If Only You Would Listen


Its soapbox time again, but it won’t take long. This is for myself and for the many business people who talk too much.

I’ve been in a lot of business meetings lately, some of them excellent, many of them way too long. This morning I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts Rock the World With LinkedIn on Webmaster Radio which was an interview with the founder of MBAWriters and Director at BT Consulting, Todd Rhoad. Among other things they were talking about the value and importance of eBooks. This is of course something of a hobby horse for me.

I wrote a treatise called Are eBooks Ready to Come of Age and published it 10 years ago. You can get a free PDF copy here.

Anyway, I’ve seen a few eyes glaze over recently in meetings and presentations. It wasn’t that they were unable to comprehend the topics. It was because they had understood long before. There were a few classic sayings towards the end of the podcast, the things smart parents tell their kids. and the things that sales people are taught, well were taught back in the day when sales was considered a profession. Like:

  • The most successful business people keep their mouths shut. I learned that in my second year of my 3 year Sales & Marketing Diploma. I was selling 2-way radios to a sharp businessman. Halfway through my presentation he asked me for the price. I thought I was dealing with the price objection, so I started in on the problems he had told me about and how the features and benefits of our product would help him with those. He asked again for the price. I stopped, a little confused. He asked me again. I told him and he signed a big fat purchase order on the spot. I learned big time from that and always try to remind other people that you have 2 ears and one mouth for a reason and you should use them in that proportion.
  • As Lori said on the podcast (which I strongly recommend you subscribe to, is that you learn more by listening. All you need to to do to get business is listen to what the customer wants, confirm that what they are saying is in fact what they want, then leg them know if you can solve their problem at a rate that is less painful than the problem they want to solve. Then stop talking and get on with doing the business.
  • Smart people are listening and processing what they are being told. As Todd said “With people who are very quiet, you have to be very eager when they pop up and say something, because they’ve been sitting there thinking about it and its probably going to be pretty intelligent.” The flip side of that is think about what you are going to say, don’t speak as you are thinking. Maybe you can’t wait to hear what you are going to say, but your listener may not be as excited unless you are responding to what they are telling you.
  • Another thing I learned many years ago which is obvious, but sometimes you need to think about the obvious, is that we can think much faster than we listen or read. Let your customer listen and if you have a PowerPoint presentation, don’t read them the presentation, they have already read it and are processing it. Glazed eyes again, perhaps thinking about lunch or their next meeting.

I’m going to finish with an old Chicago song I used to love and share with you one great tool that I hear women using all the time, which I call active listening. Do you ever have a conversation with someone, usually a woman and she repeats back to you some of the words you have just said?

“The floods and damage from Cyclone Evan were pretty scary….:

“pretty scary”

“I had some friends who were over there on vacation”

“on vacation, I bet they were wishing they had gone somewhere else”

This is an active conversation and the people doing this are totally engaged. Most people are not totally engaged and are in fact focusing on the next thing they are going to say rather than listening to what their customer or prospect is trying to tell them. Active listening is a really good tool to use because it can stop your mind from wandering off and perhaps missing that clue that your customer is offering you as to why they might want your product. It will also help you understand what your customer is really thinking about and wants. It will let you be ready for buying signals and it will also endear you to the customer because you are showing that you are really interested. If you aren’t interested, then you probably don’t want their business.

Next time you meet someone and they ask how you are, say “Thanks, I’m very, how are you?” If they stop and ask “Very what?” They were listening. Chances are they will say something like “That’s nice”.

Listening for most of us is a skill we need to work on. Very few men, including myself at times, are not great listeners. I have found that the times when people really enjoyed a conversation with me, I actually said very little and I have probably learned a lot.

The end of Whitcoulls and Borders in New Zealand


If you have a Borders or Whitcoulls voucher, even if you hate the idea of spending double to be allowed to spend your voucher, I recommend you do it quickly, because within a couple of weeks it will be worthless. It was interesting to see that there is no mention of the current situation on the Borders website which talks about eBooks coming soon, although Whitcoulls have been a bit more responsible with a home page announcement.

The demise of these companies isn’t about eBooks, it is largely around debt as pointed out by Liam Dann in this morning’s Business Section of the NZ Herald.  and the business models. I’m not going to discuss the debt because that doesn’t reflect on the industry itself, it reflects on higher level financial decisions and the economy, not on the book trade.

