News + Views

Real Growth


ROI by Frank J. Rich







By Frank J. Rich



Despite economic growth over the past 4 to 5 years, the consensus view is of an underperforming economic sector worldwide. Our tendency toward quick results—The MacDonalds Syndrome”—opens wounds impatient with the oft misunderstood model of real growth. This is a model of fundamental shifts to adjust the long-term elements that produce desired growth.

 A country’s gross domestic product grows with investment and productivity, and an expanding labor force. Consumption does not drive growth, but is the result of it — the conventional wisdom among those who practice the dismal science of economics. We can be lucky or wrong in our forecasting of economic outcomes, but seldom patient enough to wait for our economy (or our children) to grow out of their bad habits. The hope is that this past recession helped clear the view that fundamental changes in the ways we think and do were necessary.

Households’ share of an economy is typically 40 to 50%, which partly explains why the U.S. economy has grown despite a lackluster retail sector. It is, rather, the maximization of consumption that matters more than consumption itself. The key question is, “Are increased productivity and the rising wages that result, boosting consumption?” Such efficiency insinuates a positive long-term view of growth that consumption alone cannot.

This “inside the belly” view is applicable to local small business that mistakenly narrows its focus on marketing efforts to drive deal buyers to the checkout counter — the folly in the Groupon phenomenon.

Instead, small business would do well to identify with product needs “under ever changing circumstances,” such as school days, holidays, traffic highs and lows, convenience products, and shifting marketing efforts, applying the creative use of traditional media while adding new media access systems, and not least, the customer service that informs a good customer experience. “Delivery,” as an added value is a good example. Think Amazon.

Recent performance in the auto segment suggests consumers may have shaken off the “China worries the stock market faltered over. Increased car sales is good news because most are financed; so Americans are showing confidence in their ability to meet payments over time. However, if the sell-off in stocks worries the Fed, interest rates may remain low, encouraging further gains that spell economic growth.

The big picture aside, every small business must see clearly the “market influencers” and the ways to affect local markets with their unique approaches to winning customers.


June 30, 2017 |

It’s Personal


ROI by Frank J. Rich







By Frank J. Rich


We are seldom made of the clay that repels insensitivity. In a world that pursues individual rights as though the elixir for fulfillment, we are near desperate for the comfort of an understanding voice—the philter in the art of customer service.

Why does Amazon guarantee satisfaction with products purchased on its site, even though from another vendor? Why has Google inserted itself into the buying chain with an offer to do the same? Why did Progressive Insurance break the “buyer beware” shackles by allowing easy online changes to policies and a list of competitors rates? Why have L.L. Bean, Lands’ End and so many others prepared a buying public for a “good customer experience,” with a 100% guarantee on all products sold, one of the keys to a successful revenue retention model? Why indeed? Because “business is personal,” and those who treat their customers with this in mind do best. 

This column spends more ink on customer service issues because it matters more than anything else. Its underpinnings are as applicable to any area of human exchange. Even Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith in their recent book, Most Likely to Succeed , find in the roots of failure (in the American educational system) the need for a more personal approach in matching skills and motivations to curriculum. I worked briefly with both as a member of the Boston-based group The Massachusetts Redevelopment Institute (MRDI), whose purpose was to rebuild the elements of the technology machine known as The Massachusetts Miracle. They were then, as now, astute observers of their surroundings.

In a visit some years ago to the Zuni reservation in southwest Arizona I was struck by the farm scenery on the reservation. The plants were plentiful though small. In researching the agricultural model of Zuni farms I came upon a revealing story. It tells of a man, like me, who paused over a similar curiosity. When he asked a local Zuni farmer why so many of their stories have to do with water, the farmer answered, “It’s because we have so little of it. I guess, it’s the same reason so many of yours have to do with love.” The small plants mystery, and the Zuni’s irrigation model were revealed.

In a sense this column may have co-opted the farmer’s sentiment. Customer service needs more airing for its lack of it. Buyers are people, and though we may experience those who appear without much credential, business is also personal.

June 23, 2017 |

Side Ways to Siena


ROI by Frank J. Rich







By Frank J. Rich



It is said that (often) we find our destiny on the road we take to avoid it. Famed development guru Brian Tracy began his journey in efforts to do nothing of importance until he came upon the significance in all things and the meaning in choice. So too Jesse Ventura, whose “cut through” approach to most things led to the elected position of governor (Minnesota) through an early career in professional wrestling. For so many others the story is the same. We come upon our passions or the desire or meaning in things when, incidentally or by purpose, we are on the road to someplace else. Along the way we come upon that identity with a certain destiny.

