Seven Words You Can't Say in Business Development
David and Blair discuss a list of words Blair came up with that you should avoid to keep you out of trouble and in control of the buy-sell relationship.
Read what Blair's article at https://www.winwithoutpitching.com/sevenwords/.
DAVID C. BAKER: Blair, today, I am going to interview on a subject called seven words you can't say in business development. I'm going to try and limit my really tacky jokes and try not to ... I've already thought of these really lame transitions for each one. I'm just going to do my best to resist the lameness at each point. Why don't you get started. I just couldn't help myself.
BLAIR ENNS: Good for you, David. Nobody gets the joke yet.
DAVID: Yet, because that's the first word, you. Tell me how you came ... I can't even say it.
DAVID: Tell me how you came on to this, came on to this subject, and what prompted you to start thinking about it, and just the evolution of this in your head.
BLAIR: Well isn't a George Carlin bit from the '70s, the Seven Words You Can't Say on Television.
DAVID: Oh yeah. I never heard it.
BLAIR: Which has changed a lot.
DAVID: Now we can say them all the time.
BLAIR: Oh man. Yeah, that's probably where it came from. I think I probably had seen just patterns of usage of these words. If you think you see the truth over the right way, I don't mean you see the truth. You think you see the truth. Then you see people who violate that truth, like just blatantly, it kind of hurts after a little while. What do you do? You write about it.
DAVID: Yeah, that's right. It's a therapy session for you. Yeah, once you do see something right, and then you're listening differently, it pops up everywhere. It's crazy. You just want to stop people in the middle of a conversation. I do that on websites too. I see some phrase somewhere, and then I'm just attuned to it as I go through all these other websites. It drives me crazy. I like your approach. You write an article just so you can move on to your next obsession.
BLAIR: Isn't all writing therapy though?
DAVID: Yeah. You mean for the author, right?
BLAIR: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
DAVID: Yeah. Yeah, probably so. It has been ... I tweeted something recently. I said that books are really ... Most books should be articles, because they really don't deserve to be a book. The thing about reading a book that somebody's taken the trouble to write is that they've spent a lot of time with the subject. Inevitably, there's going to be a lot of therapeutic issues that arise with that. I read through this again in preparing for this talk today. I've got to say there were a couple of uncomfortable moments reading it, but also some very humorous ones, because I imagined this really ... This makes people fairly uncomfortable. A few of the ones do anyway. For the first word ... So the seven words that you prefer not be used, or at least be used in a different context-
BLAIR: No, let me be clear. Seven words you can't say in business development.
DAVID: What happens if they say them? It sounds like an empty threat to me.
BLAIR: Well in Blairtopia, they explode.
BLAIR: In the real world, I'm not sure. Okay, what's the first word?
DAVID: The first word is "you."
DAVID: Why can't I say "you."
BLAIR: So there's some context around this. It's really about how you're using the word "you." Clearly, we're free to use it in this conversation. The mistake in using the world 'you' is in particular on your website, when you are describing your target audience. We help you to benefit, benefit, et cetera. We help you to do this. We will do these things for you. We et cetera, et cetera. What you're doing when you use that word to describe your target audience is you are not limiting your target audience. You are making suppositions about somebody and what their problem is.
At some point, I started to see the pattern. It made me uncomfortable. At some point, it just drove me crazy. When I would go to a website and say, "We help you to X," it would make me angry, because my response is you don't know anything about me. Right? How can you make a promise to me, the individual, without knowing anything about me?
The reason we use that language, we help you to, is because we are skipping the very important and valuable, mission critical function of properly defining our target audience. We say things like, "We help you to solve, we help you implement business solutions to your problems." We'll get to the solutions word, because that's one of the words, right?
BLAIR: Just this complete vagueness. You're hoping that if you throw out this, "We help you," you'll catch anybody in that 'you'. Your positioning and the language that you use to express your positioning should first be around your claim of expertise. Well it should all be around your claim of expertise, but it should describe two things. It should describe what you do and for whom you do it.
BLAIR: When you're properly crafting that positioning language, you wouldn't say, "We help you." You would say, in our case, "We help creative entrepreneurs and their teams." In the case of a financial planner, it would be, "We help single moms, parents with special needs children, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera." It's very important in your positioning language that you describe your audience and then before you describe the benefits, or describe them simultaneously. When we do the exercise in our training program, we've got a two sentence elevator pitch, so there's the positioning statement, your description of your claim of expertise, followed by your reassurance statement, which is a description of who you help and how. The format for it is, "We help client type to benefit and benefit."
