The business world is filled with both.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart is immortalized by his famous
statement that, while he couldn’t define pornography, “I know it when I see
it.” He pretty much spoke for all of us in that regard.
Common sense is another quality that’s hard to define, but most of us know it
when we see it in action. That’s why it’s called “common.”
Or do we?
It’s probably fair to say that most people recognize common sense most of the
time, but the exceptions make us slap our foreheads. I’ve seen enough
exceptions in the business world to raise some nasty red welts above the bridge
of my nose.
The dividing line between common sense and nonsense isn’t as clear-cut as
people might imagine. I offer the following examples from the business
Common Sense: Businesses must establish policies and procedures. Employees must
be told when to start work and when it is permissible to leave, and what is
expected of them performance-wise. They must be instructed to do certain tasks
a certain way, or chaos would result. Jobs would be botched, payments
uncollected, bills unpaid, on and on. Customers, too, must be governed by rules
defining what they are entitled to receive in the way of goods and services in
return for X amount of dollars spent. Yes, indeed, it simply is a matter of
common sense that businesses must have rules.
Nonsense: “Sorry, it’s against company policy.”
If you’re human – and there aren’t too many non-humans reading this article –
you’ve no doubt heard that phrase from time to time throughout your life as
either an employee or a customer or both. Doesn’t it send a chill of
indignation up your spine?
One example among many: Ever have a retail business decline an expired coupon?
What’s the point of that? The purpose of discount coupons is to attract
customers who wouldn’t otherwise patronize the business, and who hopefully will
become regular customers, paying full price most of the time. That purpose
still is served even beyond the expiration date. Expiration dates are printed
to create a sense of urgency, and to help the business track how many customers
a certain print run of coupons drew. In fact, smart retailers even will accept
competitors’ coupons, which also serve the main purpose.
Some rules don’t apply to all situations. Some rules are just plain stupid. If
a rule is so rigid that it threatens to cost you a good customer or employee,
scrap the rule or change it. Avoid shooting yourself in the
Common Sense: In these tough times, you can’t afford to be turning down any
work that’s available. Chase everything you can, and bite the bullet when it
comes to working for little or no profit. At least it will keep your crews busy
and cash flowing.
Nonsense: There’s some truth in the notion that you have to lower your sights
in a down market. But it’s also a recipe for disaster. In May 2004, I wrote an
article for this publication, titled “12 Reasons To Just Say ‘No.’” You can
find it in the archives section of www.nationaldriller.com. Take a look at it
if you want to find out some of the pitfalls of jobs you are better off
Common Sense: Experience counts. Apprentices aside, you can’t afford to hire
novices or people who have only marginal trade or office
Nonsense: Common sense holds to an extent, but turns to nonsense when carried
to an extreme. It’s OK to run want ads, saying “experience required,” but I
cringe when I see ads specifying “three years experience,” or “minimum five
years experience.” Think about it. Is everyone who’s worked at a job for five
years automatically better at it than someone who’s been doing it for a year or
two? Some individuals are faster learners than others. Also keep in mind that a
learning curve is steep during the first year or so, but declines each one
thereafter. After a couple of years at a given job, most individuals absorb
upwards of 90 percent of what they need to know to perform that job
effectively. Common sense tells us so.
Sometimes experience is as much a hindrance as an asset. Veteran workers may
adhere to outmoded ideas, and are reluctant to accept much-needed change. They
are apt to do things a certain way, simply because “that’s the way we’ve always
done it.” Look for quality hand-in-hand with longevity.
Common Sense: Word of mouth is the best form of advertising – as well as the
cheapest. Why spend money we don’t have when referrals cost
Nonsense: For the most part, I agree. Companies with a good reputation don’t
necessarily have to spend a lot of money promoting themselves. The nonsensical
part comes into play with the notion held by many company owners that the way
to generate referrals is to do good work, then sit back and wait for referrals
to come their way.
Customers who like the way you perform may cut loose with attaboys and a pat on
the back at job completion, but as time passes, they have other priorities. A
few months down the road, you’re out of sight and out of mind. They may not
even remember your name.
This is something I learned from personal experience. Years ago, my wife and I
had vinyl siding installed on the home we lived in at the time, and it was the
best renovation project we’d ever experienced. The contractor was terrific from
our first meeting until the job was finished – actually, even beyond. I
remember being impressed with the fact that he stopped by a month or two after
completion (after our final payment!) just to make sure everything was
Well, a year or so later, an acquaintance asked me to refer him to someone who
did that kind of work, and I was embarrassed to find out that I couldn’t
remember the company’s name or that of its owner. I had to dig out some old
paperwork to find out, but a lot of people wouldn’t go through that trouble.
Service firms that rely on repeat business don’t have as much of a problem as
companies, like many of yours, that may do only a single project in a lifetime
for a given customer.
Referrals need to be cultivated. Develop a customer satisfaction review form to
pass out after completion of every job. A key question to put on this form:
“Can we put your name on our referral list of satisfied customers?” Instant
Common Sense: First impressions are lasting impressions.
Nonsense: Absolutely true, and most business owners would agree. Where the
nonsense comes in is that few realize that the first impression given by their
company often comes from one of its lowest paid employees.
That’s the person who answers your phone. In big companies, it’s usually a
full-time receptionist who is trained to be pleasant with callers. That’s her
job. (Sorry if that sounds sexist, but it’s almost always a she.) In small
companies, the chore may fall to whoever in the office is most readily
available, and that person usually is busy with other duties at the time.
Nobody likes interruptions, so the caller frequently will find a chilly
reception on the other end. Not necessarily impolite, just a tone of voice that
informs the caller he or she is intruding and unwelcome.
My career spans more than three decades and tens of thousands of phone calls to
small trade contracting firms. I estimate that more than half of those calls
ended up being answered by someone with a tone of voice that gave me a bad
Anyone who answers your phones needs to be instructed in rudimentary telephone
manners, especially that of projecting a cheerful demeanor.
Common Sense: Abide by the Golden Rule in all dealings with customers,
employees and any other business associates. Treat everyone like you’d want to
be treated, and more often than not things will work out favorably in the end.
Nonsense: The only thing nonsensical about this common sense is that not enough
businesspeople abide by it.
Smart Business: Common Sense vs. Nonsense
January 3, 2011