Step Right Up

Decide that you want it more than you are afraid of it. – Bill Cosby

We thought coming into this year, “I can do this!” Some even thought “This will be no problem! This will be easy!” We started fresh and positive and motivated. Now here we are, 8 months into the year, two-thirds of the way through the third quarter, with only 4 months to go to finish 2013. And we know that it has been hard work to get to where we are and it will be even harder to get to the finish line.

Yes, the ramp keeps getting steeper. Yes, we have a long way to go. Yes, we all feel the pressure. Yes, it is stressful. But no, this is not the time to be shy, to shut up, or to shut down. It’s time to step right up!

step right upRemember going to carnivals and state fairs as kids or with kids? Remember the carnival workers shouting “Step Right Up! Win a Prize! Every Player is a Winner! You Have to See it to Believe It!” It all starts with that first step.

STEP stands for Stress, Trends, Expectations, and Performance.

S – When it comes to Stress, we are usually looking at where we are, but we really need to be looking at where we want to go. If we get bogged down with emotions like fear, uncertainty, anger, or panic, or if we decide to turn it off, go numb, and just slog through and see what happens – however we feel about it, if we let negative emotions rule the day we have already given up and we will lose. Stress, if allowed, will destroy creativity.

T – Looking at Trends, the truth is we don’t need a pep talk, we need to get motivated! Forget the carrot and the stick. We can’t depend on others to do for us what only we can do for ourselves. We need to remind ourselves that, “Yes, I can do this job!” If things ae trending the wrong way then we need to ask why, formulate a solution to turn it around, and then implement it.

E – Examining our Expectations, we need to get creative instead of continuing to do all the things we have already been doing. We know that if we do the same things over and over and expect different results then we are crazy. The time for “we’ve always done it this way” thinking is long past. Let’s rise to the challenge and adjust our expectations if needed.

P – Gauging our Performance, we need to be realistic about where we are and what we need to do to get where we need to be. Quantity never makes up for lack of quality. Working harder and smarter we can do quality work. Let’s focus on things we may have overlooked in the past. Be innovative – adapt, improvise, and overcome. Don’t get stuck planning, put the plan in action.

shhh-1This is not the time to shut down or shut up. Let’s keep it simple. Let’s manage the stress, put our emotions to work for us, and drive the number instead of letting the numbers drive us. It’s time to step right up and do what we are good at doing – building solid relationships offering winning solutions to our customers needs.

The best way to “think outside the box” is to ask others for their insight, perspective, and advise. So don’t ever underestimate the benefit of being on a team, especially when times are tough. If we isolate ourselves we will miss the best opportunities for personal and professional growth.

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Imagine That

Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.
- Albert Einstein

Imagine that! High school seniors have graduated and summer is finally here. As working adults we hope that business will continue to pick up and we know that the long, hot days of the summer months lay ahead. They will be over before we know it. But remember for a moment the days of summer back when we were kids. The days were still long and hot, especially if they were spent anywhere in Texas or the surrounding states.

As we reflect on the childhood joys of the summer months we have fond memories of friends, trips, adventures, months out of school, and good times. We remember lemonade, watermelon, snow cones, ice cream, swimming holes, and fishing holes, too. We recall family reunions, time spent on vacation, and time with grandparents. For some the summers of childhood were long ago, but never forgotten. For others they are a fresh memory formed just a year or so ago.

For those who can remember way back when, I wanted to take a few moments at the start of summer and take a look at some of the things we may not know about these youngsters that have just graduated high school. What are their cultural references in comparison to ours?

Seniors who are graduating this year were born when Bill Clinton was President but George W. Bush is the first President they remember. The Hubble Telescope has always been in orbit along with Global Positioning Satellites, the internet has always been available, new cars have always had air bags, and DNA fingerprinting has always been a tool used by crime fighters. They have never been without 911 emergency telephone services.

Today’s graduates do not remember Ruby Ridge, Waco, Rodney King, the LA Riots, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the USSR, the KGB, East Germany, the Cold War, Tiananmen Square, or the Oklahoma City Bombing. They were born after Gulf War I (Desert Storm) and have always had Word, Excel, and PowerPoint available on their computers.

These young men and women, our future, have never known another host for the Tonight Show other than Jay Leno, except for the few months that Conan hosted. They have never been without Comedy Central, the Discovery Channel, or the Sci/Fi Channel. The Simpsons have always been on the air.

When they were born, the Dow Jones had just broken 4000. The average cost of a new house was $110,000. The average annual income was $34,000. The average rent was $495 a month. And gas averaged $1.05 a gallon.

