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.