Thoughts about business and economic development in rural areas.


February 2018
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Will the show really go on?

Just did a customer service training session in Platteville and the response to one of the questions I asked led to this entry.

One of the key components of the Disney approach to providing exceptional customer service is the concept of ‘show’. They even use theatre terms in their business including referring to employees as ‘cast members’ who are ‘cast for a role’ instead of being hired. Over the years I’ve noted that when it comes to ‘show’ most business people really don’t get it. I think I’ve finally realized why. These people have never done any live theatre. They may have attended a performance, but when it comes to knowledge of what happens backstage and onstage they are almost completely clueless.

The question I asked was this, “How many of you have ever worked on a theatre production?” I ask that question at each of my customer service workshops. I’m lucky if one or two people out of 40 will raise their hands. So how can I expect the participants to understand the concept when they have never experienced it? Sort of like my understanding of cricket. I can spell it but I’ve never even seen it played other than snippits in tv shows or movies. I’m completely clueless on what it is to play and experience cricket.

I just finished reading an entry of Presentation Zen that brought this back to mind. ‘Show’ is essential to the Disney approach to customer service yet the best that most of us can do is spell it.

Roy Scheider played a character based on Bob Fosse in the movie “All That Jazz”. Each morning he exited his shower, turned off the music he had playing and greeted the day with a loud and confident, “It’s showtime!” Wonder how many people never got the significance of that?

Many believe that our economy is moving from a service model to an ‘experience’ model. My only question is, “Will the show really go on?”

New Ideas or Variations on a Theme

While in Madison yesterday my daughter and I went to a movie at one of the 10 screen theatres. Nothing remarkable about that but as we were leaving another of the screens was also ending and instead of the usual younger viewers this audience was distinctly different. Older, well dressed…did I really see some suits and ties or has my memory tricked me? What was going on here? And the hall was literally flooded with this group. What movie attracted that audience and in those numbers? What was I missing? I looked at the sign over the door and it said, “Metropolitan Opera.” Huh? There’s a movie about the Metropolitan Opera and it actually drew a crowd?

This morning an article in the online NYTimes caught my eye. At Cineplexes, Sports, Opera, Maybe a Movie detailed a new acceptance for live simulcasts of special events at theatres throughout the country. I know that’s been done for sporting events but the Metropolitan Opera??

New idea or variation on a theme…I don’t think it mattered to the crowd that was in attendance. Now if every business thought like that…!

Taking a Risk

Just reviewing the comment sheets from participants at two training sessions I conducted yesterday. I’m happy to say that the vast majority of the comments and ratings were favourable. In fact more than a few were very generous in their praise and many gave the ultimate compliment by listing one or more items that they were going to immediately do as a result of our session.

But as any trainer or leader knows you certainly can’t please all the people all of the time. One person in each session gave me & the presentation the lowest marks possible. They were really really displeased with the session content and the presenter. A complete miss. A complete waste of their time. (Ouch, that hurts…..and admit it, you’d feel the same way.)

So what does one do? Well first you look back to that “can’t please all the people all the time’ phrase and then remind yourself that it’s true…..very very true. And your chances of displeasing someone rise with your willingness to take risks. As a presenter I am very animated and enthusiastic. I don’t go for half the loaf. Not every person’s cup of tea to be sure but no one ever falls asleep in my sessions either. By taking those risks I try to shake up my audience and get them to think differently so they will consider accepting and acting on the changes I am suggesting.

The same is true with anything you try to do as well. As we get out of our comfort zone and try new ways to improve customer service or adopt new ideas to build our communities and businesses we have to remember that not everyone will like the changes. In fact, some folks may even get upset and if we are fortunate, they will voice their opinions. We need that feedback.

But we also need to keep in mind that many more people may accept and even welcome the changes although they might not be quite as forthcoming in expressing those feelings. I’ve seen too many groups who immediately change or stop everything when they run into one negative comment. They’re scared to death and not wanting to offend anyone, they risk (and do) nothing.

But with great risk comes the potential of great reward. I would even argue that rewards at any level will only be ours if we are willing to take risks and accept the results, both good and bad.

The alternative is to do nothing and that’s a risk I’m unwilling to take.

Community Attaboys and Attagirls

Attended the Platteville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Annual Meeting Saturday night and I was struck by how well they were doing one of the simple things that most promotion and economic development groups miss….recognizing local change.

When a new business comes to town we usually have a ribbon cutting or the ‘First Dollar’ presentation and that’s great and Platteville does that part very well.

But what about the business that’s been there for several years (or ‘forever’)? What happens when they make changes? A store remodel, a facade facelift, adding new employees. In all too many cases these positive changes go almost unnoticed and certainly unrecognized. Not in Platteville. The Chamber did an excellent job of recognizing local changes. They named names, pointed fingers and patted backs and you could tell that the ‘Attaboys’ and ‘Attagirls’ were appreciated by the smiles.

