(Listen to this post, here.)
I probably shouldn’t admit this, but it’s a fact: My personal popularity peaked in mid-1983. And while I like to think of myself as an optimist, I doubt it will ever reach such heights again.
Was it because I owned several Culture Club albums? No, but I did.
Was it because I had a full head of beautiful hair? Well, that certainly didn’t hurt, but no, that’s not the reason either.
It’s because I was a bank teller.
Yes, you heard correctly. I was incredibly popular in 1983 because I worked as a bank teller at the Brookline Savings Bank, in Brookline, Massachusetts.
How is that possible? Well, there are a couple of things you need to keep in mind…
- In 1983, credit cards were not widely held or accepted. Sure, you could use them for significant purchases, but the local supermarket or movie theatre or lemonade stand wasn’t set up to accept them. So you needed cash.
- In 1983, ATM machines were still very much a novelty. There were a few, here and there, but hardly anyone trusted them.
Taken together, these two things meant that if you wanted to buy something, you needed cash. And if you needed cash, you had to go into the bank to get it.
And it didn’t matter who you were – student, old lady, cop, high flying executive, local business owner, even rock stars (Aimee Mann was a regular customer) – they all came into the bank, frequently, to see me.
As a result, I could barely walk down the street without all kinds of different people waving and saying hello.
If I went into the dry cleaner and there was a line, they handed me my clothes and said, “just pay us next time.” If I sat down in the diner, they gave me free coffee. When I went to the corner bar, they knew me by name and never asked for ID.
Like I said, popular.
But here’s the thing. My (did I mention it was immense?) popularity was narrowly focused in a very tight geographic area: maybe a quarter mile radius out from the bank itself.
Within that quarter mile circle, I was a king. But if I went just a little bit farther – down to Kenmore Square, up to Coolidge Corner, or anywhere just beyond the immediate neighborhood and the people I knew well and saw every day, I became just another exceedingly good-looking man on the street.
I don’t think you’ll be surprised to learn that this experience – a king in one place; a nobody everywhere else – has influenced my approach to marketing ever since: I focus on the people I know.
You see, just like you, I know – and by “know,” I mean really know, with no introduction necessary – about 500 people on Earth.
The difference between you and me, however, particularly as it applies to the marketing of your professional service business, is that I keep in touch with my 500 people. And you don’t.
You, and I mean no disrespect since you seem like a nice person, are instead busily worrying about your Google ranking, or your Twitter followers, or any number of other things which ignore the “neighborhood” in which you, too, are king or queen.
To me, the logic is simple. Among my magic 500 – just as it was with those bank customers in 1983 – I’m far from anonymous. I’m trusted, I’m recognized, I’m familiar. I’m someone to whom you can confidently say, “just pay us next time,” and know that there’s no risk.
That’s huge. Because while the vast majority of these people won’t hire or refer others to me today, by staying in touch with them regularly and systematically, lots and lots of them eventually will.
You’ve got your own 500; you’re just not paying enough attention to them.
Here’s the bottom line. Every day I read books and blog posts offering advice to professionals. They talk about “rising to the top on Google,” “getting millions of people to spread your ideas,” “becoming a blogging superstar.”
Not that you asked, but I think it’s garbage.
First, because there’s just not enough room for more than a few people at the top, whatever your industry. Most of us will never get anywhere close.
Second, because it’s the harder path. The likelihood of your getting and keeping the attention of thousands of strangers on the Internet is about the same as my being widely recognized in the greater Boston area in 1983.
It may have happened once in a while; but it happened every minute of every day outside that bank branch office.
So here’s my suggestion. Forget about trying to become broadly famous. It’s a winning lottery ticket that, chances are, you’re not holding.
Instead, focus your time and attention on the much more productive, much more predictable, much more enjoyable goal of being visible, valued and liked by the very small group of people on Earth who already know you.
And yes, you can take that to the bank.
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You’ve offered some really excellent advice, over the years, but this article, It’s Good to Be King,” is surely the best! I’ve wasted thousands of dollars on SEO. And if I had a penny for every minute I’ve wasted on LinkedIn and the social media marketing in general, I’d be rich. So now, I’m trying to focus my marketing efforts on the town where I reside, Louisville Kentucky.
