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Are you answering what your customers wonder and worry about? (REVIEW)

they askThis review first ran in the July 21 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

They Ask You Answer

By Marcus Sheridan



Marcus Sheridan was on the brink of financial ruin.

The bank was calling. His credit cards were maxed out. His employees were sitting at home wondering if they still had a job.

Sheridan’s company installed fiberglass swimming pools. Finding homeowners willing and able to spend $50,000 on a pool was a tough sell in the aftermath of 2008’s global financial crisis.

Sheridan needed a miracle. “Unless we found a way to garner more leads and sales than we’d ever had, even though there were fewer potential buyers (because of this economy) than ever before, we were going to go out of business within a matter of months.”

The miracle arrived when Sheridan made his company a teacher of fiberglass swimming pools. Sheridan became obsessed with answering questions with fierce honesty. While competitors talked about themselves, Sheridan focused on addressing what prospective buyers were wondering, worrying and asking about.

They ask, we answer became Sheridan’s business philosophy and it saved his company.

lion question markHe started publishing articles and posting videos every week to his company’s website.

“How much does a fiberglass pool cost?” was one of the first articles to go up on the website. Pricing and cost were not something that pool builders posted on their websites. “The fact that no one had addressed this question meant a blue ocean of opportunity for the business,” says Sheridan. “The marketplace was dying for someone to be open and honest enough to address this question and so that’s exactly what we did.”

Sheridan also posted articles where he acknowledged that fiberglass swimming pools weren’t for every customer and even made referrals to other local installers.

Sheridan tracked what prospective customers did after reading and watching the content he posted online. The more content they consumed, the more likely they were to become customers.

His article on the cost of fiberglass pools would generate $3 million in new sales.

“Without exaggeration, this single article saved my business. It saved my home. It saved the homes of my two business partners. It also saved the jobs of all our employees.”

In 2007, Sheridan’s company sold 75 pools after meeting with 250 prospective customers for a closing ratio of 30 per cent.

By 2013 and with a website full of content, that closing ratio jumped to 79 per cent as appointments with 120 homeowners resulted in 95 sales. Sheridan’s team met with far fewer prospects yet sold more pools.

On average, the 95 customers who bought pools had reviewed 105 pages of content posted to the company website. They were well-informed and ready to buy when they met with Sheridan and his team.

Sheridan also discovered that the overwhelming majority of prospects who looked at less than 30 pages of content prior to an appointment never made a purchase. Care and attention could then be redirected to providing even better service to customers.

Whatever product or service you sell and whether you’re in the private, public or non-profit sectors, Sheridan says you are first and foremost a media company. To earn our trust and our money, you first need to show us your story, your company culture in action and the people who work for you. Customers are vetting businesses more deeply than ever before and we want to know what you believe and why you believe it.

Get everyone involved in drawing up a list of all the questions and concerns that you’ve heard from customers. Sheridan recommends hiring someone with journalism training who knows how to create clear and compelling content and work to deadline.

“As consumers, we expect to be fed great information,” says Sheridan. “Are you willing to meet their expectations? Or would you prefer that the competition be the one who answers the question for them? Remember, they’re going to get their answers from someone, so wouldn’t you prefer they get their answers from you?”

Sheridan is now the founder and president of a coaching and consulting firm that helps other companies create customer-focused content that drives sales.

His book gives you permission to do what you’ve always known your business should be doing to win customers. Quit talking about yourself. Instead, be the best teacher within your industry. Obsess over your customers’ questions and concerns. And win their trust and their business by answering with fierce honesty.

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Media relations 101 for entrepreneurs

My colleague Jane Allison and I got to spend a morning with entrepreneurs participating in the 2018 Lion’s Lair competition organized by the Innovation Factory in Hamilton, Ontario.

We offered up media relations advice to an amazing group of job creators, prosperity builders, problem solvers and change makers.

Jane and I have been running free media relations workshops since 2007 as a way to thank non-profits, community groups and entrepreneurs who have inspiring stories to share.


Want to bring people together? Skip the usual networking event and instead work & learn together (REVIEW)

friend of a friendThis review first ran in the July 7th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Friend of a Friend: Understanding the Hidden Networks That Can Transform Your Life and Your Career

By David Burkus

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


Wash dishes or mix and mingle?

This is one introvert who’d happily roll up his sleeves, fill the sink and start scrubbing.

At Jon Levy’s parties, you get to do both.

You don’t just get invited to an Influencer Dinner at Levy’s home in New York City. You help cook the meal, set the table and clear the dishes.

Levy has one rule while everyone’s in his kitchen. You ditch the script that’s followed at every networking event. You can’t tell anyone who you are or talk about what you do for a living. You’re on a first-name basis until everyone sits down for dinner. You then break bread by trying to guess each other’s identity and profession.

Instead of making meals together, Pixar Animation Studios runs an in-house university for employees. Yes, you can take courses on how to draw. But you can also sign up for  everything from improv comedy and painting to acting and belly dancing.

Everyone can take up to four hours of paid work time every week to take courses. And you can excuse yourself from meetings that are booked when you’re supposed to be in class.

The value of the university is in the internal networks that get built, with frontline staff and new hires learning alongside senior executives and veterans from across the company.

Working together brings people together. Levy’s dinners and Pixar’s university also get around a common pitfall with traditional networking events. Along with being a painful exercise for introverts, we tend to go to events and strike up conversations with people we already know, who are in the same line of work as us and share the same view of the world.

This approach pretty much negates the whole point of building a network. We’re not meeting new people, expanding our thinking, questioning our reasoning or getting the diversity of ideas, insights and feedback we need.

“Networking events don’t bring us truly new contacts,” says David Burkus, a business school professor with an expertise in network science and author of Friend of a Friend.

“Instead, research suggests we are better off engaging in activities that draw a cross-section of people and letting those connections form naturally as we engage with the task at hand. You may not be focused on networking while you participate in such activities, but after you finish, you’ll find that you have gathered a host of new and interesting people that now call you friend.”

Research also shows that you want to be the person who, like Jon Levy with his dinner parties, serves as the broker and bridge between networks of people who would otherwise never meet. “The most connected people inside a tight group within a single industry are less valuable than the people who span the gaps between groups and broker information back and forth,” says Burkus.

“Playing in between the clusters and connecting them to each other can provide huge advantages not just for brokers but also for the organizations they work with.”

Burkus shows how to make and strengthen the connections that will have an outsized impact on your work and career.  “Your network is influencing you, and so you better begin influencing your network. Navigating your network deliberately – making choices about who your friends are and being aware of who is a friend of a friend – can directly influence the person you become, for better or worse. Your friend of a friend is your future.”

And if you’ve got a friend in me if you need someone to wash and rinse the dishes at your next networking event.

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.