The focus on local change had another impact as well. I think it was impossible for anyone in attendance to not be impressed and even amazed by all the positive things happening around the community.

Want to have an impact on your next community annual meeting? Here’s a suggestion. Take a photo of every business facade in your community during one week right after an annual meeting. Then photo the same buildings two weeks prior to the next annual meeting. Combine those photos with the stories of the changes that occured and you’ll have a program that gives well deserved recognition to those who are investing in your community and give a little boost to those who might be considering something for the upcoming year.

And to the staff at the Platteville Chamber, here’s your very own ‘Attaboy’ & ‘Attagirl’. Great job.


Ever been tempted to try a gimmick or a giveaway (I call them ‘geehaws.’) as part of your marketing efforts? It’s a way of standing out in a crowd but it has risks as well. A good marketing campaign can employ ‘clever’ but must always remain in the ‘believable’ range. If it gets attention but doesn’t deliver a message then it’s probably not worth the money. Super Bowl commercials are a classic example. We might remember the commercial, but do we remember the product?

Sometimes gimmicks try too hard to be funny. It’s a bit like the ‘joke’ too many speakers feel compelled to use to start after-dinner speeches. If it’s not delivered well, or some of the audience doesn’t get it and most importantly, if it doesn’t relate to the main topic then the results are usually negative. The speaker would have been better off just plowing into the topic.

That said, I do believe that gimmicks can be used to make a marketing campaign more effective if we follow a few guidelines.

1.) The gimmick should enhance an existing message.
2.) It must not be offensive…..and this means knowing your audience. Sending singing Christmas cards to your contact in Israel might not cut it. Duh!
3.) It should have a high ‘show’ factor. Will the recipient be likely to pass the message or gimmick on to others. (Hey, look at this!)
4.) The message must be obvious and not dependant on outside information. (If the gimmick is separated from the accompanying letter will both the letter and the gimmick still make sense if they are viewed separately?)

I worked for a rural medical center and I always tried to find giveaways and gimmicks that were ‘health’ related. I know for a fact that I didn’t always succeed and it was usually because I forgot this basic concept:

It’s only a good gimmick if it enhances your existing message as perceived by the recipient.

And Now a Word from Our Sponsor

I was just reading issue #382 of the Publicity Hound’s Tips of the Week written by Joan Stewart. Tip #2 was titled, “Don’t Make a Deal Like This One” and related a story about a hospital’s attempt to negotiate an exclusive arrangement with a local TV station for all health related news. The ethical issues raised in that instance were pretty clear since there were several other competing medical facilities and resulted in the resignation of the news director in protest.

That story got me to thinking about how we work with the businesses and communities that fund and support our economic development programs. While the ethical questions raised in the “Don’t Make a Deal” article are fairly obvious, the ones we face are (usually) more subtle.

For example, the community or region you represent has several financial institutions and not all are financial supporters of your organization. If you give clients contact info related to local financing do you list everyone or just the ones who are members of your corporation? A quick answer might be, “You dance with the ones who brought you” but if the county or city you represent is also giving you financial support (and they usually are), then how do you justify excluding others who are members of that political or business area?

Here’s a suggestion: Be totally open about your relationship with the businesses you are listing. For example, “The following financial institutions are actively supporting our efforts to bring new businesses to our community: then list names and contact info.” And then add this line, “Additional financial resources are available through (List names only, no contact info.)

This whole dance is very tricky and you are bound to tic someone off somewhere along the line… a matter of fact, I guarantee it. But the guidelines I suggest are these: “Do my efforts provide the best service to my client” and “Is it fair to all involved?”

I’ll close for now by imagining Alfred Hitchcock saying the following, “And now a word from our sponsor.”

How much is too much?

Information, that is. We’ve all struggled with this one and usually lost. At least from our customer’s perspective. We spend days and weeks agonizing over how we will gather and present information on everything from area demographics to lists of available sites and buildings.

All good info but where do you stop? The curse of the so-called information age is that there’s so darned much of it. So let’s just impress the heck out of our client by giving them everything we’ve got. Ouch. Wrong answer.

I’d like to say I’ve never done anything like that but the people who know me would tell you the truth if I’d try to fly that one by you. In fact, a number of years ago I was on a call trip to a regional metro area and had assembled a formidable packet of information that I was intent on delivering to anyone who let me in their door. My partner on the trip joked that I would be better off just hitting them over the head with the packet and then dragging them back to my area. At least I think he was joking.

Ok, lesson learned. At least I hope so. We found that sticking to the basics was more fruitful (and less intimidating). The challenge became figuring out what were ‘the basics.’ One of the things that surprises people most when they develop promotional materials (or presentations of any type) is that it takes much longer to prepare a brief message than it does to prepare a long one. Maybe that’s why most economic development materials are so long. No one took enough time to make them shorter…..and better.

I was just looking at a presentation on Rowan Manahan’s “Fortify your Oasis” blog that ended with a simple slide showing Albert Einstein and this quote, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Could it be that we spend too much time gathering information and not enough time trying to understanding it?

