Ken Schmidt – Make Some Noise

Interview with Former Director of Communication of Harley-Davidson, Ken Schmidt and Marc Ford MBA, Your Best Kept Business Secret

As the former director of communications for Harley-Davidson Motor Company, Ken Schmidt played a pivotal role in one of the most celebrated turnarounds in business history and got paid to ride motorbikes. He is widely known and respected as one of the business world’s most outspoken, provocative and entertaining thought leaders in competition, brand management, positioning, reputation management, human behaviour and loyalty. Is there nothing this man can’t do?

And he has done more than 1,000 keynote speeches to business and education groups around the globe. His new book, which I have listened to from cover to cover…if you could listen to something from cover to cover several times is “Make Some Noise – The Unconventional Road to Dominance”, teaches how to improve businesses and personal competitiveness and he shares some extraordinary, unexpected points of view.

YBKBS: Look, I’m not a biker, but I always thought that Harley Davidson was possibly the pinnacle of the motorbike industry. I need to ask you, why were so many people negative about them and the brand?

KS: And that’s a great question. Well, first of all, there’s always going to be people who dislike, or just decide that they are going to not support someone that is extremely famous and extremely popular. So you say you’re going to do something and then people say, “I don’t want to like you…”, just because other people do. And that’s people outside the bike industry; inside the biking industry, people that ride motorcycles tend to either absolutely adore Harley Davidson and all that it stands for, and all that it represents, or see that as something that they want absolutely nothing to do with, because that’s not the way they see themselves.

Some people just don’t prescribe or don’t follow and get excited about what a company like Harley represents. And to me, that’s awesome. I love the fact that there are haters out there, because that just makes the passion that people all the more passionate and more defensive of the company of the brand.

YBKBS: I mean, I know this sounds really random, I became a really big fan. One of the biggest things I associated Harley Davidson with was the TV program Sons of Anarchy. Honestly, genuinely did a program like that help you or did that just kind of just, I don’t know, solidify the negative feeling towards motorbikes, really?

KS: I’m sure there was a little bit of both, but I can say this with absolute certainty. Anything that promotes motorcycling to the masses, whether it’s, you know, criminal activity like Sons of Anarchy, whether it’s racing, whether they’re bikes just showing up in a comedy or Schwarzenegger riding a Harley and the Terminator. Anything that gets people interested in motorcycling is ultimately good for Harley Davidson.

If you do a lot of research, you determine that there are people that are still afraid of the mostly imaginary criminal bike element on motorcycles. But there are also a lot of people who get really charged up and excited by that. There are a lot of people in the biking community and the Harley riding community that sort of like the fact that when they roll into town or roll up to a stop sign on their motorcycle, that people may be misjudging them as somehow part of, know, criminal element when really they’re a dentist, you know, so they get, you know, feel kind of cool and open for a while.

YBKBS: I used to do a lot of driving on a Sunday morning, here in the UK and  it was amazing how many middle-aged men would suddenly get on a motorbike. They would probably be working in a bank between 9-5, Monday to Friday and would suddenly just throw caution to the wind and start trying to overtake me on blind bends when they possibly knew that it wasn’t the most sensible thing in the world in any shape or form. When you suddenly get this, you get this idea of who those people are, but then you have to remind yourself that you’re right, they probably are an accountant or a banker, or they probably are an executive somewhere and like suddenly they just throw caution to the wind because they’re on a set of two wheels with a great big engine between their legs.

KS: And it’s exciting and fun and they see others doing it. And that’s one of the kind of most powerful things about motorcycling is that everybody wants to get better and push themselves, and if they see somebody else flying through that in a 90 degree turn that high speed, well, they just assume they can do it, too. And the more you do it, the easier it gets and the more you push yourself to do even crazier stuff.

YBKBS:  You kick off the book talking about ‘also rans’ and the ‘also rans types of businesses’. Tell us what you mean by that. What they look like and how they act like compared to the really successful businesses, which you call the ‘Dominators’.

KS: Well, if you look at any market, for anything that’s being sold or produced or made, or brought to market, there’s always going to be someone at the very top, or a few players at the very top. Those are your dominators. The people who do things extraordinarily well, promote themselves well, market themselves. They will do a tremendous job of building loyalty among their customers and their suppliers and all the partners. And then there’s everybody else. Those are the ‘also rans’ and the ‘also rans’ make up the vast majority of the business world. People who are good at what they do, really good at what they do, but just not good at competing. They just sort of, are going through the motions of business and focussing the lion’s share of their efforts on all the wrong stuff. So if you’re talking about wrong stuff to me and you probably see this all the time, and hear this all the time with the businesses that you work with, what are most businesses focussed on?

