I'll come clean: For years, my company never had a customer service phone number on our website. When Hootsuite started, with just a few dozen employees, we were honestly worried about being swamped with calls from our millions of users.

Phone support would have made a lot of sense. And it's not like users weren't asking for it.

Finally, last year, as we were approaching 1,000 employees and 15 million users, I proposed the unthinkable to my team: "Guys, I want to put a 1-888 number right on our home page."

Their response: "It will never work. Don't you realize what this means? People are going to be calling us all the time."

It was a classic elephant-and-rope scenario. The old story of the elephant and the rope has been around for a while, though I only heard it recently.

Baby elephants, it seems, were traditionally trained by tying one of their front legs to a stake in the ground. (It goes without saying that capturing and training baby elephants is horrible in and of itself... so hopefully this practice has long gone out of style.)

Because the elephants are small, only a thin rope is required. They'll struggle and pull at first, but eventually they realize that they can't break the rope and they'll give up.

Elephants grow fast, of course. Before long, those cute babies are lumbering giants. But here's the thing: That same thin rope is all that's needed to keep them secured. They think the rope can still hold them, so they never try to break free.

Whether or not this is true (and there's at least one compelling answer on Quora to suggest it is), there's a clear moral for the rest of us. In business (not to mention in life), all sorts of invisible mental ropes--flimsy and easily broken--may well be holding us back.

We reach a conclusion at one time, based on specific set of conditions, then forget to revisit our decisions when things change. It results in missed opportunities, self-imposed blockers and wasted potential.

With our lack of a customer-support number, we were acting like a baby elephant. Don't get me wrong: Preserving a lean-startup ethos--being efficient and nimble--can have its advantages. But this was a clear case where outdated thinking was holding us back.

Fortunately, late last year, I was able to convince my company to do a beta test of a brand new 1-888 number. We put together a small cross-functional team from customer support, sales and social media coaching to roll out the program.

We made sure the phone lines were staffed up with the right people. Then, we went live, first with a two-day "stress test" to work out any kinks, then with a two-week trial.

Not surprisingly, the sky didn't fall--quite the opposite, in fact. The volume of calls, around 60 per day, was significant, though not overwhelming.

Yes, we definitely burned some man hours handling the phone lines, but the flipside was that our employees spent a lot of time talking directly with users and potential users--in other words, exactly what you need to do to make sales.

In fact, based on our trial period, we modeled a yearly revenue lift in the range of $1 million. It was so successful that we just officially deployed our toll-free number, and have even launched a new sales career track in our company around it.

But here's the exciting part: That's just one rope.

Who knows how many other invisible hangups and outdated conceptions are holding us back? The key, especially for growing companies, is to begin to see those ropes in the first place.

From my experience growing Hootsuite, here are a few common phrases that indicate you might have an "elephant-and-rope" scenario on your hands:

  • "We tried this before and it didn't work." So what? Companies evolve; circumstances change. Sometimes, it's worth revisiting a challenge with fresh eyes.
  • "We can't afford that." Guess what? You can now. If the company has been doing things right, your financial resources have likely grown.
  • "That's going to take way too much time." Well, yes, if you put just one or two people on the project. But what if you threw a whole team of experts at it? Then, suddenly, it may seem doable.
  • "That's just too complicated." Some challenges are complex and will require sustained effort to be solved. That doesn't mean you shouldn't tackle them, especially if you have the resources to do so properly.
  • "That will never work." How many promising paths have been abandoned because of this little phrase? This is the consummate elephant-and-rope line.

Sometimes, the blockers are still real and imposing: thick chains that can't be broken. But other times, you'll find a flimsy rope is the only thing holding you back... and all it takes is a nudge to snap it.

Published on: Jan 30, 2017
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