Thanks, again, for your sage advice.
My pleasure Mark! Personally, I do plenty of social media, but I don’t feed that beast until I’m sure I’ve rung the magic 500 bell!
Michael, as always, perfect balance of story and business advice. One reason I like Fridays so much!
Thanks Boris! I like them too – sitting here writing, publishing and interacting is just about my favorite activity.
Really good story and ties in so nicely with the marketing idea.
I like the new format! How’s it working out for you? I’ve been thinking about doing the same thing on my newsletter…
Hi Debby! I’m keeping my mouth closed for a couple of months on why I made the switch in newsletter format (since everyone here is part of the experiment!). But, if it works as I hope, I’ll share all and recommend that others also make the switch.
Another great newsletter. I definitely agree with you.
I noticed that you tried something different with your newsletter today. Rather than posting the entire story, you had us click to your website. I have tried both approaches with my newsletter. My gut (and Constant Contact stats) suggest that perhaps putting the entire story into my newsletter is the way to go.
I am curious what you find out for your newsletter.
Hi Sue! Observant R U.
And yes, frankly, I’m conducting a little experiment here. I want to see if certain (good) things occur as a result. (I can’t say more yet since all of you are part of the experiment!)
Stay tuned, I intend to share what I find in a couple of months, after I’ve published a bunch more newsletters and have enough data.
We both have being a teller in our backgrounds. Best job I ever had in 1973 when I took a year off from undergraduate school – loved every minute of it and you are correct – I knew everyone in downtown Springfield and got special treatment in every local business! Great metaphor for relationship marketing.
I would also add that interactions with REAL friends and acquaintances is uplifting unlike the somewhat draining and less than authentic Likes and Comments flying around Facebook. My posts are authentic but the nearly daily maintenance is not and quite mind-numbing. There’s a whole lot of peripheral, meaningless contact and “doing” that isn’t required in your approach. I’m a big fan of your system. It works.
Any kind of clients from schmoozing endlessly and most often mindlessly on Facebook so far = zero. Premium year-long program clients from my measly 200 (my 500 retired or became irrelevant after more than a decade of being off the radar) so far due to authentic, quick, and fun communications = 2, and I only need about 6 new premium clients each year. I’m sold.
So glad you are cranking away with a simple system, Aine! That’s terrific.
And yes, bank teller was a great job back in the day (a terrific way to meet women as well, but that’s the subject of another newsletter!).
Wonderfully sage advice, delivered in a way that I really enjoyed. Bravo!
Thank you Jonn!
Thanks for writing, Jonn!
Excellent, as usual, but I think you underestimate your current popularity. Even those of us who have never met you feel as if we have, and we certainly would like to! And this is because we enjoy what you write – whether because of your brilliant insights, wonderful sense of humor, or your devastating good looks.
Thank you Katherine, especially on the “devastating good looks” (you are a convincing liar).
And I think that some of what you said definitely carries over in terms of marketing style. My goal (and a lot of what I do in teaching clients or people in my marketingoneyear.com class) is to try and talk (market) to strangers as if you already know them.
It’s hard, since we’ve all been taught to put a mask on lest we be accused of seeming unprofessional (whatever that means). But if you can do it, it’s like the magic key that unlocks the trust door (which I’ve found leads to the room where the clients hang out!).
Thanks for writing, devastatingly yours, Michael
OK, I’m the bull, you are the toreador and your comment (I’m paraphrasing) “SEO is garbage” is the red flag. So here I come! (Yes, I’m an SEO consultant.)
First, I have no arguments with your position that cultivating the relationships you have is one of the best ways to build business and get great referrals. Your service is a very valuable one, and most of us surely underperform in the effectively-staying-in-touch category (pointing at myself). But here are a couple points about your argument that SEO is garbage.
Can’t get to the top of Google? Not true. I help small business clients get top rankings in Google all the time. And they get good business from the rankings because we spend a lot of time figuring out the best keyword phrases to optimize their sites for.
