Saturday, June 27, 2009

Prospecting or Upselling

Interesting blog post from Basho about the ROI on upselling versus prospecting. Seems like prospecting is "coming back into vogue". It never really should have gone out of it, should it? No. Pick up the phone!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Why GTD (Getting Things Done) Sucks

GTD is the most popular of naked Emperors to hit the personal productivity scene. I bought the book, like hundreds of thousands of others. Like my entranced brethren and sethren, I read it avidly and thought "at last". Then I collected, processed, next actioned, contexted, someday/maybed, and pretty much everythinged. But did I actually Get Things Done? Nope. Well actually, I get a lot done. I'm the CEO of a small but international consulting firm. I'm very very busy. But did GTD make a difference? Nope; not a whit.

At first, I couldn't figure out why. It's so simple, and logical (with just a whiff of Zen thrown in to make you think you're all calm and mind-like-water-ish). How come it didn't work? My first reaction was, I imagine, like that of most people: I'm not doing it properly. Then that became: I'm just not doing it. And then the more I asked about, the more I realized - very few people are doing it. It's not me; it's not us. It's the bloody thing itself. It sucks. And I think I've just figured out why.

It's all about thin slicing. Malcolm Gladwell discusses it in "Blink". Thin slicing is essentially the very rapid processes that go on in our heads, largely subconsciously, to help us process certain complex situations. One example is the ability of a famous tennis coach to predict, just prior to a tennis pro's serve, whether the serve would fault or not. But here's the point. Our ability to thin slice can be seriously undermined when we try consciously to analyze the problem at hand. The example he gives is where the Getty Museum engaged several experts over several months to check the provenance of a Greek kouros prior to buying it. The result of the analysis -- that the statue was genuine and worth several million dollars -- was rapidly overturned by several other experts who spotted that it was a forgery after only a brief glance, a "thin slice". And the thin slicers were right. The conclusion, expanded by Gladwell throughout the book, is that as we perform conscious analysis of a problem, our thin slicing deteriorates.

This is, I think, part of the problem with GTD. It kills any chance we have at being productive because it overloads us with silly analysis over what the next action is -- "Move hand forward; Pick up pencil; Move pencil over paper; Lower tip towards paper ...); or what "@Context" a given action belongs to. And so on. As a result, the real underlying source of effectiveness -- the productivity equivalent of thin slicing -- is overwhelmed.

Exactly what that underlying source of effectiveness is, will be the subject of a future post (when I get around to it, someday, maybe). But for now, remember. GTD - just say no.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Brownian Motion

My Google Apps front page has a newsfeed gadget. Here are the headlines for the last three days:

Monday: Stocks head for rosy start
Tuesday: Stocks could lose momentum
Today: Strong start seen for stocks

That's a "yipee!", a "darn!" and a "wahay!" in the space of three days. Give me a break Mr. Klein. This is not news, it's chicken entrails.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Cold Emailing versus Cold Calling

Phone versus Email for cold calling is a bit of a religious war. Your typical battled-hardened sales veteran tends to the "Pick Up The Phone You Wimp!" view; where the Twitter-savvy, IM-friendly yoof will be more inclined to send an email. In general. Personally, I fit firmly into neither demographic, but I am a fan of the veterans' view. In my experience, much of the arguments for email and against phoning are simply thinly disguised (or maybe subconscious) call reluctance. A recent example demonstrates why at least in my case, sales prospectors are pretty much wasting their time with email. It was this morning, and my as-ever full load of emails contained a cold sales approach. Here's a snippet:
From: <Sales Dude>                                                                                                               
Date: Thu, Apr 30, 2009 at 11:08 AM                                                                                     
Subject: <A feature they want to push>                                                                                   
To: Tommy Kelly                                                                                                                      
Dear Tommy,                                                                                                                           
My name is <Sales Dude> and I wanted to introduce you to <Cool Service> , a service      

that I believe Verilab Ltd could benefit from.                                                                           
<Cool Service> provides a convenient way to <do stuff>                                                    
. No more <typical problem 1>                                                                                               
. No more <typical problem 2>                                                                                               
. etc                                                                                                                                           
How does it work?                                                                                                                   
May I provide you with more information?                                                                              
Thank you for your attention to this matter.                                                                             
You may also check our <other cool stuff> at http://www.<theirdomain>.net/                    
<Sales Dude>                                                                                                                           
Sales Manager                                                                                                                           
To be removed from our list please click here-unsubscribe                                                   
 Now here's what I did with that email:
  1. Without even reading it, I scrolled to the bottom to look for the unsubscribe link
  2. Finding the link, I unsubscribed
  3. Still without reading the email, I deleted it
Note that the above wasn't done angrily, or with any kind of under-the-breath curse against all sales folk. It was almost automatic. It's *just what I do* with that kind of email. And there's the problem (for the sender).

