By John R. Graham
Those who own a business hold their peers in high regard. Someone may be disliked personally, but they get a thumbs-up when it comes to running a company. Those who survived the recession deserve a special commendation. Only the naïve outsider thinks otherwise.
Having had a marketing services business for 35 years, I have had what seems to me as an unusual opportunity to work closely with nearly 200 business owners, some for several decades. As time passed, I accumulated a wealth of impressions, which emerged as something of a Business Owner Profile. To put it into a few words, these people can be dogged, determined, creative, confident and surprisingly risk averse, as well as obstinate, ignorant, bull headed and arrogant (to a fault). Yet, while others worry, they are out teeing off. While others see obstacles and even roadblocks, they visualize new paths.
There’s much more than just figuring out what makes business owners tick. Figuring out how to go about doing business with them is a challenge, frankly, there are some who are worth staying away from, believe me. Here are a few thoughts that might be helpful when working with business owners:
1. A strong need for achievement. Some (quite a few, actually) are so intertwined with their business that they become the de facto logo. Their picture is everywhere and on everything. Try to help them understand the importance of focusing on the customer, they may say they hear it, but they don’t get it.
In reality, the business is their mirror image. More to the point, they are the business. They may even talk about having a “great team,” but deep down inside, they know it wouldn’t work without number one.
A number of researchers over the past 50 years have pointed out that entrepreneurial types have a need for achievement, which suggests that being “the point person” may not be ego-driven, but a way to show the world what they have accomplished. So talking about their business is really talking about them.
2. Driven by ideas, not risks. Contrary to popular thought, most business owners aren’t gamblers. As a matter of fact, research suggests that they neither seek nor run from risk.
A smart, astute 19 year-old said he wanted to take over a faltering family business. Instead of selling it, his father gave him two years to turn it around. Amazing as it may seem, he did just that –– while going to college.
As he tells the story, the possibility of failure didn’t seem to enter his mind. Quite the contrary, he analyzed the situation, identified what needed to be done and was confident that he could make it work.
This is a business owner who possesses superior analytical skills. He can push everything else out of his mind while pursuing an objective with the confidence that he can reach it. And when you’re working with him, you’d better focus on what he wants to accomplish!
3. An abhorrence for planning. For some business owners, it seems as if planning is their enemy. It kills the spark, inhibits spontaneity and takes the fun out of business. When someone puts a plan on the table, the owner may appear to embrace it, but as those around him have learned, it never goes anywhere.
Rather than a road map for helping everyone catch the vision and share in the dream, it’s viewed as a threat, draining the blood out of “a great idea” waiting to be born. It’s no wonder that entrepreneurs often feel alone.
One business owner wanted a marketing plan in the worst way. “We really need it,” he said with passion. Much time and effort was devoted to developing and refining it. But once it was accepted, that was the end. From then on, he was at the helm of the marketing boat.
4. The staying-on-track problem. If there is one immutable rule in marketing, it’s consistency, consistency, consistency. Well, if that’s true, then far too many business owners missed the memo. They possess what might be called a “Mexican jumping bean” mentality. They get bored easily, so it’s always on to the next thing.
They tend to be idea people. They’re always coming up with something new, which more often than not, is completely irrelevant and “off message.” They are constantly changing the focus, although they see it as expanding on “the Vision.”
Many have pointed out that an entrepreneur is essential to founding a business, but after the initial growth stage of perhaps eight years, a shift to a managerial style should occur if the company is to continue growing. This is another way of saying that someone needs to bring discipline and order to it. Not surprising, those around the “Big Guy” may see it quite differently.
To work successfully with a business owner, it’s critical to know where the company is at the moment.
5. “My way or the highway.” While entrepreneur-driven operations often possess a sense of excitement (or drama), everyone knows that criticizing the “Big Guy’s” ideas is a huge mistake, perhaps closely akin to treason.
On one occasion, the head of 400,000-member organization and the epitome of the “Big Guy” with an awesome title that reinforced it, asked me to prepare a mailing to the members regarding a credit card program he had just authorized.
After getting acquainted with the background materials, my marketing mind took over and I raised question regarding the validity of the project, which appeared to me to be flawed and destined for failure.
Instantly, the client erupted from his chair (he was truly a big guy) and pounded his fist on the desk. “If you don’t want to do it, I’ll get someone who will,” he stated with vigor. I dutifully did it. Nothing more was ever said even though the program failed, miserably.
6. Little interest in the facts. On several occasions, we suggested to the head of another national organization that surveying the members could be an effective way to obtain feedback for designing programs and activities that they would want to embrace.
Each time we brought it up, the head of the group, a bright guy, instantly dismissed surveying as “too expensive,” an easy way to get it off the table quickly. “If I call eight or 10 key people, they’ll tell me what we need to know,” he said. At one point when the subject was raised yet again, he acknowledged having “a difficult time with surveys.”
If business owners have a weak spot, this is it. They’re ready to enter the fray armed with their intuition, self-confidence and persuasive powers. Gathering the facts is seen as a needless delay.
If you fall for that, there may be trouble ahead.
7. Everything becomes a sales pitch. If there were ever any words that deserve to be banned from the language of business, “sales pitch” should have an honored place at the very top of the list. Inevitably, a “sales pitch” is about what we want to accomplish. It encapsulates our goals and objectives. It’s all about us.
Unfortunately, this is far from an isolated instance. It’s a pervasive pattern with business owners and other salespeople. One company president takes this to an extreme –– and he is far from alone. “We’re growing every month and have been for two years,” he announces ever so boldly. It’s his mantra, the number one topic of conversation. That said, it’s difficult trying to get him to pin down the figures.
Is it any wonder that “price purchasing” has become almost the norm? If price is the only significant differentiator, then the low price wins. As it turns out, a sales-driven strategy becomes little more than an exercise in undercutting the competition.
Rather than an indication of strength, those who are sales pitch prone do themselves and the company they represent a huge injustice as they reveal for all to see that their only interest is self-interest.
It’s second nature for business owners to be preoccupied with their own company. It’s part of them. They breathe life into it and see it through troubled times and well-deserved successes.
What business owners know best is the business, so it’s understandable that the business is their primary perspective. When it comes down to it, their interest in the customer is figuring out how to get the order.
Most business owners want to be respected for running good operations. Unfortunately, at times they can be their own worst enemy by letting themselves interfere with the way they do business.
John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm. He writes for a variety of business publications and speaks on business, marketing and sales issues. Contact: 40 Oval Road, Quincy, MA 02170; 617-328-0069; firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: grahamcomm.com
Business owners can be their own worst enemies at times
By John R. Graham