And they will tell you being more efficient, being lean, lowering expenses, making things, you know, faster, bringing things to market faster, everything is about efficiency and all. That’s great. But nobody in the marketplace cares about that. Nobody makes their decision to buy or not buy based on a business’s efficiencies, because guess what? Everybody’s got it. You’re your internal knitting means nothing to me.

What I do care about is what you do for me. So, the outward looking business versus the inward looking business tends to be the more dominant business. The one that is making the effort to connect with customers and potential customers, be a source of delight for those people and keep them coming back. Those are your dominators.

YBKBS: OK. So there’s a theme that runs through your book and I kept picking up on it all the way through. I spoke about this yesterday when I was I was keynoting somewhere in the UK and one of those themes that runs in the book is listening. How important is it to listen and who should you be listening to?

KS: That’s a wonderful question because people take listening for granted. When I see business owners and leaders, they say, “You know, a big part of my job is listening to my people.” And then you scratch your heads and want to ask, “Why is your business doing so poorly?” It’s listening that is twenty five percent of the equation. The other 75 percent is reacting. And by regularly, if you are talking to customers or potential customers and you’re asking them the kinds of questions as a business leader that you should be asking them, i.e. “What would you like to see us do better?” ,”What could we do that would delight you in ways that our competitors aren’t?” Some ask those questions and then doing nothing with that information, which is sort of standard business practice. It’s really good input and people don’t do anything with it.

If you’re asking those kinds of questions, and the people that you’re asking them to see you actually doing something with that information, see that you are listening, because you’re writing down their answers, you are commending them for their answers. Say this is exactly the kind of input we need. Tell us more. And that is a person who’s going to come back.

That’s how you foster support and loyalty. I’m not just listening…It’s reacting to what you’re telling me. I always say this if I’m speaking to you, a meeting of two thousand people or if I’m consulting a small business owner, the money’s in the reaction when people know that they’re being listened to.

You know, it’s one of the most basic of human needs. I’m being listened to. And that makes me feel a little bit more important. Makes me feel a little bit better about myself. Somebody is listening to and acting on what I am saying.

I can turn that around to when you have to be listening to the people that work with you and for you. I mean, everybody knows that people who work for a living hate being told what to do. You know, it’s kind of counter, but that’s almost…”Here’s your job. Here’s the requirements of your job here. Here’s what you need to do today.” Bang, bang, bang. And people do it, but they don’t feel good about it versus, “How would you like to do this? What do you think would be a better way for you to do your job every day?” And if that person is again being listened to and that inputs being taken seriously, they’re going to stick around. They’re going to continue to offer up input because the people on the front lines of business, the people that are customer facing and the people that are on the phone talking to customers, the people who are talking to suppliers, they know what’s going on in the business. They know what’s going on in the trenches. And if their inputs not being sought and acted upon. They don’t feel important. They’ll go somewhere else to work.

YBKBS: It leads me really nicely to the next question, actually, because there’s a great piece in which you talk about the fact that your industry didn’t change. Neither did you. But we did. What do you mean by that?

KS:  It’s kind of human nature, I guess, for people to make excuses about why their businesses is not as competitive as it could be or why it’s slumping or why they have to compete on price, which is, you know, essentially the suicide business.

And if you ask people and I literally do this every day, what are the biggest challenges facing your business, whether it’s a mum and pop or a hundred thousand employee conglomerate? The answer I get every time, is “Oh, our market has changed.”

And I said, “Well, why would you say that? What do you mean? Your market has changed? So fundamentally, what you’re doing right now would have been working great five years ago. If it’s not working now, that means the market changed to.” What are markets? Markets are people. That’s all of us. We change every day. We adopt a technology. We, that’s every single one of us goes online and buys things using price, as our buying criteria. But businesses hate it. The customer. “Oh, we hate when our customers shop on price”, even though we all do it. So let’s say that markets is us. This is who we are. It’s not some invisible or it isn’t some kind of tangible, bendable mouldable thing. It’s something that can be blamed for something that you’re not doing right.

