Link to podcast episode: EL 43: How to Lead a Likeable Business | with Dave Kerpen
JESSE LAHEY: Welcome to the show leaders! I’ve shared before the quote from Seth Godin that “Advertising is the tax you pay for not being remarkable.” But how do you make sure your business is remarkable; one worth talking about in a positive way? There are just too many examples of organizations that are mediocre, or worse, the people are doing things that cause customers to go on Twitter or Facebook or Trip Advisor and make negative remarks. How do you make sure the team you lead creates a likable experience for customers? To help us answer that our guest is Dave Kerpen. Dave is a speaker, NY Times bestselling author, CEO of Likable Local, and chairman of Likable Media which is had triple digit revenue growth for four consecutive years. His latest book is Likable Business: Why Today’s Consumers Demand More and How Leaders Can Deliver. Dave Kerpen, welcome to Engaging Leader!
DAVE KERPEN: Thank you for having me!
JESSE: Dave, your first book was the NY Times bestseller Likable Social Media. What led you to write that book and why was it such a hit when it seems like there are so many other available books about social media?
DAVE: Well, my reason for writing the book was that Likable Media, our first company, was working with a lot of big companies and helping a lot of big companies leverage social media, but I wanted a way to help small businesses use and leverage social media because it is such a great equalizer but there’s so many small businesses that don’t yet fully understand how to do it and so I wrote the book and – you know, I can’t say why it’s been so successful, but I’ve certainly been very, very happy with its success – I think that one thing people have told me is that it’s written in very simple language. While there are some interesting and new concepts in it, the language is simple enough that really anyone can understand it and process it. That, and I love to tell stories – I think there are a lot of stories in it.
JESSE: I would agree just from reading your latest book Likable Business. It’s unusual in the world of business in that it’s an actual page-turner. It’s great stories with lots of great ideas and so I’ve discovered that I shouldn’t read it at bedtime because I’ll never fall asleep; I just keep going on and on.
DAVE: Ha-ha! Well thanks, that’s a compliment I take, thank you.
JESSE: You’ve become a pretty well-known thought leader about social media. Why then did you turn the focus in your new book toward business leadership?
DAVE: With the success of the first book and the lot of speaking I was doing, I found myself talking about these principles of Likable Social Media that I had written about – principles like listening, authenticity, transparency, gratefulness – and I realized those principles of Likable Social Media are principles that make companies great in using social media. They aren’t just great principles of social media, they’re also principles of great business in today’s world and it seems to me that because of social media – because of the new world that we live in – it’s more important than ever – I don’t like to apply those principles to a Facebook page or Twitter page, but to apply those principles to everything that you do in your business and in your life. So I wrote the second book Likable Business directed for leaders to sort of take things that they maybe take for granted, basic concepts, and apply them in new ways to how they run their businesses, how they manage their teams, how they communicate with their customers, with their employees, with their prospects, with their vendors, with their media… because I think that increasingly those things really do make a difference.
JESSE: You know that’s interesting for me personally because it parallels my own journey. My background is in corporate communication and there came a point in which I wanted to have a broader impact and was working with more and more business leaders. It hit me one day that the principles that make you successful in communication – especially leadership communication – are pretty much foundational to smart business and smart leadership in general. For you to then say the same thing about social media is pretty compelling to me.
DAVE: It’s amazing to me how ‘common sense’ a lot of social media and how alike social media and business is. These ‘common sense’ things are things that we often lose sight of in the quest for better management; in the quest for shaving a couple dollars off of your expense line and adding a couple dollars to your revenue line, and I think we often lose sight of some of these basic principles of communication and that’s really tragic. So with really both of my books and now whenever I speak as well, I try to bring back those basic principles of being a likable leader; of being a likable person because we’ve actually seen dramatic results from these things. These aren’t just principles – I’ve talked to over 200 CEOs of growing organizations for this last book and they’ve shared their stories with me about how being likable and applying these principles has actually impacted their business.
JESSE: One of the things that I liked that just caught me totally by surprise in the book is this wonderful, mashed up metaphor you provide in the book about a cocktail party within a reality TV show. Will you explain that one for us?
