Collaborating with clients, a survey is designed to identify why business is won or lost. Quantitative and qualitative questions are asked that focus on the decision process, key factors, vendor perceptions, the competition, and trends that drive buying decisions. Interview write-ups and a PowerPoint summary with aggregated data provide a comprehensive view. Clients often repeat the studies for trending purposes.
A client is upgrading their core product offering to improve the user interface, business intelligence, and ease of integration. The client would like to assess the loyalty of the customer base, likelihood of upgrade, and the risk of opening up the business for competing companies. SRM evaluated the current perception of the product, attitudes towards the vendor, emerging needs, and willingness to spend.
When teams are contemplating product development decisions with finite resources, SizedRight Marketing (SRM) can assist by testing the attractiveness of product concepts. Obstacles for adoption, customer pain points, installed base strength, and the attractiveness of existing technologies are just some of the issues quantified through market conversations. When new technologies have been introduced, SRM can assist in gaining traction by identifying attributes of likely adopters and characterizing the adoption experience.
SRM tested the perceived value of a medical device that would travel with the patient from the operating room to recovery to the nursing floor. Physicians and nurses were interviewed. Cost, ease of use, efficacy, alternative protocols and technologies were discussed. Risks were assessed along with identifying the target niche for early adoption.
This is becoming a more frequent request as clients are discovering that service satisfaction is tightly correlated with customer loyalty. SRM assists clients by measuring services performance. The engagement begins by designing a survey for the particular client and the markets they serve. Topics may include: Quality and organization of kick-off, implementation timelines, training, team responsiveness, on premise versus cloud experience, role clarity and accountability, change management, skill deficits, and communication. Interview write-ups and a PowerPoint summary help point the client to how to improve the experience.
A client asked SRM whether customer loyalty was being eroded by poor customer satisfaction. Three areas were of particular concern: Initial project kick-off, change order requests, and user acceptance testing (UAT). A study yielded qualitative and quantitative feedback along with actionable findings for improving services satisfaction.
SizedRight Marketing provides assistance to companies performing due diligence in the course of an acquisition. Whether it surveying the installed base of an acquiree, testing the messaging and value proposition, or performing value chain analysis, there are many ways that SRM can support the process.
Is a target company's customer base a good fit for the acquiring company? Do customers perceive a synergistic product offering? SRM studied an acquisition for the media industry that yielded a report on technology needs, current satisfaction levels, emerging needs, and customer priorities going forward. No mention was made of a possible acquisition.
Is the message clear, digestible and responding to the pain points felt by customers? SRM helps answer these questions so that a crisp on-target value proposition results. Questions are designed to test whether the message resonates, how it differs from the competition and whether the proof points are sufficient. A key goal is to create a value proposition that is easy to share and memorable.
A medical device manufacturer had five attributes that were being tested to be front and center for a newly rolled-out product. A study revealed that only three of the five attributes really mattered to customers, and of those three, one attribute was far more significant. The revised value proposition paved the way for a highly successful reintroduction of the product to the market.
In another study, a cloud vendor had three attributes that defined their value proposition. Customers had almost no recall of the value proposition even though the vendor's sales reps had recently and explicitly discussed it with them. The study revealed that only one of the three attributes actually mattered. Messaging has been revised.
What can be done when companies are faced with too many day-to-day decisions being floated to the top? How can organizations empower people on the front line to confidently make decisions so that speed and nimbleness are maintained? Senior management is then able to focus elsewhere. "Simple Rules" is a program geared for cross-functional teams as they work to identify key objectives of operations and current barriers that impede progress. The team works to redefine rules and redesign processes. The result: Increased empowerment and better workflow across groups.
A vendor was experiencing operational roadblocks in developing their cloud offering. Whether it was the provisioning process, migrating an application into the cloud, security and compliance testing, or troubleshooting, the engineering teams felt confusion, redundancy, and conflicting operational goals. SRM conducted workshops to achieve consensus on objectives, identify major roadblocks, and recommend process changes to improve the cloud operation and team satisfaction.
Clients engage SRM in either developing or assessing their business plans for maximum success. While there are many aspects to the assessment, three primary screens applied are: Pragmatic, Focused and Scalable. This engagement is usually done with the senior management team, across functional areas and strong input from supporting teams (e.g., product management, sales, services, IT, HR). Critical to the review is SWOT analysis, key trend assessment, competitor and customer segmentation, and financial modeling. The deliverable is a clear business plan with high achievability.