Markets are people, and if we are as a business focussed on that, stop making excuses for why we’re not doing better in the marketplace and instead turn that back into what can we be doing better to serve and delight people? What would I need to see every day as a potential customer?

That would make me want to do business with us and if we’re blaming the market and saying the market’s changed for our business being slow or not, as successful as it would be, what we’re really saying is that we as a business haven’t changed to keep up with what all of us as people evolving toward. We all want things faster, cheaper, easier, better. And businesses that do that or that interrupt that cycle, become better known and more demanding.

YBKBS: There’s a great phrase that I use on many occasions and I think it rings true in this case as well, and there are many business owners that forget this, “Your business is not about you. It starts with you.” And I think that’s what I think is really powerful when it comes to the fact that there are so many people who blame their customers for changing. So it doesn’t matter what worked last week, it might not work now. You really have to remember that your business, whether it’s a being a solo entrepreneur or a big multinational business, international business, hundreds of thousands of employees…Guess what? It’s not about you. The most important person on your payroll is your customer is your client. Does that make sense?

KS: Yes, it does. I couldn’t agree more, which you probably heard. Listening to my book there was a lot of the discussion, a lot focus on taking advantage of basic human behaviour and leveraging these basic drivers of behaviour, that are common to all of us for competitive advantage. And the bedrock of that, is the notion that every human being on the planet sees himself or herself as the centre of the universe.

That’s the only way we can perceive life. Business can perceive anything as every thought that we have, every feeling that we have, or any experience that we have. This thought or experience is relative to how it impacts me, the centre of the universe. And when you as a business owner, or somebody in a business are talking about yourself and your business, here’s what we stand for; here is what we represent; here’s our mission statement and here’s our vision statement and you’re thinking, “What does any of that have to do with me?”

Nobody believes what you say about yourself. You can put a tremendous amount of belief, though, in what other people tell us. So if you are a business person trying to convince me to do business with you and you’re giving me your. ‘Quality message’ or, ‘Here’s why you should be doing business with us’, ‘Here’s why you’re different’, there’s very little you could say to me that I haven’t already heard and disbelieved from thousands of other businesses.

Of course, you’re going to tell me you’re the best and you’re the greatest and that you care the most and all of that, but when I hear that coming from somebody else, a friend or somebody sitting next to me on a plane is talking about your business in glowing terms…well, now that that’s an endorsement from a third party that’s not coming directly from the business, I’m way more likely to believe that, remember and act upon it, than I am if it’s coming from you.

YBKBS: I spoke at a trade show and Expo here in Leicestershire in the UK, last year. And it reminded me there’s a great story in the book about trade shows and Expos, where you describe a conversation between somebody that visits your stand and that person on the stand. And I’ve got to admit, wandering around, I heard the story in my head so many times, that I tried not to chuckle. I was laughing under my breath because they were just so many people that were bad at telling people what they do. If you could give a business a couple of ’do’s’ and a couple of ‘don’ts’ when it comes to promoting themselves and marketing themselves at these trade shows and exhibitions, what would they be?

KS:  We’ll get to that, but to your point about something like a trade show. Thank you for saying that here.Here you have representatives of your business live in the flesh, standing in environments surrounded by the things that you sell or promote your reason for existence. And the people who you are in competition with are also represented in the same place at the same time. And then in walks a potential buyer or a potential customer. What do you suppose the odds would be that any two or three people working in your business booth today would be describing your business and what it does and why someone should be doing business with you the same way? And people don’t know how to do that because they’re not trained how to do that, because there’s no leadership driven movement within the business that says we’re going to define who we are and how we want to be described.

And remember, that’s sort of the basis of competition. We’re not here at a trade show to sell stuff. We’re here at the trade show to outcompete others that are trying to sell the same stuff to the same people. And again, it comes back to this. We know how to market. We know how to make a really good product or sell a good product. We’re really good at that. What we’re not good at is the competing show. The leader of the business in this has to start at the top because this isn’t a marketing function. Is business strategy, as I say, “We as a business, we’re going to determine exactly what we want people to say about us when they’re talking about us. And then we have to determine what we need to do to get them to say it. Which means what? What is our very specific defining language that we want people to remember about our business?” And you know what? People aren’t going to remember words like ‘they stand for quality’ or ‘they’re committed to their customers’.

You know, they hear that crap every day. But if you ask business leaders, what do you want to be known for? That’s what they will tell you, because they think they’re supposed to say you’re not competing, because your competitors are using that exact same kind of go to market language and strategy.