DAVE: Sure, well I actually was on a reality TV show ten years ago, so I got to experience life in that reality TV world. Cameras were watching me everywhere and I had 1,200 cameras, Jesse, following my every move back on Paradise Hotel on FOX ten years ago. I guess my argument is that even if you don’t have 1,200 cameras following you now, the world is just more transparent than ever before. The world is, with each day that goes by, more and more resembling a reality TV show where anything you do or say might be captured on camera; might be captured by somebody with their smartphone, and it’s funny – my father-in-law said to me years ago, before reality TV, before social media, just after I met him and was an aspiring leader myself, he was a judge and he said to me, “Dave, don’t every do anything that you wouldn’t want to be on the front cover of the daily news tomorrow.” I thought that was really valuable and I would say that my analogy about the reality show is just that.
If you think of yourself as being filmed, as being on a reality show, then you’re going to behave in ways that you wouldn’t if you didn’t think you were being filmed. Now, the cocktail party part really refers to the fact that when people really think about how they behave at a cocktail party, they want to be not only interesting but interested. They want to not only tell great stories but listen to great stories and they realize that in order to be successful at a cocktail party – you’re there to have fun, you’re there to tell stories, you’re there to meet interesting people and find out interesting stories about other people – if you think about acting that way in your day to day life on that reality TV show and in your business, then I think you’re going to be more successful than if you go about with goals and trying to close deals and make sales. It seems to me that those folks are often less successful than the folks that just think about ‘how can I build relationships with people, how can I help people, how can I have fun doing whatever I’m doing’ – those are the sorts of things that you think about when you go to a cocktail party that I think you can really apply to a business and leadership.
JESSE: Yeah, you’re right. One of the things that I was just thinking about as you were talking is the difference between a cocktail party and maybe a more intimate gathering with people that you already know and how your focus then shifts – if you’re at a cocktail party you want to be interested and interesting – if you’re at a more intimate gathering one of the best intents that I’ve heard expressed is (I don’t know who first expressed, but) Michael Hyatt is where I heard if from – he says his goal at that kind of occasion is to create a perfect moment for me and for everybody. If we all just have a perfect moment, that’s about the best that you can expect, and that leads to ‘are you likable to customers and how do you help your team be likable to customers.’
You talk about ten foundations in your book and the one of them that I wanted to make sure that we talked some about is Surprise and Delight and it sort of reminds me of creating a perfect moment for a customer who may just be one of thousands that you have but you or your team is taking an extra effort to do something that makes a perfect moment for that person. What’s a story from that chapter that you think would be good to share?
DAVE: Well, let me tell you about Boloco. Boloco is a Boston chain – they’re actually expanding now up and down the east coast. One thing that Boloco is really insistent on is surprising and delighting their customers. If you have any issue with your order, they’re going to go out of their way to surprise and delight you. I tell the story in the book about a group of college students that have put in an order and it didn’t arrive right and the CEO of the restaurant chain called himself and showed up with fifty free burritos the next hour and really made an impact. He realized from that and other experiences that Surprise and Delight was so valuable that he ended up doing a free burrito day as a staple promotion for the restaurant chain. Unlike other restaurants where you get a free burger… but you have to buy fries and a drink in order to get the free burger. The free burrito day is just that.
Any single person can walk up and get a free burrito, no strings attached; they don’t have to buy anything else at all. That’s led to just massive lines whenever they have free burrito day, but then an unbelievable result, according to the Dartmouth School of Business, that every time they did a free burrito day it led to ten percent sales lifts for the next 3 months. By surprising and delighting customers with free stuff with no strings attached, they actually saw great business results.
One of the other things I talk about when I talk about Surprise and Delight, again relating it back to social media Jesse, is it’s always been a great principle of business to surprise and delight a customer, but before if you surprised and delighted me as one customer, I might tell a couple friends and my wife and mention it to a colleague at work. Now, if you surprise and delight me today, I’m going to share that on Twitter with tens of thousands of people. I’m going to share that on Facebook with five thousand friends. I’m going to share that on LinkedIn with a 125,000 followers. The abilities to surprise and delight customers that may in fact have some influence in social media is just… the impact you can have by surprising and delighting just one or two customers is tremendous.
JESSE: So you’re being remarkable creating something that people want to remark on and it basically connects with a customer one-to-one, but with the power of social media the ripple effect goes on and on.