A client needed assistance in developing their five-year plan. SRM worked across team silos of Sales, R&D, Finance, IT, Operations and Services to manage conflicting interests and develop agreed-upon objectives. Key market trends were selected as the focal point going forward that would improve competitive positioning and yield much needed focus. In a "trim and shape" mode, scenarios were reviewed for budgetary soundness and "prune-ability" of parts of the portfolio. The 6-month engagement resulted in a concrete plan that the team blessed and proceeded to implement.
Four years ago, in the course of doing win loss studies, a new factor emerged in customers' assessments that SizedRight Marketing has termed "Vendor as a Good Partner." Jill Ebstein noted how companies are viewing their investments and platform decisions over a longer period, and there is more talent parity between a company and its vendors. The result is that companies view "partnering capabilities" as a prime factor during vendor evaluations. SRM can assess how the market views a vendor's partnership skills, and also help companies assess their track record in selecting strong partners. Common to both segments: What do we strengthen our partnering skills over time?
SRM can assist clients with a communication plan that includes website, press releases, case studies and other social media outlets.
SizedRight Marketing has been consulting with clients for over 15 years.
A big source of pride is the return of clients, even as their careers move in different directions,
with different companies. A few lessons learned along the way have shaped how SRM engages with clients. Here are some of SRM's principles:
Clean Current Data All engagements start with a
collection of data that frames current experiences whether it is
inside a company or outside in the market.
Good data challenges biases and helps establish common ground.
Step-by-Step Approach SRM supports clients from idea inception,
to market launch, to messaging, to measurement and optimization with focus and precision throughout.
Speed is important, but getting it right is more so, one step at a time.
Team Centered The best ideas happen when the team is well aligned and consensus is achieved.
Every engagement involves tapping into management and staff expertise throughout the process as actionable findings are identified.
Pragmatic SizedRight Marketing prefers the consistent hitting of singles and doubles over the occasional home runs.
Business plans, new business ventures, and bold initiatives should be firmly anchored in reality, whether that is defined by resources,
team capabilities, or the competitive landscape.
Stretch goals are great, as long there is a reasonable chance of success.
Jill Ebstein, SRM's founder, has held a variety of entrepreneurial positions in marketing and management for both small and Fortune 500 companies and has a keen eye for workable strategies based on the strengths of the client team.
Jill received her BS from Washington University, and her MBA from Wharton and spent her early post-business school years working for large companies after a stint in management consulting. She was part of CitiCorp's team that sought to expand beyond traditional banking, followed by a decade at Hewlett Packard's Medical Products Group where she worked in business development, strategic planning and marketing.
Jill eventually sought smaller company experiences and moved to Hologic (midcap medical device company) and SafeScience, a biotech startup, until she decided to go as small as she could. In 2000 she founded SizedRight Marketing. In 2015, Jill published a book, At My Pace, which seeks to expand the lean-in conversation. For information about At My Pace , visit www.atmypacebook.com.
The "secret sauce" of Jill's work is the ability to achieve team consensus by providing the 30,000-foot view of the business while simultaneously drilling down at the ground level. This constant toggle between strategic direction and company capabilities helps ensure that plans are rooted in reality. Jill's ultimate goal is to become a trusted partner to her clients as she uses data and working groups to create a plan that will inspire.
Below is a sampling of comments offered by the clients of Jill Ebstein and SizedRight Marketing. In many instances, Jill has served the individuals listed below at multiple companies as they have moved on to new venues. The companies are not listed for that reason. Jill Ebstein has worked with a wide range of organizations, from start-ups to Fortune 100, that cover the medical device/biotech, technology, and services industries.
I've used SizedRight Marketing for years to help me gain the true voice of the customer. Jill does more than deliver survey results. She provides valuable insights behind trends and preferences, so we can make more confident business decisions.
-Rob Quinn, Director Product Marketing
Over the last decade, I have requested Jill Ebstein's assistance at multiple companies, covering a wide range of work.
Jill has helped me with M&A support - five acquisitions to date - as well as to better understand changing industry dynamics.