Book stores and music stores are in industries that are steeped in history of “this is how we’ve done it for the last 50 years and why change it if it aint broke”.

As was mentioned in today’s NZ Herald story by Isaac Davison, “In 2010, 9.67 million books were sold, an increase of 1.2 per cent in volume but 0.1 per cent down in value against 2009. This was despite the mark-up on books in New Zealand, which saw paperbacks sold for as much as $20 more than online, even after shipping costs.”

So much for Amazon (of course there were a huge number of Kiwis including myself who purchased from Amazon as well) being the cause of the demise of our local stores.

I also appreciated the comment in the same story from Jo McColl of Unity Books that many people bought hard copy books as a consequence of having purchased eBooks. I’ve done that too. I read eBooks, listen to Audio Books and still have a personal library of around 2,000 print books. The same with music, I listen to lots of music online but have still purchased at least 10 CD’s so far this year.

I might have to go to a separate blog about how Whitcoulls and Borders business model needed to change in order to stay viable and vibrant (ignoring REDGroup‘s debt which doesn’t reflect on the book trade business model itself) because for these guys its too late unless they get a savvy new owner (who will not purchase the chains’ debt) who is ready to adopt a new business model.

REDGroup have called in Administrators. I don’t care who the administrators are. Their role is a short term one and it isn’t about changing the business model or trading back into profit. It is about the creditors.

They will try to negotiate with the book publishers and wholesalers and other suppliers who are desperate to get paid for their product and worried about their future viability in NZ. Inland Revenue want their taxes and will be first in the queue.

They will need to negotiate with the 1,000 staff who will have to have new short term contracts and will be justifiably worried about whether they will get paid at all, let alone have a future with the chain, but at the same time, will be essential should they find a new buyer for the chains.

Based on the outcome of their negotiations a decision will need to be made on whether to go into receivership which is next most likely step. If that happens, enjoy the book sale, because there will be many bargains up for grabs.

The shame of it is that (outside of the decisions that got REDGroup into this financial position) the problem in the trade is that the business model needed to change and like the music industry and other industries, the people running them don’t get it. They should have learned from the music industry, which still doesn’t get it. Other industries who don’t get it include banking, telecommunications and consumer electronics to name a few.

What should they have done and what can other retail businesses do in order to not follow Borders and Whitcoulls into the mire? Subscribe to my blog and I’ll give you a few pointers for free. It isn’t rocket science, but it is a fundamental shift in thinking, whilst also remembering the fundamental simple principles of retail and distributon.

We live in a new world, its exciting and there is a lot of money to be made, but the fatal flaw is thinking that if you do the same thing you have always done, that you will get a different result.

There is an RSS feed to this blog. Come back and read some of my ideas on how companies like Whitcoulls and Borders can thrive and prosper.

Here are a few things I would look at:

  • Understanding your business
  • Communication with customers
  • Communication with staff
  • Distribution methods
  • Stock turn and inventory management
  • Engagement
  • In Store Events
  • Proximity based marketing
  • Shelf Management
  • Relationships with community
  • Relationships with education
  • Location Based Business Analytics
  • The Internet
  • Gift Registry

I could and probably will go on. The answers are a mixture of the old and the new, neither of which these chains have effectively managed. Borders started in the right direction in the US, but didn’t continue the evolution. International chains like Borders and WH Smith focussed more on the  era of globalization than evolution of the business model. Something that would have made short term heroes who have probably made their money and moved on, but was only ever going to be short term.

New Zealand Banks told not to reduce fixed mortgage break fees, I say think again


On Page 5 of this morning’s New Zealand Herald I read a story with the headline Stick to guns on fee, banks told. Now I’m the first to stand up and say I don’t understand the banking economy as well as the bankers and the politicians, the educators and maybe even Liam Dann, who says we are all behaving like whingers. No I have bumped into Liam many times over the years and the experiences have all been good, but in my mind something isn’t gelling for me. Maybe he or some others can explain where my thinking is going wrong.

