Why Novels Are an Untapped Resource for Leaders | Melanie Bell


You might be missing out on this incredible way to level up your leadership…

You can do it when you’re relaxing at the beach…

I’m talking about reading a book.

And though we love business books, fiction books are an untapped resource for leadership wisdom…

My guest Melanie Bell, the Co-Founder of Strategic Piece, benefited so much from reading fiction that she started Leaders Who Fiction, a virtual book club for leaders.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Why fictional characters make great case studies

  • What leaders can learn from The Hero’s Journey

  • The importance of a growth mindset

  • How Strategic Piece creates information-driven customer experiences

  • And more

Mentioned in this episode:


Melanie Bell: I mean, I’m a huge believer in the like, whoever serves the customer best is going to be the winner in the marketplace. So there’s probably people, if you haven’t bought into it, there’s probably people on your team who really want to go in that direction. Just go enable them because it will pay off.

Voiceover: You’re listening to the Build a Vibrant Culture podcast with professional speaker, coach and consultant Nicole Greer.

Nicole Greer: Welcome everybody to the Build a Vibrant Culture podcast. My name is Nicole Greer, and they call me the vibrant coach and I am here with the wonderful, amazing Melanie Bell. First of all, she hails from Houston, Texas, and Melanie is the Co-Founder of Strategic Piece. Everybody write that down. A company that helps b2b businesses generate outstanding revenue growth by bringing together their marketing, sales and service teams around an information driven customer experience built on the HubSpot platform. Hello, we need to learn about HubSpot. So Melanie is an active angel investor and mentors the student accelerator programs at Rice University’s OwlSpark and the University of Houston’s RED Labs. 

She was also the President of Marketing Interface, a company created in 2014 before Strategic Piece. However, Melanie is not only about marketing, she founded Leaders Who Fiction while operating her marketing strategy and technology consulting firm. At Leaders Who Fiction, Bell is helping people acquire and develop leadership qualities through fiction reading and intellectual business oriented conversations centered around a selected novel. So hello, people, what does Nicole Greer say on almost every podcast? Leaders read, that’s what they do. So I am so excited to have you, Melanie, welcome to the Build a Vibrant Culture podcast.

Melanie: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

Nicole: Yeah, I’m absolutely delighted to have you here. Well, I am collecting definitions. And so I wanted to find out what is your definition of leadership? What’s leadership all about in your mind?

Melanie: So in my mind, it is the state of being a leader, but a leader to me, as somebody who has a vision for something that they want to change. It could be something new, and it can be within your own family. And I think it could be business leadership. So I have a pretty broad context for that personally. And you’re the person who’s gonna go make that happen. And so you don’t have to be doing everything. It could be recruiting other people to help you make that vision happen. But you’ve got a vision, and you’re actively working towards making that happen. So my succinct definition of leadership.

Nicole: Okay, I love it. I love it. And I think you’re right. And if I was gonna boil down what you said, I mean, basically, everybody, Melanie said that everybody’s a leader, right? Like at your home, all the roles you have, you have an opportunity to be a leader. So I think that’s fantastic. Absolutely. All right. So first thing I want to dive into is this idea of Leaders Who Fiction. Where did you get that idea from? That is so fantastic. 

Melanie: Sure, so I grew up loving books. And then high school hated English class. So thought it was not for me. And as I got into the workforce, I read less and less. And as I got my first promotion, which was about a year after I had been working, and I ended up with very little management training. And so it was a pretty disastrous experience. I think anybody who I was managing probably agree with my assessment of that. And, you know, I went back to business school, and I kind of accumulated these different things. And I had a friend one weekend, probably 10 years ago now, recommend reading a science fiction book, Ender’s Game. I’m not a big sci fi fan. That’s not my genre that I tend to go to. 

And for whatever reason, I picked it up. And I thought, as I read it, and I read it in like a day, because it’s a really great book. I’m like, oh, my gosh, like I would have been so well served in business school and manage, you know, learning how to be a manager, if I had read this. Like this would have been better than the reading about, you know, the Elephants Can’t Dance I think is the IBM book, kind of stuff. And so I think there were just kind of little kernels like that that started getting dropped for me. And probably about five years ago, I started really ramping up how much I was reading, and I find business books, some are great. 

I don’t want to knock them but I feel like I need when I read them, it’s like I want to come in and have a purpose. But I ramped up my fiction reading. And I noticed as I did that, that my communication got better. That I felt more confident in meetings. A lot of times when we’re brought into work with our clients, we work with growth stage companies, so a lot of times we’re dealing with directors or C level executives and I noticed just a change in my presence. And at the same time, I was having conversations with friends and colleagues that had those positions who missed reading and couldn’t fit it into their time. 