You need the language. You need agreement among leadership within the business. We’re going to carve this line in the sand and we’re going to plant our flag. This is the language that we’re going to use to describe ourselves. This is the behaviour that we’re going to use in front of customers and potential customers to bring that language to life. And this is what it’s going to be required of our working culture to make this happen. Because when you don’t have that agreement of what you stand for and how you want to be talked about, then that leaves it to every employee or every function within a business, salesperson, marketing person, the county person to make that decision themselves.

And that’s when that’s where you have all these ‘also rans’. You’re screwed, you sell stuff. Great. Welcome to the party. There’s a million other people doing that, too. But when you’re known for who you are because it’s distinct, different and memorable, well, now you’re competing. Now you’re crushing those other guys that are just doing all the ‘us too stuff’; and going through the motions.

YBKBS: When you talk about making noise and then there’s a particular comment that stuck out in the book to me, which was about social media.  Because everybody uses social media as the go-to thing. So if we imagined that social media got switched off tomorrow, and you as a solopreneur or as a small business, where would the best three places be for you to go make some noise? Where would be the three places that you would go and go and get noticed?

KS: Well, first, about the whole issue with social media. If we’re going to break that down quickly, is the notion that if a business doesn’t have a social strategy, it has no business being on social media. And what I mean is what I was just talking about, how do we want to describe our business? How do we want other people to remember and talk about it unless, or until we have, that agreement? We shouldn’t be on social media because that that sort of creates the scattershot stuff that you see in the social media world, that on any given day the business is saying different stuff, every day to a lot of people who really aren’t listening. It’s really, really hard to make friends.

Through social media, it’s easy to continue a conversation with friends that you’ve already made in a real life. Friends. Yes. It’s easy to stay fresh and current with empty social media, but it’s really hard to attract new people that don’t know you to your business through social media, especially when your social media person doesn’t know what they’re supposed to be saying, but they’re just saying stuff anyway to fill space. So what I say is, yeah, go ahead and shut it off for a while. The first thing you should be focussing on is what I call that Noise Cube trilogy is, what are people saying about us?

What do we want them to say and what are we doing to get them to say it? Who’s it?

Who’s important to our business?

Who do we need telling our story?

Obviously, we need to delight customers, but if we can get those customers to recommend us to other people through networking, through live conversation, through standing next to somebody at a trade show, through putting up posts on social media, putting up positive reviews somewhere online, if we’re doing something for someone that they’re telling somebody else about.

We’re doing the right stuff. So what do we as a business need to focus on that make part of our reason for existence? What do we drill into our DNA and into our culture that are going to get our people to talk about us the way we want to get talked about? Because if we’re not doing that first, nothing else we’re ever going to do is going to make a difference.

You know, the business as a whole doesn’t know what it stands for and the people that work there don’t know what it stands for. So how do they know what they’re supposed to be doing every day? And if doing their job that just simply requires going through the motions and doing what’s expected, putting the product in the box and chipping it or standing behind the counter and talking to the customer, that employee believes that that’s all they’re responsible for doing.

That’s not an employee who’s helping you become more competitive. That’s not an employee who’s building demand. That’s not an employee who’s focussed on delighting people so that they will come back for more.

Look, it’s it’s astounding and I’m sure I’m getting away from your question, but there’s a lesson in how few businesses talk about the word ‘loyalty’ or even understand it. They think, if we do what we do well, like I fix the person’s teeth, I can sell them their glasses. I sell them this product that they want. And it shows up, you know, the next day or they’re able to come in and get what they need and be on their way. Well, then we have satisfied that customer. Basically, you gave the customer what they expected because they could have gotten that.

They could have got that anywhere. We’re so used to our needs being met every day that we don’t even notice anymore. Instead, if we focus the business on what do we need to do to delight this person?

Because what is loyalty? The best definition of loyalty that I know of is that as humans we will habitually return to anything in our life that pleases us and we’re a joy seeking species. Then if you somehow delight me, make me feel better about myself, let’s say you’re just dangling a doughnut in front of me, I’m going to come back for more of that and I’m going to keep coming back for more. Until you stop. Delighted.