I have repeatedly used Jill's services to conduct win loss studies in support of sales organizations so that they can learn and improve their performance.
Jill offers consistent, high value support across complex organizations.
Jill worked directly with our CEO to lead our senior management team through a strategic planning process.
Working with a wide variety of disciplines and personalities, she worked closely with each team member to
understand individual perspectives and developed a consensus-driven process for the business strategy.
In the end, the plan had the enthusiastic support of the entire team.
-Paul Bleicher, Founder / Chairman
Through Jill's collaborative and experienced way, she was able to help our team overcome a
culture of silos and focus on some key objectives - an on-boarding playbook, and improved training and mentoring.
The result was some much needed change in team culture, and we continue to reap the benefits of her work and our improved team cohesion.
-Paul Lake, Sr. Director of Cloud Operations
Jill Ebstein is a quick study and she comes with great interpersonal skills to help us reach strategic decisions.
Jill used her communication skills to help the CEO articulate and share strategic decisions company-wide.
Resource decisions, the acquisition plan, and the sales and marketing strategy
were all better as a result of Jill's work, and she was a fair and neutral arbiter throughout.
-Rodger Weismann, CFO
Jill Ebstein asked the tough questions, and then helped us find our own answers.
Her business acumen, people skills, and intuition yielded productive collaboration and impressive results.
She is so understated and skillful in her way that we didn't even realize until after she worked with us how much we had gained.
-Lee Gardenswartz, Ph.D., Principal
Jill is a high-value strategic planning consultant and business coach. Each time she worked with us she helped our team identify our key business priorities, set relevant goals and then create an actionable plan to achieve them. She was able to bring three disparate thinkers together to be on the same page and pull in the same direction so that we could make real progress.
-Anita Rowe, Ph.D., Principal
I first worked with Jill 10 years ago as Director of Corporate Communications.
Jill was one of the few writers we trusted to interact directly with our corporate clients while developing
customer stories and white papers. Jill has an uncanny ability to get people to talk -
asking insightful questions that quickly translate into unique value
propositions and "Ah, Ha" moments. Recently, I worked with Jill on a book she was putting together (At My Pace ),
where I served as one of thirty-six contributors. Her magic has not diminished.
-Gretchen Dock, Director of Marketing Communications
Through several engagements, I've needed Jill's assistance to provide a measure of confidence when making decisions under uncertainty.
SizedRight Marketing's support ranged from marketing analyses where Jill was more practiced to a new kind of "simple rules"
tool around team dynamics and decision-making. In all engagements, Jill combined data driven rigor with practical execution
that instilled confidence in all participating.
-Tim Rochford, CTO
Jill has a unique ability to instantly connect to people on a personal level, and get them to admit inner truths.
She rapidly acclimates to different corporate cultures, and reliably offers pragmatic, down to earth advice that can really make a difference.
And she always makes meetings fun. She's a pro's pro.
-Wayne Kubick, Clinical Research Technologist
Using Jill Ebstein's approach to collecting customer feedback, we were able to identify the critical issues for the management team to focus on, and more importantly, take the guess work and individual biases out of the conversation, and replace it with objective data. It helped us get on the same page and develop our plan moving forward.
Michael Davies, Sr. VP Global Sales and Partnerships
At My Pace is a series I began in 2015. I choose a topic, provide guidelines and significant editing support to a range of contributors that I find to participate. The people I select are not famous or ripped from the headlines. They are every day, ordinary people like myself who have a voice to raise, and lessons to share, and would most likely not share them without my prompting. My goal is that through sharing our stories, we can expand the conversation, and add insights into areas that are very important in the 21st century – work/life integration, family health, autonomy and creativity, to name a few. While At My Pace is a passion project that I do in off hours, it comes from the same set of skills that I apply to business. I interview people, listen hard, and help them frame their experience.
To date, I have three books out, and they are as follows:
Book 1: Ordinary People Tell Their Extraordinary Stories (2015)
This book expands the lean-in conversation created by Sheryl Sandberg. Some people may be on the autobahn going full speed ahead. Others might be on a winding road full of twists, turns and even rest tops. The goal of this book is to celebrate the range of choices we make and to reserve judgment on ourselves and others.
