Are You Solving the Wrong Problem?

Want to play a game? Here’s how it works:

Without reading any further, make a list of the last five people you’ve had a conversation with. Not necessarily a long conversation, but more than just, “Hello.”

Got it? Here’s mine:

  1. The mailman
  1. A guy who we may hire to paint our house
  1. A guy in Starbucks who asked me to watch his computer while he went to the men’s room
  1. A woman in my neighborhood who I ran into at the supermarket
  1. The man behind the counter at CVS when I went in to pick up a prescription for a persistent itch (it was for a friend)

So here’s the question … how many of the people on your list are potential clients?

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In my case – and I bet yours too – it’s maybe one (and more likely, zero).

No surprise there. Most of the people we meet, day in and day out, are not prospects – and never will be.

Sure, you may attend a networking meeting now and then that’s filled with these kinds of people. But most days, most conversations are had with random, never-gonna-buy people we barely know.

Which is why it seems to me that traditional “elevator statements” – highly polished, benefit-laden, well-rehearsed sentences in which we seek to impress, generate interest and start down the road to a sales conversation – are nearly a waste of time.

Not because we don’t want to impress, generate interest and start down the road to a sales conversation. And not because they don’t help, given the right situation.

It’s just that the vast, vast majority of people you interact with every day will never be in a position to hire you. Not today, not tomorrow … not ever. (Feel free to review your list of five.)

So here’s an idea. What if, in addition to planning for those few and far between prospect discussions, you spent some time figuring out what to say during the frequent, casual conversations you have every day?


The ones where somebody innocently asks, “What kind of work do you do?”

Make word of mouth work for you

Done well, answering the question isn’t about impressing or generating interest.

It’s about this, and nothing more: Getting them to remember what you do so they can tell other people.

Why is that so important? Because that’s how word of mouth works.

Two people are sitting at a football game. Or having lunch. Or standing barefoot together in a big barrel on the back deck stomping cranberries in preparation for Thanksgiving dinner (is that just my family?), and one of them says the magic words:

“Do you know someone who can help with …?”

When that happens, and assuming you’ve done the spade work of telling lots of people over lots of casual interactions what you do, your name pops into the head of somebody’s cranberry-stomping brother-in-law and he tells the other guy about you.

Your description has to be super-simple and specific

People don’t go looking for solutions to their problems “in general.” They have specific needs, in specific situations.

Which is why until the day arrives that somebody leans over to a friend at the local bar and asks, “Hey, by the way, can you recommend a results-oriented, well rounded professional with a proven track record of enhancing growth among a range of clients and industries?”, you’re wasting your time describing yourself that way.

Here, for example, are three answers to the “What do you do?” question developed by participants in my six month marketing course:

I help hospitals meet their real estate needs.”

I help couples in divorce maintain mutual respect.”

“I help public agencies recover overcharges from their utility providers.”

Are they oversimplifications? You bet they are. But that’s your only option if you hope to be understood and remembered.

Note as well that none of these three sentences talks about credentials, experience, results or methodology.

Why not?

  1. Because the person you chat with during one of these casual encounters doesn’t care and will never remember that kind of detail anyway.
  1. Because when the “Do you know someone…?” question is asked, all people are looking for is to be pointed in the right direction.

Your one and only goal at this early stage is to be the person to whom others are pointed.

Here’s the bottom line. Are sales skills, experience, credentials, and data-filled client result examples important in getting somebody to hire us? Absolutely. Until a prospective client is convinced that we’re worth spending money on, it’s never going to happen.

But most conversations – the casual conversations with near strangers which will ultimately lead to word of mouth on your behalf – take place way before any selling occurs.

If you want the word of mouth machine to grind for your benefit, simplify the description of what you do so that other humans can understand it, remember it, and pass it along when the opportunity arises.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Does your family have any odd Thanksgiving traditions? Explain.
  1. If you tell somebody your elevator statement while riding in an actual elevator, will you travel back in time?
  1. With whom were your most recent five conversations?

Share your comments below!

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18 thoughts on “Are You Solving the Wrong Problem?

  1. Joyce Hollman

    Hi Michael,
    This was perfect! It’s the one thing I’ve been missing … how do I get all the “laymen” I know and love to get what I do? Here’s my line: “I help businesses with the words they use on the Web, so people will trust them more.”

