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The 19 Contrarian
Rules of Business

Don’t promise excellent service? Run annoying ads? Business leaders insist these counterintuitive principles work.

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TO MAKE A POINT about how our brains operate, the American neuroscientist Gregory Berns likes to encourage people to close their eyes and imagine the sun setting on a beach. If you just tried it, odds are the image that arose was the clichéd one — a warm tropical island scene, most likely framed by the frond of a coconut tree, awash in orange, as opposed to, say, a dark, wind-whipped pebble beach off the coast of northern Scotland.

The brain “is fundamentally a lazy piece of meat,” Berns writes in his book Iconoclast. It needs energy to operate and has evolved to use it as efficiently as possible. As a result, it defaults to shortcuts as it can — past experience, other people’s opinions, common practice — to avoid the taxing effort of perceiving or imagining afresh.

There are, of course, people who make it a habit to buck convention, who have a knack of seeing something no one else does. Berns refers to these disruptive original thinkers as “iconoclasts.” Generally, they are probably better known as contrarians. These are the brave and often odd souls whose questioning of the conventions of society or their professional field have repeatedly caused history to change course or leap forward.

In business, entrepreneurs are often contrarian by definition — they see value and opportunity where others do not. The contrarian investor Bill Gurley notes that “you can only make money by being right about something that most people think is wrong.”

The idea of being an independent spirit appeals to many. In a recent Brain Squad survey, 58 percent of our readers identified themselves as contrarians compared to 30 percent who said they were conformists and 12 percent who said they were neither. Of course, by definition, it’s not possible for the majority to be contrarian, even more so in a tradition-bound industry like jewelry. We suspect the result reflects most jewelers’ thoughts of themselves as independent operators charting their own destinies in a world where most of their fellow citizens opt for the security of more regular employment.

It is not easy being a true contrarian. There is the risk of ridicule, having to live with constant uncertainty. Being contrarian for the sake of contrarianism is pointless.

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There is, unromantically, much to be said for doing things the timeworn “best practice” way. We thus begin our exploration of contrarianism with a caveat — doing something differently is exciting, possibly liberating, often far more lucrative than the conventional way … and often dangerous. Go charging away from the herd with care. Ultimately, you want to choose the ideas — new or old, intuitive or rational, bizarre or conventional — that serve you best.

The customer is not always right

1It’s actually irrelevant if a customer is right or wrong. This is, after all, a commercial transaction, not a debate. Just because a customer wants, needs, or expects something does not mean that delivering it is the best thing for your business. Indeed, “keeping certain customers happy can be a horribly inefficient and downright distracting way to run a business,” note Brent Adamson, Matthew Dixon, and Nicholas Toman in an article in the Harvard Business Review. It’s also not much fun.

As a business owner, you need to make decisions that best apply your company’s capital, intellectual energy, and product capabilities. Rather than customer satisfaction, the ultimate goal should be running a sustainable business. Have a written, legally defensible terms of service statement, warranties, guarantees, and a simple process to determine which clients or customers deliver the strongest ROI and which are actually costing you money. In some cases, it’s better for long-term growth (not to mention store morale) to jettison a high-maintenance client and focus on improving the quality of your customer base.

Ignore terrific opportunities

2One of the dangers of business success is that it leads to more opportunities. Pursue them at your peril. In business, there is always a trade-off. Doing one thing well invariably means you can’t do another at a high level as you spread yourself too thin. The result is a damaging mediocrity.

In his book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit Of Less, Greg McKeown cites studies that show the loss of focus is a key reason companies fail. The antidote? Spurning good opportunities. “Not just haphazardly saying no, but purposefully, deliberately, and strategically eliminating the nonessentials. Not just getting rid of the obvious time wasters, but being willing to cut out really terrific opportunities as well,” he says. “Few appear to have the courage to live this principle, which may be why it differentiates successful people and organizations from the very successful ones.”

