Earlier this month, my wife Linda and I celebrated 26 years since we began dating.
I remember those days like it was yesterday (assuming yesterday was also a blurry haze of irresponsible, smoke-filled bar-hopping).
Back then, we did all the usual “out on the town” things couples do. Dancing, sporting events, comedy shows, restaurants, you name it – going out and doing things.
The big dating innovation of the time, though, wasn’t going out… it was staying in.
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The VCR had recently been invented (look it up, youngster), which meant that for the first time you could enjoy uncut, uninterrupted movies at home.
Today, all these years later, some things haven’t changed – we still love watching movies at home.
The technology, however, is totally different – and way more complicated.
It’s all digital, of course, and it only functions as a result of the precarious linkage between our HD television, cable provider, TiVo box, and Netflix and Amazon accounts.
Some of it’s wired; some of it’s wireless. Some you order through the TV; some you order on the computer and it shows up on the TV. Or the computer. Or a smart phone. Plus, every device and every account requires its own username/password combination.
It’s so complicated, in fact, that despite being the one who linked this technological jumble together in the first place, I have already committed to dying in my home, simply to avoid ever having to do it all again.
But then, last Saturday night, the unthinkable happened: I ordered a movie through Amazon and it didn’t work. It looked like it worked, but the movie never showed up on the TV.
So I called Amazon: “The order went through fine. The problem is with your cable provider.”
So I called Verizon: “Your phone, internet and live TV work fine. The problem is with TiVo.”
So I called TiVo: “We just pinged the box and it’s operational. The problem is with Amazon.”
Uh oh. I had entered the Bermuda Triangle of 21st century customer care; an infinite loop of “I know you are, but what am I?”
Finally, it dawned on me. I Googled the problem and (I’m not making this up) found the solution in about 30 seconds (TiVo problem). Five minutes later it was all working fine again.
The next day, and to their credit, I received an email from Verizon following up on my call and offering me a free movie for my trouble.
“To their credit,” because the follow-up only happened because someone (or, more likely, someones) crafted a policy and an accompanying email to the effect of, “If a customer calls with a service problem that we don’t resolve, send them an apology and a free movie.”
In the world of oligopolistic behemoths, that kind of follow-up is hat tip-worthy.
But that’s not why I’m telling you this. Instead, I draw your attention to the Verizon email itself. Go ahead and read it here; we’ll wait.
Look at the phrases they used:
Your business is very important to us.
We apologize for the inconvenience.
We value your feedback.
Thank you for being a valued Verizon customer.
We look forward to serving you.
If there’s a Tired Customer Service Jargon Hall of Fame somewhere on Earth (I’m guessing Cleveland), this letter is displayed in the lobby.
Are they just lazy over there at Verizon? Not at all. There’s just too many people in the room, too much need for things that scale and too much risk for any creative, human-sounding communication to hatch, let alone stumble, still breathing, into a customer’s inbox.
Which is why if you’re a solo professional in competition with large companies – the financial planner competing with Fidelity; the garden center competing with Home Depot; the accountant competing with PricewaterhouseCoopers – you’ve got a huge (HUGE) communication advantage. (tweet this)
It’s called your authentic voice.
That means telling stories from your personal experience.
That means writing the way you speak.
That means using non-business words, like “jumble,” “Bermuda Triangle,” and “hat tip-worthy.”
That means starting four consecutive sentences with the same two words.
“Won’t it make me look unprofessional?” No, it will make you look trustworthy and likeable.
“Won’t it make me look small?” You are small – did you think your prospects hadn’t noticed? That’s your advantage.
Bottom line: Big companies are good at a lot of things; authentic communication isn’t (and never will be) one of them. (tweet this)
As a solo professional, you have a permanent, unassailable, easily accessible advantage relative to your larger competitors. It’s called You.
The only question is whether or not you intend to use it.
Loved your examples and advice about personal communication being the competitive advantage of the small guy, but really empathized with “I have already committed to dying in my home, simply to avoid ever having to do it all again.” After this $#@! winter, I was thinking of moving south somewhere but the wiring behind my TV and under my desk scares me and my knees don’t bend as well as they used to. Can’t face doing the set up all over again. Guess I’ll have to buy a new snow shovel after all (our current two are both lying in the garage, snapped in half).
Yes, very complicated indeed! And I hear you on the snow – I don’t mind it or the cold but, here in New England, like pregnancy, it’s about a month too long.
“You are small – did you think your prospects hadn’t noticed?” LOL
That is a piece of pushback I often hear when I tell small businesses to put bios of management / owners (and gasp! photos, too) on their websites. “But we don’t want to look small.” “Er, you are small. That’s your advantage” are my exact words.
I know, that’s another one of those “copy the big guys” things that never made any sense to me. I’ve worked with married couples in business together who use different last names (even if that’s not what they do in “real life”), just to make it seem like they are bigger. To me, the fact that they are working together as a married couple is itself a marketing advantage.
At least they shouted your name in their email. So you know they were talking to you and not just any ‘valued Verizon customer.’
Maybe another benefit of being a stealth solo professional is the ability to address contacts in a regular voice and have them hear you anyway. Can you hear me now? Hmmmm…I’m suddenly understanding why they shouted.
I know, that’s funny on that letter. I have another one in my files from ATT where they forget to fill in the name field and it addresses me as “Dear Primary Account Holder Name Here”
Thanks for writing,
(Michael’s signature goes here)
Nice piece, Michael. Small is the new Big. haha
Indeed, Gordon! Let’s hope as well that old is the new young and bald is the new sexy!
Thanks, as always, Michael. I deleted the last “our” from my website this week. It was silly to have it there when I’m “it” and people hire me for what I do for them, over the big companies, just like you say.
I know what you mean. As much as I like to rant about this stuff, I find the occasional “our” on my stuff too! A hard habit to break.
Hi Michael…don’t know where you come up with what you do but you are always spot on! Thanks so much for the encouragement to stay small and personal…hang in there – the daffodils are beginning to pop up in Tennessee and working their way north!
Glad it hit the spot for you today. And with my son Evan in Memphis, I hear a lot about them daffodils of yours! Very envious over here.
Thanks for writing,
Michael, you are one brilliant fellow. And bald IS the new sexy.
Thanks Katherine! My day has now been made.
Such a good writer you are! You tell a personal story. We get immersed. Then you pull the string at the end – much like a Seinfeld episode!
Thanks Jeff, I appreciate it!
Hey everybody, note that I’ve been playing with a free service called “Click to Tweet,” for embedding “tweet this” quotes directly into the newsletter. Scroll up, towards the bottom of the post, in case you didn’t notice.
Anybody else using this or similar?
noticed and re-tweeted…very useful…thanks.
I so admire your way of taking the very routine and spinning it into a great story! Your story rings so true! Us solo professionals have to learn to use personal service as our number one major marketing advantage.
Thanks Beth! I find that using the routine and personal stories as a lead in (in addition to being a terrific way to avoid doing any actual research), is a way to always know that your content is unique.
In my previous one-man-band businesss I always used ‘ús’ or ‘we’ just to give the impression that I was larger than just me…not now though… Good info as usual Michael..
Thanks Doug! We, I mean I, appreciate it.
Good post as usual. It expresses the sentiments of Malcolm Gladwell in his latest book “David and Goliath” – “the powerful are not as powerful as they seem – nor the weak as weak.” This is especially true when we compare ourselves vs. big companies.
Thanks for your comment; that’s a great quote.
(Man, that Gladwell guy steals everything from me.)