In client type, you can't say, "You." You can't even say clients or companies. You have to be specific, because when I go to your website, I want to read language that says, "We help these types of people or organizations help solve these types of problems." When I read that statement, I need to be able to ... I want to lean forward or just turn around and go away.
BLAIR: You need to give me that option. You need to help clarify whether or not I am in your target market or not. By saying, "We help you," you are just completely abdicating your responsibility to yourself, your organization, your team, and your perspective clients, your responsibility to be clear about what you do and for whom you do it.
DAVID: Some of this could be because they're just being lazy and maybe just haven't thought about it. Sometimes they don't really know who they're helping. They haven't made those deposition decisions. Is there also an element of, how to say this best, they want to open up the flood gates and attract as much opportunity as possible. This feels too early to them to narrow that chute down and lose the opportunity to talk somebody into their need for them, or their ability to help them down the road. Is there some of that going on psychologically?
BLAIR: All of the above. It's work not done. That's what it is. When you're describing your target market, when you're failing to describe your target market, and you're talking to the first person, "We help you." That is work not done.
DAVID: Yeah, okay. Let's go to the second one.
BLAIR: You talk about the uncomfortable. Some of these are uncomfortable. That's one of the ones, that one and I think the last one, are the ones that are most uncomfortable. You can tell by my reaction. I feel very strongly about this. I've gotten into some kind of discussions, arguments about this. I'm adamant. There are very few exceptions where it would make sense to use that word on your website when you're talking to your target audience.
DAVID: Yeah, I know. I was trying to go on just then, and you kept dragging me back to talk about it.
DAVID: I am in charge of this podcast, just to remind you.
BLAIR: You are.
DAVID: Of this episode of this podcast. The second word that you would generally avoid, especially in a certain context in new business discussions, would be the word partner.
DAVID: Which, on the surface, partner seems like it's a nice, like my wife is my partner. I want to partner with you. What's the problem with partner?
BLAIR: Yeah, there are partners in life, especially your life partner or your business partners. There are true partnerships. The client agency relationship is not one of them. Now I'm going to overstate this and people are going to recoil.
DAVID: This will be your first time that you've ever overstated anything, I'm sure.
BLAIR: I spent the morning in multiple conversations saying, "This is a generalization, but it's helpful." I break all of my rules, or at least bend them. If you go to agency websites, you'll often see the phrase, "We partner with our clients to blah-blah-blah." I like to say it's helpful to think about things this way. It's helpful to make these generalizations, that there's no such thing as a partner. There are two possibilities for the nature of your relationship. You can occupy one of two positions. You can be the expert practitioner in the relationship, or you can be the vendor in the relationship, one or the other, take your pick. That's it.
In an expert practitioner position, you're leading the client. You're saying, "Here's what I think we should do next." You're not being forceful. You're not dominating, but you are the expert, and you are guiding the engagement.
In the vendor relationship, you show up like a waiter, with your pad of paper. You say, "How many would you like today. Would you like four colors or two colors. What size? Et cetera. Would you like chips or fries with that, depending on what country." Et cetera. You're taking the client order.
Partners kind of exist in theory between vendor and practitioner. What I like to say, mostly for effect, is you know what? Partners are like likable waiters. If you strive to partner with your clients, then you need new goals. You need to aim higher. You should be striving to be the expert practitioner in the relationship, and recognize that partners, this brief point in the relationship, when you're sliding from the practitioner position down to the vendor position. That will happen. The only variable is time. Ultimately, that will happen. That's one of the reasons why it's helpful to churn through your client base. Just think of partners as not something you're aiming for. You're aiming for higher than partners. Partnership is this thing that you will slide through very quickly on your way to vendor status.
DAVID: You churn through your clients. We ought to use a different word than churn, probably, but the idea is that you can reset the relationship higher, knowing that it will inevitably slide at some point.
BLAIR: Yeah, partner is an aspirational word used by vendors. It's a derogatory word. It's something that the expert practitioner wants to avoid. Now some people are going to react to this, because I'm making this the very kind of un-nuanced statement. The truth is when you're leading your client from the expert practitioner position, there are different ways to do it. There's this idea of a servant leader, where it can feel like you're collaborating.
I can think of a doctor I had once, she was just fantastic. Everything felt like a collaboration. Somebody might look at that and say, "Oh you have a partner relationship." Absolutely not. She was in charge. She was leading. She was just very good at making me feel like I was heard and feel collaborative, and taking any kind of potential thread or too much hierarchy out of the relationship, but we weren't partners.
DAVID: She had a point of view, and her skill beyond the intellectual point of view was the ability to help you. One of the things that I think our clients, as in yours and mine, and the other consultants and trainers and experts and so on, they get hung up on is this notion that we are in the service business. I try to help people think it's like there's manufacturing and there's service, and then there's a small segment of the service business that's really the expertise business. If you're in the expertise business, you can't mask poor positioning by wrapping it in service.