First, we are in a global economic crisis and times are tough all over. I totally agree with Liam’s assertion that when I signed for a fixed rate, I signed a contract which is a legal document saying that I would pay the rate for the period on the contract and it would cost me to break it. The banks are saying that they can’t afford to subsidise the cost, but they quickly gobbled up the guarantees provided by the government to help move the economy.

Now I said at the start, that I don’t understand exactly how the banks work. I know that when I borrowed my $165,000 the National Bank didn’t rush out and borrow that sum, they would have signed contracts for millions at really good rates and my loan would have been part of a bundle which allowed them to hedge for a profit. Now I understand that the Official Cash Rate is a major influencer in mortgage and deposit rates, but a large part of the borrowing by the banks is in other countries where the rates are much lower than ours.

As to becoming whingers, I’d like to ask Liam if he thought (irrespective of the contract that was signed) we were also whingers when we saw the gap increasing between lowering oil prices and the retail price of petrol. It was public pressure that almost overnight reduced the retail price of petrol, people whinging that they thought the profits weren’t fair.

When I took out a new fixed loan of $165,000 I based my decision on the advice of bank staff, even though they were careful to say that I shouldn’t take their information as an official position by the bank, the decision had to be totally mine. But the thing is they did give me advice, and I do accept that no one saw the crash coming. On the other hand the banks also said after the problems in 1987 that they would tighten up their lending criteria, which they have obviously loosened as time went on.

So here’s the thing. While we were all struggling with how to afford our petrol, New York Times International Tribune told us that Shell Oil increase their profit by 33%! They said their profit rose to US$11.56 BILLION! Around the same time The Guardian reported that BP Oil increased their profit to 6.7 billion POUNDS. Liam did you whinge about the oil price?

Businesses have clout. In my world of business, contracts get broken when companies have the power to break them. They sign legal contracts all the time, but if they decide that their supplier is making too much profit, the implied threats come out, saying that they have a choice and even though they have a contract, often it is only as good as the money that a business wants to throw at it to defend it. This is something I do know about it. When you try to defend your contract, you use meet and discuss the situation explaining both parties points of view and try to find a common ground because you need that business relationship. This is called negotiation in my book, although some people might call it whinging.

Now I’m all for businesses making profit, it is essential for their survival and I want my bank to survive, but I want them to be fair too. The NZ Herald themselves reported that while ANZ – NATIONAL took a huge drop in profit, they still made almost $1 billion after tax. That means after all expenses were paid. The NZ Herald also reported TODAY that BNZ’s profit is up 15% on last year, so forgive me if I don’t stop and give them a minute’s silence in respect of their tough times.

So I’m trying to figure out why Liam has this perspective. Here are some things I have heard about or personally experienced about contracts in the last several years: before they

  • A company agrees to buy products manufactured in New Zealand at an agreed fee for a contracted period of time and a contracted price and volume. The buyer then discovers they can buy equivalent product from a Chinese manufacturer and despite the contract and the money the Kiwi manufacturer has invested in staff and plant, breaks the contract and says I can’t continue this deal because the prices were too dear. Never mind that they were already making an extremely healthy retail profit prior to breaking the contrct.
  • An overseas company buys a NZ company complete with its staff and operations and agrees to maintain all the contracts. They then go through the payroll on a spreadsheet and decree that all staff earning more than $X will be made redundant, but can reapply for new positions where the specification might be modified by 5% at a 3rd of what they used to do, irresepctive of their contribution. The good news for me is that they kept the people who weren’t contributing and areas where they made staff redundant and replaced them with people who were prepared to work for way less, reduced profit and revenue by in one case almost 80%. I think that strategy was illegal, but who wants to burn bridges or be seen as a trouble maker or a whinger.
  • I’m sure if you are reading this you know of similar situations where businesses break contracts with other businesses all the time. They get away with it because one business has more power than the other and the losing party either can’t afford the cost or the consequences of fighting for what is right. If you know of cases like this, or indeed if you think I am wrong, please comment on this blog. As long as it isn’t spam or blatant advertising, I will publish your comment.

So here’s the thing. Banks used to be community organisations. You used to be able to walk into the bank and talk to the Bank Manager. They would know you buy name. They would give you advice and show an interest in you. They introduced technology that people said would turn them into machines, and in many cases it did, but the machines were of benefit to the consumer and business, such as EFTPOS (which I helped in a tiny way to introduce), ATM’s, Internet Banking and more. These investments saved them and their customers in time and money, but particularly made the banks more profitable by reducing overheads and staff.

