I was reading Jessica Livingston’s Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days when I came across an interview with Philip Greenspun in which he describes part of what made ArsDigita so successful:
The third element is just meeting the deadlines. If we’d said we were going to do something by a certain date, we did it, and the customers were stunned.
He goes on to say that “There was so much repeat business because customers would be amazed that we delivered on time and that it was more or less what they wanted and actually usable for the end user.”
That shouldn’t be amazing, but it often is because we’re used to dealing with stuff that doesn’t work very well and businesses that over-promise and under-deliver, if they deliver at all.
Think of airlines, which specialize in jerking you around and making you feel like everyone else paid less for their ticket than you did. Or, of consultants who set unrealistic deadlines for deliverables and then make endless excuses when they miss their often self-imposed deadlines.
Or think of car dealerships.
I’ve been trying to buy or lease a car, and probably a Toyota Prius, so I can look down on my neighbors for destroying the environment. And I hear they—the cars, not the neighbors—get good mileage. Anyway, car dealerships are on my mind because buying a car is a miserable, maddening, opaque experience. The salesmen—and they’re almost always men—lie constantly. They make things up. Last week, one of them showed me his super secret invoice price that he couldn’t possibly go below… until he did. Then he decided he was sick.
Then whoever he handed me off to couldn’t produce actual lease terms. Then I got a third guy from the same dealership who loaded a lease that should’ve had, at most, $1,799 in drive-off costs with $4,500 in drive-off costs. Another dealership had a Prius II in “Barcelona Red,” the color I wanted… with an extra $2,000 in dealer options I didn’t. I wasted half an hour there. By the time I left, I no longer wanted to buy anything.*
What’s really amazing is that car dealers stay in business. But they do, because someone with less tenacity or more money will simply put up with the dance. I know car dealers are just engaging in sophisticated forms of market segmentation, and they’re playing a much longer game than I am.
That being said, they make buying a new car as pleasant as a visit to the dentist, at least for me (Isaac actually likes wrangling car dealers, and I will leave you to decide what this says about his personality). Toyota spends billions of dollars a year trying to convince people that they’re a nice company, and then I go through the showroom wringer and come out hating them, even though I intellectually know that corporate has little to do with how the dealership down the street behaves.
Contrast the buying-a-car experience with what getting a proposal written is like with Seliger + Associates. We post our fees on our website. If you call us and say, “I want an Office of Community Services’ (OCS) Community Economic Development Projects proposal,” you generally get a price quote right then. If you’re not eligible for a program or if you’re running a business that is ineligible for grants, we tell you.
In Founders at Work, Paul Graham described the way he managed to sell Viaweb, his early software for building online stores:
I found I could actually sell moderately well. I could convince people of stuff. I learned a trick for doing this: to tell the truth. A lot of people think that the way to convince people of things is to be eloquent—to have some bag of tricks for sliding conclusions into their brains. But there’s also a sort of hack that you can use if you are not a very good salesman, which is simply tell people the truth. Our strategy for selling our software to people was: make the best software and then tell them, truthfully, ‘this is the best software.’ And they could tell we were telling the truth”
Notice that: he learned a trick for selling things—”tell the truth.” That this is considered a trick should make it obvious that something is profoundly wrong in a lot of businesses. Car dealers basically make everything they do a series of lies, hoops, and tricks, such that, after having to deal with them, I assume they’re lying most of the time.
Seliger + Associates also has a simple procedure: tell the truth and write proposals. If you hire us, we complete a compelling proposal on time. We never miss deadlines and never make excuses.
People are amazed! We hit deadlines, and that’s enough to impress them because so many of their experiences with employees, other grant writers, and consultants are apparently so lousy that they’ve come to expect a lack of follow through. We’ve never missed a deadline. Did I mention that already? It’s worth repeating, because deadlines are the essence of grant writing. If you’re a grant writer working for an organization and you want to be a star, never miss a deadline.
Almost everyone else does. Most deadlines imposed by businesses are artificial—get this report to me by Friday. If you don’t until Monday, it doesn’t matter. With grant writing, it does, and if you hit deadlines, you’re an unusual person.
You’ll also be a competent one. Off the top of my head, I can remember only a handful of times that I’ve been completely delighted by competence. Starwood Hotels come to mind: if you call the reservation number, whoever is on the other end will do whatever he or she can to make sure you get what you want. I had to visit Seattle last December and managed to stay in the W Hotel at a very good rate because of the friskiness of the phone rep. That kind of thing happens so rarely that I’m writing about it now.
Most of the time, you call a company’s number and get interminable music punctuated by “We appreciate your business,” which is a transparent lie, because if it were true, I wouldn’t be on hold. One car salesman said to me, “What can I do to earn your business?” just after I’d complained about another dealership and just before I discovered his own dissembling. It’s incredibly frustrating. Here’s a clue to car salesmen: try telling the truth. One good reason to tell the truth, which Isaac has told me since I was young, is that, if one tells the truth, one does not need to remember what is said to this person or that person.
Philip Greenspun understood that basic dynamic when he started ArsDigita. We understand it too. The simple thing to do is tell the truth and do what you say you’re going to do. If you do, people will be amazed, and you’ll be a superstar grant writer. This is true in human service delivery, grant writing, software development, and any number of other fields.
* Dan Ariely spends some time slagging Audi’s customer service in his new book, The Upside of Irrationality, which, like Predictably Irrational, is very much worth reading. Anyway, he describes how his effectively new car mysteriously halted on the way to Boston, leaving him in the lurch, and the indifference that Audi shows. We used to have a Passat, and, later, an Audi TT convertible, both of which were spectacularly unreliable and convinced my family not to buy any more Audis or Volkswagons.