DAVID: That's partly what's happening with partner thing, as I understand the way you're explaining it.
BLAIR: Yeah, that's a great way to look at it. Yeah. I would agree completely.
DAVID: Okay, so the third word, so the first one was you, the second was partner. Third is really two words, taken together, so solutions and results. Talk about that.
BLAIR: I've collected some, and I've spent some over the years too, just some horrible positioning lines. I was on a website the other day. It's like, "We drive solutions for our clients." Okay. We all do. Right? Solutions and results, these are all implied, right? It's not as bad as you, right?
DAVID: But it is lazy, right?
BLAIR: Yeah, or it's work not yet done.
DAVID: Work not yet done. That's a good way of saying lazy.
DAVID: I picture these people in a moment of honesty over a scotch saying, "You know what? We tried to be honest with people for a while. We said, "We don't really get you results. We just take your money." It just backfired, like surprised all of us, but it didn't work, so now we are in the solutions and results business. What are you in? What business are you in?"
BLAIR: Yeah. Yeah.
DAVID: As if that's different.
BLAIR: You know what didn't make the list is the words 'because we get it'.
DAVID: Because we get it. Or 'we listen to our clients'.
BLAIR: Clearly we need to talk about writing as therapy, podcasting as therapy too.
DAVID: I came across a website the other day, and I actually listed this in the recent book. It said, "We've never met a problem we couldn't solve." That was the phrase. It was in a big box too. I'm thinking, oh my god. It's like, "Well you haven't met many problems or you have a very different definition of solve than I do."
DAVID: Same idea.
BLAIR: Call them up and say, "Okay, I've got this problem. I can't reconcile quantum physics with classical physics. Can you solve that?"
DAVID: Yeah. I'm hoping they don't themselves in the book illustration. Do you have anything more you want to say about solutions and results?
BLAIR: No, let's move on.
DAVID: I've worn you out. Okay.
DAVID: The fourth one is full service.
BLAIR: Yeah, do we need to talk about this?
DAVID: Well maybe we don't, but it just reminds me of this ... I know that I'm interviewing you, but can I just step in here? This is good.
BLAIR: Yeah, come on. I do it all the time.
DAVID: Yeah, you do. No kidding.
BLAIR: But I'm just saving our audience when I do that. You are interrupting valuable ... Okay, go on.
DAVID: I was writing an article for communication arts, and it was late. The deadline was midnight that day. It was like, I don't know, 10 or something, so I was barely making it. I was kind of punchy and I was tired. I finished the article. I knew the editor really well. I thought, oh I'm just going to give her some fun. I'll tack on two paragraphs to this article. She'll know that it's a joke and it won't get published, but she'll have fun. It will wake her up. Anyway, I submitted the article. I forgot about it.
The article comes out and she thought that those two paragraphs were part of the article. The paragraph said that prostitutes are better are running their businesses than design firms, because this was for communication arts. I said, "For three reasons." I said, "First of all, because there's no scope creep. Scope creep is really big. Second, all the money is upfront. Third, when they say full service, they mean it." Anyway, that's my story.
BLAIR: And it got published?
DAVID: It got published and I got some really interesting ... Nobody got really mad about it that I knew of, that I heard from. They thought it was pretty funny. When I was researching this, getting ready for this podcast interview of you, I thought, oh my goodness. I had forgotten all about that, full service. You don't want people to say full service why?
BLAIR: Well I think this is one of the first things that probably you and I both attacked in our consulting professions. Full service is language for undifferentiated, right? You don't actually see full service, right? Full service is a language of a small firm trying to look large.
BLAIR: You don't often see full service anymore. In fact, I was on a website of a firm the other day, and it said, "We are branding experts, et cetera, et cetera." Other language that makes me bristle.
BLAIR: Then they had a column of what we are not. One was full service. I thought, this is really interesting. We finally moved from full service from, I'm not saying we're taking all the credit here, but the full service has finally moved from the we are column to the we are not column. It's really just ... It's just that. It's language of the small, trying to look large, like there's some value. The smallest clients value full service. The smallest ones who have these micro budgets that are so meaningful to them. They're looking for full service, because they need that. They're trying to get a deal. They're trying to get some kind of economies of scale there. Really, the penny element swung the other way in the client space when it comes to hiring a creative firm. You have a general practitioner among the large client, or some GPs that are known as ad agencies, and then you have these highly specialized firms that do the more lucrative work. In fact, if you talk to the people at the networks, the real role of the large ad agency in the agency network, the holding companies, is to be the general practitioner because the general practitioner directs so much of the spend.
