Author Archives: Tim Askew

About Tim Askew

Timothy Askew is the Founder and CEO of Corporate Rain International, an elite Texas and New York-based international sales execution and consulting firm, recently rated the #1 boutique sales outsourcer in the world. Mr. Askew developed his organizational and sales talents as a Broadway producer and as the owner of an event-planning business. His clients included Citibank, Williams Real Estate, The Museum of the City of New York, The Paul Taylor Dance Company, Doubleday and Vanity Fair, to mention a few. Mr. Askew graduated Magna Cum Laude from Emory University in Atlanta, where he received his Bachelors degree in History, and a Masters degree in Philosophy and Religion. He earned a Masters degree in Education from Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, California. Additionally, in his younger days he appeared as an actor in leading roles on Broadway and on the soap opera Another World on NBC. He is an ordained minister, as well as a published poet and occasional public speaker. Mr. Askew has served on Majority Leader Senator Joe Bruno’s Small Business Advisory Council for the State of New York. He is listed in Who’s Who in American Small Business. You can learn more at www.CorporateRain.com

Manners and Sales

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Tim Askew - CEO Corporate Rain InternationalPoliteness, courtesy, niceness, manners. These are qualities I find increasingly missing in sales and most other aspects of business. People increasingly just don’t see the need to bother with this stuff.

I was reminded of this as I read Peggy Noonan’s fine, zeitgeist attuned article in the WSJ titled, “We Pay Them To Be Rude To Us“. Ms. Noonan states,  “American culture is, one way or another, business culture and our business is service. Once we were a great industrial nation. Now we are a service economy.” She says the social implications of this are making us confused and crazy. “We wear away the superego and get straight to the id, and what we see isn’t pretty.” She describes a revolution in manners. “We tore [manners] down as too fancy, or sexist, or ageist, or revealing of class biases. Just when we needed more than ever the formality and agreed-upon rules of manners to act as guard rails, we threw them aside. And now no one knows how to act anymore.”

When I was a young actor (mostly unemployed) many years ago, before I became an accidental entrepreneur, I often supported myself as a catering waiter for high-society in New York. I worked mostly for a company called Glorious Food, the most elegant caterer then around.

Glorious Food parties were run by a very traditional and exacting maître d’ named Serge. Serge was an old school martinet who was about doing everything with precise properness. Training to become a waiter for Glorious Food involved a long seminar where you were trained how to set a traditional table, fold napkins, correctly serve, etc. Basically, I thought this was a bunch of hooey.

But one day I found myself sitting next to the daunting Serge and got to talking to him about why we did all this minutia so precisely. He quite cogently explained to me that, as silly or unnecessary as it might seem to an American (slight disdain with a French accent), there were very good and practically efficacious reasons for why the dessert spoon is placed over the desert fork, or why the white and red wine and water glasses were in a specific configuration. Basically it made things easier for the server and the servee. It was not arbitrary or phony. It was well thought out and imminently practical.

There is a reason for manners and courtesy and it is not just to be nice. The purpose of manners is to give us a practical structure to deal with each other. It is not bullshit. It is the glue of civilization and the utilitarian road map for dealing in everyday business. Manners and polite address are not superficial. They are essential. The importance of plain good manners is increasingly not taught or explained with any depth. Too bad. It is an important tool increasingly missing in the modern salesman’s repertoire.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said in his essay “Behavior” from The Conduct of Life (1860), “Manners are the happy ways of doing things; each once a stroke of genius or of love, now repeated and hardened into usage.” Thanks, Ralph.

Importantitis, Hubris and the Entrepreneur

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Tim Askew - CEO Corporate Rain InternationalIn her book, Stephen Sondheim: A Life, Meryle Secrest quotes composer Steven Sondheim on his friend and colleague Leonard Bernstein’s consistent failure to produce any significant music after his great masterpiece “West Side Story.” Sondheim says Bernstein developed “a bad case of importantitis.” That is, anything he touched, by self- definition, had to have the weight and portent of the great.

Importantitis can sure be a killer of creativity and corporate health for the entrepreneur, as well as for the artist. I was reminded about this by the dizzying fall from grace of Mark Hurd at Hewlett Packard, a man of achievement and power brought low by ethics violations and the apparent attitude that he was above the rules. (Or who can forget Leona Helmsley‘s famous statement that the rules apply only to “the little people.”)

