Compassionate Selfishness

Ever heard this story?

A man is walking along a beach where thousands of starfish have been washed onto the sand. He sees another man, scooping and bending, then hurling something out to sea again and again. When he catches up, he sees that the man is throwing marooned starfish into the water.

“There are too many to save,” said the first man. “What you’re doing is meaningless.”

The second man flings another starfish into the water, looks at the first man, and smiles. “It certainly meant a great deal to that one.”

If that seems entirely too New Age and hippie-dippie to you, maybe you’ll like this story better:

Two guys are hiking and they see a grizzly bear, who starts to chase them. The first guy starts running.

“What are you doing?” shouts the second guy. “You can’t outrun a grizzly.”

“I don’t have to outrun the grizzly,” the first guy yells over his shoulder. “I just have to outrun you.”

It amuses me that these are essentially the same story.

Despite our earnest do-gooder yearnings, sometimes not everyone makes it. That’s not a reason to give up.

If you want to save the world, paralysis and inaction are completely unhelpful. You’ve got to just start somewhere. And you might as well start with yourself.

Survivor guilt

So many are having a brutally tough time finding a job, or they’re consumed by anxiety about keeping the job they have. I have many friends in those ranks.

A few have more work than they can handle. They’d be pretty relaxed except they have an awful lot to do. But they’re smiling. I have friends in those ranks, too.

One of the most pernicious barriers to success is avoiding moving from the first group to the second, because you feel bad for for surviving, or even thriving.

You feel bad for the guy closer to the bear.

The answer, however, is not to lie down and let the bear maul you too.

No one benefits if you fail

The bear doesn’t even actually want to eat you. It just feels that way, with his hot breath at the back of your neck and the graze of his claws against your shoulder blade.

You may run a business, or be employed in one. You may be trying to put your dreams into action and start a business. You may be among the ranks of the newly unemployed, trying to figure out how you’re going to stay afloat.

You may feel a lot like a stranded starfish, with no compassionate philosopher to fling you back into the comfortable sea.

Please know that no one benefits if you fail. You collect no karma points by standing idly by while the economic meltdown engulfs you. You have to get strong before you can help anyone else.

We all feel like sitting down and giving up sometimes. Then we stand up again and keep working. It’s what human beings do. It’s how we’ve come this far.

You have every right to survive. You have every right to rescue yourself.

Teach yourself. If you can’t afford the expensive guru classes, create your own class using the amazing amount of free information we have now. Write your own success map.

(You can start with one of these, if you like. They’re free, and honest-to-goodness, I won’t spam you or sell your email address to a Romanian meth lab.)

Keep going

Your success is going to be a lumpy, funny-looking little thing at first. Keep at it. Your first eBook, your first consulting client, your first blog posts, your first podcast might not be thrilling successes.

What other people call failures, you’ll learn to call fascinating experiments.

Learn from everything you do. Keep doing projects that are a little bigger. Keep figuring things out.

Quit talking to people who tell you it’s a pipe dream, or too risky. Or that it’s pointless, the starfish are too many and there’s only one of you. Right now, you can’t afford the luxury of pessimism and whining.

Learn to fling yourself back into the sea.

People who can help

There are thousands more fantastic resources for each one of these that sprang to mind this morning. Can you do me a favor and let us all know about your favorite survival tactic in the comments?

(More about the real starfish story here.)

Flickr Creative Commons image by Misserion

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Obey Me or Fail

Are you trying to do something hard and complicated? Maybe it’s lose weight or build a business online or improve your Star Wars origami skills.

Along the way, you might have sought out some advice. It could be advice from someone you know, free advice from blogs or the library, or a paid “how to” product.

If your Hard Thing has enough pieces that need to get put together, and you don’t quite know how all of those pieces work, the thing is probably giving you a giant headache.

Advice is swirling around you like a sandstorm. Each guru is competing for your attention and action. Everyone has a surefire system for you.

Your head gets more and more jammed up with conflicting information, even as the gurus are trying to get you unjammed by giving you a single path to take. They use their authority and a mountain of case studies to grab your attention and try to get you focused.

“Obey me or fail. It’s your choice.”