Apparently I apply to my emails the kind of "thin slicing"  discussed by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink. My decision even to read an email is based on its overall look and feel. It's like I have my own in-built Bayesian spam filter, and I Just Know if an email is worth looking at. The trouble is (again for the sender) my internal spam filter is actually pretty poor quality, and raises a lot of false positives. In other words, I delete, unread, emails that I'D ACTUALLY HAVE BEEN QUITE GLAD TO RECEIVE. In fact, the email I've been using as an example is a case in point. It's really quite a good product they're offering. I could even see myself buying it. But had I not chosen to use it as an example for this blog post, it wouldn't have survived long enough for its photons to get past my retina.

In my case, cold emailing is almost completely a waste of the sender's time. And I am not alone.

Now of course some will argue that they feel the same about phone calls. But that's missing the point. My response to the email isn't about feeling. It's not emotional. I do, it's true, hate scum-level spam, but I didn't hate the example email or its author. The guy has an interesting product, and wants to see if he can help me and have me buy stuff. I've no problem with that. But I just don't listen. He doesn't even get the time of day. It's not his fault. It's not even my fault. It's just the reality of a busy work life.

Phoning is different because by picking up the phone, the recipient *is* giving the time of day. That's not to say you can't then screw up the call and annoy them. Just as there is scum-level email, there is scum-level phoning. But that's a problem not with cold calling per se, but with bad cold calling. And why on earth would you want to do that?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Wish Not One Man More

You run a small business. The economy that is rocking behemoths like GM is threatening to swallow your little boat whole, or smash it against rocks. Your car just broke down. You've just found out that your cholesterol is dangerously high. And your oldest kid is getting into trouble at school. What do you do?

There are two ways - one bad and common, the other rare but good. The first, I'll call the "If Only" way; the second, the "Despite" way.

The "If Only" way responds to problems by imagining and longing for a world where the problem does not exist. "If Only" I hadn't started my business in 2008. "If Only" I'd taken that safe job. If only my client hadn't gone bankrupt and became unable to pay my invoice. And it involves thinking enviously about the lucky people who are not experiencing your troubles. Basically, it is to live with the worldview that life is supposed to be easier than it is.

The "Despite" way, by contrast, requires a view of success that is impressed not only with what we achieve, but with the size of challenge we overcame to achieve it. Its response to adversity is not to wish the problems would go away, but to think:
"How cool will it be when I succeed *despite* this new challenge"
For example, many people started businesses in that cauldron of technology, Silicon Valley, and in the boom time of the late 90's. I, on the other hand, started my business in the economic basket case called Scotland, and at the start of the 2001 tech bubble collapse. If I succeed despite those disadvantages, I reckon I get a higher seat at the winner's table than my counterparts in San Jose. And those who are starting now, in the face of the current mess? I had it easy. You guys are my heroes!

Perhaps the best example of the "Despite" mentality is the King's St Crispin's Day speech in  Shakespeare's Henry V. Westmoreland, concerned by the size of the much larger French force, wishes that the English had more men. Henry's response is one of the most inspiring speeches in English literature, and it focuses on this fact -- that success, glory, and honour are best seen relative to the size of challenges overcome in reaching them.
"What's he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;

If we are mark'd to die, we are enow

To do our country loss; and if to live,

The fewer men, the greater share of honour.

God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.

This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."
Today we entrepreneurs and business leaders face our own Agincourt. The challenges are immense, and the fear is real. But if -- no, when -- we make it through. Think of the glory. We can look back (and put on our resumes) that we lived through this time. We few. We happy few. We band of psychotic nutters. :-)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Small Sales, Big Sales, and the Monkey's Paw

A particular technique in complex sales is the Monkey's Paw. This is where a small sale is used to "prime" a client to be more accepting of a much larger sale. The technique gets its name from the nautical term referring to a particularly bulky knot tied in the end of a lightweight line (a "heaving line"), to act as a weight.


With the Monkey's Paw at one end of the line, the other end can be tied to a much heavier line. The Monkey' Paw can then be thrown from the boat to the dock, and the person on the dock can then draw in the heavy rope on the end of the light one.

Well I've been reading, "Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive!", by Goldstein, Martin and Cialdini. It's a fascinating review of psychology research into how we make decisions. Chapter 14 gives an excellent example of the Monkey's Paw in action (albeit not specifically in a sales situation). More important, it gives a idea of why it is the technique works.

