Tuesday, September 19, 2006

There’s no such thing as a free panty

Of all of the credit card bills I’ve had to pay in my life, the one I probably least expected was … a lingerie bill. Still, there I was, making out a check for a three-digit sum to pay off my wife’s Victoria’s Secret card. But what was even more fascinating, and a good business lesson for all of us, was how that balance got there in the first place.

You see, Victoria’s Secret regularly sends its credit card holders a little envelope containing something that is small in size, but devastating in its impact – a card good for a free panty, no strings attached.

On the face of it, it makes no sense at all to be giving away free merchandise. But think about it for a moment. Victoria’s Secret is a chain of small specialty stores. You don’t go there every week, like you go to the grocery store. And since sexy underwear isn’t exactly one of life’s necessities, it’s all too easy to forget about the place entirely – which Victoria’s Secret, of course, doesn’t want you to do. That’s where the free panty comes in.

Once this little card motivates you to get in your car and go to the store, people get tantalized by all the other sexy-looking merchandise in the store – and combined with their ever-so-helpful staff doing their best job of suggestive selling, they often emerge with their free panty and a lot more. And what’s more important, they feel good about it. Everybody wins, except perhaps the person in our household (that would be me) who has to pay the bill.

This got me thinking about my own business. I make my living doing training and freelance writing, and I am always giving things away free. When I do a free talk or marketing event, for example, I don’t tease them about material in my books or training programs – I let them have it right between the eyes with important skills they can take home with them that day. And you know what? I’ve probably earned more money from giving away content, and having people come back for more, than anything else I’ve ever done.

This trend of giving away things of real value for free seems to be taking hold in the public consciousness as well. For example, it used to be common practice for hucksters to give quote-unquote free seminars that were little more than teasers for their paid products. While those types are unfortunately still around, I’ve noticed that the people I respect most in my sphere of communications skills give away tons of great information for free. They have content on their website, free newsletters, free teleconferences, live chat sessions – and it’s all good stuff. And plenty of people, myself included, often come back and cross their palms with silver after coming in for their “free panty.”

So, if there is one lesson I am taking away from paying this big underwear bill, it’s a newfound respect for the company who has built a business empire out of turning so little fabric into so much profit. Take a look at what you can start giving away for free, and see what it does for – sorry, no pun intended – your bottom line.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

The recent furor over Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks about Islam raises some important issues in the relationship between major religions. But for me, it also raises an interesting point about the psycholinguistics of how we apologize to each other.

After Muslims reacted strongly to the Pope’s citation of a historical passage that offended them – one that he has since stated did not reflect his own opinion – he first said that he “sincerely regrets that certain passages of his address could have sounded offensive to the sensitivities of the Muslim faithful.” As protests continued, he added a day later that he was “deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries” to his address.”

Translation? “I’m sorry that *you* were upset about what I said.” Not the worst sentiment, but a far cry from “I am sorry that *I* did something that offended you.”

This brings up the deeper issue of why, sometimes, our own apologies aren’t good enough. Here are two reasons that I see:

1. You have to make it about you and not about them. When someone is upset at you, human nature is to defend ourselves. So we try to justify ourselves by making the other person seem too sensitive, or painting them as being part of the problem. This, in turn, makes them even more defensive and angry. That’s why apologies like “I’m sorry you reacted so badly” or “I’m sorry I overreacted to your provocation” almost never work.

There are two sides to every story, but if you are apologizing to someone, it simply isn’t the time and place for your side. Keep the focus on what you shouldn’t have done and what you will change, and you are much more likely to soothe the other person.

2. The phrase “I’m sorry” doesn’t mean what it used to. I often tell audiences that they should banish the words “I’m sorry” from their vocabulary? Huh? Really? Yes, really. Look critically at how the term is used in most conversation, and you will see that it has become a self-protective catch-phrase that conveys no regret whatsoever:

“I’m sorry, we can’t/won’t/don’t do that, sir.”
“I’m sorry. You should have been more careful.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to (fill in the blank).”

As a result, most people don’t react to these two words themselves quite the same way anymore. Instead, use the term “I apologize”, and then be specific about what you are apologizing for – for example, “I apologize for causing this problem.”

Of course, I hope and pray that the Holy Father and the Muslim community will soon resolve their differences with respect and civility on all sides. But in the meantime, there is an important lesson in this incident for all of us: how to apologize more effectively.