DAVID: Yeah, send referrals outward.
BLAIR: Yeah, the margin isn't in the advertising, although there's still a healthy amount of margin in the programmatic media buying. That's going to go away too. The real value is that that ad agency can direct the specialized, the more lucrative, specialized work to the specialist shops that are under the same umbrella.
DAVID: They know enough about the problem to know that somebody else needs to handle it. Yup.
BLAIR: Yeah, and they can direct that work to a firm that's owned by the same parent company, so that's how they capture the time margin work. Anyway, that's an aside, but full service, that's an old argument, and I think it's an argument that's largely won.
DAVID: The horse is not moving at all.
DAVID: We'll move on. Next one is passion.
BLAIR: Oh yeah, one of my favorite words to hate.
DAVID: Why? Why do you hate the word passion?
BLAIR: Because probably all strategy is autobiographical. I hate the word passion, because I'm a low affiliation person. I mean, clearly, I'm passionate about things. I'm passionate about what I hate.
DAVID: If nothing else.
BLAIR: The way I was taught to do business development, growing up in ad agencies and design firms, was to lean on passion and enthusiasm to demonstrate to the client that we want it more. We so like your brand. We're so passionate about your business, et cetera. If you just stop and think about it and take yourself out of the equation and see yourself as an observer, you got a buyer and seller. There's a battle for control, or there's kind of a to-ing and fro-ing to see who wants it most, therefore, who has the most power. You come along and just hand all the power in the sale and in any engagement that might follow to the client by saying, "We're really passionate." "Honey, I would do anything for you. I would do anything for you." That's what you're saying. If somebody was trying to sell something to me, says, directly or indirectly, "I would do anything for you," I can think of a lot of things that they're going to do for me, starting with cut their price.
DAVID: Yeah. All of a sudden, they just lost their leverage, essentially.
DAVID: But you're not necessarily ... If you're flipping the views here, and you're in the hiring position, you're not looking for somebody that isn't passionate at all. It's just that's not the driving factor, right?
BLAIR: Yeah, so there's a couple of things here. Number one, you don't want to be completely dispassionate, right? The passion is for the fit. It's okay, we've listened to what it is you're looking for. This is exactly in our sweet spot. This is the stuff, what you need, the challenge that you have, this is what we get up in the morning and go to work to do, this type of stuff. Passion for you, your brand, et cetera, et cetera, make it about we are experts. We live to solve problems like these. You happen to have one of these problems. This is fantastic.
BLAIR: That's appropriate. We're passionate about your brand? That's the worst. Okay, that's another generalization. That's not the worst thing you could say. That's a very dangerous statement. You need to be careful about it. There are examples when you're working on a piece of business and you really are passionate about the brand to the extent that ... Well I won't want to open that can of worms about whether people should be passionate about brands. The truth is they are. When one of your favorite brands invite you to the table to discuss whether or not you're going to do business together, you need to just be aware of that passion. I like to say that passion is like horniness. If that's you, great. I'm sure you have a very rich inner world, but because it's you, because you're feeling that, it doesn't mean it's okay to keep putting it out there. It can be really uncomfortable in some ... You can make people uncomfortable when you lean on passion too much.
DAVID: Yeah. Okay. Sixth out of seven is strategic, which I've even quit using that word as much as I can. I call it research and insights. Before you give us your perspective on strategic and why you shouldn't use that word in a business setting, what is it that they're really saying by the word strategic?
BLAIR: So the specific claim of ... I'm talking about the specific claim of saying, "We are a strategic X. We are a strategic design firm."
DAVID: Versus? Like what's the opposite in their mind?
BLAIR: Yeah, un-strategic design firm, which is what? I'm sure you get this a lot. You're talking to an owner of a design firm. It comes up in design based businesses a lot. The subject of their competitors come up for whatever reason. Your client makes the comment, "Oh yeah, their design is pretty good, but they don't do strategy." Do you ever hear that?
BLAIR: They don't do strategy. I, for many years now, one of my hobbies has been collecting answers to the question what is strategy. As soon as somebody says the word strategy or says, "Oh our competitor doesn't do strategy." Then just follow it up with the question, what is strategy? You'd be surprised. One of the questions where we all know what it is until we're asked. Right?
BLAIR: Then there are, of the hundreds of times I've asked it, or the dozens of times that I've asked it to many hundreds of people, I've received very few satisfactory answers. It's one of these loose words like chemistry, this kind of amorphous words that's used to imprecisely describe a whole bunch of things that I'm feeling. The whole bunch of things that you're feeling is when you say, "We're a strategic firm," is we're smart. We're smart.