  2. Stephen Lahey

    Hi Michael – great post – as usual.
    1. Odd Thanksgiving traditions? I plan on starting a new one this year. First, I’ll lightly coat myself in orange sunless tanning lotion, then build a great, beautiful wall of stuffing on the southern border of my turkey dinner plate and start shouting “get ’em outta here” toward any food items that aren’t “100% American”.
    2. Forward, one moment at a time – not backward.
    3. My daughter, her doctor, the nurse who gave her a flu shot, my wife. All clients, ironically. 🙂

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hi Steve!
      1. My sense is that there are many new traditions, Thanksgiving and otherwise, coming soon for all of us.
      2. Speaking of this, if you like time travel (I do), a great movie involving it is Memento.
      3. Very impressive. Now, if they all became clients as a result of those last five conversations, I’d officially declare you King of Word of Mouth.

  3. Tracey

    1) I’m divorced and by tradition my kids always go to their other grandmother’s for Thanksgiving dinner. So we evolved a Thanksgiving breakfast tradition of pancakes and all the bacon and sausage they can eat. We prefer it to anything pumpkin or sweet potato related!
    2) I’m currently watching Outlander. Even they had a guy who did the books so maybe there would be a market for my accounting services.
    3) Scoutmaster’s wife, checkout guy at store, two friends I had lunch with, the guy who serviced my heating system.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      I see you adhere to the same dietary rule as I do on Thanksgiving weekend: Anything you eat doesn’t count, in terms of health or quantity. Simple, but effective.

  4. Charles Alexander

    1) Eating way too much turkey, watching a lot of mediocre football, and making a lot of passive aggressive comments about family members. I’m sure nobody else would do these sort silly things.
    2) No. That happens when you put instant coffee in the coffee maker.
    3) My 3 year old son, both in-laws, a guy at Lowes, and myself. I may charge myself later for a video.

  5. Terry Matlen

    Great post, Michael. I’m wondering if I’m over-simplifying my elevator pitch because it’s way too hard to explain exactly what I do without having to take 10 inhales/exhales:

    “I help women with ADHD.” If their eyebrows reach up to the sky, I add more detail. But to answer your questions:

    1. Does your family have any odd Thanksgiving traditions? Explain.
    Yes- it’s the only night they help me with the dishes.

    2. If you tell somebody your elevator statement while riding in an actual elevator, will you travel back in time?
    Yes- I traveled back to yesterday today.

    With whom were your most recent five conversations?
    – Daughter (she’s stomping around because she has to clean her room in order to get her allowance)
    – Husband
    – Waitress
    – Hotel reservation lady
    – Hotel reservation lady’s boss because the former was a robot who couldn’t help me

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Terry – I like the simplicity of your statement:

      “I help women with ADHD.”

      The only thing I might add is something that explains with what or how you help them. Be productive in the workplace; live better lives; manage ADHD with diet instead of medication?

      Can you provide just a bit more specificity?

      1. Terry Matlen

        Good question. I help them in so many ways- that’s where I get stuck. I guess the global answer would be that I help them lead better, more productive lives. But I also do 99% of my work online. Is that too much to add? I consult, I coach, I write, I run Facebook groups, etc etc.

        1. Michael Katz Post author

          No worries, that’s where nearly everyone gets stuck. It’s hard to boil down what any of us does into one simple sentence. But the goal here is not complete accuracy – it’s simplicity.

          So pick something specific and go with that. It doesn’t mean you don’t do other things, it’s just that if you say too much it all gets lost. I’d leave off the online piece too (at this word of mouth stage, nobody cares how you do what you do).

  6. Harold Waisel

    1. I always make two cranberry sauces, and one always contains alcohol.
    2. No, but I stopped time ice walking up a down eacalator.
    3. My daughter, my wife, my best friend, and two new contacts at a great networking event.

  7. John

    Another good one! Your cranberry stomping reminds me of the movie, The Mouse that Roared.” The little country’s specialty was the local wine, and the movie shows a bunch of men stomping on the grapes, which added “a virile note” to the wine’s bouquet.

  8. Christine McDonald

    Great article.

    1. Seat deceased friends and family members at the table (pictures)

    2. Possibly because “I help people awaken, trust and follow their inner guidance)

    3. Son, brother, dentist office, girlfriend, sister


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