Clearly, choices that lead us to it (our destiny), made earlier, tend to enrich the experience and provide the requisite ten-years or 10,000 hours it usually takes to mature the expertise in it. Even if by casual chance, were the choice merely the allowance of risk, we come upon the tastiest of outcomes. Though at times not so apparent, destiny has a way of proving itself, no matter how freighted the journey. To welcome the experience or to be welcomed into it helps ease one’s trepidations. Risk-taking may comfort the bold after practice, but a securing tether often gives rappelling a second chance for the rest of us.

Italians (in country) have the well-worn habit of impressing a greeting on passersby and those with intention to meet. The bounce in the words may presage the energy so easily transferred in them, but one seems always more glad in the hearing of an ever present buon giorno when they meet. Perhaps the risk in engaging others, even one’s own destiny, gains impetus by their penchant for communications so well formed that its complementary hand and body aids have become legend.

It seems that whenever we join with another in common interest something good happens. It’s a simple matter of making oneself available to the opportunity in things, though “trust and verify” is the caution. Notwithstanding, reasonable risks deliver us to the greatest rewards, as ventures prove. Had Winston Churchill accepted his many reversals the greatness in modern day England might not have been known. Not least, the work we do, by design or chance, gives choice its opportunity for heroism. We can either see our deli as the best in deli offerings and service, anticipating the needs of customers large and small, or the organic restaurant of our dreams as something other than the FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) of a healthy existence, and enjoy the ride to a happy destiny.

By any measure the most casual circumstances may lead to destinations unimagined, even the glorious inexpendable beauty of Montefioralle, San Gimignano, and the extraordinary fattorias along the Strada di Greve … on the “side ways” to Siena.

June 16, 2017 |

Warming the Trade


ROI by Frank J. Rich







By Frank J. Rich



Nothing encourages like encouragement. Extend a helping hand and you hear a blessing in some terms. Appear happy to have someone walk into the shop and you have a willing buyer. Just give them something to buy and youre on your way to commercial success. What do customers buy? It’s the question too little answered. They buy what they need most in the moment — a friendly voice, a listening ear, an understanding heart, a desire for identity, the simple product in their goal. Shop owners have these in stock at all times. But will they be prepared to take them off the shelf to offer the customer? That is the question.

We are seldom what we appear to be — just customers is the shield that carries the words “just looking.” But we are in need of something that is more easily understood by the willing. They are the few among vendors who reap the greatest rewards, but all can practice their way if they choose.

Tourists shopping the world over demonstrate the point. There are just two ways we respond to customers — we warm to them or we warn them away. Warming requires the best in us, that “always on” attitude that encourages the best in others. It reaches in, not out, confirming the person in each, and not just his buying power. This kind of customer will always find the money to have lobster and pappardelle in cream sauce, even when his mind is set on entrecôte and parsnips.

The offer to consider a different choice comes from one whose description “of his experience” is both a story and his passion. Hard to refuse.

Then there are those who warn customers away, giving them scant information, no alternatives, and the informal relationship with only what’s in stock. This vendor has only a few days like the first, and spends most others convincing the customer to go elsewhere.

Today’s efforts at using technology to characterize the customer’s mindset need only pause long enough to “see” the person before them. And the seeing needs only a willing heart. So much for technology!




June 9, 2017 |



ROI by Frank J. Rich







By Frank J. Rich



Few things wear commitment as a tree. John Muir, environmentalist, naturalist, adventurer, and thinker excited the notion in his famous words, “It has been said that trees are imperfect men, and seem to bemoan their imprisonment rooted in the ground. But they never seem so to me. I never saw a discontented tree. They grip the ground as though they liked it, and though fast rooted they travel about as far as we do. They go wandering forth in all directions with every wind, going and coming like ourselves, traveling with us around the sun two million miles a day, and through space, heaven knows how fast and far!”

Were these well-limned words to qualify the yaw of fellow travelers—men—the workplace and the world would produce a different math than the cacophony of avarice, misrepresentation, and malingering that refreshes pixel-like as we look around. Indeed, taking measure of us, John Muir chose a defense of the tree.

At a time when employers, private and government, and the employment engine, struggle as typical “America first and foremost” fealty vanishes, a dissuaded populace moans of joblessness and economic uncertainty that sours the palette. If we pause to give promise a history lesson, visions of the “Greatest Generation” come into focus, even though most seeking employment, our youth now 72 percent un-contracted in the marketplace, and little charged of its principles, are near absent knowledge of Tom Brokaw, chronicler of the now famous label on America’s most productive, ethically rooted, and committed by principle, and feeling vexed and uncommitted to the navigational star in a stormy sea of fainting hopes. If a bleak and forlorn sentence, consider that employees, not employers, are more lost in the turbulence of the cultural sea change that paints the present and the future.