Things are different and yet somehow they are always the same. Today we are still working for peace in the Middle East. Terrorists are still holding hostages. We are still fighting in Iraq. Washington is corrupt. Taxes are high. And Elvis is still rumored to have died.

But let’s not forget that we are talking about the fond memories of summer. Those memories are fond because of our perspective when we were kids. We were not concerned with the political issues of the day or of the negative reports in the press about the impending doom and soon coming end of the world by some catastrophe or new disease. We wanted to play with our friends, eat good food (especially if it wasn’t good for us), and enjoy life! What happened?

Some would say we grew up. But face it; there is still that child in all of us, that child that remembers the fun of summer. And in case we have forgotten – look at our kids, or our friend’s kids, or our younger siblings. Where does the fun come from?

It is all about imagination. And even grown ups can imagine. So let’s put our imagination to use. It may be a little rusty. To warm it up, think about the times, the things, the places, and the people that made summer special when we were kids. Once our imagination is cranking, imagine what it would be like to enjoy life like that without all the stress (and responsibility).

Now imagine what fun we can have with our family, with our kids, and with our friends in these summer months. We don’t need lots of money, we just need our imagination. Let’s retrace the steps of our childhood and find joy in the simple things, the things that bring a smile to the faces of those around us. Imagine a world without all the stress. What would that feel like? Stress is usually a reaction to circumstances that we cannot control. If we cannot control it, why waste time worrying about it? If we want to waste emotional energy, let’s wear ourselves out enjoying the summer like we did back in the day, when we were kids.

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Precise, Positive, and Professional

What we say matters. How we say it matters even more. Especially in an email, when people cannot read our tone of voice or see the emotions on our face, we need to be sure that we communicate a precise message with a positive tone. Otherwise we open the door for confusion and a negative reaction.

Here is an example for us to study. It is a mass email recently sent from the marketing department of an online retailer.

Dear Customer:

I want to thank you for being a loyal customer. I truly value your business and noticed that you are not receiving emails about promotions and specials that are available to you in addition to the special pricing you receive from us.

After looking into this, I believe this was an error. You can update your preferences by clicking below.

Please see below for an example of a promotion and offer you are missing out on. Regardless of your response, please accept this offer as a token of our appreciation for letting us serve you. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me at the number below.

Again, thank you for your business and I am available to help you anytime you need me.

Best regards,
Your Sales Rep

(The special offer below was a coupon for $20 off the next order.)

The obvious goal is to have customers opt in for email specials and notifications in order to increase savings (and spending). That is a great goal, but let’s examine this from a marketing perspective and see if the message intended was the message received. What were the customer’s perceptions? (Keep in mind that this is not just an academic exercise but is based on actual responses from customers who received this email).

1. There is something wrong with our account.

The customer was told that they were not getting promotions and specials and that “this was an error.” When a customer hears the word “error” the natural assumption is, “You are the experts when it comes to my account with you. If there was a mistake, you messed up my account and as a result I am paying too much for what I buy from you.”

Suddenly they feel cheated and overcharged. That is not what was said, but what they heard. This reaction happens is response to a negative statement. Even if something is wrong and needs to be corrected, there is a positive way to communicate that message. This email could just have easily have stated:

“As a valued customer, we want to assure you that we are working diligently on your behalf to save you time and money. One of the best ways we can help save you even more is by making sure that you are receiving email offers and promotions above and beyond the special pricing you already receive as our customer.”

This is a positive message about an added value. It builds on the relationship. It cements the fact that this business relationship is a collaboration and works for their benefit. This kind of positive message will generate a response, not a reaction. A reaction is most often negative and emotionally charged. And when someone complains about others making a mistake that is not good advertising.

2. We are not getting the best deal possible.

Customers were notified that they were not receiving promotional emails. This aroused suspicion which was compounded when they read, “see below for an example of a promotion and offer you are missing out on.” Again, this is a negative message that made them wonder what else they are missing.

When a seed of doubt is planted in a customer’s mind they are motivated to investigate other, better options, i.e. the competition. Maybe they can get better pricing from that salesman that called them and told them they were being over charged by their current vendor. This gives legs to lingering doubts.

3. We get a consolation prize for your mistake.

Finally, a “token” is offered even though it is something that they should already be receiving. A token is an apology or a consolation prize. It is like saying, “We are glad you are buying from us but sorry things are messed up and you aren’t getting the best deal. We will fix it, and to show you how serious we are, here’s $20.”

Again, focusing on a precise and positive way to communicate, this could just as easily have been stated, “Here is a current offer we wanted to pass along to help save you more on your next purchase.”

Conclusion

These points do not even take into consideration the poor grammar in the note. The messages we send others need to be precise, positive and professional. Grammatically incorrect messages not only serve to make us look unprofessional, they are unprofessional.