And they constantly felt like, well, if I’m gonna be reading, then I need to be reading something related to this skill that I’m actively trying to work on. When a lot of times what they wanted to do, I think, you know, they would have been better served by fiction. And so I wanted, last summer I came up with like, okay, I want to create this group of people who are interested in that, that are all we’re all working on our leadership skills, but together through this, we don’t have to feel guilty about reading fiction right now. So that’s the genesis of the idea.

Nicole: Oh, that’s fantastic. And, you know, I will tell you, you know, you talk about business books. My favorite type of business book is often the ones that are written in fable format, or in story format. So like Patrick Lencioni, everybody write that down. He’s a fantastic author. And although he’s writing a business book, he’s telling me a little story. So I can see the application. And I would also say, another guy who does a great job with fables or stories is Jon Gordon. And it’s J O N Gordon, everybody write that down. So both of those authors are great. So tell me the name of the book, again, that you were given? I didn’t catch it.

Melanie: Sure. It’s called Ender’s Game E N D E R ‘ S. Ender is the name of the character. And the author is Orson Scott Card.

Nicole: Okay, fantastic. Okay. All right. And so, so you sat down, you read the book, and you looked at the character, am I understanding that right? And then you and the group analyze the character. Tell me a little bit about your process.

Melanie: Sure. So actually, our group hasn’t read that book yet. That’s one that we haven’t picked. So we’ve been meeting, we started meeting in January of this year, and we meet about once a month. And I tend to do the research in advance to have some talking points around it and try to pick up on leadership themes. Because I think one thing I’ve noticed, as I’ve, you know, I’m part of my neighborhood book club, and like talking about, obviously love talking about books with other people. And what I’ve noticed, too, is that I read differently based on who I’m talking to. And so if I’m reading it in my neighborhood book club, I’ll read it with a different lens. I also love doing creative writing. 

So when I’m reading with a group of writers, I, it’s a completely different experience. And so I tend, I try to come up with questions and themes, and background on the author and their book. So that when we meet, we’ve got some talking points. But most, you know, a lot of times the conversation gets started, and people really just kind of the conversation just flows so naturally. I don’t even think I’ve had to refer to my notes very often. So that’s been really fun, especially as the, you know, people have gotten used to each other and gotten to know each other. Initially, it’s been interesting to watch that.

Nicole: Oh, that’s fantastic. And you know, as I sit here, and I think about, you know, different books that I read, I read a lot of historical fiction, that’s my favorite genre.

Melanie: That’s my favorite, too.

Nicole: That’s great. That’s great. Well, I and I, and I’m a big Broadway fan. So I just recently read a book about Eliza, Hamilton’s bride. And then I read another book about Thomas Jefferson’s daughter. And in those books, you know, what I’m guessing you guys are doing is like, then you take that character, and you’re like, okay, what are the character traits of that, that person that make them successful, or a great leader. Or, and we’ve all had one of these at work, an evil leader. You know, you look at the the nemesis in the story, and you’re like, oh, my gosh, why does that person do that? So it kind of helps you do that. So is it a lot about picking up on what makes somebody good or bad in their role and their character traits?

Melanie: It’s a lot about that. I think the other thing that we pick up on a lot is the psychology. So what figuring out, you know, what’s that character’s motivation? So that was, you know, when I got my this first promotion back in my early 20s, and I went to my boss, and I said, okay, I’m a manager now. And I don’t know what that involves, and what do I do and, and I had a lot of confusion at the time between management and leadership. So that was an interesting thing that I had to figure out. But my boss had told me to go read psychology books. And the interesting thing to me is, I didn’t grow up writing. 

But that’s one of the things that’s really good, if you’re kind of at a loss is like, okay, I’m reading this book, and I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to pay attention to. Trying to figure out what motivates each character. And then in any scene, who has the power, what are they willing to do or to give up to go after what they want? And I, I mean, as leaders, so much of it is dependent on how we’re interacting with people and motivating them, and being able to look at them as an individual and I just think, you know, being in that fiction mindset can be really powerful at learning in a safe environment, how to read people, and their motivation.

Nicole: Oh, I love that. So like, don’t miss this everybody she’s kind of using these fictional stories as a case study, right to analyze. And what I heard you say, and correct me or help me is to analyze, you know, what kind of power do they have? How are they exercising it? What motivations are at play in this group? And then I guess you probably pick up on relationships, team dynamics, a whole bunch of different things are coming into play and it and then do you guys sit around and go, oh, my God that’s happening at my office. I mean, is that is that kind of the aha? Tell me about the kind of the light bulbs that go off in that process.