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Don’t give your staff the resources they need to fix a problem

3Constraints breed resourcefulness. This is an idea that has been gaining influence in business circles for the last few years. “Is there something in the nature of constraints that brings out the best creativity?” writes Scott Berkun, the author of Mindfire: Big Ideas For Curious Minds. Consider a good haiku or sonnet, and the answer is obviously yes: it’s precisely the limits of the form that inspire new ways of working inside them. In the workplace, that means no more “blue sky” brainstorming: if you want the best answers to a question, focus it narrowly; consider a time limit, too. Google sometimes puts fewer engineers on a problem than it needs; it inspires ingenuity. Behind all this is the counterintuitive insight that discipline and structure are often the path to freedom, not its enemy. See constraints as a game. Not only are games about fun, but they are distinguished by the rules that govern them.

Forget trying to fix your weaknesses

4In a series of bestselling books, the Gallup consultant Marcus Buckingham has made a persuasive case for a strengths-based approach to life and business: it’s both more effective and more enjoyable, he argues, than struggling to fix your weak spots. According to Buckingham, most people try to “plug” their weaknesses, while the really successful focus on exploiting strengths. You’ll rarely improve a weakness beyond mediocrity, argues Buckingham, not least because it’s hard to invest sustained energy in something you don’t enjoy. If you truly know what you’re bad at, you’re already ahead of the pack. Don’t throw that away by wasting your time getting slightly less bad.

Don’t believe in long work

5Few things are as American as the belief in the merit of hard work. The problem is too many small business people confuse work and progress. A day when lots of things get done, when you arrive home exhausted after holding six meetings with staff and vendors, clearing 300 emails from your inbox, and finally straightening those old files in the backroom, sort of feels like a productive day, but it’s unlikely to have helped your business take the next step forward. Marketer Seth Godin calls this bias for efficiency over effectiveness “the trap of long work.”
“Long work is what the lawyer who bills 14 hours a day filling in forms does.
Hard work is what the insightful litigator does when she synthesizes four disparate ideas and comes up with an argument that wins the case—in less than five minutes.

“Hard work is frightening because you might fail. You can’t fail at long work, you merely show up.”

The management guru Peter Drucker suggested the best way to address this issue was by constantly asking yourself the question, “What’s the most important thing for me to be doing right now?”

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Think small

6In his 1994 book Built To Last, Jim Collins introduced the world to Big Hairy Audacious Goals, or BHAGs, his term for the ambitious long-term goals that he argued galvanized successful companies. And it seems the term is rolled out in every discussion of good business practice. But the problem is that the excitement, energy, and envelope-pushing boldness stirred up by such endeavors often dissipates quickly in the face of the day-to-day running of business. Worse, such big-picture thinking, telling yourself something is epic and of crucial importance, often leads to fear, resistance and ultimately inertia and disappointment. As the psychologist John Eliot writes in his book Overachievement, “Nothing discourages the concentration necessary to perform well … more than worrying about the outcome.” The marathon runner who’s reached a state of “flow” isn’t visualizing the finish line, but looking through a narrower lens, focusing on one stride, then another, then another. Like the formula for contentment (happiness = reality – expectations), it’s often better to forget the end goal, aim low and just focus on the process if you really want to get things done. This can apply to everything from setting low targets for salespeople (spurred on by achieving the goal, they will often break through and hit a higher number) to big projects. The young Jerry Seinfeld’s scriptwriting technique involved marking an X on a calendar for every day he sat and typed. His goal was an unbroken chain of Xs. If he’d aimed instead to write masterful jokes, he’d have been distracted and intimidated.

Forget audacious. Just go do it.

Get rid of the rules

7Too often, managers assume the key to improvement must be clearer procedures, more exactingly enforced. But the result is organizational structures that permit zero autonomy — and extremely annoying customer service (“Sorry, sir, our policy doesn’t allow you to …”). Perhaps even worse is that such management fails to capitalize on the talents of those lower down the hierarchy. Zappos’ contrarian founder Tony Hsieh made headlines a few years back when he said he was rolling out “Management by Holacracy,” which eliminates the traditional oversight role of the manager and instead relies on the employees themselves to decide how to get their day-to-day responsibilities completed on the basis that they probably know best. That may be too much for most business owners, but according to Harvard Business School research, “loose monitoring” of employees makes for higher profits as well as happier workplaces. Striking the right balance between autonomy and control is very likely the essence of being a good manager.

