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Q&A with Ken Schmidt

Exclusive Trusted Magazine Q&A with Ken Schmidt, Keynote Speaker & Author.

How could you describe your career path in few words?

Immediately after college, I spent 7 years working at two marketing agencies -- specializing mainly in public and investor relations -- in Chicago, with clients that ranged from household names to obscure industry associations. While in Chicago, I joined and became an officer of two major marketing associations, to ensure I knew as many influential people in my industry as possible and, more importantly, to ensure they knew me. That was one of the smartest things I ever did. I was then hired by a client, Harley-Davidson Motor Company, to head up their communications and investor relations and became part of the team that led one of the greatest turnarounds in business history. I left Harley-Davidson to become part owner of a major design firm in Chicago (not a wise move), then set out on my own as a professional speaker and as a consulting specializing in marketing and leadership.

I also wrote a best-selling book, "Make Some Noise: The Unconditional Road to Dominance" and co-wrote "100 Years of Harley-Davidson." I'm co-founder of Torque Sessions leadership events and co-host of the "Tailgating With Geniuses" podcast.

What was your most challenging experience and it has changed your mindset?

Convincing the investment community to support and promote HarleyDavidson -- after the company's highly publicized collapse in the 1980s and after decades of public disdain -- was very challenging. By witnessing how large companies communicated with investors, though, I learned precisely how not to do it. Whereas they were very predictable in their approach -- here are the numbers, here's what we're doing, here's what we're trying to accomplish -- I knew we needed to change the game. Foremost, we needed the community to like us, so we personalized our approach through emotional storytelling that enabled them to envision exactly who we are as people ("If they like us they'll listen to us.") and what we were attempting to do to grow our business. By focusing on creating more memorable experiences for the investment community, instead of predictable, transactional ones, we gained more time with important influencers. I knew that if I could get powerhouse investment firms to discuss and promote our business using the same distinct and memorable "lifestyle" we were using, we could gain support and visibility not only in investment circles but with major media who rely on analysts when they're producing content. Creating memorable experiences has since driven every facet of my career.

Based on your experiences, what skills should an entrepreneur develop in 2023?

"Being memorable in highly commoditized marketplaces requires entrepreneurs to develop and nurture a different mindset than the expected one of meeting client/customer needs. From my perspective, creating meaningful differentiation, loyalty and advocacy requires committing to two things:

  1. Being a source of delight for everyone who comes into contact with you and/or your business (versus "serving" customers, which leads to dead ends)

  2. Building a distinct vernacular for you and your business. Instead of using predictable language ("We're committed to our clients," and "We win with great service,") create 5 words you want people to associate only with you and your business.

This is how you build a distinct reputation. Ask, "What do I want our customers to say about us?" (or "me") and ensure that the words you choose aren't being used by any of your competitors. Example: instead of using product language like "quality" or "reliability" at Harley-Davidson, we instead said words people didn't expect to hear, but would likely remember and repeat. Instead of saying "We build high quality motorcycles," we said we "sell a lifestyle based on freedom, cameraderie and individuality." That always sparked conversations. Any business can do this.

Based on your recent experiences, if you had one piece of advice for an entrepreneur's success in the context of 2023, what would it be?

The deeper we all move into the digital world and working from home, the more difficult it becomes for us to meet our most basic human needs. We all need to be validated and to feel important, special and amazing. That's hard to get digitally and working from our bedrooms. You need to remember that every human being sees himself/herself as the center of the universe (because they are) and that the fastest way to endear ourselves to others is to ask them questions about themselves. Remember this: "Don't be interesting. Be interested." Stop leading sales meetings by jumping into "here's who we are and what we do." Instead, get people talking about themselves by asking questions that allow them to reveal themselves to you: "What would a perfect weekend for you look like?" is way better than "How was your weekend?" Ask your employees, "What would you like to do with your life and how can we help you get there?" When people speak personally like this, relationships grow into friendships. And nothing makes bank accounts swell faster than clients who become friends. I've built a stellar career working with leaders all over the world focusing entirely on this subject.

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