Book 2: Lessons From Our Mothers (2016)
This book features men and women from a wide range of ages and demographics and it asks, "What is one lesson you take from your mom that has made a significant impact?" Some lessons are positive, while others are "not to". This book allows us to share our gratitude and heal some old wounds.
Book 3: Twenty-Somethings Finding Their Way (2018)
This book challenges the conventional views of millennials by asking contributors to share their goals, experiences, and missteps along the way. A survey was also conducted to profile their attitudes and preferences. Readers will be heartened by the thoughtful, and purpose-driven stories as our twenty-somethings seek to find meaning and achievement as they enter the workforce. I hope this book helps expand the conversation across generations and provide support to those in turmoil by realizing that others have shared the same challenges.
The At My Pace series is designed to be an easy read with short pieces that facilitate meaningful conversations. I have taken these books into corporate settings, community settings, synagogues and professional associations. An animated discussion is common as readers exchange views and experiences.
For more information, visit http://www.atmypacebook.com/
A funny thing happened on the way to the market…
At SizedRight Marketing (SRM) we interview customers for a living and find out lots of interesting things about how they make decisions, what they toil over in considering the future, and in particular, how they select vendors that provide lasting solutions to help form the foundation of their organization going forward. In doing this, we have witnessed many emerging and declining trends over the years, but one recent theme has emerged so loud and clear that it is worthy of further study.
We've titled the theme, "Vendor as a Good Partner". In making their decision as to which vendor to select, customers are increasingly paying attention to something softer than price, scalability, or product functionality to name a few popular attributes. They are asking the questions, "Can I go the distance with this vendor? Will they act collaboratively? Share some of the risk? Not point fingers when something goes bad?" Now a contrarian might point out that relationships have always mattered in the course of doing business. Very true, but the difference now is how people articulate importance of good partners and its value relative to the many other factors that enter into their decision-making.
Consider two recent studies done by SRM in different industries where respondents were asked to rate the importance of select attributes, on a scale of 1 to 5, low to high, in vendor evaluations. "Vendor as a Good Partner" (VGP) shared top billing along with product functionality and application integration in both:
Exhibit 1: Rating of Attributes on a Scale of 1 to 5, Low to High for Vendor Selection
Study # 1
Vendor as a Good Partner
Direction/Strategy of Company
Curious about the prominence of VGP in customer's minds, we asked respondents to explain what has changed and we heard the following explanations:
A Growing Complexity in Business Necessitates a New Type of Partnering
""The journey to change the financial applications and the landscape of a company like ours is very complex. We have to work together and not blame each other. We need to be able to sit around the table for open discussions. A new governance model is needed to create and support a true partnership. "
Tapping into Vendors' Expertise and Receiving Guidance is Critical
"We made the decision 3 years ago to go with Product X. Ironically, I'd care about different things today. I would care about flexibility. I would care about getting things done in short order. And I would want someone who is a true partner. With all the customers Company X has, they don't seem to be able to offer more guidance. We don't seem to get any benefit from their vast experience."
Flexibility and Risk Sharing Has Become Essential
"The decision criteria are different. The battle ground is now being won on: What specifically the vendor offers, cost of ownership, turn-around time, road map and percent execution against the road map, and the quality of the partnership. Will the vendor act as a strategic partner with flexibility and risk taking that is implicit?"
In a Virtual World, Virtual Partners Become Extensions of Ourselves
"We depend upon our partners to do their job and be part of our team. As a small company, we are largely virtual, and limited in manpower. Our partners fill a critical gap in our company's operation."
Our conversations indicate that vendors increasingly are becoming important for more than their product. Furthermore, companies are explicitly being evaluated for their ability to be a good partner and to function as a linchpin on a range of issues - security, compliance, platform development, cloud deployment, data repositories, application integration, services implementation and more.
Peeling Back the Layers of VGP
SizedRight Marketing is investigating the explicit needs and best practices that will form the basis for effective partnering. Our goal is to better understand the hows and whys of customer-vendor collaboration and to showcase best practices as well as the costs of failure. In the course of this investigation, we seek to answer many questions including:
VGP Champions: In today's business environment, who really cares about VGP and why? What specifically do they care about? Risk Sharing? Technical collaboration? Strategic alignment? Trust and flexibility? Other?
Best in Class: What companies stand out as being particularly good partners? How do they exhibit VGP? What in their culture that enables this?
