Believe it or not, some Inc. readers have the unmitigated gall to challenge our columnist's thinking. But don't worry, Norm can take it.
One of the great joys of writing Street Smarts is the opportunity to get feedback from a lot of very smart and articulate entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, I don't have time to answer every letter, but I read all of them and greatly appreciate getting them--even the ones that are critical of me. I've received quite a few such comments lately in response to a couple of columns, and I want to share some of them with you. I don't necessarily agree with the critics, but you may, and in any case they deserve to be heard.
A lot of the letters concerned my column on marketing ("Marketing for Dummies," October 2005), many of the letters coming from readers who have marketing businesses and took offense at what they viewed as a putdown of their profession. One person described me as "the Grinch Who Stole Marketing." Then there was Jim Connelly, the founder of Cedarock Creative in Antioch, Illinois:
I do what I do because it helps business owners increase sales. I am not a designer who designs solely to improve my portfolio or pad my checkbook. I believe a number of business owners read your column with high regard, and I hope you can find a way to express your views without trashing the marketing industry in future columns.
I did not mean to trash the marketing industry, Jim, and I'm sorry if I came across that way. I believe marketing does have a role to play--in very large companies. If you can afford to spend hundreds of thousands, or millions, of dollars on a marketing campaign, you can certainly use it to create an image (that is, a brand) that has real, tangible value. Take salt, for example. When people decide to spend 69 cents for Morton's rather than 65 cents for the store brand, what they're paying for is Morton's marketing, which has convinced them that the Morton's brand is worth the extra four cents, even though the two products are identical. Entrepreneurs don't have the luxury of building an image or brand that way. The world we live in is extremely competitive, and we have to make sure that we get the most out of every dollar we spend. If we don't do that, we're being reckless, and we're going to get in trouble. That's why I believe that, for companies like ours, marketing is a waste of money and time. There is simply no way we'll be able to charge a premium based on an image cooked up by marketers. We're better off spending our limited resources on activities that lead directly to sales.
Richard Grady of the ConsulttUs Group in Plano, Texas, thought my definition of marketing was all wrong:
I think you may be confusing readers. You say marketing is "using advertising, signage, design, packaging, brochures, stationery, business cards, and so on to manufacture an image of your company for the ostensible purpose of making customers and prospective customers more interested in buying whatever you sell." What you are really talking about are communication tools, such as websites, brochures, hats, truck signage, billboards, etc. Using those tools is not marketing, any more than using hammers, nails, saws, glue, wire, wood, etc., is home construction. Marketing is what you're talking about when you say, "You should use it [money and time] to make your business better and build your reputation in the industry. The best way to develop a great reputation isn't by marketing--it's by acting in a way that earns respect." How do you know what it really takes to develop a great reputation and earn respect? Marketing will give you the answers, through research, strategic planning, and defined tactics.
I beg to differ, Richard. You don't need "research, strategic planning, and defined tactics" to figure out how to build a great reputation. You do it by having principles and sticking to them. A great reputation comes from competing fairly, providing excellent service to your customers, treating your suppliers right, being a solid citizen in your community, and creating a great place to work. Yes, a giant corporation will frequently launch a marketing campaign in an attempt to bolster its image and improve its reputation, but such campaigns are proof positive that the company has failed to build a great reputation the old-fashioned way--by earning it. For smaller companies, image marketing is a gigantic waste of time and money.
Christie Turner of Invisible Marketing in Dallas also thought I had the wrong definition of marketing:
At my company we have an old PowerPoint presentation and the sales support people hate it. But our salespeople closed millions of dollars of business last year, and nobody bought or didn't buy because of our slides. Customers buy because they fall in love with our people, and it's my job to help accelerate that process, not to get in the way with "image" marketing that doesn't reflect who we are. That said, I think that your definition of marketing--my profession--is rather unkind. Marketing is about thinking beyond the deal at hand to questions like "How can I find and close more deals?" The job of marketing people is to help you tell your story. They should make what's special about your company more visible. Anything else isn't marketing. It's self-indulgence and you should certainly view it as a waste of money.
Christie, you're absolutely right when you say your job is to accelerate the process whereby customers fall in love with your people and decide to buy from you. That's what I call selling. Thinking beyond the deal at hand and figuring out how to find and close more deals is also part of selling. As for making what's special about your company more visible, I'm all for it. But if that isn't selling, what is it?
Then there were those like Seamus Kennedy of Hersco Orthotic Labs, in Long Island City, New York, who thought I was being bullheaded when I refused to redo my brochure:
"If you haven't changed your brochure in 12 years," writes one reader, "it needs to be redone. Your company is no longer the same."
If you haven't changed your brochure in 12 years, it needs to be redone, if only because your company is no longer the same. The people are different, the technology is different, your ideal customer is different, the reasons to use your product are different. You cannot expect potential customers to see your business for the value and opportunities it can deliver if the brochure sends an image of stasis.
I agree, Seamus, that a company changes as it grows, but that doesn't mean that the vision and values behind it change. Suppose, for example, that part of your vision is to remain on the leading edge of technology. The technology will change constantly, but the idea of being on the edge doesn't change. Our 12-year-old brochure is as accurate a reflection of our vision and values today as it was when we wrote it. That's consistency and commitment, not stasis.
Donald Bishop of Gardens Are... in Marlborough, Massachusetts, supported my decision about the brochure and shared my skepticism of marketing, but he thought I should get advice from my customers before doing anything:
I had a chuckle when I read your article about redesigning your website, redoing your brochure, painting your trucks, and so on. Have you tried asking your customers what they think? I asked our customers, and I was surprised to find that they preferred the old-style logo to the new up-to-date version. They liked our nonanimated, not flashy, easy-to-use website. They had no opinion about our trucks. The bad news is that we'd already spent a lot of money getting a makeover that right now sits in a box. Maybe you should ask your customers what they think of your materials.