Melanie: So recently, one thing that we had, it was, it was a bit of a difficult book. So I try to be mindful about, you know, it’s important, I think that it’s a quality book, but not too too highbrow because then number one will just get lost. You know, can’t be too long, and all of these different criteria. So there was a lot of the writers we just the book was the Overstory by Richard Powers. And it’s a whole cast of characters. And he looks at a lot of issues from basically like 20 angles. Like if you could look at a problem through this angle, he’s got a character who has that point of view. And we talked about how, in fiction, especially good fiction, a writer isn’t prescriptive with what their message is. 

And that’s to me, one of the differences between a fiction and nonfiction book was, a lot of times in a business book, the writers are trying to, you know, will present issues as very black and white. And so the solution appears quite obvious. Whereas in fiction, it’s muddled, and it’s messy. And it’s complicated. And people are complicated. And so people ended up talking about colleagues and situations that they’ve recently been in, where they found themselves much more comfortable, potentially sitting with ambiguity, rather than another colleague. And so that was, that’s a real recent, concrete example of how that kind of conversation played out.

Nicole: I love what you’re saying, because you’re exactly right. So I’m just going to repeat what she said, everybody, she said that the you know, the business book, the author oftentimes thinks they have an answer for you. And you should, you know, take that pill, the prescription. But it is often much more complicated, and as leaders, I think things are getting more and more complicated. 

Melanie: Yes, absolutely. 

Nicole: Yeah. Because you’re agreeing here like your head started bobbing. Yeah.

Melanie: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s like every headline over the last few years has been, are we going in this direction or that direction? You know, what do employees want with the with a work environment. And when we talk about 21st century job skills, and I had a client early when I was still, I worked with both b2c and b2c, it was b2b and b2c companies at my start, and this was b2c focused on education. And they talked about how even in education the system is kind of was designed for people who are going to, we need workers to go work in a manufacturing facility, it was a repeatable process. We needed people who could follow instructions and that kind of thing. 

But what we want now is creativity and problem solving and collaboration. And I think there’s kind of been the murmurings I don’t think that’s new for 20, 30 years. But it’s just seems to have completely ramped up. And with talking to my clients, it just everything feels very murky and ambiguous and complicated right now. And so, you know, the interesting thing, kind of going back to where we started with, you know, a leader is somebody who has a vision. It’s like, how do you go achieve that vision when there is, when we’re operating with just so many unknowns? I don’t know if you’re also seeing that. I imagine so.

Nicole: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, because nobody saw COVID coming. That hit us like, right between the eyes, right? And now we’re kind of having the fallout from COVID. Right. So supply chain, inflation, can’t find good people, you know, whatever, whatever, whatever. So there’s just all of these things coming out. Yeah. But I would imagine that in the fiction stories, they’re still that where the hero comes in, right, because most stories still have kind of the hero’s journey inside of them. And we still, even though it’s murky, it’s messy, and it’s, lots of ambiguity, like you were saying, we still need leaders to stand up and say, I think this is possible. 

Melanie: Yes. Absolutely.

Nicole: Like, I don’t know. I think I think another 21st century skill set of leaders is also like humility. Yeah. Like they they don’t know what’s going to happen and to and to have that ability to say I don’t know but here’s what I think we can do. So, have you studied the hero’s journey as part of this? I’m curious.

Melanie: I studied it as part of other projects. So actually this education company I was talking about, there’s a school in Austin where like, their whole curriculum is set around the hero’s journey. And so I had a lot of which was like, it’s so cool. Because, you know, it’s teaching kids how to overcome obstacles and like that they’re inevitable. And so that’s really where I’ve got a lot of exposure to it, but it is true in fiction. We see that, and I think one of the interesting, two interesting things that I’ve learned, as I’ve gotten more into this, and you know, because at first I was like, is it just me or, you know, there’s a lot of interesting research being done kind of tangentially to this. 

Is, when we read a short story, the main character tends to be very downtrodden, having a really hard time, kind of like the nobody. And then when you read a novel, we as readers identify with the main character, or characters. And on a neurological level when we’re reading our brains kick into simulation mode. And so that hero’s journey and being able to identify that character, I totally think that all plays into it, because I do think we need to see ourselves as being able to, I mean, obviously, in a tragedy, it’s possible, you know, the outcome isn’t always positive. But that person is still gone through a major growth experience through that book.

Nicole: Yeah, absolutely. And if you if you’re not familiar with the hero’s journey, all you need to do is go on Google type in the hero’s journey, you’ll get a bunch of stuff about it. But this is this is the story of everybody on planet Earth. I mean, we’re all kind of on our own little path, our own little journey. Now, I want to go back to something you said earlier, because I think it’s so important. I was sharing with somebody the other day that I, I said, this, I can’t believe this is still going on, but it is. 