There is LOADS of garbage online about SEO, and lots of hucksters out there. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. An honest and well executed SEO campaign is still one of the best marketing spends a solo professional can make. (And by the way, according to Google’s Keyword Planner, almost nobody uses the term “solo professional” in searches. Doesn’t mean it isn’t a good term for branding, but it won’t drive much traffic to your site via search.)
In my experience, most of the people who give SEO short shrift are the ones who haven’t succeeded at it, either because they haven’t tried or because they’ve had bad advice (see above about how much of that is out there). But it’s a great feeling to get a new lead out of the blue via search; someone who is a true fit for your business but completely out of your network. If nurtured with your “relationship marketing” that lead could turn into two or three or a dozen new connections over time.
I’ve been reading your newsletter for years and really enjoy it. You and I have talked on the phone before, so I hope you’ll take my stamping and snorting in the metaphorical spirit in which it was intended. Now if you’ll put down the red flag, I’ll go back to my corner, or wherever it is that bulls go when they calm down. 🙂
First off, thanks for writing, since most people just go away when they disagree.
But I didn’t actually say SEO or whatever was the garbage. It’s the *promise* that all the “experts” make: you have to be at the top of your industry in order to succeed, getting there is likely, and here’s how you do it. I don’t think much of it is true.
And I totally agree that there’s no reason you can’t combine relationship marketing with SEO (or cold calling for that matter). But to me, the low hanging fruit is always the people you already know. So until that is well taken care of, I don’t see why I’d spend time or money on anything else.
All that said, points well taken and I think you may have nicked me with one of those horns.
Oh dear, no nicks intended. But just one point of clarification: you don’t have to be at the top of your industry to be at the top of Google. You just have to think clearly about how people might be searching for your services and apply that knowledge to your website content. It’s amazing how many businesses don’t do that, which is why solo professionals can be competitive and get lots of exposure through search.
But I’m mainly replying to share this link with you since I know you love all things penguin. They are amazing little creatures that you can actually eat, though it seems like they should be shellacked and preserved instead:
Nice! I’ll be working on some of those over the weekend for sure.
Yes…this is one of your best, but one of the most difficult concepts to get across to clients. They’re looking for the internet magic…viral on YouTube…a million “likes” on facebook…thousands of contacts on Linkedin…all very satisfying for the ego, but pretty much useless from a business perspective.
I bother to read your stuff because we share the same business philosophy. Build your business by caring about your clients and doing a great job every time. Stay in touch…pay attention…reward loyalty…the rest will take care of itself.
The only thing disturbing about your newsletter is the revelation about a full head of hair. Hardly seems credible.
Hello Don! Thanks for writing.
And yes, people are startled to know I once had plenty of hair (did they think I was a bald 10 year old?).
Hey Michael – I don’t know about when you were 10 but I know about now and I’m pretty sure about when you were 1 day old so simply connecting the dots suggests you’ve been bald all your life ;^)
Great post, as usual.
I think that’s why babies like me. They look at me and assume I’m their leader.
Thanks Todd, and BTW, cool site you have. You should connect with Diane Spadola (see her comment further down). I bet you two would have much to talk about since it seems your industries and geographies overlap!
Great newsletter today! You got me to click over. Good job, Michael. It’s just “curiosity” you’ve got working for you, and your bright sense of humor.
Thanks for writing Elizabeth!
True confession: I have no idea what my Klout score is but I do know who is my network and who refers me. Excellent newsletter.
Hello Dianna! Although, knowing you, I’m sure that Klout score of yours is pretty high anyway!
Ah, so it is not 15 minutes of fame, but 15 square feet of recognition that I seek. I AMMMMMMM master of my own Fate, and mostly I am grateful to you for feeling the love from my current and past clients. That is ENOUGH to maintain my ego dog gone it! Thanks for the words of wisdom. Got a referral today from one of my top 10 A groupies……
I like the 15 square feet of recognition thing! And great to hear about your referral. The network never fails if you take good care of it.