Give away your time

8Overwhelmed by work? Feel you are in a constant race against the clock to get things done? Try making some time for others. “While it might seem counterintuitive to sacrifice some of the very thing you think you don’t have enough of, our research shows that giving a bit of time away may, in fact, make people feel less pressed for time,” Cassie Mogilner Holmes, an associate professor at UCLA and Michael Norton, a professor at Harvard told the Wall Street Journal. Another hack to deal with time scarcity — erase a day from your schedule. Busy? Don’t schedule anything for Fridays. The work you didn’t get done will flow over, and you’ll finally knock off those to-do list items.

Hire more introverts

9On the surface, introverts don’t seem to have the makings of great salespeople or even managers. Social interaction tires them, they have trouble with insincere flattery, they don’t like to push people, and they don’t tend to contribute vocally to meetings or brainstorming sessions. But there are positive flipsides to all this: introverts tend to demonstrate a higher degree of sensitivity in emotional interactions, they are more likely to be experts in their field, they are less likely to be yes-men or women, and as for managing people, they do better than extroverts when the staff itself is full of self-directed go-getters. “Although extroverted leadership enhances group performance when employees are passive, this effect reverses when employees are proactive, because extroverted leaders are less receptive to proactivity,” says Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking.

Be last to market

10Among business gurus, few things are as unquestioned as the notion that innovation is the path to success. “Innovate or die!” goes one mantra. Yet if innovation were a surefire way for companies to achieve dominance, the world might look very different. White Castle, RC Cola, and Diners Club were all innovators, but think of fast-food, soft drinks and credit cards, and those are unlikely to be the first names that come to mind. The upsides of unoriginality are clear: imitators let others make the costly mistakes, and then incorporate the lessons learned into a far better product. (Exhibit A: the iPhone.) In his book Copycats, the management theorist Oded Shenkar argues we need “to change the mindset that imitation is an embarrassing nuisance.” Rather, it’s a “rare and complex” capability, one we could all do with cultivating, he says. In his book Zero To One, Peter Thiel argues that “it’s much better to make the last great development in a specific market and enjoy years or even decades of monopoly profits.”

Run annoying ads … often

11There’s a reason that grating TV ads work: the more they grate, the more you’ll notice them, and noticing — thanks to what psychologists call the “mere exposure effect” — leads to liking.

Depressingly, whatever we’re repeatedly exposed to, and regardless of any other reason to like or dislike it, we’ll end up growing fond of. According to Roy H. Williams, author of The Wizard Of Ads, there’s actually no way for successful advertising to avoid being irritating to some degree. “Ads that twist our attention away from what we’d been doing are always a bit annoying,” he says. But if you fail to get your audience’s attention, your ad has failed at the first hurdle. “Consequently, most ads aren’t written to persuade; they’re written not to offend. But the kinds of ads that produce results make us answer yes to these three questions: Did it get my attention? Was it relevant? Did I believe it?” Williams claims 98.9 percent of all the customers who hate your ads will still come to your store and buy from you when they need what you sell. “These customers don’t cost you money; they just complain to the cashier as they’re handing over their cash.”

Stop holding meetings

12Jim Buckmaster, chief executive of Craigslist, has a simple policy: “No meetings, ever.” There are several reasons why meetings don’t work. They move, in the words of the career coach Dale Dauten, “at the pace of the slowest mind in the room,” so that “all but one participant will be bored, all but one mind underused.” A key purpose of meetings is information transfer, but they’re based on the assumption that people absorb information best by hearing it, when only a minority of us are “auditory learners.” The key question for distinguishing a worthwhile meeting from a worthless one is this: is it a “status-report” meeting, designed for employees to tell each other things? If so, it’s probably better handled on email or paper. That leaves a minority of “good” meetings, whose value lies in the meeting of minds itself — for example, a well-run brainstorming session.

