital age,  but do not underestimate the value of traditional methods.  The century-old medium that is radio remains a highly effective advertising tool, as do billboards.  Taxi cabs and city buses (and bus stops) announce local events, such as the circus coming to town.  Newspapers and magazines continue to be packed with eye-catching ads.

Content marketing, which many call the new advertising, continues to grow in influence.  It’s approach is indirect and it is presented as relevant information.  Content marketing is stealth advertising that uses primarily written information conveyed in blogs and newsletters to provide information about topics that would be of interest to prospective users of the products or services sold by the company.  The purpose of content marketing is to build an audience of regular readers who trust the source (you) and would feel confident enough to do business with you.

Then there are the social media platforms that are now in the mix. Regardless of the name social media marketing, when used for business purposes it is advertising: the Instagram photos of your wedding venue, the video clip of you accepting an award at the Rotary Club, the webinar posted to your website and LinkedIn profile.

If your marketing strategy and campaigns have been effective and enabled the development of a trustworthy brand and memorable advertising campaigns, your business will attract paying customers. Your business venture will generate sales and you can declare yourself a winner.  Let’s sum up our tutorial:

MARKETING:  How you envision and describe your company. The verbal, voice and visual messages used to promote your products or services. The business owner identifies the market positioning strategy for the company, based on populations predicted to  become customers: mid-market, luxury, or bargain, hipsters, seniors, adventure travelers.  Product positioning impacts all marketing campaigns and messages, the branding strategy and advertising choices.

BRAND:  The company reputation, what it is known for. How others perceive your company.

ADVERTISING:  How and where you portray and describe your company to the public: in print or digital, visual or audio formats placed in Popular Mechanics, Harper’s Bazaar, subway stations, flyers tucked onto car windshields, or Twitter.  Advertising usually costs money.

SALE:  The ultimate goal and final step of the marketing process.  The exchange of money (or another valuable item or service) for the purchase of a product or service.

Thanks for reading,


Photograph of Cher by Richard Avedon (1986)                                                                 Courtesy of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, LA

What Business Are You Really In?

Every business starts with a proposal to deliver certain products or services to those would be their customers.  The business model encompasses operations processes,  sales distribution and early stage marketing messages.  But over time,  the business owner or marketing team must achieve a more sophisticated knowledge of target customers and use that understanding to advance from exclusively dwelling on the functional aspects of items sold and the obvious benefits.

Successful products or services become  “brands”  by marketing the intangible essence that is associated with what they sell.  Brands connect with an unspoken motive of the customer and promote reputation,  image and aspirations.  Luxury brands like Neiman Marcus,  Chanel and Jaguar sell the image of wealth and status.  Nike sells the image of the focused,  independent,  athletic ideal self.  Puma,  another athletic shoe company,  avoids the athletic angle and sells urban cool along with their sneakers and other apparel.  Harvard Business School professor Theodore Levitt  (1925 – 2006)  described this phenomenon and its implications in  “Marketing Myopia” ,  his seminal article that in 1960 appeared in the Harvard Business Review.

Brands rise above being mere purveyors of products and services,  otherwise known as commodities.   Getting a handle on the  “je ne sais quoi”  unspoken  mission of your products or services as perceived by customers is the only way to achieve break-out success.  Delivering high-quality products and services via the optimal business model is how to build a following and earn a good reputation.  Being known as trustworthy and dependable are integral elements of building a brand.  But it is only the beginning.  Consider this: a film studio does not function to merely make and promote movies.  A film studio’s real business is entertainment.

So let’s figure out how to learn what business you are really in.  Why not start by teasing out the motives for doing business with you rather than a competitor?  Were you lucky or well-connected enough to persuade a powerful person to do business with you?  Does the coolest kid in class wear the clothing you sell?  The recommendations of thought leaders and other trusted sources are worth their weight in gold.  If a VIP gives you an assignment,  others will want to emulate that VIP and do business with you,  too.  Overwhelmingly,  people are followers and want to be seen where the  “in” crowd goes.

Keep that tendency in mind as you peel back another layer and decode the self-identity of your target customer and the image that your archetypal customer wants to project.  Get your arms around the social or professional impact of your products or services.  Who do your customers aspire to be,  whom do they emulate or identify with?  What is the underlying purpose of your product or service?

When you can decipher and describe the above,  you will discover the business you are really in.   Apply that knowledge and create marketing messages that resonate;  advertising choices that deliver the desired ROI;  design product packaging that customers respond to;  institute a pricing strategy that reflects the perceived value of your products and services;  and write a tag line that reflects the self-image,  aspirations and/or unspoken motives of your archetypal customers.