Many young people get hired into the company. And they don’t get a lot of leadership development early on, and they end up failing. And what I heard you say is you had this you’re on the struggle bus in your new leadership position. So will you kind of tell us kind of your hero’s journey? Like, so I got promoted, and, you know. Because the crux of the hero’s journey is that they learned a big lesson. So I would love to know, the big lessons you learned.

Melanie: Sure. So I think the lessons that I learned ended up coming later than, you know, in the short term. So I joined this company, it was my second job out of school, first job in marketing. And I struggled for the first three months, a lot of it with, you know, confidence and figuring out the ropes and all of this kind of stuff. And then somebody gave me a sheet of like, okay, here are the eight levels. And, and I mean, this is a 20 person company, but this was the biggest department. So somebody at some point had sat down to go, here’s what core competencies, you know, at each level look like. 

And I think I got that about three months into the job. And I said, okay, well, I’m gonna go as fast as I can through this. And within, so like nine months later, so within a year of me joining the company, the department had grown, but they were ready to hire a manager. And they ended up hiring, there were two of us, we were co managers of the department. And there was some ad hoc leadership training, but it was not, it wasn’t what I needed, I don’t think. It was much more school of hard knocks. So there were other people on the team who had, you know, been with the company for five years, even some of them who had been offered to get, you know, offered a promotion and turned it down. 

That did not like it when I got to be their boss and ruined friendships, and had a lot of, to me, one of the interesting things was the culture change, so that these people became very quickly, very negative about the management team for the whole company. And you could see this negativity with new hires coming in. And this was in Canada. So you know, I was in Quebec, so it’s different labor law. So we were limited with what we could do about it, as well. So I kind of had to sit with people on my team that were subordinate is probably slightly too strong of a word, but kind of borderline there. And my takeaway was, this isn’t something that I’m good at. And then I went back to business school, and it was my productive out of the problem. 

And so I think, for me, that was one of my takeaways, kind of, with much more distance between that whole experience was, if I had stuck with it past it, you know, like, the more I learned about leadership, everyone was like, yeah, your first year is just terrible. It’s really hard. And then I think there was like, oh, it wasn’t me. It was, you know, this is a normal problem and a normal challenge to have. So I think there is some camaraderie that I was lacking at the time and then I think just that we now use the term. Nobody used it, I don’t think anyone was using it at the time, of the growth mindset. Which is like, you’re not bad at this. You can develop these skills, you can step into that. And so I think to me, that was kind of my, my big takeaway was like, yeah, I wasn’t just bad at that, that was like a really normal human experience.

Nicole: Yeah, and I would just concur too that, I mean, again, there’s the hero’s journey, like, you’re gonna struggle on your path, right for the first little bit, but then you’re gonna figure it out as you go along. And, and I think too, like, this is really important to note is like, I don’t see that you gave up because you went on to pursue higher education. It wasn’t like you were at home watching soap operas or something. Right, you know, you continued, right. But it’s kind of like, you know, things take time

Melanie: They do. And I think, sometimes we get very prescriptive of, well, that’s going to take me, you know, that’s that I’m gonna do in one month. Well, sometimes it takes six months. You know, and that’s okay. I think that’s part of it. I think with the hero’s journey, there is just this, everybody goes through their struggles, everybody has the ups and downs, that’s a normal part of a human existence. To me, that’s actually one of the amazing things that we’ve gotten from COVID is people showing up as full, complicated humans. And our leaders are complicated humans. And, you know, I think it’s an interesting balance to strike between being a vulnerable leader and that openness, while not becoming a burden to people who are around you, who may not want to take on your emotional stuff.

Nicole: Right, right. Yeah. So it is, it’s like, our emotions do matter. And to me, people are like, there’s no emotions in business, there’s no feelings. I’m like, that’s all it is. It’s all, it’s all emotion. Like I want to win, I want to sell, I want to market, I want to have security. I mean, like, all these needs and desires, these emotions are stirred up by business. So I think it’s all that. And I agree that people want leaders to be real and vulnerable, like you’re talking about.

Melanie: Yeah, I mean, on the emotions in business, going kind of to the marketing side of this, briefly, and I’ll just touch on this. But there was a study done a few years ago that showed that if you’re making a business decision, you’re, that purchase decision is way more emotional, than if you’re making like going out and just buying, you know, stuff for your house or your family. Because you job is on the line, your reputation is on the line, like, people think it’s a really rational process. And there’s that perception, but it’s extremely emotional.

