A Lesson in Overcoming Fear: Optimism for Turbulent Times
A few years back, I was invited to speak at Vermont/New Hampshire Direct Marketing Days. I wanted to be there, but I didn't want to travel there because the only flight was a toy airplane from LaGuardia.
But Larry Chait, my brilliant friend and mentor, asked me to come, so I had to say yes. Once I did, the event's organizer, Amy Africa, started calling. She's more than pleasant, but Amy has one of those moose-and-mountain-country voices that suggests she might shoot and skin an unsatisfactory speaker and nail the hide to the barn door.
I wasn't sure I wanted to go to Vermont.
Amy sent gifts with notes. Cheese's note read, "All the big cheeses will be here." Maple syrup's was, "This event will be sweet." I steeled myself and got into the little plane.
We took off tentatively, cruised at wave height over Long Island Sound and at tree height over Connecticut and Massachusetts, then swooped and dived and yawed and banged and clanged our way into New Hampshire, which, from where I sat, looked like Tibet. Somehow the 15-year-old pilot weaved us around mountains and along valleys, and suddenly, there we were.
And it was worth it.
The circus-themed event was outstanding: great speakers, circus acts, terrific food and lots of laughs, all thanks to Amy and her volunteers. They had a raffle, and I won a rototiller, which isn't much use in a 46th St. apartment, so it got "regifted" to a delighted Vermonter.
Amy and I kept in touch for a while; then, as she got more and more important in the Internet world and my agency business started hopping, the letters and e-mails slowed, and we lost touch except for running across each other occasionally at conferences.
Then Amy saw my face in Fortune Small Business magazine above an article I wrote about the challenges of moving my agency from New York to Florida. She e-mailed that she was happy to see my smiling (and touched up) face, and we started corresponding regularly again and got together in New York last December.
At dinner, Amy asked if I was going to DMA08 Conference & Exhibition in Las Vegas. "No," I said, "and I'd like to because I've never been to Las Vegas." She couldn't believe it. "Just since I've known you," she said, "you've been to Istanbul, Moscow, Italy, Sweden, Canada, Thailand and who knows where else, and you haven't seen Las Vegas?"
Amy decided it was time for me to see Sin City!
I demurred ... work's hectic, the economy is tough, I'm not speaking there, the dog ate my homework. But Amy was relentless, and I gave in. She planned it all, got a few friends to join us and I knew it would be fun.
But Amy is Amy, and she doesn't leave anything to chance. So she launched the most amazing CRM campaign of all time—the AAGRM Program, short for the Amy Africa Guilt Relationship Marketing Program. It started with a huge red inflated ball, mailed all by itself, addressed and stamped with a note: "You'll have a ball in Vegas, Amy." It was from SENDaBALL.com.
Then came a huge carton from Dale and Thomas with assorted flavors of popcorn and a beautiful bowl. The note: "Vegas, Baby, Vegas."
Our mailman laughed when he delivered an addressed and stamped—"Vegas? You lucky duck, Lois"—little, yellow rubber ducky from SendADuck.com.
We all waited to see what was next. Two huge boxes of Jelly Belly gourmet jelly beans. Then a mystery box full of bangerangs, which are so delicious we ate the card, too. Bangerangs, from www.BangerangBakeShop.com, are cupcakes in jars.
The next day, the mailman and the FedEx guy happened to show up at the same time, and even they couldn't wait to see what was in the next box. Cookies that melt in your mouth were next, the kind of cookies that on a scale of 1 to 100 rate 120. They were sent by Nana's Cookies and Gifts in Montana. Nana really knows her cookies.
Now we were all Pavlov's dogs. When the mailman showed up, we started drooling. The next box overflowed with dozens of fortune cookies, all with little slips of paper inside with my name on them: "Lois, you'll make a fortune in Las Vegas" and "Lois: Good friends, good times, good fortune in Vegas," and so on.
Then another box from Nana, filled this time with decadent chocolate brownies. They were even better than Nana's cookies.