FYI here is a 1975 version of Theodore Levitt’s classic article  “Marketing Myopia”  http://www.sitesuite.com.au/files/marketingmyopia.pdf

Thanks for reading,


Your Brilliant Idea, the Set-up and the Pitch

You envision a project concept that has the potential to significantly benefit both you and a particular organization.  You wrangle a meeting with either the decision-maker or one who has influence.  Convincingly,  you show that the proposed project will add money or prestige to the organization and that you are uniquely qualified to put the plan in motion and make it work.  You are invited to submit a formal proposal and you see dollar signs twinkling for all concerned.  Needless to say you are stunned when the proposal,  which you perceived to be a confirmation letter since you received the decision-maker’s unqualified invitation to submit,  is shot down.  What the heck happened?

Kimberly Elsbach,  associate professor of management at University of California / Davis,  has done research that shows it’s not only the perceived value of the project that is at issue,  but also the perceived value of the seller—you. According to Elsbach,  the decision-maker makes a judgment about your ability to generate a genuinely creative and beneficial idea and that prejudgment diminishes its perceived value.

Elsbach reached this conclusion when she studied the Hollywood film industry,  where filmmakers regularly  “pitch”  movie concepts to studio executives.  She also attended meetings where entrepreneurs pitch business concepts to venture capital investors,  yet another venue where brilliant ideas are proposed to those with the potential to fund them.

Elsbach emphasized that there are no reliable criteria on which to base creative potential,  so decision-makers rely on purely subjective and often inaccurate evaluation stereotypes,  which kick in very early in the pitch meeting.  From that point on the decision is made,  no matter what they tell you.

However,  Elsbach discovered that there is sometimes a way to redeem oneself.  The trick is to make the decision-maker feel that s/he is participating in an idea’s development.  In other words,  rather than bringing it in all wrapped up in a red ribbon,  showing that you’ve thought things through and you’re basically ready for the roll-out,  devise something for your decision-maker to do to feel needed and  important.  Make the decision-maker feel like a creative collaborator.

First,  set the stage and gain the decision-maker’s empathy by finding common ground or perspective.  If you’ve worked with this person before,  then mention some shared memory of mutual success.  “How is that program going these days?  I so enjoyed working on that project.  It is great to know that your customers have responded well…”  If you’ve not worked with this person previously,  go to their LinkedIn profile and look for common ground there.  After the greeting and other pleasantries,  slip into a shared experience or perspectives story,  whether it’s a project you did for him/her,  or an accidentally-on-purpose reference to a company that the two of you worked at  (“So you worked there, too? I remember the days…”)

Second,  when you segue into pitching your proposal,  show the proper level of excitement and passion.  Moreover,  resist the temptation of being so thorough that you don’t give your decision-maker,  who has an ego,  a chance to put their hands in it and impact the project.  As you are enthusing about the features of your proposal,  ask qualifying questions that will engage your decision-maker in a discussion of what the organization and its customers really need from the concept you are pitching and together with the decision-maker be willing to improvise and compromise on your original proposal.  If you can make the decision-maker feel some ownership,  s/he is much more likely to identify with and support you at the meeting where projects and proposals are reviewed and the executive team finalizes what gets funded and what doesn’t.

Coming up with a brilliant idea is the easy part.  Selling the idea to the organization with the means to fund that idea is the hard part.  Psychology is a sales resource and the successful sales professional makes expert use of it.

Thanks for reading,


Escape From Power Point Purgatory

Presentations are an excellent way to sell yourself and your product or service.  The late Steve Jobs of Apple Computer was famous for delivering presentations that  never failed to inform,  educate,  inspire and entertain his listeners.

Overwhelmingly,  presentations mean Power Point,  no matter the number of obituaries written on its behalf.  Power Point continues to dominate,  despite the presentation capabilities of the iPad tablet  (sorry, Steve).  The challenge is to avoid the tendency to use Power Point as a teleprompter and leverage its advantages.

The secret to working with Power Point is to keep things simple.  Venture capitalist and author Guy Kawasaki  (“The Art of the Start”, 2004)  says  “A Power Point presentation should have no more than 10 slides,  should last no longer than 20 minutes and should contain no font smaller than 30 points.”  Communications coach,  author and popular keynote speaker Carmine Gallo likewise advises that 20 minutes is the ideal maximum length of a presentation,  based on research by neuroscientists from the University of Kentucky,  who found that attention spans drop precipitously after that time.

