10 Insufferable Business Habits

I’ve put quite some time into thinking about what my last post of the year would be about. It’s the time of year for lists and reflections and making plans so I knew I wanted to write something in that style. But we’ve already made our design and branding predictions for 2016 and so many other people have put together highlight reels of 2015. That stuff has been done. So while the others are going to feed you some touchy-feely, lighthearted fare - nothing too heavy for the holidays - I’ve decided to have my last post give you some things to think on. To really think on. Hopefully you have some downtime over the holidays to do your own internal audit analyzing how the year has gone for you and your business; and if you’re like the rest of us and plan to make some resolutions to do things better in the new year, I’d like to throw some suggestions your way on what you could - and should - be doing differently to get ahead. Behold. My list of things that have annoyed me so badly in the past year that I’ve chosen to devote my entire last post to them. These are the behaviors, attitudes, and traits that are killing your business and making you an insufferable person to do business with. Want to do better in business? Listen up.

1. The Myth of Busy

There’s an epidemic in America that being “soooooooo busy” is somehow de rigueur. It’s used as an excuse to get out of things you didn’t know how to say no to in the first place. It’s used to placate those you’ve blown off or performed poorly for. It’s used when you’ve dropped the ball and maybe even on the rare few occasions when you’ve legitimately been busy. Here’s the thing. It’s lazy and it doesn’t make you seem important. Telling someone you’ve been “too busy” to do something you said you were going to do is the 21st-century version of hiding your head when you see someone on the street you don’t want to talk to. It’s cowardly and 99.9% of the time it’s simply untrue.

If you wanted to do whatever it is that you say you’re too busy for, you would have done it. It would be made a priority and you would have followed through. Perhaps you simply need to learn to be confident enough to say no. Perhaps you need to feel comfortable saying that you just aren’t into meeting up, collaborating on that project or returning a phone call. Whatever it is. The problem is you and (hint) we all know you’re not that busy… especially when we all saw your Instagram post featuring your brunch cocktail.

2. Titles Mean Nothing

This is a mantra I’ve worked hard to instill not only in my own team regarding how they view themselves but also in how we treat and respond to others. Because the truth is the title on your LinkedIn page doesn’t mean shit. Business cards are cheap. Just because you’ve come up with a title that seems important doesn’t mean you actually are. It doesn’t mean you’re good at your job and it doesn’t mean you know more than someone with a different title. This isn’t Downton Abbey. No one cares if you’re a Lord or a Lady. We want to see you do something. Internalizing the “Titles Mean Nothing” mantra is good for you, good for your business and will make you a better person. Trust me. For the longest time, I didn’t put “Owner” or “President” or “CEO” on my business card even though on paper I’m all of those.

I didn’t list those titles because they don’t matter to me. When I meet a business prospect, I know that they care more about what I can do for them than what occupation I list on my tax return. This attitude keeps you grounded and humble and real. Because some days, you know what? I am the CEO. But other days? I’m the janitor, taking out the trash. And if I got too wrapped up in titles I might somehow think I’m too good to take out the trash. And I’m not. Conversely, getting too wrapped up in someone else’s title will often lead you down the very wrong path. I’ve worked with many very-important-sounding-people at organizations… only to find out that the person who really knows what’s going on is the administrator behind the scenes. I’ve worked with executives, editors, publishers, and producers who know nothing about their actual field; while they’ve apparently been busy polishing their resumes other people have been working hard behind the scenes to make them look good. It’s those people behind the scenes that work hard despite their title that I want to talk to. Never let someone’s titled occupation make you think you’re inferior -- or that they did anything more than creep their way to the top.