Costs of Failure: What are the quantitative and qualitative costs experienced by companies who have "bad partners?" How long is recovery? Is a bad outcome predictable?
Evaluation and Monitoring: How should companies evaluate VGP? Is it a "gut feel" or are metrics involved? In today's culture of reviews and ratings, is there a place to turn? And, do some companies routinely monitor vendors for their partnering capabilities? If so, how helpful is it?
Duration Metrics: What constitutes average length of customers / vendor relationships today? How does that time span differ based on effort and sophistication of the governance model?
The Vendor's View: What obstacles do vendors face in developing strong partnerships with customers? How do they assess the partnership, anticipate problems and take corrective action? How important is the issue of partnership capabilities relative to other core competencies they nurture?
Answers to these questions, and more, can help form a more informed and disciplined process to building long term effective partnerships that will benefit both customer and vendor alike. We encourage readers to stay tuned. If you are interested in exploring these issues with us, please contact
"We're sure we've got a hit," said my client. "The problem is that the market is not responding as we expected." I listened to their version of events: an innovative technology was introduced that allows frozen blood to be thawed, stored, and available for transfusion much longer than any device in the market. My client's military customers said this was important. The engineers worked hard to build a better mouse trap which was then introduced to the market. To my client's surprise, hospitals were not buying the new device. My client had "hit a wall." Hence, their call to me.
When we hit a wall with our customers, the thing to do is to talk to them and find out why. I can do this more easily than my client because I am not invested in any particular answer. I just want to understand the customer's reality. So, I engaged hospital customers in a conversation. What were their issues in terms of thawing frozen blood for transfusions? How much waste was involved? These conversations were very revealing. I found out that a longer shelf life for "thawed" blood was not important because hospitals were conservative in their depletion of frozen blood inventory. However, they were experiencing a shortage of trained technicians and the current equipment was hard to use. My client's new device had a "push and go" feature so that a technician need not "baby-sit" the equipment while it did its job. Now this was an innovation that hospitals cared about.
I met with my client to share the news. "The military and the traditional hospital market have very different needs," I said. I revealed how hospitals care about the user-friendly and efficient aspects of the system and that the military's needs reflected larger geographies and acute transfusion needs during combat. Perhaps because we live in such a technology-driven world, it is hard to believe that something as soft as "easy to use" could win the day. The team was surprised but went with the findings. A repositioning effort was executed stressing extended shelf life to the military, and ease of use to hospitals. And then the hit they thought they smelled came. It was another example marketers frequently experience of the power of understanding the customer.
There are many reasons we have difficulty getting on the same page with our customers. It can be as simple as:
We don't engage in a conversation with our market: This was the case of my client who did not ask the hospital segment what it valued and assumed it was the same as the military. Customers are like ice cream - they come in many flavors.
We don't ask the right questions: A colleague of mine launched a business based on the answer to a question, "Would you like a website to help profile your personal health risks, so that you can more actively manage them?" The answer was an unequivocal yes. The question that was not asked, was "How much will you pay?" That became the struggle and the demise of the company.
Customers are confused and don't know what they want: Especially with new inventions, customers can't always tell you what they want, making it virtually impossible to be on their page. Whole languages may have to be created to engage in conversation. I was in New York when Citicorp introduced "ATMs" (automated teller machines) which the market was very cool to in the beginning. John Reed, who championed the technology and later became Citicorp's CEO, bet his career that ATMs would eventually rule to the benefit of customers and Citicorp alike. Indeed, customers became less confused, and ATMs became the banking standard with their inherent efficiency and 24/7 access.
Our customers know what they want but we don't like the answer: We have all ignored feedback when the news was not to our liking, at work or at home. At home the topics can range from the mundane (what music should we listen to in the car?) to the more substantial (what should our family vacation be?). My take-away? Don't ask the question if you are either afraid of or won't act on the answer.
