4 Business Lessons That Turned Out to Be Really Bad Advice
Tom Stimson
February 24, 2023
A man in a button-down writes the words “insert inspirational cliché here” on a chalkboard in block letters.

When I’m talking to a potential client on Zoom and I see a plaque on the back wall with a cliché like, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” I know I’m going to have a problem.

Clever clichés, phrases, and adages are often out of sync with reality. They’re platitudes designed to pacify energy that needs to be directed.

If a business owner is finding these “inspirational” quotes helpful, that tells me there’s probably some action they’re avoiding that would work a lot better.

Below are four well-intentioned phrases that have turned out to be flawed business advice.

Infographic: ISL - 2/27/23

1. Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.

We’ve probably all heard this one, and it’s a fantastic saying if you’re an Instagram influencer for six months. Not so much if you’re a business owner.

The saying originally meant, “Hey, pick a job that’s something you want to do, and it’ll be easy. It won’t feel like work.”

Why It’s Flawed

The problem is that in order to live this adage, you have to surround yourself with people who do everything other than the thing you love.

That’s great for Instagram. But it doesn’t work in the real world. Imagine being surrounded by people who only do the things they want to do.

That’s why the saying is flawed. It’s really saying, “Do what you want to do even if you don’t want to be good at business.” It gives people permission to be bad at things that are important. It devalues your business into a hobby, or a vocation.

If you don’t want to take down the plaque in your office, then let’s think about how to apply it differently instead.

Is there an aspect of your business that you truly love to do? One that you want to create space where you get to do it more often? For a business owner, that goal needs to be clarified. Then you can build a business that supports that goal.

Very often when I sit down with owners to discuss their goals, I find that this is a concept they’re wrestling with. It usually sounds something like, “Oh, I love to call shows. I just want to call shows, and I want everything else to take care of itself.”

It isn’t that easy. That’s not how business works.

New Approach

Knowing that calling shows is important to the owner, I might propose, “If I can have you calling shows 50% of the time, and the other 50% you’re supporting the very important things that aren’t your favorite, could you live with that?”

Let’s face it, somebody who’s always doing what they want to do is a maniac. They’re crazy. We’re always going to have to do some things that aren’t our favorite. But that can give us more time to do the things we want to do.

That’s how we reframe this cliché into something that works in the real world.

2. I want a customer who understands my business.

This one is more of a well-known sentiment than a well-known saying.

I often hear it when defining an ideal customer with a client. They only want educated buyers because they’re easier to sell to and it takes less time. They want a buyer who understands their business. But this is a myth.

What does a buyer who understands your business look like? When I ask questions like this, I get answers like:

  • Someone who understands what I do.
  • Someone who isn’t going to waste my time.
  • They’re not going to ask a lot of questions.
  • They’re not going to push back.
  • They know why I’m valuable.
  • They have a white, glossy coat and a sparkly horn.

Why It’s Flawed

Why is this flawed? Because — unless you’ve got the most incredible marketing roadmap ever — you’re missing a major opportunity. This prejudice against other potential buyers is a mistake, and almost impossible to fulfill successfully and scalably.

But even that’s not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that if you believe your value is transactional, you will seek transactional buyers. Wanting a buyer who understands your business means all you want is the transaction.

Do you remember the soup guy on Seinfeld? Perfect example. He sells soup. You don’t want soup? Go eat somewhere else.

Can that be successful? Sure. But if that’s your goal, if that’s all you want out of life, then I’m not going to be much help to you because there’s nothing to coach.

New Approach

As a salesperson, I love uneducated buyers. With uneducated buyers, I get the opportunity to establish credibility. I can teach them something that will make them better buyers. And I’m going to be the person they believe, because I took the time to teach them.

An uneducated buyer is somebody I can spend more time with. If a prospect doesn’t want to spend more time with me, then they’re probably not going to be a good customer anyway.

Educating buyers is a way to create value for your business, which means higher margins, more loyalty, a more repeat business. You end up with a very educated customer, and you’re the one who got them there.

Another way to look at this is that if you don’t educate buyers, somebody else will.

3. A problem isn’t a problem, it’s an opportunity.

I hear this one too often, and I have to be honest: It drives me nuts.

A problem is not an opportunity. A problem is a problem! Don’t devalue it.

Why It’s Flawed

It’s natural for people to want to put a positive spin on an unpleasant situation. That’s what this little aphorism is trying to do, and on the surface, that seems commendable.

The problem here is that the world is not always positive.

You’re dealing with human beings — who, in our industry, are often involved in very stressful, difficult situations. If you don’t acknowledge the pain of that, you’re telling your people that the feelings they’re having are unimportant.

New Approach

Yes, you can find the opportunity in a problem, but problems and opportunities are two different things. A problem can lead to opportunities, but it’s not an opportunity in and of itself. The opportunity is to find a solution to the problem.

Let problems exist.

4. The customer is always right.

We’ve all heard this well-known and much parodied cliché: the customer is always right.

No, no they’re not. The customer is not always right.

But, depending on the business model, some companies choose to pretend the customer is always right in order to attract and retain a certain clientele.

Why It’s Flawed

I just finished reading a book on the history of the Savoy Hotel and its founders. This hotel was the epitome of the-customer-is-always-right culture. If you create a place that caters to extremely demanding and picky whims, then you will get extremely demanding and picky customers — who will spend a lot of money.

By making the customer always right, you’re retaining people who are otherwise difficult. If that’s your business strategy, you can certainly do it. Just know that it’s very expensive, and you have to have thick skin.

Most of us do not have that thick of skin.

New Approach

How many “Yeses” does a customer get when they’re being demanding and picky? That’s what you have to decide.

Even at the Savoy, there weren’t unlimited “Yeses.” They sometimes kicked out customers — including their best customers — and asked them not to come back. They had asked for too many “Yeses.” They made things too difficult for other customers. They weren’t good for the hotel’s brand.

The takeaway is that the customer is right — to a point.

Be sure to discuss that with your team. At what point do the “Yeses” stop?

  • When the customer is abusive to your employees?
  • When they ask you to do something unethical or illegal?
  • When they ask you to do things they have in no way paid for?

You can make a literal list about when the customer is right, and when the “Yeses” end. And be sure your employees know it well.

QUOTE: ISL - 2/27/23


Clever adages don’t make good coaches. They’re good at tugging our heartstrings and sounding insightful, but their surface-level wisdom tends to fall apart if you look too closely.

If you’ve got some well-worn phrases you find helpful, take a deeper look at them. Maybe they’re fine. Or maybe they’re giving you a false sense of security. The only way to know is to look closely and evaluate all they imply.

About Tom Stimson
Tom Stimson MBA, CTS is an authority on business and strategy for small- to medium-sized companies. He is an expert on project-based selling and a thought leader for innovative business processes.
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