Play To The Referee

My dad likes to say that the greatest scientific achievement during his lifetime has been man walking on the moon. As someone who grew up in the early days of air travel, he’s impressed that in the span of less than 70 years, we’ve progressed from not being able to fly at all, to leaving the planet entirely.

Personally, and while I agree that space travel is, indeed, a nice feather in our collective, species cap, I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with Dad here and instead … vote for TIVO.

Pause, fast-forward, rewind and record live programming, all with the touch of a button. Sure, getting to the moon and back wasn’t easy. But give me the power to pause the critical last 10 minutes of a movie I’ve been watching for two hours when my uncle Moe wanders into the room and decides to tell me what he had for breakfast … now that’s what I call science.

More than anything, TIVO has given me a new appreciation for the incredible talent of professional sports referees and officials. As much as we like to mock these guys, now that I can rewind and watch whatever I want again and again in slow motion, I’m amazed at their consistent ability to accurately see things as they happen in real time.

Of course, not all officials are created equal. Because while the best of the best basketball referees, for example, reside in the NBA, their poorly-sighted brethren toil away each weekend as part of the Hopkinton (Massachusetts) Basketball Association’s youth recreational program.

Our local referees may dress the same (black pants / striped shirt) and carry the same equipment (whistle) as the pros. But that’s more or less where the similarity ends. Attend one or two 6th grade basketball games and you’ll leave with the distinct impression that if a herd of water buffalo was to wander across the court during a game, there’s only a 50/50 chance that one of these guys would see it.

As you might imagine, the tendency for the referees to “get it wrong” is an endless source of frustration to the 11-year-old boys (my son Jonathan among them) whom I coach each Saturday.
At this age in particular, they are obsessed with the truth: “That kid fouled me!”; “He stepped on the line!!” “I never touched him!!!”

They’re right, of course. But, as I do my best to explain, “the objective facts” aren’t what matter in this context. “Truth” in a basketball game is defined by what the referee sees (or doesn’t see).

If you swing your arms wildly on defense, they’ll blow the whistle, whether you hit the other kid or not. If you’re nearest to the ball when it goes out of bounds, they’ll give it to the other team, even if you didn’t touch it.

You can argue about it, stomp your feet about it and complain about it. But at best, it’s an uphill battle. A more effective strategy, I believe, is to take into account how a novice referee sees the game and play accordingly.

Not that you asked, but I think marketing – and more specifically, standing out from the crowd as an expert – more or less works the same way.

What I mean is that many professionals believe that the quality of their skills should set them apart from the crowd of competitors. And you know what, they’re right, it should.

But it doesn’t work that way. Just as the objective facts in a poorly officiated basketball game are not necessarily what make it to the surface, the objective facts of your capabilities are hard for your prospective clients to see. They’d like to know who’s the best, but they can’t tell.

Your job in establishing yourself as expert, therefore, is to “play to the referee.” Three suggestions:

  1. Get Narrow. Who do you think makes better pizza? The owner of “Tony’s Restaurant” or the owner of “Joe’s House of Nothing But Pizza?” We assume it’s Joe because he specializes. When you specialize in something, people will assume the same about you.
  1. Get Visible. Experts are visible. But that’s not all – they’re visible in a meaningful way. So sure, it’s fantastic to send snailmail cards and keep active on Twitter (I do both). But staying in touch does not an expert make (uh-oh, Yoda talk). You need to publish things with a point of view – your point of view – if you want to be seen as a thought leader.

    E-Newsletters, of course, are great for this. But if that kind of commitment is too much to start, write and publish two or three free downloads for people so that when they come to your web site they’ll find something which suggests you know what you’re talking about.

  1. Get Experty. I don’t want my players to fool the referees by pretending they were fouled if they weren’t. If they do get hit while taking a shot, however, it sure helps your case to fall down.

    Talking, writing and behaving like an expert helps your case too. Professionally designed web sites and collateral, authentic testimonials from happy clients, and staff bios that do more than just list credentials, are all examples of expert positioning that works in your favor by suggesting to prospects and others that they are looking at the real deal.

Here’s the bottom line: Your prospective clients have problems that need fixing – they want nothing more than to find qualified people to help them. Determining capability from the outside looking in, however, is hard for them to do.

Your job as a marketer, therefore, is to reveal enough expert symptoms – by being narrow, visible and experty – for them to reach the reasonable conclusion that you’re as good as you know you are.

As I say to the 6th graders, when you’re in a game with a referee, worry less about “what is” and more about “what seems to be.”

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