Are You Playing the Wrong Game?

I don’t know about you, but my sense is that things have changed mightily over the past 35 years.

Back then, for example, tattoos were uncommon; gas cost 63 cents a gallon; and when you picked up the phone, nobody ever asked you where you were.

But college? Well, that’s something that I had assumed was more or less still the same. That is, until my son Evan went off to Rhodes College in Memphis last year. (School motto: We never heard of you either.)

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You see when I left for college in 1978 it was an abrupt break from my parents. I spoke to them once a week on the phone, but other than that, we had very little contact during the school year.

And so I expected – dreaded, actually – that the same thing would happen with Evan and me. Happily, that hasn’t been the case.

The reason? Technology.

We Skype weekly, e-mail regularly and text (mostly stupid photos) constantly. The truth is, if it weren’t for the fact that during the school year I don’t find used cereal bowls in every corner of the house, I’d hardly know that Evan was gone.

But that’s not all. What’s kept our connection even stronger is online scrabble. More specifically, a smart phone app called Words With Friends that lets you play scrabble with someone else, over time and over distance.

It’s a fun distraction and a nice way to interact with your offspring in a way that doesn’t require you to think up meaningful, parenty things to say every other minute.

For the first couple of months though, Evan won every game.

I don’t mean by a little bit either. He’d be up by 100 points after four or five moves, a colossal difference in a game where the winner is lucky to clear 400.

Then, one day, it dawned on me: Scrabble isn’t a word game; it’s a number game.

Yes, you need to create words. But simply putting down fancy – even long – words, isn’t how you win. With some squares on the board offering triple value, and some letters worth as much as 10 times more than others, you win by paying attention to how the numbers add up.

Has it made a difference? Well, now that I’ve adjusted my approach, I only lose two out of three to Evan (what can I tell you, he’s still smarter than I am).

But you know what’s interesting? When it comes to acquiring new clients, most of the professional service providers I see are likewise playing “the game” in the wrong way.

They think that client acquisition is a game of expertise and qualifications – one in which prospects hire the person or firm with the greatest capability.

And so they continually attempt to prove their expertise and reinforce their qualifications. They point to the degrees they possess, their years in the field, their integrity, their work ethic, their overall expertyness.

But here’s the thing. That’s not how people hire professionals.

First, because they can’t discern who’s more technically capable anyway (do you have any idea how medically qualified your doctor is?).

And second, because if your prospects are members of the human race (or at least primates), they’re neither systematic in evaluating all available options nor particularly objective in making decisions.

Yes, you need to be seen as a qualified expert – that’s the price of admission. But that part is only the letters in the scrabble game.

What you really want is to be seen as a likeable expert. That’s the strategic placement of the letters on the scrabble board. That’s what people remember and, unlike your technical capabilities, it’s something they can understand and form an opinion on.

Two suggestions:

  1. Be more visible with the people you already know.
    Top-of-mindedness matters. When a need arises, you need to be on the short list of possible solutions. People don’t reach very far and if I haven’t heard from you in two years, it’s not going to happen.

    Find ways to stay in front of the people you know – your “house list” – over and over again, forever. (Did somebody say “E-Newsletter?“)

  1. Raise your likeability score.
    People hire people they like (and avoid those they don’t).

    Is your voicemail message friendly? Is your web site welcoming? Do you send thank you notes to people who help you? Do you return calls from strangers who ask a simple question? Do you congratulate people when something good happens to them? Are you easy to talk to, happy to help, generous with your time?

    I know. This stuff is so simple and obvious it seems like it doesn’t even belong in a discussion of how to market your practice effectively. But believe me, to the extent I’ve been successful, it’s not because I’m smarter than anyone else (although I am better looking). It’s because I work at likeability, all day long.

Bottom line. Just as winning at scrabble requires more than just a strong vocabulary, getting more clients more consistently requires more than just credentials and expertise.

Strive to become a visible, likeable expert, and you just may give Evan a run for his money.


15 thoughts on “Are You Playing the Wrong Game?

  1. Sue Horner

    Michael, I just love how you make connections between what’s going on in your life and how to market yourself as a likeable expert.

    I am a big fan of Words With Friends too, and have had to make the same strategic adjustments to maximize my score against my wily mother and my wily son. After all, if words are my business, it would hardly do to have them skunk me as regularly as they did at first!