Now, I was getting excited about the trip (plus a sugar high).
Just before I left for Las Vegas, a golden box of Leonides Chocolates arrived. By now I was worried that the airline might consider me personally to be overweight baggage, so I saved the chocolates until I got back.
Amy and friends were at the airport. There was only one rule: No asking about activities, but Amy did ask if there was anything I couldn't do. I narrowed my long, long list down to no bungee jumping, please. Then it was off to a whirlwind of amazing shows, meals and Vegas attractions. This was great!
And then one morning a limo picked us up for a special surprise. This had my stomach jumping, because Amy said we'd be away for a long while and told us to wear sneakers.
With some trepidation I got into the limo, and it felt like the rest of the group was in on the secret. I didn't have a clue, but bungee jumping crossed my mind. Then the car pulled into an airfield, over where they keep the helicopters. Helicopters?
Sure, we're flying over to the Grand Canyon. Whattt?!
I begged. I pleaded. I said I'd wait for them to get back. Barbara de la Riva calmed me down. This was going to be fine, and I was going to love it and she had never heard of a chopper crashing down the Canyon.
I bit my lip, held my breath and buckled in, sandwiched between Bernice Grossman and Linda Pickering. I prayed silently. Then I prayed out loud, and then we took off. Not like an airplane. No, like a rocket, straight up, and suddenly we were fluttering inches above mountains. We saw the Hoover Dam (oh, is that big), and then there it was, the Grand Canyon, a giant and spectacular gully, miles across and over a mile deep. What a sight. We landed near the north rim and had a picnic. Then it was time to fly back to Las Vegas.
Would I like to sit up front with the pilot this time? Why not? With the glass under my feet, the view was incredible: the Canyon, the mountains, the desert, the hotels on the strip.
Now, thanks to Amy, I'm Miss Fearless Wonder Woman. What had I been afraid of? What's the point of being afraid when all it does is keep you from doing things? I was so delighted with my newfound freedom that it didn't occur to me until I got back to Florida and started watching the news and reading the papers about banking disasters and recessions, even depressions, that FDR was right: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
If I'd really understood that when I was a kid, I'd probably have been a pilot and would have flown myself to New Hampshire and over the Grand Canyon.
Amy remembered my fear, developed a Machiavellian plan to overcome it and the remarkable AAGRM program to make sure I'd be there, and then executed it flawlessly. That's a real friend. Thanks, Amy.
Give your customers a break from their fears.
Fear is in the air these days, it seems. Fear about everything from dwindling 401(k)s, to getting laid off and suddenly having no income, to investing in the wrong business tactics and losing profits. People and companies with the courage to stay focused and overcome their fears will win. It happened during the Depression, and it will happen this time, too. Some things I've learned that I hope will help you and your customers:
• Right after Sept. 11, when Mason & Geller Direct still was located in New York, a few clients called to stop their mailings, worried that they wouldn't work while America was grieving. One client asked my opinion, though, and I encouraged him to mail even more pieces for his New York City business. And just as I expected, people responded with a 30 percent lift.
• Customer retention is important, and sometimes gifts and letters will keep them buying. Often, clients say they can't afford to spend money on loyalty gimmicks, but I've seen them work extremely well far too many times to believe that.
• The holidays are coming, and most companies will send out the same old gifts. The gifts Amy sent in her Guilt Relationship Marketing Program came from outstanding small companies I'd never heard of, and they were perfect--carefully wrapped, unusual and unusually interesting.
• Even a small gift shows someone you care. But please spare your clients from gifts with your logos on them. That's all about you, not them.
Lois Geller is founder and president of Mason & Geller Direct, an advertising agency based in Hollywood, Fla. Prior to founding her own company, Geller served as president of several ad agencies. In New York she headed AC&R Direct, a Saatchi and Saatchi agency, and Geller Direct, a TBWA subsidiary. In Toronto, Geller led J. Walter Thompson.