My business never seems to get off the ground because I’m often looking to some expert for the magic bullet that will let the whole puzzle fall into place and clients will automatically come to pay homage. Your magic bullet michael is simple and friendly. Not to say it’s easy at the beginning….. I ran into someone I know today at the grocery store who I know is interested in my services. It finally dawned on me that the universe is actually throwing her at me but I’m too attached to my visions of grandeur (or is it my perfectionism?). I emailed her later today to suggest a no-obligation conversation. Not sure if this fits in your model, but it feels good to be out there and visible instead of trying to be somewhere “more advanced”. Thanks for beating that drum.
Hi Paul! I think your example of “grocery store marketing” is right on target. It’s random, of course, but it’s very predictable. Sort of like farming – you don’t have to pay attention to which seed leads to which plant, you just have to throw enough of them and take care of them every day.
And I think a lot of what throws people off is just what you point to: the fact that there is no magic bullet. It’s all a day by day process which, if you construct to be something you enjoy along the way, is really what being a solo professional is all about. Thanks for writing!
I like it when you say,Michael, that constructing a process you enjoy is what being a solo professional is all about. I love doing my work and keeping myself from doing it by waiting forever to get all my ducks (or is that penguins?) in a row is foolish and possibly tragic.
Re your new format. When I first read your new-style posting, I felt a bit manipulated when I had to click to see the whole thing. But now I realize I am writing and sharing where before I wasn’t. Sharing wins. And that relates to my original post.
Yes, it’s sort of a funny thing. The sharing option was always here, just more obvious, I think, when it’s directly below what you’ve just read.
I think also reading other people’s comments encouraged me to put in my own.
What, I shouldn’t comment? I like the click through approach for many reasons, including, perhaps most, that I notice lots of comments and feel part of a conversation with many interesting, friendly, smart, and beautiful people.
After your kingly gift of an article, I’d like to reciprocate with some questions that may provide additional insights (at least in my mind):
How did we meet? How did we come to “know” each other? How can we get to know each other more? How do we know you? Why do we keep listening to you? Why can’t we stop listening, even after spending $$$$ on therapy for help for what feels like decades? What do we really think of you? Why do we feel that we “know” television news anchors, talk show hosts, radio show hosts, etc.?
One part of the answer to these questions: conversation! Although the generally observed conversation flow is one way (e.g., from you, Michael, from Oprah, from Ellen, from Matty in the morning, from Dennis & Callahan, to us “listeners”), those on the other end of the line/Interent/email/etc. have a response (which could include a nod of the head in agreement or a thought — let’s not go there) and feel like someone is talking WITH/directly to them — which you are, right?
Keep that conversation interesting (i.e., of positive “value”/worth) and going and we’ll get to know better each other. That is awesome!
And the way that people can get to meet and become aware of others is, indeed, through SEO (Hi Bull — is that short for anything?), and other mechanisms, such as twitter, walking down the street, receiving a link from a friend or someone who says we have to read this stuff by a crazy and endearing and funny and lovely man, etc.
But, the way we’ll get to “know” each other is through (additional and sustained) conversation. Or, as you, Michael, might say, it’s about the content.
Great to see you here after not talking for a loooong time. I agree, it’s very much about content and conversation. All of which builds trust, something which is important for those of us who sell a professional service.
Give my regards to Oprah (and I expect to see you at the Blue Penguin ice cream party this summer!),
I always read your newsletter and this is the first that has prompted me to respond.
What a great way to think. I’m not sure I know 500 people but I’m sure I don’t know everyone on the internet. My goal for the next 30 days is to send a one personal email each day to a current customer. It might be a hello, a thank-you or a reminder of an upcoming event. No hard sell just contact. I just sent my first one and once the 30 days is over I’ll let you know how it turned out. Thanks
That’s a great goal Linda. In fact, if you want to really hit a home run, try handwriting and snail mailing those 30 notes. (That’s actually the first homework assignment of the first session of my marketingoneyear.com class. )
More on using snail mail if you’re interested in this free one-hour webinar I did last year:
That would have been my response too. I have been snail mailing 3 personal notes per day for a long time. The results are excellent. In this day and age for a personal note to hit the USPS mail box really impresses people.
Great article Michael but of course you have been writing great articles all 14 years I’ve been on you mailing list.
Great to have you here. And thanks for being such a long time reader!