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Thanks Sue! I’m doing my best in Words but I am no match for my son. Someone I don’t think in the right way when it comes to configuring letters for scrabble!

  2. Jill Whalen

    Pretty sure you and I are twins that got separated at birth (I got the hair). Every newsletter I read of yours (including this one) basically says all the common sense stuff that I’ve done naturally forever. And it’s how I’ve gotten most of my clients and where I am today.

    In fact, here’s a perfect example. I just signed a new client who wrote the following:

    Thanks!  I’ve been reading your newsletter for many years now and always pick up a few worthwhile tips.  So when I noticed a sharp drop in our “free search” beginning around the first of the month, your name was the first I thought of.  Guess by paying this time you’ll recoup a little of the free information you gave me!

    I’m quite sure that anyone who followers your advice when putting together their newsletters finds the exact same thing!

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hello Jill!
      That’s a great example. Plus, I find that someone who says something like that is very familiar with you and already has a certain level of trust. Something that makes the sales and delivery of service process as pleasant as can be!
      Happy summer (enjoy the hair),

      1. Jill Whalen

        That’s exactly it! If the lead comes from my newsletter (which most of them do) then it generally takes me all of 5 minutes (usually through 1 email) to close most of my deals.

        All for the price of me spending a day and a half every other week writing the newsletter. 🙂

  3. Joyce Winterstein

    Hi Michael. Nice to know I’m on the same page. Years ago (just about the time the wheel was invented), I attended a workshop for Connecticut Small Business and the guest speaker (name escapes me) said time and time again “People do business with people they like”. It’s hard to say no to someone you like. Thank you for sharing your “words” of wisdom through your newsletter. Always entertaining and great tips.

  4. Dave Moore

    Well written article. You make a great point, unfortunately one that gets overlooked sometimes.
    Thanks for the refresher.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Thanks Dave! And by the way, are you the same Dave Moore I went to college with? If so, I was up at McGill this past weekend, went to the dorms and managed to get into my old room (you’ll be happy to know your room is still there as well)! Quite the thrill.

      (If you’re not the same Dave Moore, ignore the gibberish above.)

  5. Julie Gardner

    So funny Michael,

    I wrote a very similar piece about “Words with Friends” and how frustrating it was to get not just beat, but smoked! I grew up playing Perquacky, Boggle and other such word games and pride myself on my vocabulary, but I too was getting beat with words like “ut.” (Huh?) I quickly learned you have to play the board! Which was my connection in my piece. In real estate, it’s about looking around you and understanding the current marketplace (not last year’s comps). Play the board! (But I liked your connection too.)

    As always, a compelling read.


    Julie Gardner

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Thanks Julie. I can definitely see how it applies in your world as well.

      And I think Scrabble, somehow, is about much more than just vocabulary. Something about the way you think. My son Evan is so good at this that when we play Bananagrams (sort of a time-based version of scrabble) we make him wear oven mitts (seriously) to slow him down, so that the rest of the family has a chance!

  6. Allison Kneubuhl

    Spot-on as usual Michael. I write hand-written thank you cards (you know the kind on paper that you mail) and always use either customized stamps or multiple stamps to make-up .44. Kind of stamp-art fun and hopefully memorable!

  7. Abigail Sewall

    Hi Michael: I just got referred to your site by Jim Geisman and found this first article delightful. I too am an avid “Words with Friends” player and play with my cousin who is ruthless! I recall our very first game when she scored 164 points in one turn! I quickly got on the comments page and wrote to her, “Do you think you could EASE me in????” But she kept at it. I find with her, it is more about anticipating where she is putting the high score letters, so I spend a lot of time blocking and out-maneuvering her and have stuck her with the Z and Q on a number of occasions because she gets too greedy, waiting for those TL’s and TW’s!

    I can also draw the real life connection to what you are saying as I am a lifelong sales person/manager and I really believe in both being likeable and trustworthy. Sales people often get typecasted as car salesman or “hit and run” transactional types, whereas I have found my success in building long-term relationships with customers, who in the end, will stick with you, even through the hard times, if they trust you will do the right thing by them.

    I like your humor — we think alike in many ways, so I am about to sign up for your newsletter.

    Take care,

    Abigail Sewall

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      You sound like you’re much better at this Scrabble thing than I, Abigail! And thanks for signing up for the newsletter – hope you enjoy it.


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