Speaking of customers, I've heard loud and clear from my "On the Same Page" readers, that you want some helpful hints, if not answers, as to how we get on the same page. The feedback given was that the topic definitely resonates, and the humor was appreciated, but answers are better than mere musings. While I can't always provide answers, fortunately we are on the topic of customers (a topic that by training I am comfortable with), so here are my "same page" tips for the day:
The conversations need to be ongoing and incremental in revealing "their world." Whole pictures are seldom given at once, and if they are, be suspicious. This applies to our children too. My daughter suggested that I write an article on parents' expectations regarding their children. Why? Because my daughter and I have had numerous conversations about 1) grades and what they mean 2) how high to shoot in goal setting and 3) achieving balance. While no definitive answers have emerged, we usually understand each other (far better than had I said, "Daughter, we are going to sit down now and discuss school performance, college goals, and where you can find some occasional down time…Now let's get started.") In business too, customers often need to mull through new ideas, or rework old ideas before they can give us the insights we need.
In testing for a response, take ideas out of the stratosphere and make them real, and easy to answer. Which question is better? "If I gave you this widget, how would you use it, and would it improve your operation?" or, "How will this widget improve your company's overall performance?" The second question not only has built-in bias but will not elicit very specific information compared to question one.
Finally, be patient. Answers don't always come right away, and we need to build some slack into the fact-gathering process. To borrow an analogy from the game of tennis, a well-hit ball is more about timing than brute force. Muscling through an answer is not usually a good thing. Real conversations with no built in biases, questions that wet our curiosity, and above all superior listening skills will get us to our customers' page.
I was told of a commencement speaker sometime back, who charged his graduates with, "This is the generation that will go to their graves with their
options open." This should not be considered a criticism from my vantage point. After all, so many choices exist for how to dedicate one's life, and
how does a twenty-something year old even begin to pick? Sure the economic climate has temporarily reduced the choices, but the question of how to
chart a career, contribute to society, and build financial independence weigh heavily on our college children today.
This point was brought home recently when my college senior had to decide whether to apply to graduate school or take a gap year; if Sarah applied, what specific program should she aim for, given that neurobiology was her general interest; should she add a pursuit in public health; and seeming trivial only to me, how would ultimate Frisbee fit into her plans.
While my husband and I were trying to figure out how to weigh in on these decisions, her sister who finished her freshman year in engineering, came home for a summer internship. Granted Naomi had only one year of college under her belt, but she too was pondering whether her future held an MBA, and whether she would focus on medical applications.
In both cases, what made our job easier as parents, is that both daughters could point to adults they respected who could offer a valuable perspective. In Sarah's case, a professor had hired her one summer to work in his lab, where her love of fruit flies was born. What began as an employer has grown into a mentor, and he helps Sarah in ways we never could. He connected her to the lab of a former student to continue her pursuit of fruit fly research during the school year, and he serves as a valuable sounding board as she looks ahead.
For Naomi, her experience this summer in the lab helped her to see how engineering tackles real life issues, and that she is a pragmatist to her core. She also was blessed to work in the lab of a very talented scientist who counseled her on technical issues, but equally important, shared his story of how he got to where he was. When he thanked Naomi at the end of the summer for her contributions, it meant more than any praise a parent could offer. What Naomi learned, technical and non, will have ripple effects as she pursues her engineering studies.
These experiences have made me reminisce about my own mentors. Early in my career, one mentor taught me the importance of soft skills - beginning the day by doing a quick walk around and saying hello to everyone by name, and making it a priority to build cohesive teams. Using her words, "Strong teams seldom just happen." A different mentor at another firm counseled me to temper my unguarded enthusiasm and midwestern congeniality for the hallowed halls of corporate America, thereby adding a maturity and reserve to my manner. It was appropriate at the time and benefited both my clients and me. My favorite guidance, though, came from a swash-buckling manager who encouraged me to be bolder because as he said, "I have your back." And he did as I discovered the fun of boldness. Each mentor was critical to my growth and emerging confidence.
So, these days, when my children ask for advice, one of my nuggets is that they place themselves in an environment where capable, invested senior professionals can help be a guiding light. I tell them that beyond being conscientious and eager to learn, they need to value the building of relationships. That is, after all, what makes mentors want to mentor even though they are very busy. While valuing relationships may seem obvious to parents, to a generation fed on the virtues of efficiency and productivity, this gentle reminder seems necessary.
