Dear CMO:

Do you play poker? Ever since poker became a spectator sport, it’s kind of lost a bit of its luster for me, but my ten year old loves Texas Hold ‘Em. He’s all in, all the time. Sometimes, he won’t even look at his cards. Of course, he knows he’s playing with me, so there’s little downside to this particular game. When I play with him, I always know when he’s got a good hand. Most ten year olds don’t have great ‘game faces’ when they play for pretend money.

He has, as they say, a tell. He stretches his face downward with his other hand, as it to stop himself from smiling. He might as well show me his hand because while I may not know what he’s got, I know he’s got something.

How many ‘tells’ do you come across in a day’s work?

The answer, in all probability, is ‘more than either of us could probably count, even if we were paying attention.’ This can be fairly innocuous in most cases – maybe my direct report has a problem with a program that they really don’t want to bring up right now, hoping that they’ll fix it before I find out about it, thus the breezy communication style with the lack of eye contact. But when you need to know, you really need to know – and you really need to look for the ‘tell.’ What do you look for?

An ad agency that dismissively waves off the idea of testing their creative.

An online agency whose website isn’t absolutely top notch.

A search engine marketing company that can’t be found in the first dozen pages on any search engine.

A promotional agency that makes promises but has no testimonials backing them up.

These are signs of the mental light lifting that happens often with B2B services. We want to believe them, because the story is wonderful. “Really? You can execute this campaign in twenty-two countries across the globe? Well, that’s what I need, so great!” Not so fast. “Have you ever actually been to Russia? Have you ever launched a campaign in India before?” The third to fourth question usually separates the reality from the chaff.

We love great stories. But we need to look for the ‘tell’ because there are people around us who may not be trying to actively fool us – let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, after all – but that may simply be looking for either an easy job or a chance to learn whether they can actually do what they say they can do on your nickel.

I’ve been burned before – pretty badly, once or twice – but with experience comes a more practiced eye for spotting the ‘tell.’

As Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s, once said to us, “Never trust a skinny ice cream guy.” Enough said.


(Photo courtesy of Flickr under Creative Commons)