The book cites a 1966 experiment by Freedman and Fraser, in which residents of a posh neighborhood were asked if they'd be willing, in the interests of road safety, to allow a large and ugly sign reading "DRIVE CAREFULLY" to be mounted on their lovingly cared for front lawns. Not surprisingly, only 17% of the residents agreed.

Then an almost-identical request was made of a similar group of residents. However, two weeks prior to making that request the experimenters asked the second group if they would agree to having a much smaller sign placed in their windows. Almost all agreed to the small request. And then the number that agreed to the larger, ugly-sign request two weeks later? 76% - a huge increase.

The reason proposed for the dramatic change was that the second group of residents, by agreeing to the small-sign request, saw themselves as being participants in the cause of road safety. They were no longer simply sites for signs - they were good and upright citizens. Nothing has changed about the request -- it's the requestee's view of himself that has changed

The authors suggest that the application to sales isn't too difficult to see. Once someone has made a purchase from you -- any purchase -- they are no longer a prospect; they are a client.

As I say, a fascinating book, and worth a read.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

On programming excellence and the forehand drive

Matthew Gladwell's book, "Blink", is essentially about how our subconscious minds can make decisions and lead us to take actions, but it also discusses how inaccessible that subconscious process can be to us.

One example is the way top tennis players execute a forehand drive. A key part of the action is (or was) to use the wrist to roll the racket over the top of the ball on impact, so as to impart topspin. Gladwell quotes top tennis coach, Vic Braden,
"Almost every pro in the world says that he uses his wrist to roll the racket over the ball when he hits a forehand."
The trouble is, although high speed filming of a tennis pro's stroke shows that he or she does indeed do the wrist roll, it happens long after the ball has left the face of the racket. There really is a correlation between the wrist roll and an effective forehand, but it is not a direct causal correlation in the direction of roll-to-performance. It seems that being good at tennis tends leads you to roll your wrist for the forehand; but it is not at all clear that rolling your wrist for the forehand will make you good at tennis. Clearly something is making Andre Agassi a better tennis player than you or me; but rolling the racket over the ball isn't it. I think we can learn from that in the field of computer programming.

Take for example coding standards. Most places have them. In chip design, a well-known source is Keating's and Bricaud's "Reuse Methodology Manual for System-On-A-Chip Designs". On page 87 of the third edition we find:

5.2.7 Line Length
Guideline -- Keep the line length to 72 characters or less.
Lines that exceed 80 characters are difficult to read in print and on standard terminal width computer screens. The 72 character limit provides a margin that enhances the readability of the code and allows space for line numbers.
Now it's not clear there's anything fundamentally bad about that. OK, perhaps the 72 should be increased in the face of ever larger screen widths. But apart from that, surely making your code readable -- since it makes it less bug-prone, more maintainable, and more reusable -- does make you a better coder, no?

Well, I'm not so sure. What if neat and readable code is like the tennis pro's wrist roll? What if it is merely a marker or indicator of goodness, but not a cause? If that's the case, then telling people to
keep their line lengths under 72 characters, or to use CamelCase for variables, is not going to make them better at programming. Clearly something is making Linus Torvalds, or Richard Stallman, or Jamie Zawinski a better programmer than, oh I dunno, you or me. But I have my doubts that it's because they keep their line lengths to under 72 characters (even if they actually do!)

But so what? Is there any harm in trying to teach excellence with advice that is superficially sensible? There are two dangers.

First, such advice can actually be harmful. According to coach Braden, not only did explicitly teaching the wrist roll not improve players' forehands, the number of wrist injuries grew dramatically. But second, and more important in the programming field, is the problem of the false sense of security. By teaching the wrist roll, tennis coaches were distracted from continuing to try to understand what it really was that made for a great forehand. The danger in programming is we think by handing every new hire a copy of our "How To Do It" book -- be it the "Reuse Methodology Manual", the "Motorola Semiconductor Reuse Standards" (MSRS), or any of a host of documents from the now-dissolved VSIA -- that we have done our job in terms of creating coding superstars.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Cold Calling

The sharp end of selling is the cold call. Few people like doing it, but for engineers -- typically more interested in things than in people -- it can be worse than poking yourself in the eye with a rusty nail. And for Professional Services firms, it's often seen as Not The Done Thing; something telemarketers for insurance may do, but not high falutin' lawyers, or accountants, or verification consultants. In fact, so reluctant can some people be to do this kind of prospecting that there are entire books and courses dedicated to handling call reluctance (e.g. "The Psychology of Sales Call Reluctance"). Others promise that you can sell without cold calling at all (e.g. "Never Cold Call Again").

