Most small business owners are used to giving answers, not asking questions. If you followed around some of the world’s top CEOs and leaders, you would find the exact opposite is true. The best leaders are great at asking questions, so that the best ideas win and the best answers quickly become evident, even if they arise from the least-expected team members.
Management expert Peter Drucker was well-known for asking smart questions like, “What changes have recently happened that don’t fit what everyone knows?” Read that question again and let it sink in for a minute.
Most leaders start their meetings with assumptions, biases and beliefs about their market. They see any change in the market as something to be dealt with based on their existing talents and tools. They almost never assume the solution is entirely out of their wheelhouse. They simply go about fitting every “nail” to their hammer. Drucker’s question, however, forces you to stop and ask what you don’t know.
If revenue and profit are up this quarter, why? Start with what you might not know. Maybe there’s a new employer in your area offering excellent audiology coverage. Might that be the unknown source of your good fortune? Perhaps the referral campaign you did 60 days ago is finally catching up with busy schedules and spouses who want to get their loved ones into the hearing health care provider before their vacation. Maybe consumer confidence has a lot to do with your growth, etc.
The list should be long of possible reasons why something different is happening in your business, but you’ll never articulate the actual reason if leadership insists on giving answers instead of asking smart questions. If things aren’t growing as quickly as you would like, here are five of Drucker’s questions to ask of your team at your next meeting:
- What is our mission?
- Who is our customer?
- What does our customer value?
- What are our results?
- What is our plan?
Too many small business owners can’t articulate a powerful and meaningful reason why they exist in the marketplace other than the fact that they want to earn a living and they like what they do. I’m sorry, but the market doesn’t care that you like to boost clarity or perform surgery or help clients with legal problems. The market only cares how much value you can deliver in solving problems for consumers.
Too many small business owners are unclear about exactly whom they serve. We were crystal clear years ago when we stopped treating children and cochlear implant candidates. We’ve never looked back and have continued to grow, even by dismissing 25% of our previous new patient flow. We know exactly whom we serve and we know precisely what they value.
Finally, what is your plan and how will everyone in your organization know if you’re making progress? Drucker says, “Progress and achievement can be appraised in qualitative and quantitative terms. These two types of measures are interwoven – they shed light on one another – and both are necessary to illuminate in what ways and to what extent lives are being changed.”
Know what your results are and how to measure them.
If you need some inspiration in making your next quarter one of your best ever, stop coming to the table with all the answers and instead start asking better questions. Set the framework and keep asking, “What more can we do to delight our patients?” Your team will have answers. Give them the freedom and motivation to pursue them in service of your mission.
I returned from a great meeting with clients recently and met my assistant to go over our plans for the coming week. If I’m in one of our offices, I like to go walking around and say hello, let people know I’m still alive and, occasionally, like I observed today, I get to see a new employee or two in training.
At our departure desk today, there was a new smiling face in training and a handful of patients checking out, all under the careful guidance of two administrative employees and their supervisor. If this new employee was paying attention, and it appears she was, then she learned a powerful lesson today about what patients and spouses want when it comes to hearing appointments.
Every single spouse at the checkout area nicely asked for the same thing.
Most of these patients were coming back in 1-2 weeks for prescription changes and two were coming back in three months for a cleaning or observation appointment, I’m not sure, I was only in the area for 20 or 30 seconds. 100% of these patients said some variation of the same thing. When asked which day of the week works best for them, they all said, “The day and time that is least likely to make me wait.”
Steve Jobs has a famous quote about the customer not knowing what they want until you show it to them. This advice is cute and different. It flies in the face of consumer surveys and focus groups, but it assumes you face the same daunting task of inventing the next great technological revolution, like the iPhone.
You need not reinvent the mobile phone. Your job is not that complicated. You simply need to listen to what patients want and give it to them.
Pouring over 20,000 new patient appointment requests from last year alone for our clients and our privately-held practices; reading the transcripts from over 1,000 secret shopper tapes, the data are crystal clear: your patients and their spouses want appointment times that are convenient to them, and don’t make them wait on you.
If you ignore this and fail to provide your new patients with convenient appointment times (think 5pm, 6pm, 7pm or later) within 7-10 days, they will go somewhere else and/or, if you can get them to show up, they are 400% less-likely to start treatment. * Don’t shoot the messenger.