Nicole: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, you know, like I have a husband, like, you know, and personality plays a part in this too, right. So those characters that you’re reading about in all of these fiction books that you guys are studying, one of the basic things I do inside my business, all my listeners know that I have all the assessments. I got the DISC and the Myers Briggs and the Strengths Finder, and the tilt, and on and on it goes. And the DISC and all that stuff. You can also kind of look at these characters and see those different personality types. 

There’s basically four out there, basically. And you can kind of look at it. And there’s there’s something really special about a leader who understands their faults. And something really unspecial about a leader who has a blind spot with regard to their faults. So if somebody can be vulnerable enough to say, I’m not good at this, or this is bothering me, or this is an issue, or I’m afraid of this or that. It’s really quite refreshing, I think.

Melanie: I agree. And I think it will make people, I think that self awareness makes people be more effective as a leader. And so it’s like we can, we can do that touchy feely stuff, like oh, I just really like working with that person or I respect. I mean, respect is that touchy feely. But I think if it’s like if somebody is really hard nosed with that, like that this is going to, you’re more likely to reach your goals, you’re going to be more effective. You want that, right?

Nicole: Yeah, and I do think respect is a touchy feely thing in terms of, I mean, I don’t just give my respect away willy nilly. I mean, people have to earn it right. And then when I give it to you, it’s a very powerful emotion. There’s like undergirding that’s like trust and it, God if somebody breaks, breaks the trust or tells a lie, or cheats me or does something bad, you know, like the evil characters in the books that you’re reading. Then I lose all respect. I grab it right back up, because now I’m mad, sad, and unglad and I’m going to pull that respect right out from under you. Yeah, so it may not be a feeling but it is so totally undergirded with feeling. Don’t you think?

Melanie: Yeah. Oh, I agree. Another thing too, is, a lot of times we’ll hopefully what we’re in reading novels is, I love reading novels about unlikable characters. Like really just terrible people. And it’s like you become, you’re like, but I want to see you succeed. Or like, you get to see that not, I mean, like, you get that full vantage point of like, this person is horribly flawed, but I still want to cheer for them. And I think that it’s interesting to get those players.

Nicole: Yeah. Well, you know, I think that’s a really cool point that you would have this really flawed person. But it’s like, you want to see them change, right?

Melanie: Yeah, you’re rooting for them.

Nicole: Yeah. And, and here’s the thing. It’s, it’s out there, like crazy. I know, you know, this Melanie, and all of you listening know this, is that a lot of people get cynical about people. They’re like, oh, he’ll never change, she’ll never change. And I think one of the big mistakes leaders make is like, you can’t think like that. I mean, your job is to develop these people. So you have to believe they can change, and you have to help them.

Melanie: Don’t give up on them. And I think, I mean, that’s different than, okay, somebody’s in the wrong job or at the wrong company. And I’m just gonna sit with them in a way that’s giving up on people too. So I think there’s a nuanced view of what giving up on someone or how do you develop someone that may not be really obvious until you’ve been in that position.

Nicole: Right. And I think it harkens back to what you mentioned earlier about the growth mindset. So let’s dovetail back a couple paragraphs and talk. I talk about the growth mindset a minute. So everybody, you’ve heard this before, but like, you got to get a hold of Carol’s book, Carol Dweck, The Growth Mindset. I think it’s just called Mindset, actually. And in that book, she talks about how you can, you can either have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. So how has that showed up, you know, in the books you’re reading? And then also in the actual work that you do. Can you talk a little bit about the growth mindset, fixed mindset, since you mentioned that? I love it.

Melanie: Yeah. So the growth mindset. And we did a lot of this kind of stuff with my stepkids. So I’ve gone through, you know, even at a personal level and have gotten a lot of exposure to it. It’s all about thinking, what’s possible. It’s, things aren’t a zero sum game, if you have a skill that you’re lacking, everything can be improved, that that’s kind of the general gist, gist of it. Whereas the fixed mindset is, this is what it is. And you know, I’m, for me, I wish somebody had taught me this, because I was the classic kid of like, I’m terrible at math, rather than being like, hey, actually, like, I could go work on my math skills and get better at it. 

So I’ve, I mean, I think almost in some ways, the people who are participating in this right now, and it’s a small group, right, this is like just an initial group of people, hopefully will grow. I think it’s almost a self selecting process at this point. You know, it’s a group of people who are actually like, hey, I’m going to work on my leadership skills and talk to, you know, it’s a good networking opportunity, especially for introverts, I think because it gives you something to talk about, that’s concrete, not just like, hey, go, go mingle. But I think in some ways, it’s self selecting with that group.

Nicole: Yeah. So that, you know, the thing I love about the growth mindset and the fixed mindset is really people who have a fixed mindset, it’s almost like they adopt a thought. It’s almost like one thought, or something that can like trip him up and trip him up and trip them up. And I knew if you read through, you know, different fiction books, you know, the character always does have kind of like, one way they’re thinking about things or approaching things until they have again, the hero’s journey where they go, oh, I could live life differently. I could do. Right, yeah. Next level. 