Born of nothing but promise, Americans from every land found harmony in ethic that joined all in the belief that just about anybody “could,” in a society aching and achieving by its diversity of imagination, approach, and vision. Brokaw’s “generation,” if indeed the greatest generation society ever produced, fought the Great War not for “fame and recognition” but because “it was the right thing to do.” Extraordinary! Drawn together in common cause and hardened to a softness that respected the right to be and to contribute by one’s labors, they found unity and strength in the resolve to build a better life, and fashioned America as the greatest economic engine ever known to man and a worldwide superpower. They landed on our shores with nothing but a great work ethic and a great attitude. As Martin Klinzing put it, “Essentially (the) discussion boils down to the fact that you can teach someone anything except to care.”

So where is the harmonic connection to what is “right and true,” to the “Greatest Generation,” its chords ringing with the opportunity in work, the promise of a brighter future, lost after the making, or so Brokaw and those before who lamenting its decline decried, switching psyches as though horses to position leverage, entitlement, greed, and the pursuit of individual rights as idols? The disequilibrium in this math, confounding the symmetry atavistic of good beginnings, is the confusion in the workplace that delivers poor attitudes, habits, the god in spurious resumes, and ultimately uncommitted human assets. Few workers take to their daily bread winning as “settlers,” in the words of E. B. White of The New Yorker magazine, with the unbridled passion that mirrors the productivity of an earlier age and a magnetism that collects those around them as they sail into the wind and by a star. Sadly, those who don’t fit onto this boat are the disenfranchised “commuters” of an economic engine now being wagged by its tail.

As the economy returns to growth on all planes, the demand for labor will change positions with the supply of it as workers take the bully pulpit. Employers will feel the pressure to increase their profiles—better wages, benefits, and perks. It’s the way of free market models, ultimately directed by supply and demand. Don’t give in to it!

There is little disagreement with the premise that attitude trumps skills in the selection of new employees. And though foundation stones in the model of quality employees, attitude and work ethic have complements, not least, “segment knowledge, soft skills like leadership and managerial quality, creativity, and the ability to learn and adapt to the changing environment,” as Professor Emeritus of Harvard Business School James Heskett has noted by the measure of thirty years of study. Driven to discover the route to excellence in organizations, he went beyond the conventional wisdom: “hire for attitude and train for skills.” Attitude took on new meaning—in summary, “ … the ability to identify with and live core values of the organization such as respect for others, being customer-driven, etc. Management has concluded that it is too difficult and costly to try to change the attitudes of adults. As a result, they release those unable to work and manage according to the organization’s values and replace them with those who can.”

Not coincidentally, the work revealed that “capital flows follow quality labor,” a conclusion of considerable study by Gregory Clark, summarized in his 2006 book A Farewell to Alms, minimizing the long-term threat of outsourcing to developed economies. The image of this favored son of the Greatest Generation is not only worth the effort necessary to good employee selections, but also worth waiting for, if Clark is right. As C. J. Cullinane commented, “Attitude is all … if employees are the (corporate) brain cells, then long-term employees are the long-term memory of the corporate brain.”

June 2, 2017 |

Silent Notes


ROI by Frank J. Rich







By Frank J. Rich



You show up at a planned meeting with a client, join with your sales rep and open the discussion. Then you turn to your rep to lead the presentation only to discover he isn’t prepared. After an awkward moment you bump into each other trying to cobble together something of a presentation. What happened?

In most cases the result above reveals inadequate agreement, a misunderstanding about which makes the presentation, or the mental murmuring that steals confidence and the discipline in order and positive initiative. In all of the above we are likely to have convinced ourselves that another will satisfy the requirement to close the loop and secure the success in what we have chosen to do. Metaphorically, it’s easier to toss our coat on a wall peg as we enter the house than to hang it in the hall closet. The point: the weight of least resistance can grow heavier than order and positive initiative.

Most have high ideals, including anticipated success at most things. But when it comes, we too frequently fall prey to bad judgment. “To know a man,” said Charles Caleb Colton, “observe how he wins his object, rather than how he loses it; for when we fail, our pride supports us; when we succeed, it betrays us.” The comment suggests a rule of thumb, which is that we must impute predictability to everything we do.