3. Respond to Your Emails

There are numerous reports and studies out that serve to remind us that despite all of the newfangled ways we have to communicate, email is still the top dog. According to The Radicati Group, a Technology Market Research Firm, email remains the predominant form of communication in the business space and - newsflash! - it isn’t going anywhere. By the end of 2017, it is expected that over 132 billion emails will be sent and received per day. A survey by CMS Wire revealed what I already knew: a whopping 95% of business people not only rely on business communication tools such as email, they prefer them over in-person meetings. So here’s my big question: why can’t you email me back?! If I send you a message on a Monday at 9am do you know how long you realistically have to respond and not be a total ass? Until about 3pm on Monday. And I don’t mean the Monday after next. I mean the same day. Seriously.

If you are out of the office on a particular day, in meetings, on a plane, or otherwise being held against your will you need to set an out of office reply that lets people know what’s up and when they can expect to hear back from you. It is simply unacceptable to allow more than 1 business day to go without responding to an email. Even if that response is something to the effect of “I’m so sorry! I got caught in an epic meeting today and totally fell behind in responding to emails! I did see your message and I’ll write you back in full tomorrow!” Do you see how easy that was?

If you’re chronically asleep at the wheel or generally just DGAF (and you use Google Apps for Business) you can set up canned responses so you don’t even have to use your lazy fingers to type a response. But you must respond. Every email you ignore dilutes the goodwill you’re (hopefully) working so hard to build in person and in all of your other marketing efforts. Responsiveness to emails will win you business. Guaranteed. My agency has won over many clients simply by replying to every message we receive within one business day, often much faster. Clients routinely tell us horror stories of working with other agencies that would take weeks to email back or not respond at all. That’s ok. Your laziness just won me a bunch of work. All I had to do was be the one to click reply.

4. Respond to Social Mentions

We’ve already learned that response time is critical to your success when it comes to emails. Well, unfortunately, if you’re habitually unable to respond to emails you might as well pack it in and go home because you’re probably also a failure when it comes to responding to social media comments, mentions and messages. Where the lifespan of an email is measured in days, ignoring something on social media starts to stink in a matter of mere hours. This is your business! If a customer, a vendor or even a completely random person takes the time to share, comment, tag, post, retweet or otherwise engage with you on social media and your typical response is to do nothing, I have nothing I can do to help you.

I know your type. You’ll come to me asking me to help solve all your marketing problems. We’ll come up with a plan and a brand and a mission and you’ll screw it all up by assuming the point of it all is what you push out to the world. You could not be more wrong. The beauty of social media is that it is a place to engage, to interact, to have a conversation. If all you’re doing is peddling your own content you are now that jerk at the party that won’t stop talking about himself. Be gracious. Make it a habit to respond to everyone who mentions you on social. Every single person. Even if it’s just a like or a thumbs up or a heart. Do something. If you think you’re too small to be able to keep up with this, don’t worry. Soon you’ll be out of business and have plenty of time to spend on social. That’s how important this is. Seriously. (If you really need help, my recommendation is to check out the array of tools available, including Mention, my personal favorite.)

5. Show Up On Time

I’m sad that this topic even has to make this list because to me it really represents the fall of one of the most basic tenets of polite human society. Because being on time is really about being respectful. But you know the people that should be reading this and maybe you’re one of them yourself. You’re the type that repeatedly shows up late to happy hour. The one that is “never on time”, the one who misses the opening credits to movies and the one whose friends have a running joke about it. You must be a real hoot at parties that your friends tolerate your rude behavior but when it spills over into your business life, you have a problem. It’s not cute or funny. It’s embarrassing.

Perhaps you have fallen victim to the “Myth of Busy” or you somehow missed that day in kindergarten where they taught you how to tell time. I don’t know what the excuse is but when it is your job to be somewhere at X time and you show at X time + 15 minutes, you’re literally going to have to work 3x as hard to get ahead. Because now I know that you’re not only rude, you’re unorganized. And because you apparently don’t value my time, now I suddenly have no real reason to value yours. I’ve had clients miss meetings with me or show up late and then wonder why things didn’t turn out well. I’m going to be honest here - it’s because the second you were late to our meeting without so much as going through the effort to white lie to me about “how bad traffic is” I’ve already moved on. I’ve got things to do. And I made a specific time for you that you apparently did not value. Again, I’ve won over big clients before simply because I was the one who showed up on time or, sadly, the only one who bothered to show up at all. Sad.