Interestingly, when I shared my thoughts on mentoring with friends, in preparation for writing this article, a universal and strong reaction was how mentors still shape their adult lives. The mentors they cited came in far more flavors. There was the newbie dog owner who shared how overwhelmed she felt until a seasoned dog-owner took her under his wings to provide valuable tips and training. Someone else shared the importance of her "spiritual mentor" to manage the stresses of life. A fellow-exerciser told me how her Pilates instructor has helped her feel healthier and more whole, and has become a center in her universe. So, it turns out that mentors can play critical roles, no matter the age.
For our children, navigating the roads that diverge in a forest of uncertainty does require a village. If we are lucky, they will find in that village a wise voice worth their trust - and that has the potential to make all the difference.
I am, to paraphrase Michael Lewis in The New, New Thing, a "serious business professional." I received my M.B.A from Wharton, worked at blue chip companies including Hewlett Packard and what was at the time CitiCorp, consulted for companies that paid good money for my help in diagnosing their business. I have, in short, spent considerable energy to hone my skills in business.
In my late 30's, when my kids became old enough that I could entertain a hobby one night a week that took me outside of business and family, I took up the game of tennis. I don't know what exactly drew me to the game but in the ensuing 4 years this hobby has bordered on a summertime obsession, as I try to develop my game both physically and mentally. In the course of this effort, I have been struck by how the essential lessons in tennis apply to business as well. Maybe they don't totally replace a Wharton education, but they can certainly improve work performance and overall joy. A small sampling of these tennis lessons follow.
Lesson 1: Play Loose and you will hit the ball better while exacting less toll on yourself. My Tennis Pro would remind me to hold the racquet looser, let my arms "hang like spaghetti", jump out my nervous energy, all with the goal of relaxing as my stroke unfolded. Playing loose is actually difficult, but makes a huge difference in a person's game. You conserve energy, and use your power more efficiently. Conversely, if you "tighten up", you are far more likely to miss the easy shot that would have won you the point; you swing with conviction, but the ball barely passes the service line.
Business Application: I have often noticed that when I speak in public, and I am comfortable with my topic or audience, my words flow, my humor works - in short I am "playing loose." Have you ever been part of a "task force" where the chemistry of the people weren't right, the tension was palpable and the expectation of failure filled the room? Conversely, how many times have great ideas occurred on a cocktail napkin when colleagues were having drinks and just relaxing. Why? They were playing loose.
Now the realities of business are that we can't always slip away to a bar (or a tennis court) so that we can play loose and solve our business dilemma. But we can recognize the symptoms of "tight play" and seek some relief when the answers aren't forthcoming. Relief can come in a variety of ways - humor, changes of venue, a reduction of pressure - so that performance can flow freely.
Lesson 2: Changing Your Mechanics Begins In Your Head But Culminates When Muscle Memory Occurs. Change is hard in all facets of life. In tennis, every novice will need to learn stroke mechanics to enable clean, consistent hitting. For example, I had to adjust my groundstrokes from a sideswipe to a "low to high" swing. I had to learn, in volleying, to "punch" rather than swing at the ball. In all cases, as I listened to my Tennis Pro, I would try to remember a brief word or phrase that captured what I needed to do. Phrases like "punch", "high toss" when serving, or "show shoulder" when working on my backhand would echo in my head and remind my muscles what they needed to do. In many cases, my muscles eventually reprogrammed themselves so that the mechanics happened naturally which then allowed me to tackle new challenges with new phrases attached. The "head" led and the "muscles" followed until muscle memory occurred.
Business Application: No individual in business is without weaknesses. Some people are too analytical, others too intuitive. Some managers have huge tempers; others never emote. Our limitations in business usually emanate from who we are as people, and are not so easily changed. However, we can begin by using our head to internalize a needed change, and after routine practice, some "muscle memory" will often occur. What begins as an act of consciousness evolves into more natural behavior.
I once had a boss with whom I shared a very candid, but supportive relationship. He was going for a huge promotion and stopped by my office before he went into his interviews. "Any advice?" Dan asked. I replied, "You are very talented, but your ego still gets ahead of you. You will be speaking to people whose egos are even larger than yours. Check your ego at the door, and speak to them about what you've learned over the last year. Think humble." Dan proceeded to his interviews thinking "humble" … "humble."…"act humble." He did get the job and I know from subsequent conversations with senior managers that his new manner played a large role. The good news was that Dan's internalization didn't end after the interview. He got the job, thanked me for the advice and then proceeded to present himself differently over the ensuing year. He was more real and of the people. Indeed some muscle memory had occurred after all.
