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Is this invisible blocker holding back your career growth?

Ryan Holmes

Originally published by Ryan Holmes on LinkedIn: Is this invisible blocker holding back your career growth?

I’ll come clean: For years, my company never had a customer-service phone number on our website. When Hootsuite started, with just a few dozen employees, we were honestly worried about being swamped with calls from our millions of users. But for some reason, even as we grew to hundreds of employees, we never shared a phone line on our site.

Finally, last year, as we were approaching 1,000 employees and 15 million users, I proposed the unthinkable to my team: “Guys, I want to put a 1-800 number right on our home page.” Jaws dropped. Protests rained in. “It will never work. Don’t you realize what this means? People are going to be calling us all the time.”

It was a classic elephant-and-rope scenario. And it was time to break free. Whether you're a big company or just looking to unlock your own personal career growth, it's worth thinking about this powerful metaphor. I know it helped me.

The old story of the elephant and the rope has been around for a while, though I only heard it recently. Baby elephants, it seems, were traditionally trained by tying one of their front legs to a stake in the ground. (It goes without saying that capturing and training baby elephants is horrible in and of itself … so hopefully this practice has long gone out of style.) Because the elephants are small, only a thin rope is required. They’ll struggle and pull at first, but eventually they realize that they can’t break the rope and they’ll give up.

Elephants grow fast, of course. Before long, those cute babies are lumbering giants. But here’s the thing: that same thin rope is all that’s needed to keep them secured. They think the rope can still hold them, so they never try to break free. In the end, you’ve got a multi-ton beast held back by a flimsy strand and a wooden stake. Freedom would be as easy as a little tug but — so the legend goes — the poor elephant never thinks to try. 

Whether or not this is true (and there’s at least one compelling answer on Quora to suggest it is), there’s a clear moral for the rest of us. In business (not to mention in life), all sorts of invisible mental ropes — flimsy and easily broken — may well be holding us back. We reach a conclusion at one time, based on specific set of conditions, then forget to revisit our decisions when things change. Rather than fully and clearly seeing the way things are or can be, we’re locked into how things used to be. The result is missed opportunities, self-imposed blockers and wasted potential.

In the case of Hootsuite’s lack of a customer-support number, we were still acting like a baby elephant, despite being all grown up. Don’t get me wrong: preserving a lean-startup ethos — being efficient and nimble — can have its advantages, but this was a clear case where outdated thinking was holding us back. After all, all of those missed calls were either potential customers who could be our next sale or existing users with issues who were a risk of jumping ship. What kind of business wouldn’t want to pick up the line and talk?

Fortunately, late last year I was able to convince my company to do a beta test of a brand new 1-800 number. We put together a small cross-functional team from customer support, sales and social media coaching to roll out the program. We added our new number on our home page, as well as on various product pages. We made sure the phone lines were staffed up with the right people. Then, we went live with a two-week trial.

Not surprisingly, the sky didn’t fall — quite the opposite, in fact. The volume of calls, around 60 per day, was significant, though not overwhelming. Yes, we definitely burned some man hours handling the phone lines, but the flip side was that our employees spent a lot of time talking directly with users and potential users: in other words, exactly what you need to do to make sales, land new customers and upsell existing ones.

In fact, based on sales made during our trial period, we modelled a yearly revenue lift in the range of $1 million. Far from being a liability, in other words, opening our phone lines could yield a seven-figure return. The trial was so successful that we're officially planning to deploy our toll-free number, and have even launched a new career track in our company where people interested in sales can get a start as “market response representatives.”

But here’s the exciting part: that’s just one rope. Who knows how many other invisible hangups and outdated conceptions are holding us back. Who knows how much growth could be unlocked if we manage to break free. The key, whether you're a growing company or looking to further your own career, is to begin to see those ropes in the first place.

Just because you’ve always done something one way, doesn’t mean you should continue to do so. What makes sense for a small business, doesn’t necessarily apply to a medium-sized or large one. Interrogating the “nos” — looking closely at the options you’ve ruled out in the past because of size and budget constraints — is a critical way to move forward. Sometimes, the blockers are still real and imposing: thick chains that can’t be broken. But other times, you’ll find a flimsy rope is the only thing holding you back … and all it takes is a nudge to snap it. 

My post originally appeared in Inc.

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