Personally I believe that cold calling, while not the be-all and end-all, is an essential part of the professional consultant's sales arsenal. Verilab has been using the Sandler Sales Institute for some time now, as part of its overall training approach. And the Sandler System has some refreshing views on the cold call.

The first part of a Sandler cold call is referred to as a "Pattern Interrupt". The idea is that most people (including most sales folk) have been so badly impacted (a.k.a. p*ssed off) by cold callers in the past that they have an automatic negative reaction to any kind of sales attempt on the phone. It's not necessarily even conscious, but it blocks the vast majority of cold calls in their track. A pattern interrupt is used to get the call off on the right footing, without having to fight every inch of the way.

Once the PI has achieved its goal, an important subsequent step is the "Up Front Contract". This is a constant theme throughout Sandler. The idea is as follows:

a. You describe clearly what you want to do next
b. You describe a binary (yes/no) decision you'd like to get as to whether you'll proceed *after* whatever is in step a (and you stress that a "no" is perfectly fine).
c. You get the prospect's permission to begin

For example, a consultant could say: "I'd like to take just 30 seconds to tell you whay I'm calling. When you've heard that, you can tell me if you want to discuss some more, or you can say the call is over. And saying it's over is absolutely fine. Is that OK if I do that?" Now, written out like that in script-form may sound stilted. But when done well -- and Sandler is not into scripted calling at all -- it comes across smooth and natural.

Another useful tip I picked up from Sandler some time back was the suggestion to listen and observe people cold calling you. I now do this, instead of getting annoyed at them. I try not to tease them for too long because I now respect their time (they're almost certainly working to a dials-per-day quota, and may just be some poor single mom trying to make a living). But I like to ask them about their style, their call volumes, and their success rate.

In high grade consulting, such as at your Accenture, your WLRK, or your Verilab, calling volumes of up to 100 dials per week are not uncommon. But we look like mere babes compared with the full time telemarketing heroes. I spoke to one several months ago who was making 200 dials per day. Yesterday, I got one who was reaching 400 dials a day. And then this morning someone called me, from the same place as the 400/day person, and they claimed to be making up to 1500 dials a day! If it's true, and assuming a solid ten hours of dialing per day, that means an average time per dial of a mere 24 seconds.  Worse, they told me that they had a conversion rate of only 8 to 15 appointments (the intended outcome of a dial) from that 1500. Despite all that, the guy I spoke to sounded completely upbeat and determined. If I'd had a need for that kind of calling, I'd have asked him for a resume.

As I say, cold calling is only part of the picture. And if you build your overall network well, cold calling can become a decreasing part of what you do. But while you're building, and even then, screw your courage to the sticking-place and pick up the phone!

Monday, February 9, 2009

New Veriblogger

Another one of the Verilab team has started The Blogging Thing. Will is our systems guy, but that can sometimes imply not much more than someone who makes sure your email works and who runs the backups. In practice, Will -- a functional programmer by training -- is really a systems guy on steroids. He is part of our ongoing strategy for keeping Verilab right as far as the convergence of hardware and software methodologies is concerned. If you've ever wondered if recursive make is harmful for chip builds, if you've ever struggled to filter out those bogus non-warnings from the log output of <insert your favourite EDA tool>, if you've ever wanted to jump out of a high window because your <insert your favourite EDA vendor> simulator won't work unless you first run a seventy-two-line csh script (and you're running bash), I think you'll find his stuff useful.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Go forth and buy Starbucks, Hummers and other shiny objects

I just bought a new PC. Actually, it was an old PC - a refurbished Dell laptop. I spent $400 on a beat up brick, instead of, say, $1,900 on something shiny and new for a few reasons. One is that I'm a terrible maximizer and am still trying to decide which shiny and new machine I should get. Another is that I actually need two machines - one shiny and new, but also a stopgap machine for one of my team while her Lenovo goes back for repair. And the Dell is a perfect stopgap machine. But most important of all is this:

I'm scared because of the "The Economic Crisis"

That reason is telling; I think, anyway. As I explained to my team in Verilab's Austin office yesterday, January 2009 feels much the same as January 2008, or January 2007. If anything, January 2009 actually feels better than those past years. Of course fortunes can change fast for a small firm, but that has nothing to do with 2009. Being a small company means you're always at risk from the big wave, let alone the perfect storm. And so if I keep my eyes purely on the data that immediately affects me, I cannot yet see a problem worse than the problem of being a small, international firm working in high tech.