DAVE: That’s right. You can’t give away free burritos every day and you can’t always give free burritos to every customer, but my point is, if you do surprise and delight folks – I liken it to the variable rewards mentality – it’s a mentality that casinos use with slot machines. At any given point there’s one slot machine that’s going off somewhere in the casino and that reminds everybody to keep playing because you see that one slot machine going off. If you’re able to Surprise and Delight with enough frequency, they’re going to spread the word to others and everyone’s going to be talking about it, then you don’t have to give away free burritos every day to every customer to have the intended effect of everybody talking about their free burrito.
JESSE: Like a lot of the foundations that you discuss in the book, if you start with trying to apply that principle just to customers, it may not really be authentic as a value of your organization. You talk in this chapter about Surprise and Delight and about surprising and delighting your team members too.
DAVE: Oh yeah, absolutely! I think that – there’s really two huge sets of people that I talk about in Likable Business and for leaders to think about and one is certainly your customer base, but the other is your employees; your team members – the people that actually make things happen. I am a huge proponent of taking care of them, of keeping them motivated, of giving them lots of exciting things and building a culture, a great team culture with you team members. One thing that we believe in is Surprise and Delight as well. I’m always doing random things to surprise and delight my team members. Like right now, for instance, I’m doing this live interview and I can see 30 people in front of us and you know what? Why don’t we buy everybody lunch today? Yeah, just buy them lunch today. Wouldn’t that be cool? Alright, I’m seeing lots of thumbs-up – there are a bunch of people on phone calls, Jesse, so we can’t scream or anything, but lunch is on me, team!
The story that I tell in the book – part of where I really started getting surprise and delight with my team was 3 years ago, my wife and I were at home and my wife was like, “Dave, you’ve got to watch this; this is Oprah’s Favorite Things episode. It’s so good!” that was back when Oprah was on the air and I’m a huge fan of Oprah as a business leader, but I wasn’t a big watcher of her show. So I sat down with my wife and I watched this Favorite Things episode where basically Oprah just gives away all of her favorite things to the people in her audience. They freak out and go crazy and it’s really good television and it’s fun watching. So I said after watching this, “Carrie, we’ve got to figure out a way to do this for our staff!” Likable has grown, you know, triple digit growth every year for the last 4 or 5 years. We’ve been really, really fortunate to grow, so obviously we’re able to reward our team and whatnot, so at the holiday party 3 years ago, I set up a PowerPoint “50 things you need to know going into 2011.”
I gathered everyone to a room making them think they were going to have to sit through this PowerPoint and on the second slide was my head over Oprah’s picture and I announced Dave’s Favorite Things and we had music and ended up giving away Dunkin’ Donuts gift cards and orange shoes and Facebook swag and a bunch of other stuff and then the grand prize was, as Oprah would do, we gave away a cruise to the Bahamas and our whole company went on a seven day cruise to the Bahamas and obviously that was not inexpensive, but the ability to reward team members with something that cool and fun not only made everybody feel good, but there was a real business impact and more people have stayed with our company because they feel like they’re family and it’s part of their culture.
We won Crain’s Best Places to Work in New York, I’m sure, because of things like that and that just continues to attract great talent. I think there are so many great advantages and outcomes from something like that, even though on the outside it may look a little costly and a little crazy.
JESSE: Yeah, that’s an amazing story and when I was reading in the book I was wondering whether you were giving those gifts to everybody present or just was it one person got the orange shoes and another person got the swag… so it sounds like you gave them all to everybody, including a Bahamas trip; you took them all to the Bahamas. Was that just the staff or could they take a significant other with them too?
DAVE: Just the staff. We fortunately have a young staff, so there were only a couple people that had to leave a significant other. So the other interesting thing is it was the whole staff that got everything, but as our team has continued to grow and get bigger and bigger each year it has gotten more and more challenging. We have continued the tradition of Dave’s Favorite Things, although of course it’s less of a surprise. Now every year, I try to play it down and say that we didn’t make our numbers this year or we can’t do it this year. I don’t think anyone believes me anymore, but so three years ago we did the cruise as the grand prize and two years ago a trip to Miami was the grand prize (we had more people) and this past year we had even more people so the prize was a trip to Atlantic City. It’s still fun, but not necessarily a cruise to the Bahamas as we have more and more staff people and you know, it gets more challenging to pull off economically.