In a new study from researchers at MIT, the journal Marketing Science reports that consumers make much simpler decisions than most marketers assume. Our brains are really good at deploying an “index strategy” or a straightforward ranking of our options. The advantage of making only slightly better decisions wouldn’t be worth it, in most product and service categories, so we quickly rank the options we believe are available to us based on simple factors like price and quality, finalizing our decision when there is a clear winner. However, when consumers are not able to clearly index their options, they get stuck and delay the decision until there is a clear winner, if ever one appears.
As the only practice owner on the planet paying attention to this research, and as someone who fully understands its power and importance in the consumer markets of hearing aids and treatment, I acutely implore you to pay attention as well.
Stop pretending like patients and spouses care about the technology you use or the level of training you received as a specialist. They don’t. That might bother you but it doesn’t make it untrue. Start recording your new patient phone calls and checkout desk. You’ll hear the same thing all day long. “What’s your appointment time that won’t make me wait on your?”
Pay attention and give consumers what they want, or go work for someone who will.
At lunch this weekend, my 13-year-old stepdaughter told me “at dad’s house, we keep our opinions to ourselves.” I didn’t even finish swallowing my food before I said, “I completely disagree,” quickly stopping all conversation at the table.
I asked, “When should you freely share your opinion, even if it isn’t well-received?” All three of my kids at the table had good answers. When a friend is being a little too crazy on the trampoline or if you know something that could help someone, like telling them they are going the wrong way to the airport, etc.
We quickly boiled it down to a litmus test: if your opinion can prevent unwanted harm or facilitate something good, share it and don’t be shy. People who don’t have the guts to say what they think, especially when it can help someone or prevent something bad from happening, usually live quiet lives of despair.
“You’ll never get what you deserve in life if you keep all your thoughts and opinions to yourself,” I said, “Plus the conversations are a lot more interesting and you’ll probably learn something about the other person that can help you both in the future.”
I share this story because you own a business and you have a handful or even scores of employees who are afraid to share their opinions with you. The smartest and most-successful amongst us are really good at helping our employees be tactful, yet we do not surround ourselves with sycophants. Brené Brown calls it “getting comfortable having uncomfortable conversations.”
I had private clients in a few weekends ago who are very smart and capable, growing quickly and experiencing the challenges and complexities that come with growth. One of the challenges is stepping aside and letting someone else take the reins on projects and responsibilities inside the practice.
In determining who will step up to the plate and be their team leader, the only question I had for one potential inside hire was whether or not she could be blunt and honest yet tactful with you if someone needed to be fired. Their immediate answer was, “Absolutely not.”
“So, she’s not a leader,” I said. Keep looking and make sure you put people in positions of responsibility who are comfortable having uncomfortable conversations, who are not sycophantic in their approach with you, and yet, can still be tactful with subordinates.
My parents and grandparents taught me this skill when I was a child. I’m now teaching it to my kids. Never assume your employees and team leaders had this taught to them at a young age. Odds are, they didn’t and you must insist that you are surrounded by tactful leaders willing to share their opinions.
The Smithsonian magazine reported recently that archaeologists uncovered an ancient Roman bathroom, decorated with suggestive mosaics, meaning dirty jokes were built right into the walls. Just like bathroom humor has been around since the dawn of time, there are many things that never change, even in today’s fast-paced, always-on, hyper-connected society.
For example, your patients will always want to know certain things from you before they buy, before they refer, before they pay in full, etc.
Each year, Jeff Bezos and Amazon ask, “What do we know about the consumer that never changes?” This is an extremely telling secret hidden in plain sight. The world’s #1 disrupter of many industries is not asking, “What’s new and always changing?” He has thousands of software engineers and towers filled with experts who can keep up with the day-to-day details of running the world’s biggest online retail firm. Instead of focusing on up-to-the-minute minutiae, Jeff Bezos wants to know what never changes. He wants his eye focused on the horizon. Yours should be too.
Complete and unrecognizable disruption will one day transition the orthodontic industry so that 100% of treatment is delivered direct to the consumer. How orthodontics is paid for and reimbursed by insurance companies will change. How consumers connect with providers and what they demand in return for their investment will change. Those who set the laws, regulating our profession will change.
Set amid all of this disruption, there will be winners and losers. The winners will have asked and provided solutions to the fundamental question, “What do we know about orthodontic consumers that never changes?”
What fascinates people. What makes them laugh. What makes them fearful, jealous, spiteful. How do they behave when they are happy, sad, excited, eager, hungry or tired. What would stimulate their desire to enhance their smile. Why they would come see you, considering all of their options, including the option of doing nothing. These are the things that never change.