When I first wanted to borrow my current fixed loan from my bank, with whom I had banked for almost 25 years, I actually got a better deal through Mike Pero Mortgages than I could from the bank directly. How’s that for 25 years of loyalty? I had to get a broker to get me a reasonable deal from my own bank!

So I’ve had my whinge Liam. It seems it ‘s ok for businesses to break contracts with each other and to fight for them, but it’s whinging if a consumer, a customer for many years of a bank that is making big fat profits out of their dealings with them, and gets a helping hand from the government which in many cases is as a consequence of imprudent lending, which after 1987 they said they wouldn’t do to expect a little help as well, well I’ll accept the title of whinger.

Just as a footnote, my local grocer is going back to India to look after his elderly parents after running his store here for 24 years. For all of that time, he has shown a real personal interest in every customer, he knows most of them by name. He has helped many of them out if they needed something and didn’t have the cash on them. I won’t go through all the little things he did for local people, but here’s the thing. The supermarket is much cheaper and for many people closer, but they still buy from him and he is selling a highly profitable business. Profitable not because it is a Four Square, or because of his location, but because he cares, because he is a person doing business with people and we as his customers want to do business with him.

If the National Bank doesn’t look after me, perhaps go halves on the contract difference or something that shows that they care about my business, my family and my future business (because I intend not only to be around for a long while, if the creek don’t rise, I won’t be whinging, I will be moving with my feet.

Now I am not wealthy, I live in a very average neighbourhood, far from affluent. Having been made redundant twice and suffered badly as a consequence and having little faith in the government to give me any sort of lifestyle when I retire I am being prudent. I have a small savings account (which has helped my kids from time to time with studies, with medical costs, holidays and other interests), I have a modest term deposit, suffient to cover 2-3 months of income should I be so unfortunate as to be made redundant again as is happening to many people right now. I have a mortgage on my home and a mortgage on my rental property which breaks even without paying a cent off the capital (and of course in recent times means that it is worth less than the loan (but this is for the long haul and it will come right.

Sorry, if I’m rambling, but this post is personal. If the National Bank doesn’t come to the party, I will go back to Mike Pero Mortgages who have looked after me so well in past. I will ask them to find me a new bank that will take over my term deposit, my checking accounts, my 2 mortgages, my Internet Banking, my EFTPOS account, my credit cards and will tell everyone who will listen. Liam, mate, I’m not being a whinger in my book, I believe that people do business with people. We have a choice and I will be looking very closely to see if one of the banks realises that a short term sacrifice will amply pay great dividends in the long run. I suspect that the bank that does this and continues to recognise that their profit comes from their customers will grow and thrive while the others wonder what happened.

Liam, this is starting to sound like I am having a go at you. Frankly I was annoyed to read your column in the Herald today. Factually you are on solid ground, a contract is a legal and binding document. But consumers do have power and if they don’t use it, the corporates or anyone that can will walk right over them. Over recent years Kiwis became so PC (politically correct) that they let everyone walk over them. They thought  people like Americans and Australians were rude if they complained about a dirty coffee cup in a cafe. The contract was for coffee, there was never discussion over the cleanliness of the cup.That made them whingers. Now more and more people are realising that it not just about the contract, it is about standing up for what is fair, ethical, moral and just. The laws of economics are changing and people have a choice.

If anyone is still reading this soap box and agree or don’t with me, please leave a comment and tell me what you think. I would also appreciate you telling other people about this blog if you think it is worthy. Let’s remind the banks and everyone else that those who recognise and respect their customers will in future grow and thrive, those that don’t might be sitting at home reading reading the situations vacant and wondering what happened and thinking how unfair life is.

While this blog is starting to get a good following, I would love to get more readers and encouraging me to keep writing. If you feel that my blog is interesting I would be very grateful if you would vote for me in the category of best blog at the NetGuide Web Awards. Note that the form starts each site with www whereas my blog doesn’t and is of course http://luigicappel.wordpress.com.

Thanks so much for your support:)