Tennis Lesson 3: To be a winner, approach the net and play aggressively. Now a person doesn't mindlessly approach the net. The moment has to be right which in tennis begins typically with a deep baseline return that puts the opponent on the defensive. For me, when that moment occurs, I am often still standing at the baseline swapping groundstrokes which means a lost offensive opportunity. Working on my volleying skills and gaining confidence will hopefully allow me to play more aggressively.
Business Application: When you have your competitor on the run, it is not the time to opt for conservative action. Rather take advantage of your position, and play bold. Sitting back and enjoying the lead, can only breathe more life into those you want to defeat.
This lesson was brought home to me in business school when one of our first marketing cases involved a leading toy manufacturer, Fisher Price. Fisher Price was contemplating whether to switch from solid wooden toys that lasted forever to a new, plastic molded "ATV Space Explorer" that toddlers could ride. They wanted a lower price product line and a more contemporary feel. I argued boldly that they had been successful with their strategy to date so why change. The ATV Explorer turned out to be one of Fisher Price's most successful products -- a point brought home to me when I saw my nieces playing with it the following weekend. My marketing professor summed up the case by warning us about playing too conservative in business. The status quo is not an option if you want to remain strong.
Lesson 4: In developing your serves, the first should "go for broke" while your second serve should be reliable with a subtle twist. When you go for broke in a first serve, it can be because you are using more power, or you are trying to place it in a corner, or maybe you've put an unusual spin on the ball. Any one of those factors would make the serve potentially harder to return, but also more likely to result in a fault. The second serve should be dependable and do the basic job when the first one fails. As a player gets better, they can learn to do subtle things to a second serve which makes it harder to return without imposing undue risk.
Business Application: In business we have our stretch goals or "go-for-broke" strategy which we can achieve if everything works as planned. For example, your strategy requires retaining key personnel, achieving an R&D breakthrough, developing operational efficiencies and growing revenues. If any one of those parameters doesn't hold, a "fault" is likely. Now comes the second serve - more grounded in reality and average capabilities. It is a high probability plan that keeps the lights on and allows you to continue working on developing your "first serve." As the organization matures, you might be able to add a twist to the contingency plan that keeps the competition off balance.
Lesson 5: In the order of what you work on to develop a good groundstroke game, first is consistency over net, then hitting deep, then placement, and finally power (called "pace"). Immature players, and particularly men, like to lead by hitting the ball hard even if it means that a high percentage go into the net. It is amazing how successful a player can be by consistently getting the ball over the net. Then, if the player adds hitting deep, it is all that much harder to "nail" the return.
Business Application: As much as we like to feel that we are in a "sexy" business, or shooting for the moon, "steady" will often win the race. That doesn't mean we shouldn't be trying to improve our skills so that we can master a variety of techniques and outperform with elegance, but step one is still to do the basics well. From there, we can build a broader, richer game. We should not delude ourselves into trying to play with more power than we can reliably manage.
Lesson 6: When you have blown a 40-love lead and are now at deuce, step away from the feeling of defeat and take one point at a time. I was in a game recently against my husband where I was up 40-love, and he beat me. I had been trying all summer to take a game from him and this one felt like the one. After I lost that game, the wind was completely taken from me and I found it hard to recover. When you suffer such setbacks on the court, you need to step away, try to relax, and contain your focus to the next point.
Business Application: In almost every business, there will be setbacks and defeats. How we "take our lickings" says a lot about what kind of business we will be able to grow. If we sulk and feel self-pity, we deserve the beating. A winner will take it in stride, learn from the mistakes and march on. Hewlett Packard taught me this lesson well. In 1989, my first year at HP, its stock was trading in the 20s and employees had lost faith. Furthermore, IBM was on a roll. Dave Packard visited plants across the country to hear from the people what was wrong. He learned that people were not feeling empowered as he had meant them to feel, and that the "HP way" had become lost. His board and president set upon a path to rebuild the company and did they ever. As measured in terms of shareholder value, the stock has split numerous times since then and is trading in the Mid 100s.
Yes, tennis holds many lessons for us, on and off the court. It is a game whose universal truths can help us in many facets of life.