Yeah. And the thing about the fixed mindset is like, people have a fixed mindset, they get a hold of a thought. And that one thought can trip them up, like their whole career, or their whole life, like you were saying about math, that, that people can say, I’m not a math person. And so it’s like that thought is going to prevent you from ever sitting down to do the calculations. When really math is like, a very finite process. Like, two plus two is four. You know, and we’re, you know, and where you might think, oh, I’m a left brain person, I’m a right brain person. Well, it’s like, gosh, you can be a whole brain person. 

You can use both sides of your mind if you just change like that one initial thought that is tripping you up. Yeah. Hey, and everybody if you would like a copy, I’ve got like the little growth mindset fixed mindset little thing I can shoot to you if you want me to send it to you just email me at Nicole@vibrancoaching and I’ll get that done. Okay, fantastic. All right. So you’ve got this book group going on. If somebody wanted to join or be part of it, what would they do?

Melanie: Sure. So we’ve now have a website up. So people can go, yes, I was really excited to get that. It’s always like, ahh, that feels like a real milestone. So the website is leaderswhofiction.com. And we have, you’ll see kind of, I’ve got the August, September, October meetings up with dates and times, and people can just sign up, it’s a zoom link. And right now it’s free. So like, people just need to go get the book, you know, some way it can be at the library, and then sign up for a meeting and then join us. Hopefully pretty simple. That was the goal. Remove as many barriers to this possible.

Nicole: Right. And just imagine how what cool people you’re gonna meet. I mean, I think this is a real win/win for a leader. You’re gonna meet other leaders, you’re gonna read great books, you’re gonna do some networking. It’s going to be fantastic. All right. So I love that that is what you’re doing. Okay, now, I want to kind of switch gears a little bit, and talk about the work that you do. So you bring together people’s marketing, sales and their service teams, and you say around an information driven customer experience. 

Melanie: That’s a mouthful, yes.

Nicole: Yeah. But when I was reading that, I’m like, wait a minute. Explain that, to me, what is an information driven customer experience? So I think you’re gonna help us next level our ideas about taking care of customers So will you talk about that?

Melanie: Yeah, sure. So what we’re seeing is that, like, buying has completely shifted. The way people want to interact with sales team has completely shifted. And the companies that are really winning from a revenue perspective, right now are looking at it not as okay marketing is going to generate new interests and do advertising and then sales is gonna close the deal. And then we’re going to hand them off. It’s it’s a very seamless process. And so while we each have our lanes to swim in, it’s really helpful to have this overview of from the very first time somebody hears about you, or maybe even that they figured out that they’ve got a problem they want to address. 

What are all of the ways we work with companies to map out what are the different things go into somebody’s psychology? What are they needing? What are they wanting to see? How are they feeling at every step through? I mean, like, we have becoming a customer partway through that experience, you know, but when they start referring new business to you, that’s like, kind of our like, yes, the dream state, that’s what we use as the endpoint. And we use data and analytics to map that out. 

So that whether somebody is on LinkedIn, or you know, they want to access maybe chat on your website, that’s not right for every company, but for a lot, looking at how do you measure that and putting in technology in place, so that you’re not having to just keep throwing people at the problem, as well. And so, my background is in marketing. And so we are a bit more marketing heavy, but we do work across these different teams, in making sure that everyone’s using the same language and, you know, communicating and thinking consistently about about their customer.

Nicole: Okay, I’m wondering if you could illustrate what you just said with like a story. You know, like how a customer comes to a company, how you look at the data, and you know, how they’re interacting. They were on the website, they’re on the chat. They called. They did this, they did that. They were on LinkedIn, they clicked on an ad, whatever, and how you’re, you’re looking at that and analyzing it. How are you guys going about that?

Melanie: Sure. So we specialize in using HubSpot. There are a few different software tools, some will look at a very narrow part of that step. So like we’re gonna optimize the advertising, or we’re gonna work on emails, or once you’re a customer, okay, what’s the support desk look like? And that’s all kind of a  disjointed system. And so HubSpot has marketing and sales and service software all in one platform. So everyone gets access and can see that and literally, you can like log in. And you know, okay, so this person visited this website, they’ve looked at these five pages. Here are the different. 

I mean, sometimes people are a little bit creeped out by the marketing technology that’s available. Like available. And this is not I mean, like, again, like, some of our clients are startups, and you know, have teams of three and so this is not by any stretch of the imagination, like on the creepy end of marketing. But you can be you’d be able to see their full history. Did they click on an ad? Okay, then what did they do? So did we have to. There used to be in marketing this rule of seven, so you had to interact with somebody seven times before they become a customer. That’s now up to over 13 touch points, which is crazy.