Great newsletter Michael. As always. We once owned brookline in the portfolio. Am trying to weave tea ceremony and blackjack into next month’s newsletter…
Wow, I didn’t realize that. Assuming you sold your stake when you realized I no longer worked there?!
And if anyone can find the link between tea ceremony and blackjack, it’s you!
Ok, I hate to be the one to upset the apple cart here, but I feel compelled to make a counterpoint. First, I agree it makes sense to max out your personal network and sustain those relationships, as it can lead to referrals. But if you’re selling a service or product that is highly specialized, there is a good chance that few people in your network will have an actual need for that product or service. In my case, I provide content development, writing, and marketing communications services to financial services companies. While my friends, neighbors, and former co-workers may be willing to refer people to me, in most cases it’s unlikely they know anyone who needs my services (or even understand what it is I do). And I certainly don’t want to be self-promoting to these people all the time. Therefore, for those people who offer a specialized product or service, I believe they need to go beyond relationship marketing and promote themselves in other ways too. That may include SEO, an e-newsletter, advertising, etc. Don’t get me wrong–I agree with Michael’s advice and try to follow it myself. But because my service is a real niche, I also need to pursue other marketing tactics.
Michael Katz January 30, 2014 at 1:46 pm 
Actually, I don’t think we’re that far apart here. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do the non-relationship things. I do think, though, that the people you know are the first place to look.
You don’t know who knows whom in your network (the wife of the guy you play basketball with might be CEO of a perfect client for you). If you keep in touch with that guy, the day will come that he puts the two of you together, only because he knows and likes you, and she mentioned over dinner how that new content person they brought in is terrible.
In general, my rule of thumb is that rather than meeting people, checking to see if they can help or buy from me right now and moving on to the next person if the answer is no, I try and deepen the connections with the existing relationships. That, plus all the additional stuff you do, adds up really well.
Hi Neil! (and Michael)
I did read your comment with a lot of interest and well, not so long ago I thought the same as you. Just a few things to consider: One, I think we are all highly specialized. As a matter of fact when I look around, almost every business is highly specialized in one way or another. So it’s a trap in my thinking that I need to talk to a wider audience to get to the few who may be interested. (They’ve never responded much to my paid shouting anyway.) So if I had a choice between where to put my effort either in building relationships and further refining what I do best or having faith in traditional “marketing”, it is an easy choice for me. I’ve also learned (via Michael’s classes) that “marketing” is almost anything but self-promoting. It’s a strange twist on the regular way of thinking… and even a bit of an exercise that requires some trial and error, but at least for me it is working out amazingly well. Hope that helps!
I was hearing Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” song as I read this. 😉
Speaking of one’s local area, how far is too far for you to travel for a meeting? Just curious, since I live in LA where people can easily be 30 miles away from me, but they still want to meet.
I’m thinking a workable policy may be requiring people to come to me, or getting paid to go out to them.
What’s your take on it?
I think it depends on where you are with your business and what you’re trying to accomplish. When I first started out, I had no clients and plenty of time, so I would try to line up meetings nearly every day and wouldn’t think twice about driving twice that far to meet someone, in the name of expanding my network.
Today, for complete strangers, my rule of thumb is that I’m more or less willing to have coffee with anybody who can string a couple of friendly sentences together, as long as they come to me.
But the network is key, so if you need to grow it, the drive (and the time) is time well spent!
What do other people on the thread here think?
Thank you, Michael. It helps to hear your perspective on how you got started.
You’re right that worthwhile networking opportunities can be worth a much longer drive. It’s just often hard to know what’s a good opp beforehand.
And I think it always will be. You just can’t tell which contacts will bear fruit. To me, that’s what makes it interesting. But yes, it requires an expectation that some meetings will never lead anywhere. Good thing I like coffee!
Haha… I bet you get your fill of good coffee.
When I get stressed, I tend to forget the adventure that uncertainty brings in life and business.
Thanks for the reminder!
Michael, as I read and read your posts, you just get better and better. As I continue to read, I’m actually compiling a cheat sheet. You’re just the best at what you do.
Keep up the good work. You are an inspiration.
C. Hyacinth Halstead