JESSE: Next year it’ll be a trip to the Bronx (ha-ha).
DAVE: Next year it’ll be a trip to the park across the street. Don’t tell anyone, but we’re talking to sponsors so we can pull off amazing trips and have them funded now, which would be very cool.
JESSE: Yeah, it is very cool! So obviously, as team gets larger, you might have to look for ways to be more scalable.
DAVE: Exactly, and look, one of the things that I mention in the book with a lot of these principles is the larger your organization, the more challenging this is. I readily realize that these things are much easier to pull off with a team of 10 or 20 or 30 or 50 or even 100 than with a team of 10,000, but my belief is that every team of 10,000 still has subgroups of those smaller numbers and as you can start to integrate some of these principles into the subgroups and into the smaller teams and start to demonstrate some ROI and some real business results from these. Then you can make the case to integrate them more fully into even a larger organizations.
JESSE: Another foundation in your book that I wanted to make sure we talked about is Simplicity because I don’t hear very many thought leaders talking about that and you provide both some great stories and some great data as far as an argument for Simplicity in the chapter. For example, this Harvard University student who did this experiment to determine if the simplest explanation for a cause would be chosen over a more complex explanation, and you might say that, yeah, that would probably win out, but what surprised me was that subjects preferred the simpler explanation 100% of the time so it’s not even just a preference, it’s as you said, “Human beings crave simplicity.”
DAVE: We really do and as business leaders, we get so caught up (this is one we all take for granted) in the features and benefits and new products and new things that we’re doing and ways to add new revenue lines and way to make things more complex when the reality is in many cases, if you can get something to its simplest form and function, it’s going to be most effective – both the product and the explanation of the product, more importantly. I can’t tell you how many times people pitch me and ten minutes in I’m like, “What? I don’t even understand it; what is this? Just explain it in one phrase.” And actually, the best thing to happen to me from studying Simplicity – I’d like to think I’ve done a pretty good job of integrating it into our businesses, but frankly I think I could do a lot better.
The best outcome for me has been in my writing and I write a lot; I write for LinkedIn; I write for INC, and I’ve learned that the more simply I can write something, the better the result is going to be almost 100% of the time because people don’t want to read complex jargon; people don’t want to read complex language. They want to understand it in the simplest terms, so the ability to practice becoming a more straightforward and clear and concise writer has helped me become a better thinker and a better leader for sure.
JESSE: You provide so many different great stories in that chapter – Apple and Google and Blackberry… what’s your favorite story to tell about that topic?
DAVE: Apple is of course, sort of the most famous example of Simplicity, I believe. Let me tell you about a company called Buffer. Buffer is a company that does one thing: they schedule your tweets for you. In a social media world that has now dozens and dozens of company’s software doing things for people, including my own Likable Local, Buffer has had dramatic growth despite the fact that they have refused to add any new features to their product, Jesse. They are what they are; they are a twitter scheduler and that has worked really well for them because people understand what they do. They don’t need more; they’re serving a really good function. I’m a Buffer customer myself – I spend ten dollars a month. I can easily schedule my tweets in advance and then I don’t have to worry about tweeting all day, and yet the world thinks I’m tweeting all day!
It’s actually been great for me as a user. I’m a big fan and I love what they’re doing and I really tip my cap to their ability to say NO to adding new things. I think that one of the challenges as leaders that we have is ‘can we say NO and what can we say NO to?’ Buffer’s done a really good job of keeping things simple and saying NO to the many opportunities to add features and add benefits and to make their product more complex.
JESSE: I agree. Our team uses Buffer too because it just, as an example, I tend to do all my reading in batches. I’ll read for a couple hours and I’ll see all these great things I want to share, but if I tweet it all out at once I would just annoy people, so Buffer allows those things to be shared in bite size chunks the way people really do want to receive those. We’ve used Buffer for about 2 years now and have had temporarily shifted over to different products like Hootsuite, but we’ve always pretty quickly come back to Buffer because it does what it does so well and isn’t overburdened by complexities, just as you’re saying.