Put differently, there is something under the skin that delivers the fruit of initiative or the resentment of lost opportunity. Some suggest that angels taking “silent notes” inform our next steps. Perhaps, but if God meant to endow us as capable, the road to success is the preparation that joins opportunity to deliver planned outcomes. How we win “our object” reveals the substance in our approach, and often, the hard work that aids capability. In the main, the “substance” or success DNA is the bold move or “go for it” attitude we see in most great achievement. Appropriately, missed opportunity, as portrayed in the method of a life less well lived in the poem below, makes the point. That it is given anonymously may be the irony in the warning.

Opportunities Missed

There was a very cautious man

Who never laughed or played;

He never risked, he never tried,

He never sang or prayed.

And when he one day passed away

His insurance was denied;

For since he never really lived,

They claimed he never died!

— Anonymous


We may be certain of angels’ guardianship, the idea bringing comfort and feeding the initiative in hope, while ensuring the fruits of the faith. We may even find motivation in discipline. But absent the courage to risk all, we are unlikely partners with achievement. “More powerful than the will to win, is the courage to begin.”

Ever sentient, E.B. White of New Yorker fame saw this too. He said of the dilemma in each day,“If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between the desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

We are driven by the deepest of notions. The most dynamic of life’s engines is no less the substance of achievement.

May 26, 2017 |

Under the Skin


ROI by Frank J. Rich







By Frank J. Rich



An old story by Bill Cosby has me sitting up nights thinking. As the story goes, Bill is in a bar listening to the tiresome bragging of a martial arts newbie. Deciding he’d heard enough, Bill challenged the windbag by suggesting that his feats weren’t so extraordinary, to which the karate student responded, “Oh yeah? Let’s see you do it.” Backed into a corner, Bill swaggered into a nearby alley to demonstrate his skill and will. He prepped his mind, making repeated approaches to the targeted brick perched between two stone columns. He was ready, now puffing and belting out convincing incantations.

The moment of truth arrived as Bill lifted his hand, now contorted as though at once struck with arthritis, and came down in a thunder as it hit the brick. Screaming in pain and hopping around for relief, Bill had broken nearly every bone in his hand. When asked what he was thinking in attempting something he had never done before, Bill was contrite though insightful in his answer. “Ya see, I was thinking Yes I can, but the brick was thinking No you can’t.”

The motivation to accomplish may be fundamental to the human condition, but to grow self- esteem, it must be accompanied by equal performance. Bill wanted to, but didn’t achieve his goal. It wasn’t for lack of desire, and not because he couldn’t. It was because he did not prepare adequately for his goal.

We have all been in shoes that don’t fit, a brother of sorts under the skin. The difference, too often, has been our willingness to prepare for the goal ahead. Achievement is most effectively mind and matter—in Bill’s case, muscle. It is also something else—an ability to recognize that our resources—mental toughness, passion for the task, planning, and patient pathways to success—are at hand or in need of development. If we are all achievers under the skin, are we equally equipped with the mastery of resources necessary to inform achievement?

Growth may be fundamental to humans; indeed we change 5 trillion cells daily in support of it. It is also frightening to those who perceive loss and not gain in its wake. What makes it so? The simple answer is the fear that we might lose something in the process of change. Sadly, it is usually something that has been lost already, though hidden by coping mechanisms that attempt to ease the effect of change. The resistance that follows is the unfortunate reality for most, as it was for Bill’s hand above.

Psychology tells us that we seek rationality and explanations to grow comfort with change and to avoid stress. Ontologizing, adding a physical nature to things; figuration, image creation; and personification, giving personality to abstraction, are the mechanisms of objectification, the process of making things more understandable. The system is well defined in the Hierarchy of Needs. We move cautiously up the ladder of achievement after accomplishing key steps along the way—physical needs, safety, belonging, self-esteem, and fulfillment.

Every day we are asked to perform in support of something we’ve agreed to do. And in each we form a consensus with ourselves to achieve or wait on another day to realize our desires for achievement. But too often the luxury of time is not available to us. Life and work can be insatiable masters. Performance has a common ring, much like the man walking up a narrow stairway in a dark church tower who, when reaching out to get his balance, lays hold of a rope and is startled at the clanging bells. No matter how closely we hold our methodology it is revealed in our performance.

We are all naturally endowed with desire. It’s the self-actualizing energy in each that drives us to achievement. Equally, we have natural talents and gifts. Why then, do so many spend their lives looking for something that is hidden in plain sight? Even teachers, or any that assume the mantle—friend, neighbor, mentor, sage—fail to invest more than the direction common to most, which is to point someone in the path they took to find these jewels. The subject above looked inward to find his own unique qualities, but could only identify desire. As any who have found success in a planned goal will tell you, it’s seldom enough.

May 19, 2017 |
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