Drop some F-bombs

13The jewelry world is one of refinement, education and professionalism, not the place for profanity. Yet swearing, when done judiciously, according to various psychologists, boosts endorphins, promotes social bonding and makes people more persuasive. Periodically, let your staff and customers know you’re human.

Stop asking, “Where do you want to be in 5 years?”

14Hiring employees who will challenge management is another staple of business advice, but everyone has probably worked with “yes, but” employees who basically oppose every new idea and approach. To find true contrarians, Thiel in his book Zero To One recommends asking the following question when interviewing employees: “Tell me something that’s true that nobody believes in.” (God, global warming and aliens don’t cut it.)

Don’t ask for the sale

15The traditional approach to selling says tout the benefits, close throughout, close with an assumption and then push for the add-on followed by another. You’re just efficiently taking the customer in a direction she wanted to go anyway. In contrast, the “slow sales” movement, which has been gaining ground for a few years, argues that there are intelligent, deliberate customers who prefer an almost “do-it-your self” zero-pressure environment. Granted, getting them to the cash register may take longer. But according to INC magazine, this technique alleviates the extra costs of post-purchase dissonance from returns, customer service time, negative feedback, and customer churn.

Look for mentors and staff who do it the “wrong way”

16Tim Ferriss has an interesting approach to considering contrarians: Be on the lookout for the anomalies, like the wispy girl who can deadlift 405 pounds. They’re performing with techniques rather than genes. “These iconoclasts show the differences in techniques and attributes,” he says. “If someone has become really good at doing something in a very nonstandard way, you can infer that the standard path isn’t necessarily the best methodology for learning a skill.”

Don’t promise excellent customer service

17Ask independent jewelers what is their point of competitive advantage and they’ll overwhelmingly say excellent customer service. But, something big corporations know (but never publicly say) is that delivering excellent customer service ultimately results in unhappy customers. Thus the field of “expectations management.” “If you want satisfied customers, it’s certainly wise to act in ways that will satisfy them. But it’s also wise to pay attention to (and, if possible, influence) their criteria for feeling satisfied,” writes Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian. Training customers, employees, and partners not to expect a “yes” in response to every single request might be crucial for preserving sanity. Far better to have a reputation as a jeweler who, for example, turns around a repair within three days than one who does it overnight — because in the latter case, as soon as you fail to deliver on that tight deadline, you’ll be seen as underperforming.

Ask customers for favors

18The “Ben Franklin effect” states that if you want to get someone to like you, you should ask him or her to do you a favor. The strategy, named for the founding father’s habit of borrowing books from opposing politicians to win them over, works because humans hate cognitive dissonance: we can’t stand a mismatch between our actions and thoughts. So if we find ourselves helping someone out, we’ll unconsciously adjust our feelings for them. The implications are striking. Don’t suck up to your customers — ask for favors or even just their opinions (“Where do you think the economy is headed?”).

Don’t be so professional

19We live in an era with more opportunity than ever to burnish the image we’re projecting, and more pressure than ever to do so. But in her new book, Cringeworthy: A Theory Of Awkwardness, Melissa Dahl makes a persuasive case for celebrating those times when “someone’s presentation of themselves … is shown to be incompatible with reality in a way that can’t be smoothed over.” Awkwardness pierces that facade, exposing the imperfect life behind it. Quoting the words of the philosopher Adam Kotsko, she says it creates “a weird kind of social bond” — a solidarity arising from seeing that behind the fakery, we’re all just trying our best to seem competent. The awkward you, then, is the real you, the one without the defensive performance. And people will like you for it.

Click here for 8 more Contrarian Rules, as well as the exclusive online article, “12 Contrarian Rules of Jewelry Retail.”

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