Working hard to build a strong relationship with customers can be wasted effort if the relationship is undermined by fear, confusion, or doubt raised by a badly communicated message. Some people say we need to work smarter not harder, but we need to work smarter and harder. Hopefully a little critical thinking and concentrated effort can help us continue to improve our communication skills and see greater success as a result.

We have to remember that we all communicate differently. That means we cannot assume that anyone else knows exactly what we are saying. Next time we have a failure to communicate, let’s keep two questions in mind, “Can you hear me now?”, and “Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?” When we get the answers, we have bridged the failure to communicate and are actually participating in a two-way conversation.

Now go talk among yourselves.

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For Auld Lang Syne

Should old acquaintance be forgot? – Robert Burns

Poet and lyricist Robert Burns collected folk songs from across Scotland, updating and revising them and reintroducing them to the nation and the world. In 1788 he transcribed an old song into a poem and then back into a song that is now known the world over. Auld Lang Syne is sung on the last day of the year as the New Year is about to begin.

A literal translation of the phrase “auld lang syne” would be “old long since.” It means “long ago”, or “days gone by.” The song begins by asking a question, “Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? Should old acquaintance be forgot and auld lang syne?” In other words, as we reflect on the year gone by, should we forget those times, relegating them to the foggy memory of the past? Or should we instead cherish the things that have happened in the days that have now gone by?

Usually our attitude toward the New Year is to rejoice in the new beginning and to resolve to forget the difficulties and hard times of the past twelve months. The old year holds moments of joy and pain, but we tend to focus only on the hard times, the suffering, the misery of the human condition, and we look optimistically toward the New Year dawning. The great truth in this old folk song reminds us that remembering days gone by is not about the things that happened, but about the people who were there with us in the middle of it.

For all that we have faced, endured, overcome, and even where we have failed, we must carefully look back to the past and have the determination to call to mind the good times as well as those good things that always find a way to come out during the bad times. We are able to do this because of the simple yet profoundly true statement, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” The lesson of auld lang syne, of remembering the old year and celebrating the new, is that even when it felt like we were all alone, we never really were.

We all have friends, family, co-workers, and acquaintances that know us and love us just as we are. There is an old proverb that reminds us, “There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” It isn’t about all the things we know how to do; it is about the people who love us.

As we focus on this New Year, let us remember the challenges of the past, the difficulty and hardship, the blessings and moments of joy, laughter, and contentment, and especially the people who made a difference in our day to day existence. Most of our memories are remembrances of moments spent with the people we love. These people are the reason we get up and go to work each day, and the reason we smile when the sun isn’t shining.

Let us not believe for a moment that our best days are behind us, or that our friendships of long ago are gone, having disappeared into the past. Let us remember while we look to the future. It is uncharted and unknown so we must walk by faith and not by sight. The good news is that there are people we love and who love us who are here with us as we take these fresh new steps into 2012.

I hope then that all of us might be able to build on the lessons of the past year as we step into the new. The things we have learned and especially the people we have learned them from are not to be forgotten. Should old acquaintance be forgot, and days gone by? No! Let us remember those days as we look forward with hope to the New Year.

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Do You Get It?

It is more blessed to give than to receive. – Jesus of Nazareth

The holidays are here and it seems that we could not truly enjoy the celebrations, parties, and events of the season without the use of lists. For Thanksgiving we have a list for groceries, a list for the football schedule on television, a list of relatives to call, and a list of things to buy at the Black Friday sales early the next morning. For Christmas we have lists of gifts to give and to get, a list of people to send cards, a list of parades, events, parties, and get-togethers. We may even have lists of things to do before the end of the year and we will start the New Year with a list of resolutions.

All of these lists serve to keep us organized in an otherwise over-busy time of year. We wait all year for the holidays and before we know it they have come and gone again. We save, plan, budget, plot, scheme, and think about how to get the best gifts at the best prices for those we love, those we like, and those we are obligated to give gifts to because it is after all “the Season of Giving.”

We also hope and hint so that others might get us the gifts we most want. Being grown up makes it a little more difficult than when we were kids. Everyone asks kids what they want for Christmas. But as adults there are times we know what we want, know what it costs, and so we don’t put that on a list anyone will read. Maybe if we get enough gift cards we can get what we really want!

At this time of year it seems there are always complaints about consumerism and greed. Everyone is upset, at least for a few minutes, that the holidays have become so commercial. But then, once the line at the checkout starts to move again, we forget how irritated we were. The problem with commercialism and consumerism has to do with the motives and actions of other people, not with our own desire to make this the best Christmas ever, right?