Right Time to Measure Success

Ok, start of a new year and time to make those resolutions. In 2008 I will (insert wish here). One of the big problems with annual resolutions is that we expect to accomplish them in one year. In most cases, by setting up a timeline based on a calendar year we have already set ourselves up for failure.

Most goals, especially major ones, are likely to take longer. Yet we judge our success on how far we are going to get in one year. So a few weeks into the year we discover that the task will likely take longer than a year so we abandon the resolution as unattainable. Result…..nothing, or at best very little.

We do the same within our organizations. We elect officers for an annual term and then set our goals based on that term of office. Yet in most organizations and certainly in almost all economic development groups the tasks we are undertaking may take years to achieve significant progress. At the end of an annual term of office the folks involved wonder why ‘nothing’ got done and then feel frustrated and worse, question whether the next year will be any different.

The problem isn’t with our goals, but with the timetable we have for measuring progress. In my experience in the economic development field I’ve found that the only things completed in one year are usually bad. Closing a business in one year is easy. Building one can take five years or a lifetime. Even if the groundbreaking or ribbon cutting happens this year, the process that it took to get there most likely covered several years.

When I worked with Grant County I always did a year-end report and I always found the results listed not living up to my expectations even when we had a ‘good’ year. But when I took people on a tour of the county and showed them what had occurred in our communities over 10 or more years I was always amazed by how much measurable progress had been made.

Tony Robbins may have said it best. “People have a tendancy to overestimate what they can accomplish in one year and underestimate what they can accomplish in ten.”

So what should we do? Maybe it’s time to get away from ‘annual’ reports and change them to ‘discords on the decade’.

To spec or not to spec!

Every community and economic development group has had the ‘spec building’ discussion. Should we or shouldn’t we. If we do, what do we build? Unfortunately most groups stop right there and never get past the discussion stage. I should know because I’ve set in on several of those conversations. In fact, I even started a few of them. So what should we be doing?

Step One: Do a complete assessment of currently existing space that is suitable for different development purposes. If there are several existing structures that are ‘really available’ and immediately ready for use by the type of client you are targeting and that will not cost a fortune to redevelop then the answer is simple. You don’t need another building sitting around gathering dust and eating up interest money.

A word of caution here. I used the phrase ‘really available’ and that needs some clarification. If the current owner doesn’t have a solid selling price or if they say, ‘We’ll negotiate a fair price when the right buyer comes along’ then cross that building off your list as a substitute for a real spec building. It’s not really for sale and you don’t want your client to feel like they’re being jerked around……and they will be.

And ‘immediate’ means ‘immediate’. If the building is currently being used for ‘temporary’ storage or has any existing tenant then from the client’s point of view it’s not ‘really available.’ The ‘we can have it cleared out in a couple of weeks’ line won’t work so don’t even try it. Besides, the client is looking at five other buildings that are completely empty and from his perspective, your building won’t even be in the running.

Don’t get me wrong, these exisiting buildings should still be listed on your website and be part of your marketing efforts but NEVER let them stand in your way as you decide if you want to build a real spec building.

Just because there is some existing available space doesn’t mean you don’t need a spec building!

Helping Dislocated Workers – Will it Matter?

Ok, the title sounds dumb. Of course it matters. Or at least we sure want to think so. But how can you know for certain?

Anyone involved with communities over a period of time will sooner or later come face to face with a major plant closing or business failure that puts a relatively large number of people out of work. I use the term ‘relatively’ with a bit of trepidation because to the individuals affected, even the loss of one job (theirs) is a traumatic experience and we should never lose sight of that fact.

But it’s at times when large numbers are affected that agencies and communities really seem to come together. My personal experience with a situation like this came in 1996 when I was Executive Director of the Grant County Economic Development Corporation. On February 8th of that year we received notice that one of our largest employers, Advance Transformer located in Platteville, was closing its doors within six months and resulting in the permanent loss of 620 good manufacturing jobs.

We did everything you might expect in dealing with the closure but did our efforts really have an impact?

About a year ago leaders at Southwest Wisconsin Technical College called some of those representing agencies involved back then to discuss doing a survey of the affected workers as the 10th anniversary of the event approached. Where were they today? Did they recover? Did our efforts to help them make a difference? We went ahead with the survey and were able to contact almost all of the 620 affected workers. We were overwhelmed with the response as over half of them took the time to not only complete the rather extensive survey, but they also provided personal comments that would fill 26 single-spaced typewritten pages in the final report.

We just officially released the report yesterday at a press conference at Southwest Tech in Fennimore. Did our efforts matter? I invite you to read the full report and draw your own conclusions. Follow these links to the Executive Summary and the Full Report which are online in pdf format.

In case you’re wondering, the answer was, “Yes.” Working on this survey and the resulting report was a graphic reminder of the difference we can, and MUST, make as we work together to help each individual dealing with the loss of their job.