Every presentation is a story,  a narrative that has a beginning,  middle and end.  When invited to present to a client,  frame the story that is your presentation as a challenge.   After you’ve told your listeners who you are and established your expertise,  begin your talk by describing that challenge.  Next,  highlight any major obstacles that might impede success and then explain the solution you will deliver to resolve the matter.  In conclusion,  give a concise summary to reinforce the key take-away points.   Ask for the business and take questions.

Regarding the design of your slides,  experts recommend that you keep those simple,  too.  Janet Bornemann,  who designs Power Point presentations for corporate clients and is the creative director at PowerPoint Studio in Acton, MA,  recommends that when making slides,  think 5 x 5:  five lines per slide and five words per line. “It is very important for the mind to be able to rest on an idea or thought,  so if it’s a constant flow of words,  people will grow tired”,  she observes.

Treat your slides and the presentation overall as an extension of your brand,  your image,  like any of your marketing collaterals.  There shall be no clip art and no jazzy slide transitions.  Your presentation convey that you are capable, trustworthy,  confident and professional.  Bornemann says,  “Be consistent with colors and fonts.  Focus on the message—everything has to have a reason.”

Jim Confalone,  founder and creative director of ProPoint Graphics cautions against the overuse of charts and graphs and advises that any art and charts you include must be integral to the story and move the narrative forward.   Some presentation experts feel that the first slide should show a startling fact about the challenge the client is facing,  some attention-grabbing adverse outcome that the client must overcome and that captures the reason for hiring you.

Do not bury your listeners with minute details.  They will probably remember only three or four key points.  Leave your audience of decision-makers with a sense of your expertise,  your ability to produce the deliverable; describe the primary benefits derived by the organization if your solution is chosen to resolve the challenge that is the project; and let them know that you give excellent customer service and will respond to their needs and fulfill or exceed expectations.

Finally,  muster the discipline to rehearse your presentation and then rehearse some more.   Jim Confalone says that the number of hours it takes to create the presentation equals the number of hours you’ll need to adequately rehearse.  In order  to shine,  you’ve got to know the thing cold.  One does not read from the slides, ever.  Know your material,  be enthusiastic and connect with your audience and exude confidence.  You might even enjoy yourself!

Thanks for reading,



That’s My Story and I’m Sticking To It

When your objective is to bring someone around to your way of thinking,  tell that person a story.   Effective storytelling allows us to communicate with listeners in both an emotional and intellectual way.   As a result,  barriers between people break down as they are brought together in a shared experience that strengthens relationships.  A well-crafted and delivered story allows speaker and listener to understand and therefore trust one another.

Stories are used to build confidence in a person or agenda,  motivate listeners to think a certain way and perhaps do certain things.  Storytelling is the original call to action.  Those of us in business are advised to create good stories,  narratives that can be used to persuade others of our integrity and expertise.

When putting together your story,  think first of its ending.  You can choose where in the arc of your professional development  to begin your story,  but the ending is the most important component.  You must present a strong and memorable take-away anecdote,  lesson,  or triumph that listeners will remember,  believe and act upon.

It is advisable to create a  “portfolio”  of business-themed stories.  Your most basic story is your elevator pitch,  the story that describes what you do,  the goal you help clients achieve and the types of clients you work with.  Another,  more detailed,  story will tell listeners about you and the development of your business.   Other stories in your portfolio illustrate your expertise and professionalism.

The story of how you built your company will tend toward the inspirational.  That story might describe what motivated you to go into business and give a brief behind-the-scenes look at an obstacle you had to overcome on your way to becoming successful.  Don’t be afraid to reveal mistakes made along the way.  Let your listener experience your humanity and authenticity.

To demonstrate your expertise,   tell stories that show how you helped a client make money,  save money,  avoid disaster,  or discover a niche market.  Both types of stories build your credibility and are useful relationship builders and sales tools.

When developing and presenting a story,  be clear about its purpose in your communication strategy.   Know what you would like listeners to believe,  understand or do after you’ve told the tale.  For example,  if you want to convince a prospective client that you offer superior service,   perhaps write a story about how you worked through a holiday weekend,  so that a critical deadline would be met.

When you tell that story,  describe first why the goal of excellent service had to be met,  its importance to the client.  Then spell out the obstacles you overcame to achieve it.   Add a little drama to your story to encourage listeners to identify with the client and picture themselves in his/her shoes.   Remember to keep your story uncomplicated and easy to follow.