Nicole: I mean, that’s almost doubled, everybody. Don’t miss the math. Speaking of math people, that was almost doubled, almost.

Melanie: Yeah. And I think a lot of times, sometimes our clients either they, this is their first they’re really they figured out a business model. And they’re ramping up marketing for the first time. And so they’re starting to have these conversations, or they’ve been around for a while they under invested in marketing. And so, you know, they’re, they’re scaling that up. So that’s typically when we start to come in. And I think a lot of times we’ve had clients where it’s like, oh, well, we’ve, you know, we did a couple of campaigns on, you know, Facebook or something like that, and it didn’t work. I’m like, okay, well, did you hit people 14 times? 

Because once you’re getting that kind of volume of interaction, that’s when you can decide, is this working? Is this not working? Or do we want to change what we’re doing? And it is, I mean, one of the reasons why I mean, especially over the last two years is everybody’s shifted their marketing budget to digital. And it just got so noisy. And so you have to just sometimes, I’m sure, Nicole, you might feel like this promoting a podcast that’s like, am I I feel like this is an entrepreneur, I feel like anybody who’s really done it is like, am I just shouting into a void? How present do I really need to be? 

So I think it’s an eye opening experience. So we typically will come in and do some working sessions with the teams to do like, walk through this. It’s customer journey mapping. So almost, you know, talking about a hero’s journey, very similar. Because it’s your customer as the hero. And what we love about these exercises is, it’s a way for the leadership team to everything is from the customer’s perspective, not the company’s perspective. And you’re walking through that every step through what what is it that they need and they want. And it becomes so much easier to say, hey, I really don’t have to worry about tik tok. Like, I know, my niece told me I needed to worry about tik tok, but I don’t know, I could ignore that advice right now. 

Because my customers just don’t care about that. And then the other thing is, it really highlights where’s the team making assumptions about what they know about the customer? And so you can go, oh, do we know that? Or is that a hypothesis? Okay, we need to go test that and figure that out. But to me that’s like for leaders who want to grow, just hashing that conversation out together. And then and always from the perspective of what matters to the customer. It’s like that will unlock growth, like crazy. Of course, then there’s the execution part. It’s step one. It’s step one.

Nicole: Right. Well, there’s this thing out there. So we were talking about the hero’s journey, but then there’s always there’s also this thing out there called the story brand, right? And so, okay, so is that how you guys are working with story brand kind of idea?

Melanie: Yeah, it’s similar to that. I mean, they’re they do a lot around the hero’s journey. It’s a great, a great way, you know, a lot of their stuff that’s around messaging. And what we’re doing is okay, we do have a messaging component to what we do, but it’s also so what channels do we need to be present on? What is the content on those channels? Is that do we need a white paper? Or is that we should be doing webinars? How do we split up that activity? So, but I love story branding. They do great stuff.

Nicole: And the reason why I mentioned that is because it’s from that customer’s perspective, you know, like, so you’re trying to figure out and, and don’t miss, don’t miss this. You’ve said this at least two or three times, Melanie. It’s like the psychology. What is the customer thinking? If we could get inside their little head, that really would be advantageous, right? Because we want to figure out, you know, what’s their point of pain? What are their desires, their wants, you know, what are they willing to do? What are they not willing to do? There’s all of that part of the psychology, we’re trying to figure out, what’s the quality? What’s their, what personalities are drawn to this particular product or that particular product? So we’re just trying to figure out who that person is, and then become like, their guide.

Melanie: Exactly. And then when at some point, the problem that they need solved is who are you? And what are you about? How can you help me? So it’s not like you never talked about yourself. But there’s a time and a place and a way to do that, that makes sense. And I think if you, you know, if we’re talking about a big brand, they would do customer focus groups, and really large scale market research. Well, that’s not always available to smaller companies. And so that’s why, you know, we do this, it’s so important. Anybody that’s got an interaction with customers, doesn’t matter at what level it’s like, if you’ve got that insight. That’s always valuable. 

Even if your customer is using, I read this the other day, and like even if your customer is using the wrong terms, when you start to engage with them, just use the term they’re using, you can always educate them later. And for me, that’s, I’ve had a few clients that have commented on that where it’s like, hey, you’re not trying, they eventually get first of all, it’s a process so like, marketing is not a fast, like hello here are the sales coming in a lot of the time. It’s, you know, six to 12 month investment and figuring stuff out but then you also have, I’m not trying to close the deal in this step. Like I’m trying to get the person to the next. The next part, you are leading them through that process and that journey.