Study them, and you hold the keys to human nature that can unlock a lifetime of success, so that everyone around you thrives. Ignore them, and you’re doomed to continuous struggle, inconsistent results and a lifetime of frustration.
For many years now, I’ve taught doctors it’s best to position their practices as different not better. Consumers cannot judge whether your treatment is better or not until after the fact, so you might as well get on with the task of showing them how your office is different and solves problems that others are either unwilling or unable to solve.
Consumers assume you’re going to provide great quality, otherwise why even show up? Because they’re curious about what goes on in an audiology practice? I think not.
Have you ever taken your family out to eat with the premise that you’re all going to get food poisoning. I didn’t think so.
Your prospective new patients come to you because they’ve heard about you from a friend or relative, perhaps their doctor recommended you or maybe they just want to know if now is a good time for their to treat hearing loss and you were on the list of insurance providers, close to work came up first in a quick Google search.
Whatever the reason why patients find you, understand this: they assume you’re going to take great care of them, so stop talking about all of the things that are important to you and start positioning yourself as different, especially in how consumers will compare you to the competition.
Find something only you can do or something you do better than anyone else and make that your baby, own it, tell everyone about it and make sure your patients are trained to repeat it to friends and family.
We’ve done this for our own practices and in market after market for our coaching clients by adding extended evening hours, membership programs, weekend hours and complete risk removal by offering lifetime satisfaction guarantees and free supplies and service for life.
It’s not some genius idea that I came up with in my sleep. I stole it from other smart companies like Disney, Apple, Nordstrom and The Ritz Carlton. I cherry picked those examples because I particularly like higher margin businesses and the freedom provided to hire the best employees, pay them more than you think they are worth, invest in marketing and technology and generally operate in a world of abundance. That’s just me.
I can point to additional examples in lower margin businesses where they are using the same principles, just different strategies and tactics to grow brilliant businesses. Wal-Mart, Amazon, QuickTrip, McDonald’s, Best Value Inn, Dollar General and Domino’s Pizza come to mind.
They’re operating on the same principle: what makes our products and services unique in the mind of the consumer and how can we deliver on our promises?
I can now add a new example to my list. At the white-coat ceremony for new students last month, New York University announced on Thursday that all current and future medical students will receive 100% free tuition. What previously cost students $55,000 a year is now free. Wow. Talk about a unique differentiator.
NYU’s Langone School of Medicine is now the only top-10 rated medical school in the nation to offer its students completely free tuition. They’ve managed to achieve this incredible feat by establishing a $600 million endowment, spear-headed by the billionaire Kenneth Langone, founder of The Home Depot and his $100 million gift towards the initiative.
NYU just put themselves in a category of one. They will receive 10X the number of applications for next year’s entering class. If you’re a top-tier applicant and can choose between USC, Harvard, Mayo Clinic and Stanford, you’re definitely now considering NYU, if not placing it at the top of the stack, as it is the only school that is willing to give you a $220,000 gift in free tuition.
Is NYU’s medical school any better than the aforementioned institutions? Hard to say. I’m not a medical doctor. I don’t even play one on TV. I do know that overnight they positioned their school as very, very different.
You can do the same.
What is no one else offering in your town that could create a new market for you? What are you doing that is amazing but that you’re not sharing with your target market?
My private clients and founders of AUDMA and a practice in Sun City, AZ, Erik Sorenson, donate treatments to the Sound of Life Foundation each year. They aren’t shy about sharing this amazing accomplishment. They’ve made their operation very very different through automation. They operate in a category of one.
You can do the same.
I want you to do a fun exercise this week. I want you to keep a list (ask your spouse or significant other to do the same) of everywhere you spend money, both online and offline. Just keep a little notepad somewhere near the kitchen counter and in your car. When you spend money, jot down the name of the business and category, then quickly, without spending too much time, write down why you spent your money there versus the other alternatives.
At the end of the week, sit down with your list of “reasons why” and then go to your website or pick up some of your recent marketing pieces and ask yourself if any of common consumer purchase behavior (emotional, practical or otherwise) appear in your marketing and how you attract new patients.
This is a sobering exercise I learned from the world’s top marketers, whom I’ve paid handsomely for their advice. For the first time, when I completed this exercise, I understood how and why I made buying decisions and I quickly realized my patients do the same thing. The myopic problem with small business owners is that we get so attached to our thing, to our baby, that we cannot see how consumers see. This is a dangerous way to run a business.
If I go to my grave having only changed the mind of our profession on one simple fact – that what we do and what consumers want from us are often diametrically opposed – I’ll go in peace.