When writing your stories,  be mindful that there will be a beginning,  middle and end.  A well-designed story also has a person who must do or confront something;  a place,  where the action will occur; a time frame,  so that listeners can distinguish between “then” and “now”; and a hint of its direction,  to allow listeners to anticipate the outcome.

Be sure to identify and describe the turning point in your story,  the decision you made that made it possible  to achieve the goal.  Take special care not to confuse the turning point with the end of the story,  however.  The turning point triggers the successful outcome that makes the happy ending possible.  The end of the story,  the culmination,  describes how that goal was achieved.  Describing how the goal was achieved paints the picture of the take-away you want to leave listeners with,  namely that you provide superior service every time,  especially when the client needs it most.

Storytelling is a powerful business tool,  one that enriches business conversations and presentations as we communicate with listeners in both an emotional and intellectual fashion.  Stories help us to explain new ideas and concepts,  win support for projects and convince prospects to become clients.  Learn the art of building and relating stories and make clients know why they want to do business with you.

Thanks for reading my story!


Starting A Business? Consider Your Exit Strategy Part I

We’ve covered nearly all elements of a business plan and we are approaching our final destination—the exit strategy. You may wonder why someone who has just begun to map out a business building strategy, filled with excitement and determined to create a business that represents all that he/she has worked hard to learn, would want to contemplate ending it all?  The answer is,  every journey has a destination.  How else can you know which path to take unless you know where you want to end up?


If you have tangible assets and a desirable customer base,  you might want to sell the business eventually and give yourself either a retirement nest egg or start-up capital to create yet another business.  Keep your options open and start the preparations early. Whatever you decide, these actions will be beneficial for the business.

Maintain detailed and credible financial records: demonstrate profitability; show good cash flow; keep your debt to equity ratio low.  Expect to show a prospective buyer 5 years of data.  If the business owns property and/or equipment, ensure that all is well kept and in good working order.

To sell your business at a price that accurately reflects its value,  it is recommended that you consult first with your accountant and attorney, next with a business valuation expert or an appraiser and then with a business broker. Your accountant or attorney may even know the right buyer for your business.  There are four sales strategies to pursue:

I. SELL TO EMPLOYEES.   One, or several, of your employees may be interested in buying the business.  Don’t be shy about raising that possibility.  What better way to boost confidence and morale than letting valuable employees know that you trust them enough to place your treasured achievement into their capable and caring hands?  Selling to employees can be a great exit strategy.  The employees are able to invest in a business that they know and trust.  They know the challenges and opportunities that the business may encounter.  They know the customers and the customers may also know them.  They know the history of the place.  They know how things run.   If you’re thinking of moving on, why not offer those who you can see would be good candidates either a buy-out or an employee stock option plan (ESOP)?

II. SELL TO A COMPETITOR. Target one of your larger competitors as a potential buy-out prospect.  What better way to decrease competition and gain market share quickly than to absorb the entity that’s been eating your lunch? Position your business as attractive, financially healthy and possessed of a customer base that will align with the competitors’. Some entrepreneurs start a business aiming to be bought out. They believe they can grow their business fast enough to compel an industry leader to buy them out and end the battle.

III. SALE THROUGH A BROKER.  If you are unable to persuade someone whom you know to buy your business,  contact a business broker.  It’s like hiring a real estate agent to sell your house. There are brokers who represent sellers and those who represent buyers.  Be sure to get an independent appraisal on your own,  so you can be confident that the broker prices the business appropriately and that you understand the likely market value of what you are selling.

IV. LIQUIDATION.  In this instance, you are unable to find a buyer for the business, so you hold a “going out of business sale” in advance of closing your doors.   Whatever business assets exist are sold;  creditors are paid off;  the business owner keeps the net profit.

When selling your business it will be imperative to obtain an accurate appraisal. There are three methods to use and you may want to do them all:

I. ASSET VALUATION. The value of the inventory and equipment, business property, the client list and even the company’s reputation (best practices and good customer relationships are worth money in more ways than one!).

II. INDUSTRY VALUATION.   Based on the sale prices of similar businesses in your industry and geographic locale.

III. CASH FLOW VALUATION.  Based on the expected future cash flow of the company, as demonstrated by past performance.

Remember that the best time to sell your business is when both you and it are healthy! I’ll be back next week with a couple of more exit strategy options.

Thanks for reading,