Jonah Lehrer wrote an article  on this in the Wall Street Journal called “The Power Trip”. Lehrer notes what psychologists call the “paradox of power.” That is, the very traits which help leaders rise to power disappear once they ascend. Instead of being courteous, honest and outgoing they often become impulsive, reckless and rude—subject to hubristic overreach and Icarus-like arrogance. He quotes extensively from University of California, Berkely psychologist Dacher Keltner‘s scientific findings from studies of power and success. Dr. Keltner states, “When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive.” Dr. Keltner goes on the compare the feeling of power to brain damage, stating that people with great power tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area essential for empathy and decision-making.

An entrepreneur is usually a boss. He is a person of power, if only in his own very small pond. As such, I believe it is crucial to avoid importantitis. At my own outsourced executive sales firm, Corporate Rain International, I try to guard against this in several ways. One is I never stop cold-calling. At this point I could have other people take over this task completely for me. But I want to experience what my associates and employees experience for clients each day, which includes a great deal of rejection. Another way Is that I genuinely try to never employ anyone who isn’t better than myself, and then I listen to their input.

In a recent article, Patrick Caddell, a Democratic pollster, observes there is an increasing inability of executives to admit mistakes, even including both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and how unuseful a quality this is in an executive. He says, “As we’ve seen again and again over the past few years, admitting a mistake is almost constitutionally impossible for today’s corporate chiefs and even harder for politicians.”

Thomas Bailey Aldrich states in “Ponkapog Papers” (1903), “The possession of unlimited power will make a despot of almost any man. There is a possible Nero in the gentlest human creature that walks.” Thanks, Thomas.

Letters and Executive Sales

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Tim Askew - CEO Corporate Rain InternationalHere’s a little dinosaur wisdom: If you want to initiate new business with real corporate decision makers, write a letter. Send it snail mail, just like Grandma.

Yup. That’s my brilliant marketing suggestion for the week. Send this letter with a real stamp, ideally an attractive commemorative. Do not use labels for the address, but only direct printing on the envelope. Be sure to use expensive stationary. Spend the money. It’s a very minor expense and it makes a major statement. The very touch of your letter connotes seriousness and respect for yourself and your potential client. It creates a sensual branding statement.

Ideally the body of the letter should absurdly, insultingly oversimplify the wonder of your company. It should be able to be scanned essentially in five seconds by a busy executive. The letter should go something like this:

  • Request a meeting on a specific date. (The date means nothing. It’s simply a technique for focusing the reader’s mind.)
  • Describe very briefly what you do, some authenticating clients and any salient defining information (awards, differentiators, rankings, quotes from major press, etc.).
  • Most importantly, one short paragraph should have two case studies of one sentence each–emphasizing money, ROI, or percentages of increased sales or savings. Pure green eye shade stuff.
  • No creativity. None of the unique qualitative reasons to use your firm. Then bold maybe four phrases in the letter.

That’s it. The letter should include no collateral and make as little time demand as possible on a busy corporate executive. The point of all this is simply to create a hint, a fragrance, a trope, a memory that he or she got something serious from you. Then you or your representative, of course, must follow up, referencing the letter. But that’s a discussion for another day.

There is one thing a corporate decision-maker is looking for. That thing is clear ROI, whether in the form of earnings, savings, or efficiency. If you can make a compelling, differentiated, classy appeal, your chances of penetration distinctly improve.

Despite all the magical new technology and social messaging, real executive rain-making must be personalized. I feel it is insulting to try to initiate with a busy corporate executive without the weighted intonation of a letter. Quite aside from issues of spamming and information overload, a personal letter is innately imbued with the assumption of a high-level courtesy and a bespoke respect between equals. The most important fact about selling to decision-making corporate executives is simply this: They like to deal with their peers. They like to be deal with people of equal gravitas and authority.

Singer/songwriter Peter Allen wrote a song many years ago called “Everything Old Is New Again.”  Ironically, snail mail’s very decline in the face of the Internet’s communication maelstrom, makes it increasingly more effective and noticeable when it is used.