So as a business, we look at what do I want to sell someone today? Do I want to sell something to this person or do I want to be a source of delight to this person? Say thanks to them that they’re not hearing from competitors. Do something in front of them that they didn’t expect me to do. Make them genuinely feel important and special and necessary. It’s virtually guaranteed that person is going to prefer you and come back. Really hard to do that through social media. Really hard to do that through marketing.

This is the energy of our business. This is what we stand for and what we represent. We’re going to build these people’s basic human needs for validation to feel important, feel special and have a little bit of delight because we know they’re going to come back. If we can build our business around that, we will 100 percent of the time, out-compete our competitors that are selling really good products at great prices.

YBKBS: They say that you should surround yourself with the five people that will genuinely make a difference yo you and your business. What are your thoughts?

KS: Well, first of all, I will say to that, that you have to have like minded people. You have to be working with like minded people. And remember, what I said earlier, is that so many times there’s disagreement among people in the business as to what we’re supposed to be doing, what we stand for, what what we represent and that always creates fear and resentment and blame because we’re not in agreement of what we should be doing. So therefore, we’re all experts on what we’re doing when we create these silos. And here I get that it gets ugly. If I’m charged with leading something I’m going to ensure that people that are working with me, that are part of this team are in complete agreement on what we’re doing.

What we’re going to say about ourselves, what we want others to say about us and the specific things that we need to be doing to make sure that that’s being said. Because I’m the type of person and I know you’re the kind of person, Marc, that simply says, “Look, I don’t want to just get up every day and be in business. I want to get up every day. And out-compete people that are trying to steal what I have. I want them. I don’t want somebody to.”

If I’m being considered somewhere as a speaker at a meeting and I know that there’s a thousand other people that would love that spot too, I’m going to focus on the like minded people, so I can ensure that there are a lot of people saying good things about good people in all areas of industry, saying things about me. You’re talking about me the way I want to be talked about and described, because that’s creating demand for me. And it’s also memorable if somebody is describing me as a really good speaker, that doesn’t do me a bit of good.

I want to be describe for, you know, intense, visible passion, ability to make something relatable to people, somebody that’s fun and puts entertainment at the top of everything that he does. Because if people are having fun and people feel that they’re being entertained and sort of catered to, they stick around, and they come back for more. The five most important people I’m going to have around me are myself and four other people who believe what I believe. Love what I want. If I’ve got people around me working and we don’t agree or, you know, three of the four people here are great, and they’re really buying into this concept of, making noise and competing, but another person who’s just not buying in, is the person that has to get the big sit down and the big pep talk.

This is what we’re going to do or you’re not going to be here any longer, because if you’ve got those people in your organisation, the ‘naysayers’, the people who refuse to follow along, they are killing your business. Killing demand for the business, and you can’t you just can’t have people like that under your roof.

YBKBS: What is what’s your biggest mistake? What’s your biggest mistake in business so far? And why?

KS: Biggest mistake that I’ve made is assuming that people were as passionate about things as I am. Especially with something like motorcycles.

And I would be talking to anyone from elected officials somewhere to investors, and I would just be gushing about the excitement of the sport, the excitement of the motorcycle lifestyle, and assuming that they were at least familiar enough with it. I wanted them to be able to connect with the passion that I had and was talking about. And then would eventually find out or that they would eventually admit or had actually pick up on the fact they don’t really know what I’m talking about here. And because I represent at that time a company like Harley, I just sort of assume the whole world is dialled in to it.

What we were doing there was exciting. An extremely popular product and highly respected brand, but there were many times on the phone when I would call someone and they’d say, “Who are you with?” And I’d say, “Harley Davidson”. Then they’d say, “Could you spell that?” I’d be like, “Oh, my God, you’ve never heard of us?” “No.” And I’d say, “Wow, I assume too much.”

And I learned from that, as we always have to start at square one and assume that people know nothing. And that’s the greatest way to know nothing about you because that’s the greatest way to establish a relationship.

Let them talk first. Find out the stuff that tells you where they’re at, where their heads are, what they know and what they don’t know or what they know or don’t know about your competitors. And then you’ve got.

That’s a glorious ‘in’ to start more meaningful conversations, not just assuming that it’s now my chance to talk about my business and people will know what I’m talking about.

Marc Ford

Editor-in-Chief, Business Media Owner, Business Coach, Author and Keynote Speaker. Works with over 100's of small businesses every year. Trusted by BBC TV and Radio, Channel 4, Mercedes Benz, Hitachi Capital on business matters.