DAVE: Exactly. That thing is that so many folks are tempted to go in the direction of adding more and more and more, and yet often more is less. If you can really just figure out what you’re best at – what’s that one thing you are best in the world at – and focus on that one thing, you’re going to be so much better off than if you’re trying to do a lot of things and you end up doing none of them super well.
JESSE: Yeah, and I love the quote that you share from Milton Glaser, “Less isn’t more, just enough is more.” I love that.
DAVE: Exactly. I love that quote too. It reminds us that just enough is just that. Just enough is enough. Why do we always want more when really enough, by definition, is enough?
JESSE: Yeah. Well, in our last few minutes together, let’s talk about what I know is your favorite topic in the book and that is Gratefulness.
DAVE: Yes. In Likable Social Media, I talked about the power of saying “thank you” in the social media because so many brands actually don’t respond to customers’ complaints and certainly they don’t respond to customers’ compliments. An astounding 60% of brands don’t respond to customers on Facebook and Twitter. The power of saying “thank you” and just acknowledging that you’re getting a comment in Likable Social Media, and then I got into exploring gratitude more in Likable Business and I met one of my good friends who now is a former CEO of restaurant.com – his name is Cary Chessik – who now has a company called Positivity and does happiness and positivity coaching. Well, what Cary really shared with me was the activity that he started every single morning with, which was writing down five things that he’s grateful for, and how powerful that gratitude is.
Then I talked to a non-profit called Donors Choose that had actually done an experiment with handwritten thank-you cards where they had sent handwritten thank-you cards to a test group and then emailed thank-you’s to a control group. Donors Choose actually found that the folks that got the handwritten thank-you cards were actually 38% more likely to donate a second time and when they donated, they actually gave more on average. So after learning of this awesome data from Donors Choose and after hearing about my friend Cary and his morning routine, I actually began myself a morning routine – that has absolutely changed my life – of writing thank-you cards.
I started by writing one thank-you card a week and then I moved to writing one thank-you card a day and now I write three thank-you cards every morning. I write them to staff people, I write them to vendors, I write them to customers, I write them to media partners, I write them to folks in my personal life… and the amazing thing is actually two-fold. First, there’s definitely a business impact when folks receive these thank-you cards because they know in a digital world that I went out of my way to take time to write them. I get this great feedback from folks after they receive the thank-you cards and really feel appreciated.
The other amazing thing that I didn’t even really expect that Cary had told me about was that as I write the thank-you cards, even if those thank-you cards never got mailed – even if they never got sent – is that they put me in an amazing mindset for my day. You feel great! It’s actually physiologically impossible to feel both angry or sad and grateful at the same time. It’s physiologically impossible, so no matter what mood I’m in, as I write my thank-you cards, it puts me in a great mood and it prepares me to have a great day as a leader every single day.
JESSE: You definitely convinced me in that chapter with the data you show about how it really does add to the bottom line and secondly, the part that most people don’t even think of is the psychological benefits that you get; the feelings of personal happiness and obviously the difference you can make in other peoples’ lives and just that mindset that it puts you into, also, just how it sort of greases the wheel in a lot of upcoming circumstances in life.
I can recall a time I wrote a thank-you note to somebody (which I don’t do nearly enough) and then three months later a problem came up that was definitely not fully my fault, but I did contribute to the problem a little bit, but because I had written a thank-you note, the person (sort of the brunt of the problem) gave me the benefit of the doubt that I was a decent human being and she actually had a reasonable conversation with me. It never would have happened if that little human connection, that gratefulness, hadn’t been expressed, and it kind of built that bond between us.
DAVE: Yeah, it’s those positive relationships that will drive success in business and success in life.
JESSE: Well, the book is Likable Business: Why Today’s Consumers Demand More and How Leaders Can Deliver. We’ve been discussing three ways to lead a likable business, but there are a lot more stories and great ideas in the book, so I encourage everyone to check it out. Dave Kerpen, thank you for joining us on Engaging Leader!
DAVE: Thank you so much for having me, Jesse, for the whole experience. One my core values in the book that I do talk about that we didn’t talk about today is Responsiveness. If anyone has any questions, I get thousands of tweets and emails every week. Please do feel free; I respond to every single one, so please feel free to tweet me anytime @DaveKerpen or you can even go old-school and email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Link to podcast episode: EL 43: How to Lead a Likeable Business | with Dave Kerpen