For, as John Donne said in his poem “To Sir Henry Wotton” (1633), “Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle souls.” Thank you, John.

High Power Posing and Sales

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Tim Askew - CEO Corporate Rain InternationalI’m insecure, dammit. I sure wish I wasn’t. Pathetic, huh, for a guy posing as an expert in such a testosterone-fueled, masculine-imaged, aggressive profession as sales? But when I started my career as an entrepreneurial salesman my hands used to shake when I met with the C-suite folk I was pitching. That doesn’t happen any more, but the inner feeling of not being quite enough is an ineluctable closeted demon still lurking somewhere beneath a late-blooming polished professional.

That said, I know everyone suffers at least occasional feelings of powerlessness and low self-esteem. To this point, I was caught recently by an interesting article about the work of Professor Amy J.C. Cuddy of the Harvard Business School. In an article titled “Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance“, Professor Cuddy reveals that holding “power poses” for brief periods stimulates higher levels of testosterone (the hormone linked to power and dominance) and lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone that can help cause hypertension and impaired immune functioning).

Reporting on Cuddy’s research Julia Hanna, Associate Editor of the HBS Alumni Bulletin, states,

“Controlling for subjects’ baseline levels of both [testosterone and cortisol], Cuddy and her coauthors found that high-power poses decreased cortisol by about 25% and increased testosterone by about 19% for both men and women. In contrast, low-power poses increased cortisol about 17% and decreased testosterone about 10%. Not surprisingly, high-power posers of both sexes also reported greater feelings of being powerful and in charge.”

I’m trying one of Cuddy’s power poses right now in my office. I have my feet up on my desk, hands behind my head and it does seem to have some emotionally salubrious, empowering effect. (Begone low self-esteem!  Get thee to a nunnery!  I abjure your presence!)

At any rate these power poses might at least prove a useful, practical preparation for those fragile, not-at-your best days when you still have to sally forth to kill the sales dragon.

William Hazlitt says in “Characteristics” (1823), “As is our confidence, so is our capacity.” Thank you, William.

Networking & Executive Sales

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Tim Askew - CEO Corporate Rain InternationalThere was a nice column on business networking in the Wall Street Journal a while back by Anne Kadet. Anne states, “On any given night, New Yorkers have their pick of 50-odd networking events. Last week, for instance, you could have mingled with Long Island Techies, Hispanic business owners, professional comedians or ‘Mommies with Babies and Businesses.’ But if you’re not a regular in on the networking circuit, you have to wonder:  Does anything ever come of all this sound and fury?”

My own general feeling is that most networking is a distracting, energy vitiating waste of time. (Admittedly I’ve never felt very good at it, kinda like I was never very comfortable at picking up girls in bars.) There is only one form of networking that makes sense to me and that is networking with my peers; that is, networking with fellow CEOs, business owners, and entrepreneurs where relaxed conversations can occur allowing development of relationships in a general atmosphere of collegiality.

But, with that caveat, I wanted to recommend an article my partner David Downey, President of Corporate Rain International, sent me last week authored by an entrepreneur named Greg Peters from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Greg is the founder of The Reluctant Networker and he sets out some rules for networking in terms of law enforcement. His clever article is entitled Don’t Violate These Networking Laws and in it he lists some “misdemeanor” tickets he would give to misguided networkers.

Parking Ticket. This would be issued to anyone at a networking event who chooses to grab a seat at a table without first completing their networking goals. This is a relatively minor offense, but if you get too many of them your networking license can be revoked.

Speeding. Anyone who tried to ask for some benefit which exceeded the relationship that they had established so far would be in danger of receiving one of these bad boys.  The most egregious offenders would be the folks who ask for a high-level referral five minutes after meeting someone.

Passing in a No Passing Zone. Handing out your card when the other person didn’t specifically ask for it is another of those minor offenses that the networking police are watching for.

Not coming to a complete stop. The social butterflies (or social  climbers) who are always looking for someone better to talk to (or be seen talking to) collect the largest number of these citations. Part of the networking officers’ training is to watch for the tell-tale “looking over the other person’s shoulder” which usually indicates an infraction in progress.

Networking while trying to influence. NWI’s are the nice way of saying that instead of networking and trying to establish new long-term relationships, the perpetrator in question was trying to sell. This is definitely one of the more serious violations.

