Penetrating Oil (Issue 1048)

In which we are reminded to develop client internal champions who can lubricate decision processes.

A few weeks ago, I flew to Austin, Texas, to visit my son. We chose the trip dates so we could visit the annual Lone Star Rod and Kustom Round Up, a huge outdoor car show featuring vintage hot rods and custom cars from all over the country. We’d gone once before, in 2016, and I was itching to go back.

This year, I stopped to talk to several of the car owners about their cars – when they acquired them, work they’d done, and so on. Very interesting stories. As we were headed to the gate to leave, I spotted a black 1932 Chevy (an anomaly in a show dominated by 1932 Fords) and I pulled my son into one last conversation. The owner was quite chatty; we talked about his Chevy and other cars he’d owned. After a bit, he asked me, “Do you have a car?”

The short answer to that is “no”. However, long ago, in a garage far away… I owned a 1961 Studebaker Hawk. Of unknown heritage, it was retrieved from a mountain side in rural central Pennsylvania, 30 miles from my home, by a high school friend who was enamored with Studebakers; he had been influenced by our high school physics teacher who was a Studebaker nut.

The restoration project took several months. While there was lots of rust to cut out and replace with sheet metal, wire mesh, pop rivets, and Bondo body putty, the biggest problems were underneath the car since it had been resting gently on a mountainside for several years. Lots of things were rusted together or frozen in place.

My friend was a large man. As a senior in high school, he stood 6’4” tall and probably weighed 250 pounds. He was a weight lifter and an accomplished shot putter and, as we began to address the issues with the undercarriage and the drive train, he taught me a very valuable lesson: “When in doubt, use a larger hammer.” The idea was, if something wouldn’t move when you gave it a reasonably good twist or pop with whatever tool you were using, you got a bigger hammer and hit it harder to unfreeze it.

As the 145-pound novice mechanic on the project, lacking my friend’s strength, there was one additional lesson I had to learn the hard way: “Spray it with penetrating oil and let it sit.” [“Penetrating oil” is a low viscosity oil that can seep through the almost invisible openings between metal parts and, over time, loosen metal connections that appear to be fused together. The secret is “time” – several hours or even a day or two for the oil to penetrate before having another go with a wrench or hammer.]

Sometimes, we run into clients whose organizational parts or decision processes are frozen in place. Impatient to move sales opportunities forward, we are tempted to “hit them with larger hammers”  to break them free and get them to move – white papers, product experts, technical wizards, price discounts, or our company senior executives.

If they’re stuck because of a little organizational surface rust – some light cultural or procedural issues, maybe one of our executives or a product expert can break them free with a well-timed visit and snappy chatter.

However, if the organization’s parts are rusted in place by significant cultural, procedural, political, or other issues, whacking them with larger hammers can be counterproductive. The most likely outcome is self-inflicted injury.

Better to spray some penetrating oil – finding and patiently nurturing friendships with inside people who will slip into the almost invisible cracks in the enterprise and, over a period of weeks or months, influence the rusted players to move – before we pull out our hammers again.

Nick Miller is President of Clarity Advantage based in Concord, MA. He assists banks and credit unions to generate more and more profitable relationships, faster, with business clients, their owners, and their employees. Additional articles on Clarity’s web site.

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