I know it first hand. Even though I know it’s best for my business to have surveys and ask customers what they think, I have to admit a cringe a little when I start reading them. In a business that we work 60-80 hours a week, put our heart and soul into, and take away from our time with our family, nobody likes to hear that there are things that need improvement. It’s hard not to take a simple little criticism personally. A simple little statement easily becomes an attack on your hard work and effort. Even though I realize it shouldn’t, it’s human nature that it does. It’s taken me 20 years to get to the place where I see critique as an “opportunity” and not a fault.
It’s a word my Dad was forced to use with me because as a kid in his middle 20’s at the time, it was the only way he could get me not to become defensive and go on into counterattack mode. Problems were opportunities. He would say I or the company have a good opportunity to improve something. It was the same thing as saying we are screwing this up or doing a lousy job at that, but it was a much nicer way of saying it and a way that would keep my attention rather than have me fighting back. Fast forward 18 years later. FINALLY I have made great strides in realizing that it is a business. While it’s a creation of myself and everyone I work with, it is still a stand alone entity that will always need to improve and change. Things will go wrong and things won’t work but it’s not for lack of effort. It’s most likely lack of knowledge, information, or sometimes bad luck. You try to scale the positive and improve the negative and keep moving forward. Moving forward with the help of inside and outside opinion.
As I said earlier, it is hard to read the negatives. I credit this blog to giving me a thicker skin. People have a fantastic shield of the Internet to blast me. Many days I get criticized without a shield like Abdu did today on Domainsville. It’s part of running a business. If you are going to try new things you are going to make mistakes. As my family can attest, I tend to dwell on the successes because those are what are taking me further down the road. The successes are what I want to build on. By no means do I want to avoid the mistakes, I just don’t want to make them such a focal point that forces us to be fixated on the negatives. I like the words of Norman Vincent Peale “We’ve all heard that we have to learn from our mistakes, but I think it’s more important to learn from success. If you learn from your mistakes, you are inclined to learn only errors.
As a 40 year old man I still say stupid things. Sometimes it’s things that don’t come out right, others times it’s things I shouldn’t have said but are true, and often it’s things that are completely wrong, misinformed, and plain old stupid. The difference between now and then is now it’s less often and after I screw up, I do a much better job of saying I’m sorry, not making it worse, or trying not to be defensive. I’m still not perfect but I’ve made great strides. I imagine it comes with age and confidence. You slowly gain the ability to have someone say, “you know your website search function is terrible, I can’t find anything” without being offended because you spent 68 man hours building the thing. Sometimes I think that was half of my assistants job. Not only to take the problems but to take them and reword them so they were nicer. Something like “customer is having trouble with the search function”. Now I appreciate the outside opinion. I dismiss those that offer no value. “Your site sucks” isn’t really going to help me so I skip right pass it mentally. But something like “hey, all those new 125 ads you just added to my site block the content on my smaller screen and make your site look like shit” is the kind of info that is beneficial. A little harsh but I get what they are saying.
The employee surveys at the end of the year also made me nervous. They are even more personal because I have to work with them every day. I’m afraid they were going to bitch about all the equipment that is getting run down or they need a raise. Tell me that I am not doing a good job. It’s harder because I DO care what they say. We made the survey’s anonymous so they could be more open and honest but with that anonymity, I figured it would breed negativity. Unlike the Internet, it didn’t. There certainly were a few criticisms, but in general, a good employee wants to succeed and most of those surveys were employees asking for the tools to succeed. Many wanted better job descriptions, to have a better handle on what they were expected to accomplish on a day to day basis, to be given more frequent feedback so they could adjust what they are doing, and to ask what they could be working on to have the skills and ability to move up to the next pay level or responsibility level. They weren’t bitching because the tractor had a bad seat or that there are never enough brooms to sweep out the greenhouses. Those were issues but weren’t part of the big picture. The surveys were very telling. I was too busy worrying about being attacked when I should have worried about trying to milk out some great information that can help improve the business. It’s the reason why companies have human resource division and middle management. It’s to filter and to present reports with just the info. My business is smaller, no filters, very little middle management between me and every voice. I have to learn to not take personal offense to critiques.
What brought out this article was Abdu Tarabichi being so upset when I called his site a simple aggregator. At first I didn’t understand why he was so mad but then I realized his reaction was natural. It’s his baby and he took offense. He has been nothing but nice to me and was kind enough to give me info and stats. I still think my article was dead on but it probably hurt. In order to stand out from the crowd in a low barrier to entry business model, you have to be different. Not a hurtful statement by itself but he read it as “you are not different”. Nobody in that situation is going to take what I said and say “yeah, I know, I realize that and I’m trying to think of how to make it different” It’s just not in our entrepreneurial nature. We are fighters, and we’ll keep working hard until we succeed or we’ll pivot and start something else and try. Fortunately, he and I have made amends with us both agreeing that it was a simple misunderstanding and neither of us should have taken the conversation as a negative.
I don’t expect people to read this article and suddenly change their approach or perspective. I may be writing it to remind myself. Business is not personal, it’s business. An attack, criticism, or opinion about your work is not a personal attack despite your personal work to create it. It’s hard, but you have to try your best to extract and filter any positives and opportunities in the statements and use them towards improvement. Filter out the anger, personal attacks, and uselessness and throw it away. A simple “thank you and I’ll try and work on it” will go a long way towards keeping you from getting defensive. On the other side, when giving out criticism, always be honest but realize if the other end is the owner, most likely they will become a little more defensive and likely to take what you say personally. Now if I could only practice what I preach more often. I have had a big slip up in this approach over the last month, especially at this blog and I am making it a point in 2012 to do much better. I’ve done much better with my brick and mortar this year dealing with criticism than at any point in time. Probably because people aren’t as mean as they are online because they have to see you in person and live among you on a daily basis.