6. Know How to Make a Phone Call

I’m going to make this one super simple because apparently there are a whole mess of you that missed this boat. Here is how this goes. “Hi! My name is {name} and I’m with {company}. I’m calling today about {thing}.” When you make a business phone call and start out with “hey, it’s Brian” and nothing else you sound like an imbecile. How do you know that I don’t know nine different people named “Brian”? What makes you think you’re special enough that I can recognize your voice? Why do you assume that I know what you’re talking about? I mean, thanks for the kudos but I’m no magician and I’m definitely not a mind reader. If I’m in the middle of a project and you call me to chat, I need that little introduction to get my head in the game and focus on your phone call.

If you start out a phone conversation without a proper hello and introduction it. is. costing. you. business. I promise. If you struggle with this the answer is to practice. I’m serious. Write yourself out a little script - I’ll even let you copy mine above - and put it on a sticky note next to your phone. Absolutely never ever ever should you make a business phone call without using that script. Even if you think you’re chummy enough with the person you’re calling to skip it. They’ll respect that you still think highly enough of your work together that you want to start out the phone call like the true professional you are.

7. Don’t Burn Bridges

Sure, we all realize by now how creepily small the world is. One little venture down memory lane on Facebook will remind you that the dorky geek you bullied in high school is now a gajillionnaire yachting around the Mediterranean with his model wife while you’re busy slaving away in middle management. But this concept means so much more than that to me. It’s not just a silly golden rule story about being nice to everyone, it’s a reminder that sometimes your actual business success hinges on whether you’re able to be a professional, functioning adult in spite of tough circumstances.

Sometimes things aren’t going to go your way. Sometimes you’re going to royally screw something up. Sometimes everything about a certain project will just go wrong for some reason. The winners here are the ones who decide that for whatever reason things didn’t work out that a decision to go a different direction doesn’t mean automatic blacklisting. You never know if the assistant you’re being atrociously rude to one day is going to get promoted to CEO the next. You have no way of knowing if your competition that you just got done bad mouthing on social media might be a great partner for collaboration with in the future. In business, you’ve got to be willing to play the long game. Being short-sighted and impulsive will do nothing but earn you a spot in the loser’s circle in the end. Stay classy, everyone.

8. The Net“working” Myth

Guys. If I had a dollar for every networking event I was invited to in the middle of a work day where I was promised “thousands” of referrals and sales in return, I’d be writing this from a hammock on a Belizean beach right now. Sure, some networking events are a nice way for you to get out of your office and rub shoulders with people in your community or industry but let’s be honest here. If you spend as much time working as you did networking, you wouldn’t have to waste your time pretending to listen to a bunch of used car salesmen pimping themselves out in exchange for a free cup of coffee and a stale doughnut.

The success of a networking group as I see it is not only a total myth, it’s basically akin to the promises an Amway salesman makes - complete lies. Anyone who promises to work with you just because you belong to their “networking” club over another should be kept on a short leash. You do know that the mob used the same techniques, right?! This is ridiculous. The secret to business success isn’t spending three days a week golfing with the right people, it’s working hard and sticking with it. Most businesses, especially small businesses, fail because they simply don’t have the ability to manage their business or their money for the long haul. Again, they’re playing the short game and see a networking group as a way to circumvent actual work. This is lazy, irresponsible and a disservice to your business. If it’s 9am on a Tuesday I better find you at your desk working, not out clinking teacups with a bunch of other work-shirkers.

