Fight…Fight Now!!!

Let me begin by telling you where I was on September 11, 2001. I was at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel in the main convention room where a thousand people had gathered to celebrate the turnaround year of a large software company. The president of that company was at the podium introducing me as the keynote speaker when someone ran out onto the stage and whispered something into his ear. Audibly over the microphone came his response, “Oh my God.”

In a marketplace still picking itself up, let our rallying cry be “Fight…fight now”!

He announced to the audience that a live feed from CNN was going to be projected onto the 30-foot screens on either side of the stage. There, before our very eyes, we saw a smoking World Trade Center tower that had just been hit by an airplane. Then we watched in disbelief as a second plane crashed into the tower next to it. The emotion in that room was indescribable as we saw both buildings crumble into dust. In a moment of unspoken grief, we realized that all of us, friends and strangers alike, would be forever bound together because we had just witnessed the end of the world as we knew it. Deep down in our hearts we also knew that it was the beginning of a world that would be both frightening and challenging for all of us.

We stayed in that room the entire day. All of the scheduled activities had been cancelled, as had all of the flights leaving Orlando. Later that night, I received a call in my hotel room from the president of that company. He said, “Max, I’ve decided to re-kickoff the conference tomorrow with you as our keynote speaker. But I don’t want you to give the speech we hired you to give. Instead, I want you to speak about the greatness of America and about the heroes who have come before us. Because now, more than ever, we need to focus on the future.”

For those of you who know my background as a Vietnam veteran fighter pilot, coming from an immigrant family, you know that I have been waiting my whole life for the opportunity to give a presentation on patriotism! The next morning as I stood at the podium, speaking from the heart about the country I loved, the wars, and the people who had done extraordinary things in difficult times, I watched the members of the audience as they reached out to touch the person sitting next to them. I watched complete strangers hold hands as they listened to the stories of other Americans who had helped preserve this country and maintain her greatness. And as they listened, they came to realize that America’s potential to be great in the future would rest on their ability to be heroes in their own way.

I know that challenge applies to you as well.

Without You, this Country Goes Nowhere

When I talk to people about heroes in America, I’m often confronted with a very penetrating question. “How can I be a hero? I’m not in the military. I’m not a firefighter or a policeman. How can someone in corporate America contribute? What’s my role?” What a great question. It is one that has a very simple and very powerful answer: The best thing that you can do for America is to get about the business of Business in America. No, that was not a misprint. The best thing that you can do for America today is to get about the business of Business in America.

You are the engines moving us forward by creating 75% of the GNP and employing almost 80% of America’s workers. Without you, this country goes nowhere.

What America needs now is strong business performance. What America needs now is an economy that can absorb the distress and move forward with momentum to establish new levels of success for the future. And who best to take on this challenge than you? Why you? Because you represent the middle market fast-growth sector of businesses that are driving America’s economy. You are the engines that are moving us forward by creating 75% of the GNP and employing almost 80% of America’s workers. Without you, this country goes nowhere. More than ever, it is absolutely critical that you maximize your opportunity to prosper and truly step up as a hero.

Some of you may wonder how a supplier of industrial gases, welding equipment and supplies can make a contribution of heroic proportions. Well, let me tell you. Selling is the most important function that takes place in America on any given day. In fact, 92% of the GNP is created when someone sells something to someone else. It is the activity without which no other activity takes place. No products are manufactured, no deliveries are made, no paychecks are issued until someone sells something to someone else.

So let’s join together. Let’s join our hearts and our hands together in a common mission. In a marketplace that is still picking itself up, let our rallying cry from this day forward be, “Fight…Fight Now”! Inscribe these three words on the tablet of your mind. Say them outloud, and weave them into the framework of your future. Fight…Fight Now!