Illegal “You” turn. The networker who earns this ticket has a problem. They only want to talk about themselves. Whenever the conversation drifts to the other person, they try to turn the “you” back into “me.” Violators of this particular statute soon discover that they are alone on the road since no one can hang around for long with the conversational whiplash their networking can cause.

Thank you, Greg Peters.

William Shatner and Sales

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Tim Askew - CEO Corporate Rain InternationalThere was a very nice personality profile of William Shatner in the New York Times by Pat Jordan. Shatner, of course, came to fame in 1966 in Star Trek. He speaks with a charming combination of resignation and bemusement about how his life has been ruled by his type-casting as Captain Kirk. This role defined Shatner more than any actor’s role I can think of. He got wildly rich on stock options from his 1997 commercial for discount travel company Priceline, playing a preposterously pompous exaggeration of his real pomposity as Kirk. “I. Am. Captain. James. Kirk.” There is a sweetness in Shatner’s wry acceptance of his lot.

The article on Shatner got me thinking about sales and type-casting. Type-casting is something that only very successful actors need to worry about. Nevertheless, it’s a thing that anyone touching on sales should think about. To wit, successful sales pitches can lead to sales failure if one falls captive to them.

One of the things I noticed early in my life as an accidental salesman was that if I started pushing myself too hard or too long without a break I sometimes drifted into a kind of catatonic gibbering, gobbling Tim Askew imitation, lacking spontaneity and any sense of being humanly present. The words were the same, only uttered by a ghostly empty shell. I learned to take regular breaks and look for opportunities to change my patterns of speaking, listening, and being. I became very willing to mess up a bit, if that kept me in a place of reality and spontaneity. This allowed me to remain free, happy, unbored and compelling in my work. Real.

These days, in my own executive sales outsourcing company, I prefer that my associates not work over 25 hours/week formally selling, unless there is a client emergency. You just do better if you stay fresh. I even tell them not to worry about selling success, just to tell the truth simply and fiercely. Though I know hundreds of sales books disagree, I honestly don’t personally see sales as much more than that.

Call me simple. Thanks, Mr. Shatner.

Firing the Client and Entrepreneurship

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Tim Askew - CEO Corporate Rain InternationalSometimes you need to fire your client. God, that’s a hard one for me.

After 16 years at the helm of my own company and over 700 clients, I’ve only given a client the pink slip four times (and once it was simply for their sake because they were really too busy and successful to use what my company was doing for them.) However, in terms of long-term branding and business reputation, it is a road that must be taken occasionally.

It was real hard to let a client go in the wake of 2008. With fear, uncertainty, and outright panic widespread it was particularly painful to give any client the heave-ho. But even in the worst of times there is a point of demarcation that must not be crossed.

In my case that line of demarcation is first and foremost discourtesy to or abuse of my staff. My employees and associates are ultimately my first priority. They are more important to me than my clients. This is certainly counter intuitive for many of my small business colleagues. For example, The Guardian Life Index: What Matters Most to America’s Small Business Owners recently reported that customers are priority numero uno for the vast majority of entrepreneurs.This is certainly understandable given the cost and time commitment that goes into generating new business. However, my feeling is that I can get new clients, but maintaining an ethical, culturally consistent employee base is ultimately more important to the long-term health of my company. In fact, the customer is not “always right” when a basic incongruity emerges in corporate culture between your client and your company. Then it is better to gently disengage.

Crain’s New York reported  that CEO Kevin Labick of digital consulting firm Empathy Lab recently fired a huge retail client. He recounts a litany of offenses that ranged from treating staff disrespectfully to late payments to nickel-and-diming small matters clearly stipulated in the contract. Such a nuisance is a time waster and a distraction from long-term goals and the branded reputability of any small firm. Also,  you may be judged by your client’s values and reputation, as much as your own.

Ecclesiastica  in the Apocrypha states, “Have regard for your name, since it will remain for you longer than a great store of gold.”

Thank you, Ecclesiasticus.

Editors Note: The Digital Nirvana is very pleased to welcome Tim Askew to our team of bloggers. Tim is the founder of Corporate Rain International and a renowned expert on sales, sales management and entrepreneurship. Thank you Tim!