So, why did I allow "The Economic Crisis" to affect my buying behaviour? The world of PC sales is $1,500 shorter than it would have been had I, You-Are-Already-Dead-Kelly, had the balls to buy a new machine. Why did I chicken out? Well the reason is, I'm scared not because I have anything yet to be scared about, but because you're scared. I'm reacting not to a softening sales pipeline, or to all my consultants being emptied from their clients, or to a sudden ban on the use of SystemVerilog for chip verification. I'm reacting primarily to the fear shown by others. You, and your fear, is the problem. Of course, you in turn are scared primarily because your friend is scared. And your friend's scared because his cousin in Austin was laid off because his Austin employer was scared because his next door neighbour, Tommy Kelly, was scared. Repeat until sick.

Now I'm not denying that there are real economic problems. As Kipling never said:
"If you can keep your head while all about you are losing theirs ... you may have misjudged the situation"
So bad stuff is definitely out there. Toxic assets are, well, toxic. Companies large and small are in danger, jobs are being lost, and home loans foreclosed. Aaaah! But is it reasonable to believe that I am not alone in reacting not to actual observable problems but merely to other people reacting to something? Is it reasonable to believe that a large part - maybe the largest part - of the current problem is not "real"?

Let's do some math(s). There are, what, 300 million people in the US? Let's say 200 million of them are sufficiently afraid of their neighbour's fear that they are not buying as much stuff as they otherwise would. Let's say I'm an average non-spender. So, some are not buying a Starbucks for $4.00, while others are not buying a new Hummer for $60,000. Just for argument's sake, assume the average non-spend is $1,500. Two hundred million Americans each didn't spend $1,500 dollars they otherwise would have. That means $300 billion dollars of non-spend. For no reason. $300 billion dollars of trade that would have happened, didn't happen, because of fear triggered by someone else's fear.

Suppose we decided to actually advance in the face of fire. Instead of battening down the hatches we each decided to buy something that we we knew we were putting off only because of the fear. What would happen to the economy?

I'll leave you with the best video I've yet seen explaining the crisis, and particularly this aspect of "market sentiment".

Meantime, I'm off to buy a shiny new PC!

Monday, January 26, 2009

2009 - Advance In The Face Of Fire

Just after starting Verilab, I dabbled in body building and weight training. One evening, after a session of leg exercises, I asked a much fitter and more experienced friend the following question:
"When you are working at the very limits of your ability, do you think you find squats easier than I do when I'm working at my limits?"
My assumption was that since he was better trained than I was, with better technique, that he'd find his most extreme workouts easier than I would mine. And so his answer surprised me:
"After a max leg workout, I sometimes throw up. I can barely walk, and have to hold onto the wall to stop myself from falling down."
There was no conceit in his answer. He was simply stating it as it was. Working at the limits of his ability, he put himself through a far more punishing and painful routine than I did. I realized that a major success factor in body building was the mind. It was true that my friend Marc was physically better trained than I was. But the difference in our respective mental training was even greater. He had trained himself to push himself harder than a normal person (a.k.a. me) thought was possible. He had trained himself to know that when the pain is so great that you think you are damaging yourself (and in serious weight training you often are), you can still push even harder.

It reminds me of a scene from the movie "Bravo Two Zero", in which a British SAS patrol encounters an Iraqi force. True or not (the details are disputed), the account is impressive, particularly where once the attack is underway, the SAS start to advance towards the numerically superior opposing force. Most normal humans would have cowered in the dust, but not the SAS (2:06 in the following video):

Again, the mind is key. McNab's character in the movie admits that he was scared. "Of course you're afraid. Anyone who says they're not is either lying or needs to see a shrink." But when the crucial moment arrives, past training comes to the fore. The fear remains, but the individual is able to focus on what needs to be done. The same happens in a scene I mentioned before, in "Band Of Brothers":

The difference between Blithe and Speirs was not the presence or lack of fear or of real danger. The difference was in their mental ability to control that fear, and to operate despite that danger. I think there are lessons here for the coming year. True, running and screaming war cries at a global economic crisis aren't going to make it go away. Unlike the Iraqi force, toxic assets aren't going to turn back into high grade investments just because we keep our nerves. But scaring the enemy is only one reason for advancing in the face of fire. Another is the effect it has on you, the underdog; the one being attacked. Like the body builder, you often don't know how far you can push yourself until you try. And a third reason is the training effect. This is not the final economic crisis. We will come through this, and there will be others in future. So this is a rare opportunity to train and learn. We should use it.