Economic Darwinism

Over the last 27 years, I have sold in good times and in bad. I have sold average product and I have sold great product. I have sold in recession and I have sold in prosperity. With that context in mind I can honestly make the following statement. I have never seen a more opportunistic time to sell value-added products and services for value-added prices at high levels within business America. At the same time, I’ve never seen a greater propensity for all products and services to be pushed downward to a commodity level. What this statement means for each of you is that there is only one of two places that your business is going to be from a marketing and selling standpoint. You will either be crafting an exit strategy upward for your business, designed to provide value-added positioning, or you will be sucked down into generic price-based firefights with every existing competitor, past competitor and (worse yet) every future competitor.

So the choice is yours. Every company in America is somewhere on this continuum of consciously going up…or unconsciously going down. Which will you be?

Call your customers and tell them that you are realigning your resources to help them fight back in a challenging economy and that you’d like to meet with them to discuss the best way to fight back as partners.

While pondering this question, I was reminded of something we studied in high school, a book by Charles Darwin called On the Origin of Species. In it he described a process called “natural selection” which was fueled by dynamics known as “survival of the fittest.” Survival of the fittest dictated that in nature, some species would survive and prosper while others would become weak and extinct. He said this process was good.

It seems to me that we are currently in a period that might appropriately be called “Economic Darwinism.” If this theory is true, then perhaps we can learn some lessons from Darwin. So how did he define survival of the fittest? Did he define it as survival of the biggest? Survival of the strongest or most powerful? As it turns out, he did not. You may be surprised by how he defined survival of the fittest, but pleased to hear its relevance to your business. Darwin described survival of the fittest as survival of the most adaptable—the most flexible and adaptable.

Now, let me ask you, what is the great gift, the one dominant birthright of the entrepreneurial middle-market company? Your ability to be adaptable and flexible, of course. Your ability to assess changes, to react quickly and alertly, thus creating an advantage for you against larger, more slow-moving competitors. So as you lament the current trend of consolidation that is creating bigger companies rather than smaller ones, think of it now as your competitive edge!

Survival of the Fittest, Most Flexible and Adaptable

I have a challenge for you. Get your managers together and have a discussion based on how well you are using your ability to adapt. How well are you listening to the customer and how quickly are you responding? How essential are you becoming to the future of their business? How well are you meeting the continually evolving needs of those customers? Give yourself a “flexibility score,” because if you are not using your ability to adapt, then you may find yourself on the losing side in this struggle for survival of the fittest. In other words, you may become extinct.

As you begin to measure your ability to be flexible, make a list of all the things that can be adapted for the benefit of your clients based on different situations and circumstances. Determine what questions you would ask on your next sales call in order to leverage your ability to adapt. What kind of discussions would you want to promote that would give you the information you need to make the changes that would enable you to be indispensable to that client? What are some other strategies you could use as you decide to move forward and to fight?

As you answer these questions, it is important that you also understand a few basic rules in this new economic war. We’ll call them the Five Rules of Engagement.

Rule of Engagement #1: Fight your Way into your Customer’s Planning Process.

All of your clients are actively engaged in both short-term and long-term planning. All of them have a vision of where they are going, and many are changing on the fly because of recent events to ensure that their short-term plans are still driving them towards their long-term goals. You are probably doing the same thing, and if you are, then there has never been a better time for you to pursue the opportunity to assist them in their visioning process. Ultimately, if you were invited to your clients’ planning meetings, wouldn’t you be able serve them better? Of course you would! If you knew where they were headed, you could offer them optimal support.

So here is the plan. Fight…Fight Now! Fight your way into their planning process. Send them a realignment message. Call them on the phone and tell them that you are realigning your resources to help them fight back in a challenging economy and that you would like to meet with them to discuss the best way to fight back as partners. That’s too positive an invitation to turn down.

Rule of Engagement #2: Transition your Sales Force.

In order to most effectively leverage these opportunities, you will have to transition your sales force from transactional selling to consultative selling. In transactional selling, you’re invited to meet with someone because of what you sell. In consultative selling, you’re invited to meet with them based on what you know. That’s a big difference.