If you don’t learn how to navigate all this well-meaning advice, you risk getting too exhausted to go on before you’ve reached your goal.

Here are some tips I’ve found useful for finding a path through the wilderness:

Find one or two voices you trust

There are many paths up the mountain, but if you try to put a foot on every one, you’re not going to get very far.

(If anyone knows the source of that paraphrased quote, will you let me know in the comments?)

For almost every complex endeavor, there’s a limited number of things you need to do, but lots of different ways you might do them.

Whatever path you’re on, you’re going to get to a rocky, annoyingly difficult spot and think to yourself, “This can’t really be the path. This isn’t a path at all. Is that giant boulder really supposed to be right there in the middle of it?”

Sorry. There’s a giant boulder in the middle of all the paths. You can get a good map and a really spiffy compass, but you’re the one who has to scramble over the boulder. With very few exceptions, a new and better map will just take you a few miles out of your way to circle back to the same damned rock.

Find a map-maker you trust and follow her map to the end goal. It’s generally a good idea to make sure that someone else has used this map to get to where you’d like to go.

Starting over with a new map is hardly ever quicker, even though it’s always tempting.

Create cycles of action and learning

Learning and taking action are two very different modes. If you’re going to do your Hard Thing, you want to honor them both.

Action without learning is usually fruitless. It’s too likely to leave you wandering around without direction or purpose.

Learning without action is definitely fruitless, assuming you actually want to do your Hard Thing. Sometimes the dream and the mental challenge can make you feel good, which might be enough. If that’s why you’re doing it, go ahead and be honest with yourself about it.

Assuming you want to take the action route, you need to consciously plan out that moment of transition. If you’ve picked up some advice, whether it’s a paid information product or a blog or a free email course, take a separate step to translate the advice into activities. Go through each lesson and figure out what next action you should be taking, then figure out when you plan to take that action. Create a worksheet for yourself and fill it out.

I can’t tell you how much I learned from Teaching Sells in the process of creating worksheets and next actions for other students to take. When you sit down and take the time to map out how you’re going to translate learning to action, you’ll find yourself much less overwhelmed.

If there are lots of individual components you need to master, you may need to string together different pieces of advice. You don’t necessarily need to get a Big Overarching Map from anyone else, but if the system you’re using doesn’t have one, be sure to create one for yourself.

Understand what the pieces are (even if you’re completely clueless about how to do them) and scribble out some rough ideas about how you might put them together.

Plan out your cycles of learning and doing. They’ll both seem to be taking too long to produce any results. That’s ok. If you’re consistently alternating between learning and doing, and if you’re following a decent map, you’ll get there.

When you’re in the middle of it, it always feels like you’ll never get to the end of the path. That’s how you know it’s a path worth being on.

Be your own guru

I was talking with Havi the other night about her frustration with gurus. She’s spent a lot of time getting clients unstuck who aren’t moving forward with their businesses because they can’t complete some seemingly necessary step like creating a USP or developing their personal brand.

Her advice is often to just keep moving past the stuck spot.

Sometimes there are spots on the map that you won’t be able to use. They’re not suited to your project, or your personality, or the resources you bring. Sometimes you need to blaze a few pieces of your own trail.

Sometimes you’ve actually completed the step already, but it doesn’t look like you thought it would, so you wait around trying to figure out what comes next.

If you spend more than two weeks feeling stuck about a particular step on your map, try moving forward without it. If you skip it and things start working again, that step might not be one you need. Or it may be a piece you can fill in later, when you know more.

Learning matters, but when it keeps you from doing, that’s a red flag. While you don’t want to bounce from map to map, it’s also not helpful to use a map that’s inscribed in stone. (Too damned heavy, for one thing.)

At the end of the day, any map is really a model for you to write your own map on top of it.

So what Hard Thing are you working on? How’s it going? Are you stuck or are you rocking and rolling? Let us know about it in the comments.

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Flickr Creative Commons image by PhillipWest

Handling Angry Customers:
#1, Phone Trees from Hell

As promised, here’s a quote from a long letter I’m working on to business that encountered me as a cranky, unhappy customer.