9. Understand the Value of a Dollar

I work with a lot of people in lots of different industries. I work with startups and established businesses alike and I have a pretty good track record at predicting who will make it and who won’t. You know what the #1 sign is? The business owner that is penny wise and pound foolish. They’ll spend hours nickel-and-diming their marketing budget and then spend the first 10K they “earn” buying a boat. They don’t understand the difference between revenue and profit. They won’t invest in branding or signage or design or anything else consistently proven to help their business succeed but they will find it necessary to find room in the monthly budget for catered lunches or unnecessary decorations or something else that gives them the feeling of getting something done.

This is a business basic as old as time: you have to spend money to make money. It’s simple. If you don’t have enough money to start a business right (which includes factoring in not paying yourself for at least 3 years) you should think twice about quitting your day job. That’s fine. We all need employees and maybe you’re meant to be someone’s employee. You’re clearly not cut out for this. But if you want to be the head honcho, the HBIC, the big cheese - you have to pony up. I don’t care how you do it and I’m no financial advisor by any means but I’ll tell you this: if you can’t wrap your head around the fact that not all expenditures are expenses, that some costs are investments, you’re in trouble. Sometimes you have to get into debt. Sometimes it means going really deep in those pockets before you can turn around and head back out the other side and if you can’t handle this, at a minimum you at least shouldn’t be the one in charge of making rational business decisions. At worst business ownership just isn’t for you at all. Business success does not come easy and it doesn’t come cheap.

10. Be Transparent

Transparency has certainly been a buzzword this year. We all look for it in the businesses we work with and the charities we give to. The reason why it’s so important shouldn’t have to be spelled out but I’m going to do it anyways and it’s a great point to end my list on. Transparency means being authentic. It means being honest - with yourself and with others. It does no one any good for you to be anything but transparent. At the heart of it, this concept is an underlying theme in all of my gripes above. If people were just open and honest and eager to communicate effectively, they wouldn’t have the problems they have not showing up on time, not being able to return an email or not being able to close a business deal.

The reason why you can’t do this is because you’re not being authentic. I routinely meet clients that are too afraid to show me all their cards out of fear that they’ll lose some sort of negotiating power. But I can’t meet needs or targets that you don’t tell me exist. Sure, I’d love it if you had 50k to throw down on a new website but if that’s simply unreasonable for where your business is at right now, don’t waste my time giving you an estimate for that. Tell me: “My budget for a website is $5k. What can we make happen?” Now I know what I’m working with and I can do my very best to give you what you need within parameters that you feel comfortable with. Lying to me about your needs (or to yourself about what you can handle) wastes time and makes you look like an amateur.

So there you have it. My list of gripes, complaints, lessons learned, lessons shared and other little pearls of wisdom. I mentioned way back there when we were first getting started that my company recently put out our predictions for the branding & design trends that will rise to the top in 2016. One of those trends was the concept of personal branding. I bring it up here because it was one of the items I truly and passionately felt belonged on the list, despite it’s somewhat tenuous connection to the core of our business, which is normally focused on business branding. The reason why I think it’s so important is the same reason I felt it necessary to call out some of the bad behaviors I’ve seen: that great business branding means nothing if the people that make up that organization aren’t also on point.

I regularly tell clients that once they step into the business ownership spotlight, they have lost the ability to slum it. You can no longer flake out on emails or phone calls. You can’t roll up to the supermarket in your pajamas. Every single thing you do is as a representation of your company. Like it or not. Investing your time and energy branding your business without also taking a long hard look at yourself, and the things you’re doing to affect your business’s success is time and energy wasted. And I hate inefficiency. Maybe no one’s ever told you before. But you have no excuse now. So I hope you have the best of holidays. Spend the time relaxing and eating and drinking with friends and family. Spend some time reflecting and planning. That’s what’s great about a new year. It’s a time for fresh starts and new beginnings and even if you only master a few of these, you (and your business) will be better for it in 2016.

I’m so passionate about personal branding as a rising trend and of such increasing importance to business success, that I’m launching a whole series to focus on it in the new year. I’d love it if you followed along.