BLAIR: Or we have a methodology.
BLAIR: Strategy, to me, in this context, is not what you do, but how you do it. It's the, as you say, the research and insights that underpins the methodology and that kind of wraps the engagement. To say we're a strategic X, it's hollow. It's like you're communicating the fact that you think you're smart or you think there's a methodology, but you're going to have opportunity if the initial value proposition or positioning statement resonates, and you're invited into a conversation, then you're going to have an opportunity to prove that without having to say it. It's kind of like saying the words "trust me".
DAVID: Yeah, or even the prospect, imagine if their assignment, as a prospect, is to scour a website and see if they see the signals or the evidence of smart or strategic, which is partly why you want to be populating your website with some of that stuff, so that it never has to come up, right? It is really interesting to me how if the only source of information I have is a firm's website, I very seldom, I almost always struggle in thinking that they are strategic. It's more just the claim that they're strategic, which is a little bit off putting to me.
BLAIR: Do you even make that distinction in your mind, when you're thinking of a firm. Oh that's a strategic firm, and that's not a strategic ... They're just tactical execution.
DAVID: I think they're all strategic in a lower sense of the word, and only a few of them are really, really smart. Those who are are obviously focused, as in specialized. They also spend a lot of thinking and time and money on research and insights. I would say that maybe 10% of them would fall in that category probably.
BLAIR: You really are never going to work again, aren't you? This podcast is horrible for business. You just keep saying what you think.
DAVID: The older I get, the more honest I am, which is not in my best interest.
BLAIR: Yeah, alright, I'm enjoying this.
DAVID: The last one is thank you. Then I just want to ask you about this overlying statement that just keeps popping in my mind. The last of the seven words not to use in new business settings is thank you.
DAVID: Want to talk about that?
BLAIR: It's self evident, isn't it? No, this is the other contentious one. I'm sure people are-
DAVID: Yeah, this is the one I cringed at a little bit, because I thought, wait a second. How in the world is he going to spin this idea, because I cannot see a context in which this could be a problem.
BLAIR: Again, every one of these words or sets of words that we're talking about, and that I reference in the article, I'm talking about most, or all of them, I think in a specific context. The context I'm talking about here is when you have an initial meeting with or phone call or face to face meeting with a prospective client, and then in the communication afterwards to sum up the discussion and discuss next steps, you begin that communication with the words "thank you".
We talked about the vendor position versus the expert practitioner position. The idea is the power that you have in the relationship comes from ... And I'm going to overstate this, but I overstate the notion of power. Then you come along and say suggest other words that you might use in place of power, that's all fine. The power that you have in the relationship is really a function of your desire for the engagement versus how desirable you are to the client. It's essentially P equals DB over D. Power in the sale equals your desirability over your own desire. In short, whoever wants it most has the least amount of power in the relationship. The one that needs it most.
I'm not saying be impolite. I'm saying be very careful in that correspondence afterwards, in the email afterwards, of beginning the email with the words "thank you for your time". Yes, it's polite. It's good manners, but when you're thinking somebody for your time, you're implying that your desire is greater than your desirability. You are implying that the client is the prize to be won in the relationship. You are implying that their time is more valuable than yours.
There are other polite ways to begin that type of correspondence. You can say, "It was great connecting with you today. I thought we had a great conversation."
BLAIR: What I want people to do when they're listening to this is I want them to take the idea behind the words.
BLAIR: I want them, before they use those words, to think, stop and think, is there a better way to begin this conversation that communicates my interest in the engagement, my enthusiasm for the fit, my politeness, and like the human qualities without giving away too much power or relegating me to the vendor position.
BLAIR: Some people are going to say, "Oh come on. You're overthinking things." All these little subtle cues. Our words drive our behavior, which drive reality.
BLAIR: It's basically your thoughts drive your words. Your words drive your behavior. That is reality. You need to be careful about the words that you choose even if it's similar. You think it's a convention that has no meaning in it beyond politeness. That is not the case.
DAVID: It's just that one of the phrases you used early on, I'm not sure if I remember exactly, it was undone work. Is that how you said it?
BLAIR: Yeah, work undone.
DAVID: Work undone. That's a really good theme to think about. It's not so much like never use these words. It's more about thinking through, like being more intentional about your language and what it communicates. For you folks, here are the seven, just in closing. The first one is you, and then partner, and then solutions and results, and then full service, then passion, then strategic, then thank you. On that, I am not grateful and I do not thank you for this time that we spent together.
BLAIR: I do not thank this other person. Not you. Thank you, David.
DAVID: You're welcome.