The people who pepper spray other shoppers in order to get the flat screen TV for themselves, who stomp and trample others even as they are dying on the floor of heart attacks and strokes, those who scratch and claw to get in line, stay in line, and get the best deal – these are the people who reveal the dark underside of holiday shopping. However, how are we any different if we approach the holidays with an eye toward what we can get instead of what we can give?

Thanksgiving and Christmas are after all about giving God thanks for His bountiful provisions and about rejoicing in the promise of salvation declared by angels on high as God gave the best gift ever, sending His Son to be one of us, to live among us, to die for us, and to show us the way to new, everlasting life. The true focus of these special days is placed firmly on giving, not getting. Giving thanks. Giving gifts in order to imitate God as He has given us so much. And yet, we so often slip into selfishness and get carried away, if only for a minute, in the notion that it is better to get than to give.

The moral of the story is this – it is always better to give than receive. This is true not because there is anything inherently wrong with receiving gifts, but it is true because of the focus and attention of the giver. We give gifts, we give joy, we give happiness, we give people the chance to see how much we care about them and love them. We give of ourselves to express our love for others. We see then that the giver and the getter are both blessed when gifts are given. In taking the opportunity to give we find the greatest blessing.

Hopefully we took the time last month to truly give thanks for the people who matter to us. Now this month, let us look to these holy days as an opportunity to give with no thought of getting. Let us be selfless, not selfish. Let us be disappointed not by the gifts we wanted but did not receive, but let us be disappointed that we were not able to spend time with all of those who we love and who love us.

If we are obsessed with getting it becomes about the stuff, not the people. Giving gifts is not about the stuff. It is about the relationships we have. And there we find the true blessing of the holidays – the people we love. For each person in our life this year, let us seek what the angels promised on that first Christmas night so long ago, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace and goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2:14).

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Bad Attitudes: Quitting Cold Turkey

Don’t tell me what you can’t do; tell me what you can do.” – Phillip M. Way

A bumper sticker recently spotted in the middle of a traffic jam said, “I don’t need your attitude; I‘ve got one of my own.” This is a fairly typical representation of many people stuck in traffic. The trouble is that this sentiment also represents for a lot of people their outlook every day. It’s easy to have a bad attitude. Some people even prefer it.

Bad attitudes may be cool or hip in certain situations, but usually they only serve to irritate other people and complicate things. A person with a consistently bad attitude puts unnecessary stress on co-workers, friends, and family alike. Bad attitudes are contagious. A gruff reply is the verbal equivalent of recklessly cutting someone off in traffic. It puts everyone on edge and usually generates a not so nice response from the victims.

All you have to do to have a bad attitude is to do nothing – it isn’t difficult to go sour. If we respond to a negative situation by sitting and stewing things are not going to get better. At times we embrace the bad attitude whole heartedly and actual derive some measure of enjoyment from making others miserable.

We have to understand that bad attitudes are not a victimless crime. Even if we are not around anyone else while under the influence we still will see a bad attitude take its toll on us. Depression, guilt, anxiety, and fear will manifest themselves in our thinking and emotions. Deep down we know that there is not much good about a lousy perspective.

If we try and combat a bad attitude we have to be careful not to get distracted. By that I mean that so often there are so many things affecting our attitude that if we try and single one of them out we might gain some ground, but will still be gang tackled by other things driving us down. It might be a circumstance, our emotions, the attitudes of other people, things that are out of our control, and things that we may be misperceiving in the first place. There are so many things that can affect a bad attitude that we need to look deeper for a simple but wide reaching solution.

As difficult as it may be, we have to take responsibility for our attitude. The way we react or respond to situations is ultimately a decision of our will. It is a choice. Our attitude is not an emotional reaction to outside stimuli. It is an internal decision. We cannot maintain a bad attitude unless we decide to keep it going. Whatever happens on the outside, we have a choice to make and are able to decide how we will respond on the inside.

The truth stinks, doesn’t it? If attitude is rooted in a decision we make about how to view life and whatever it throws at us then we never have an excuse for a bad attitude. No matter what happens to us, something worse has happened to someone else. It rarely ever is the actual end of the world no matter how near the end we think we are. People have been predicting the end of the world since time began. When the world actually ends, then we can talk about the appropriate response. Until then, whatever we do today we will have to live with tomorrow.

The trick then is learning how to make a rational, logical decision even when our emotions and circumstances are out of whack. It takes mental discipline. As much as we might dislike even hearing the term “mental discipline” there are times that we have to be reminded that we are, after all, grown-ups. That doesn’t mean we have to always act our age, but it means we should have learned by now how to exercise a little self control.