Nobody believes more strongly than I do in the value of listening to customers, but why would I ask the ones I already have about our sales tools? I want to know what they think of our service, not our brochures, our website, or the writing on our trucks. Who cares what they think about those things? Then again, I'd like to have customers tell me what attracted them to us in the first place. That's information I can use.
On the question of repainting our trucks, Scott Conley, CEO of the Cradlerock Group in Stamford, Connecticut, suggested that I rethink my position:
In your recent column about marketing, you wrote, "Can anybody seriously argue that customers make choices based on how a supplier paints its trucks?" Two years ago I would have responded, "Of course not," but after a debate with my staff (including my wife) similar to the one you're having, I was convinced that the answer is yes. We discovered that we were often being prequalified by relatively junior associates at our prospects, and I've learned the hard way that most of these folks will make some filtering decisions based precisely on things like how a supplier paints its trucks. Since I got wrestled into upgrading our "image," we've gotten through to more of the real decision makers, who (to your point) are usually more interested in substance than style.
I'd never tell you not to listen to your wife, Scott, and I can't argue with the good results you've had since you've repainted your trucks--but I would suggest that the timing is a coincidence. Unless you previously had filthy, rundown, burned-out vehicles with the paint chipping off, I doubt that you're getting more access now simply because you've spiffed them up a bit. Very few companies would allow a junior associate to prequalify suppliers based on things like the way they paint their trucks (as opposed to, say, the quality of their service). A junior associate who is judging suppliers that way is not likely to become a senior associate--or even have a job for long.
Not surprisingly, some readers also took issue with my column on the unimportance of names ("The Name Game," November 2005). One of then was Scott Smith, president of BizStarz in Sacramento:
Enjoyed your contrarian column about business names, but I felt you contradicted yourself. You rattled off an impressive list of small businesses with such creative names that even you can still remember them long after first hearing about them. Then you (correctly) criticized large companies for choosing bad names such as Accenture and Avaya. Obviously no name will save a very bad company. However, a very bad name will cause significant problems for even a very good company. So although a company name may be less important than many new business owners start off thinking, it is still a major determinant of a company's ability to generate interest in its products and services.
Frankly, Scott, I have no idea whether the small companies whose names I mentioned are even in business anymore, let alone successful. That was the whole point of my column: The name of a company has little or no impact on its success (with the exception I noted). Having a memorable name like Tex's Chainsaw Manicure won't help the company attract customers, and having a forgettable name like Avaya won't drive them away. So I disagree with you on that score. I'm also uncomfortable with your characterization of my column as "contrarian," although I admit that's a common perception of how I think. If being contrarian means disagreeing just to disagree, I don't consider myself to be contrarian at all. I simply have a habit of asking, "Why?" When you tell me, for example, that a name is "still a major determinant" of a company's ability to attract customers, I ask, "Where's the evidence?" I don't think it exists.
I also heard from a few readers who decided, after reading the column, that I could help them choose their company's name. One such reader was Roseann Rosnick, who is currently the administrator of the Oakleaf Personal Care Home in Pittsburgh:
I believe you wrote this amazing article for me! At age 52, I have decided to start my own consulting business, specifically teaching a seminar I attended 17 years ago that taught me how to improve my relationships with co-workers and others by identifying each person's primary and secondary colors. I have secured a license from the creators of this material and am ready to begin. But I don't have the perfect name yet!!! Not being able to choose a name has paralyzed me. My colleagues and I have come up with three possible names: Prism Insights, Prism Perspectives, and Prismquest, all with the tag line "Work Smarter, Relate Better." Which do you like best?
All I know for sure is that company names don't matter. If the lack of one is paralyzing you, put all the names on a wall and throw a dart at them.
To tell you the truth, Roseann, I don't like any of them, which is probably a good sign because I have terrible taste in names. I'd probably go for something like Roseann's Rainbow, or Colors Inc. All I know for sure is that the name doesn't matter. If the lack of one is paralyzing you, here's my advice: Put all the names on a wall, blindfold yourself, and throw a dart at them. Use whichever name it lands closest to. You can't go wrong--really.
Last, but not least, I received this message from Michael Santorelli, CEO of Dogmatic Inc., with offices in Los Angeles and New York City, about a column that just won't die--the one I wrote in May 2003 about the problems with sales commissions:
I read your article about sales commissions when it first came out. I wanted to implement your strategy for moving salespeople from commission to salary, but my partner did not agree. Years later, I find myself in the same old jam. While I was searching for help online, I came across your article again and wished I'd followed your advice. How do I convince my partner to give it a try? She thinks there is no way around commissions.
I'd focus first on convincing your salespeople, Michael. Your partner is probably afraid that if you change their compensation system, they'll all leave and take customers with them. She will come around if the salespeople themselves agree to make the switch from commission to salary. That will take time and a lot of persuasion. Chances are they only know commissions. You need to give them the whole rationale and take them through the numbers. You have to show them one by one that they'll do as well or better financially if they're on salary, that they'll have more security, and that they'll reap the benefits of working as members of a team. Maybe you'll persuade half of them to start with. If they're willing to give it a try, your partner will be, too. Meanwhile, you can keep working on the others. Eventually you should be able to get almost all of them to go on salary. Will you lose one or two out of 10? Maybe. But the ones you most want to keep will come to embrace the new system, and I believe your company will be stronger as a result.
Norm Brodsky is a veteran entrepreneur whose six businesses include a three-time Inc. 500 company. His co-author is editor-at-large Bo Burlingham. (firstname.lastname@example.org)