Your phone tree, like that in many businesses, is a service nightmare. If I want technical support, it tells me to hang up and call another number. Then when I call that number, I get transferred back to the original number that can’t help me. If your system can transfer me from the second number to the first, why did I have to hang up and redial to get from the first to the second?

I will tell you that if I had tried to order the product by phone rather than the Web, I would have hung up and taken my business elsewhere. Your phone tree isn’t saving you money, it’s costing you sales.

When I finally reached an employee, he didn’t know the answer so he transferred me back into the phone tree. An employee should never transfer a customer into another phone tree. Customers need to be transferred to people who can answer questions.

The next employee I finally managed to talk with gave me a rushed, brusque answer. It was incorrect. More of my time wasted.

I’m convinced that American businesses flush more money down the toilet with bad phone practices than in any other way.

You say you want to build a relationship with customers. If that’s true, and not lip service, you need to be calling your own phone number every week. Better yet, get a relative to do it, or someone else who’s not too familiar with the systems you have set up.

Watch over her shoulder while she tries to figure out what button to push to answer her question. Listen to the frustration build in her voice as she just tries to reach a human being. And monitor the conversations she has to find out how your employees are treating people who call.

Stay tuned for next week’s installment, Your Customer Does Not Live in New York. I think you’ll like it even if you do, in fact, live in New York.

Turning Crap into Gold: How to (Gracefully) Handle Angry Customers

turning crap into gold

One of the most unpleasant parts of running any businesses is dealing with customers who are mad at you.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a dog walker or a graphic designer or a neurosurgeon. One of these days, someone’s going to express some significant dissatisfaction with what you do or how you do it.

When you’re still a small business, it feels like they’re attacking you. (Or, worse, attacking your baby. Those heartless rats!)

But bigger businesses foul this up too. We all take it too personally—it’s human nature.

The fact is, customers who care enough to get mad at you can provide a wonderful blessing. A cranky, ranting customer represents one of several possibilities.

The customer is nuts

This is the one that doesn’t help you at all. If the customer is truly delusional (some people are, you know), you’ll just have to set a boundary and walk away.

If you can afford it, give them all of their money back. And make it very clear that you won’t be doing more business with them.

Be very polite, set a very clear and firm boundary, and disengage.

The customer is right

Here’s the one that hurts. Your service/product/attitude/delivery were unacceptable.

When you were getting started with your business, you were going to do everything exactly right. You were going to have the best service in the world, wonderfully fair prices, amazing quality, the most remarkable product.

Then reality started to sink in. (This business thing really does have a lot in common with parenting.)

Perfection only exists in dreams. When you get off your tail and actually do stuff, you mess some of it up. And you know, there are a lot of good reasons so much service is terrible, and so many products aren’t what you hoped they would be.

The first thing to do is to, in Ben Zander’s wonderful suggestion, throw your hands in the air, smile, and say, “How fascinating!”

(Do not do this in front of the customer. She will kick you in the pants.)

Screw-ups mean you were trying something that wasn’t dead easy for you. Congratulations! You get 1,000 gold stars for getting out of your comfort zone. Almost no one is willing to do that, and you did. Please allow me to give you a hug.

Picking up the pieces

Now, back to addressing that pesky problem. A good screw-up generally means there’s something in your systems that needs a tweak.

If you can manage it, try not to freak out and overcorrect. The first thing to ask yourself is, Realistically is this going to happen again? If the answer is really no, do what you need to do to cool the customer off, and try not to dwell on it.

But usually there’s an opportunity for improvement. A better process you can put into place. A better system for managing client questions, or for packaging orders, or for setting expectations so people aren’t disappointed when they get their stuff.

Since I recently had a customer service experience that left me unreasonable, angry, frustrated, and generally feeling rotten, I thought I’d unpack that for you here. There are some really good lessons about the kinds of things that make people angry, and solutions for fixing them.

I won’t name the vendor. There’s no point, and they’re not really the Satanic minions I felt they were when I was having my problem.

And this isn’t about them. It’s about you. And me. And getting better.

Since this easily could be one of my ten-screen marathons, I’m going to break it up for you. The first installment of my letter to the vendor is tomorrow. (Ooh, cliffhanger!)