The best way to stop a bad attitude is to quit cold turkey. As soon as we are aware that our outlook is a sour one, we must change our minds. Decide to think differently about the situation. When we do change the way we think it will surprise us how quickly our emotions fall in line with our mind. The mind is a powerful thing, and emotions will follow our thinking.

This does not mean that we should be simplistic about complicated circumstances. It does mean that we can train ourselves to think and respond to difficulty with some amount of rationality instead of irrationally reacting and flying off the handle every time something doesn’t go the way we thought it would or should.

There are enough people out there with bad attitudes. The good news is that we don’t have to be one of them. While a bad attitude is contagious, a good attitude is even more powerful in affecting the people around us. What starts with a single decision in a day in the life of the average Joe can indeed change the world. Imagine the difference it would make if every person you met today had a good attitude. And if that thought sickens you, you might need an intervention of sorts to get help quitting your bad attitude. Be careful. There are plenty of optimists out there who will willingly intervene and help you quit cold turkey. And that really is something to be thankful for.

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Energy Awareness Month

Never confuse motion with action. – Benjamin Franklin

October is Energy Awareness Month. The suggestion is that we should all take the time to contemplate conservation, renewable energy sources, and responsible energy use. We should be aware of our own energy consumption and should find opportunities to get involved in spreading the word about green energy solutions.

For our purposes let’s focus on the energy it takes to live life and do our jobs. We see people around us who range from being full of energy to those who may need to have their pulse checked. There are work-a-holics, and there are those who are probably allergic to work. From frantic to lazy, active to comatose, engaged to out-to-lunch, every one of us needs to learn to conserve, renew, and responsibly use our energy.

Our energy is the most quickly sapped when we fail to deal properly with stress. We overextend ourselves, we work harder than we have to due to inefficiency, and we take longer to recharge. The real trouble is that if we do not learn to be aware of our energy expenditures in the stress department, we may not realize how worked up and worn out we have become and we will eventually burn out if we do not correct our course.

Burnout is preceded by feelings of being out of control, emotional exhaustion, inability to focus, and poor performance. All of these factors drag us down and compound the problem. One leads to another until we feel trapped and can’t seem to find a way out. Vacation doesn’t help, because we know what is waiting for us when we get back. Straining our mental and physical reserves opens us up to being more prone to sickness, which also adds to the stress.

Unmanaged stress quickly spirals out of control. It affects every area of our life. It influences how we respond to the people around us, sets our mood, manipulates our attitude, and takes away our hope for improvement. Often when we try to deal with stress we end up doing things that are destructive, even though we think on the surface that what we are doing helps.

Then we look to one of two extremes. We either relax to the point that we begin to believe that we would feel better if we didn’t care so much and apathy sets in. Or we seek relief in excitement, be it sports, hobbies, or anything that gets the adrenaline flowing. The danger here is that if we do not deal with the root of the stress appropriately then we will need more and more excitement to cope. And that also accelerates burnout.

At times we do need to take a break and step back for a moment so that we can better see what is stressing us. Sometimes there is not much we can do about stress beyond correcting our attitude and deciding to do our best given the situation. But if we know what stresses us, that will help us find ways to deal with it instead of just letting it build up until we can’t handle it any longer.

When looking for the sources of stress, what we miss is that often it is not the work itself that stresses us. The single biggest stressor for most people is people. It is the people we live and work with! Work-a-holics are stressed out by those who work hard at hardly working. The more laid back among us are stressed out by those who need to lighten up and take a break. Managers are stressed by the mistakes of unreliable underlings, and employees would all do a better job if they had better managers. And we all know how to do the job better than the guy next to us. If people would just do it “my way” then everything would be fine.

Here we see the true root of stress. When we focus on ourselves, especially at the expense of others, we set ourselves up to fail. Instead of working as a team, we become a Lone Ranger. While this sounds very American, it actually undermines our attitude and performance. A selfish focus leads us to duplicate effort, complicate procedures, and limits our ability for positive growth. Successful leaders have learned that it is not all up to them. As leaders, they delegate. They surround themselves with a team of people who are good at what they do, and as a cohesive unit, they succeed due in large part to offering proper motivation and encouragement.

For Energy Awareness Month, let’s take the time to examine what it is that saps our energy, stresses us out, and affects our ability to succeed. Then let’s look for positive and constructive ways to correct course and guard against burnout. The truth is, if we burn out, we are not the only person affected. Even if we are a Lone Ranger, someone, somewhere is depending on us to do our job. Let’s not let them down. Let’s not let ourselves down. Let’s conserve, renew, and responsibly use the gifts, talents, and energy we have been given so that together we might all experience success.

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