Transactional selling is needs-driven, consultative selling is agenda-driven. Needs are short-term, exigent things they have to have today. They need your product. Without your product, they cannot prosper. They can also buy it from someone else.

The one dominant birthright of the entrepreneurial middle-market company is our ability to be adaptable and flexible.

If needs are what they need today, then agendas are what they want to become, where they’re going tomorrow. By knowing your clients’ agendas beforehand and by studying the changes in their markets, you can be a valuable, knowledge-based resource for them. Here’s a good goal to set: Constantly expand the difference between what they know and what you know. Their needs are to have products on their shelves or in their vehicles. Their agendas are to survive, to provide greater value to their customers, to be more profitable and effective over time. Expand your knowledge of your client’s world, and you will be in a relationship that is impervious to attack.

Rule of Engagement #3: Make Greater Commitments to First-Tier Clients.

You will be required to make greater commitments to your first-tier clients. You know the ones, the 20 percent that are driving 80 percent of your business. What is this commitment? It is to invest re-sources—your resources—to get to know them better, their challenges better and their futures better. At the same time, you must follow one specific, non-negotiable rule: Never make a commitment without getting a commitment, and never make an investment without getting an investment. So if you have spent a significant amount of time researching your client’s platform position, what would be a good investment to ask for in return? If you are going to invest sweat equity in them, isn’t it only fair to ask that if they find your ideas, products and services valuable, then they purchase them from you? Of course it’s fair. It’s called “Quid pro Quo”… this for that. After all, if they are going to pick your brain and then break your heart by bidding you out against other providers, then it’s better to have that information up front. Then it is your decision to stay and fight, or to fight somewhere else.

Rule of Engagement #4: Bring Greater Expertise to First-Tier Clients.

The good news here is that the expertise can be real and documented, or it can be an expertise that is perceived in their minds. Where does that expertise come from? It comes from the knowledge-based activities we’ve already discussed. If you learn more about their needs, will you be able to do a better job of positioning your products and services to help them? Absolutely. The more you align your products and services to their specific needs, the more proprietary your offering appears. Remember, when markets are static, you will have two simple, but critical, sales and marketing goals: Defend your market share against attack while you are simultaneously taking someone else’s market share. Do this by leveraging your greater expertise, and by aligning the things you do proprietarily to the things your clients need.

Rule of Engagement #5: Expand the Knowledge Gap.

The fifth rule of engagement says that American businesses are involved in significant, fixed-cost to variable-cost transitions, and are constantly looking to shift services and responsibilities outside their own company to specialists like you. Ask yourself this question: What services could you provide to your clients that you could do better for them than they could do for themselves? What expertise do you have that they don’t? What services could you provide that would fit that category? Wherever it is, find it, exploit it, and continue to expand the knowledge gap between what you know and what they know. Remember, the best defensive barrier in keeping the competition out occurs when your clients are using your designs and processes internally as their own.

You are the Hero. Fight…Fight Now!

So those are the rules. If you let your service component, your relationship component or your expertise component weaken, you are setting yourself up for commoditized, price-based purchasing. It’s your call.

On the other hand, if you elevate these same components and accentuate your “value-added position,” you open the door for new kinds of heroes to emerge…the heroes of the new economy and of the new war. America’s success will hinge on her ability to be economically vibrant and fundamentally business-sound in the future. It is to this mission that you are committed.

Heroes of the past had their own battle slogans. “Remember the Alamo” was a great one, and each war has followed with its own adaptation. Now you have yours. Fight…Fight Now! For if not now, then when? If not here, then where? And if not you, then who?

Go forth and do what you do best, for you truly are the heroes of the new millennium.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association
58a_careymax Meet the Author
W.R. ‘Max’ Carey, Jr. is author of “The Superman Complex: Achieving the Balance that Leads to True Success” and is founder and chairman of CRD, Corporate Resource Development, Inc. in Atlanta, Georgia.