Nicole: Yeah, that’s awesome. That’s awesome. All right. So Melanie Bell can not only help you read a good book and figure out what’s going on, get in the psychology of the fictional, folks. But she’s also saying, like, hello, you got to do this in your business, you got to get inside the head of the customer in front of you. And you know, this, this is a classic old thing is that sometimes companies focus on churning in new customers, new customers, new customers, and yes, you need that to scale. Absolutely. You need new customers all the time. However, what I hear you saying is, if I can really understand the ones I have, and the ones who buy a lot, and the ones who buy often, that’s what I need to figure out. So I can go find more of those types of people.

Melanie: Yes, yeah. And we’ll, the other thing is, if you can, okay, so if somebody buys, what happens next? Like, what’s the first thing that happens? Is that an easy, smooth process? Because and I think, you know, in some ways marketing is this, like, everybody thinks everybody has an opinion on it. And they should, because we all have bought stuff. And we all have our likes and our dislikes, but at the same time, you can’t can’t make the assumption and not a, you know, there’s some skill to it, too.

Nicole: Absolutely. And I’ll tell you, like a little phrase thing that I picked up, and I did pick this up about 20 years ago. But what you said is like, okay, well, now they’ve bought what happens? So I was told this one time, and I just thought it was so good. So I just offer it to everybody. But is what Melanie is saying is like there’s this whole before they buy experience. So there’s the before stage, and don’t miss, she said it’s not seven it’s 13 touches, and that’s how we used to call it we used to call it. Got to touch them. 

Melanie: Yeah, we still say that. 

Nicole: Okay, good. All right. So there’s the touches. So there, you got a touch of 13 times, for goodness sake. Okay, well, now they buy something. And then there’s the during process, and that really needs leaders need to get in there and understand what is the person purchasing, what do they experience in that purchase? And then once that transaction, or that that part of the process is done, then there’s the after process, and that’s the part where I was kind of saying like, well, we forget about the after, and we’re over here trying to get more people in the front end, where we could have a better after process so that people would turn around, come back through the funnel again, right.

Melanie: Exactly. And I think, you know, a lot of that is, in some ways, it’s so much more powerful when the leaders have bought into that philosophy of like, it is important. You know, we need to design this for our customers. It’s what they, what they need, what they want, that comes first. So even if we’ve been doing same things, you know, the this for 10 or 15, whatever, however many years, if it’s not serving us now then we need to update it. 

And you’re then empowering everybody else on your team, to really go serve your market and serve your customer. And I mean, I’m a huge believer in the like, whoever serves the customer best is going to be the winner in the marketplace. So there’s probably people if you haven’t bought into it, there’s probably people on your team who really want to go in that direction. Just go enable them because it will pay off.

Nicole: And I just tell you a real life experience I just had. I went and stayed in a hotel recently because I travel a lot to speak and things. And so I stayed in this hotel, it was a fancy hotel, by the way. I mean, I was like, wow, I’m staying here. This is amazing in my life. So I checked into this fancy hotel. Well, I got the privilege of taking my husband along, which doesn’t always happen. And so because I am a fabulous wife, I’m just kidding. Because I’m because I you know, so I looked on the website, and they had a romance package. So I went on the website and did the romance package, right. 

Well, what that meant was, you know, really, maybe it could have been that I wanted champagne and chocolate covered strawberries. When I got there when I arrived. Maybe it was because that’s what I wanted. But anyways, it was the romance package. So I got to the room and there was no champagne. And there was no strawberries covered in chocolate. So I called down to the front desk, and I said, hey, I ordered the romance package, and I didn’t get the goodies in the room. And the girl says if you can bring me proof that you ordered that, we will be glad to bring it up. And so I was like, I can’t believe you just said that. 

Melanie: You’ve just stolen all of the romance out of this for me. Thanks.

Nicole: Right. And so the truth of the matter is the before experience was like this website that showed all these pictures of beautiful hotel rooms, the strawberries and champagne and then I got there and the girls is like, prove it. And so the during process was terrible. So anyway, I went downstairs, I got champagne, believe me. And the thing is, is the thing of the matter is, and it took a leader to kind of come in and say, oh, Mrs. Greer, we’re going to be sending that right upstairs. And I was like, okay, good. But so just, you know, as you’re listening to my little silly story, I mean, there’s stuff happening in your company like that.

Melanie: Oh, totally. I was on. I’m trying to figure out how to ship a trade. For someone. It’s, it’s not normally what I do. But that’s like my current random thing I’m trying to figure out internationally. And I tried going on to UPS’s this website, and I’ll call them out on this because it was terrible. It was like, on the business services, and then it was I did get to like, here’s how you can contact customer support. Like, I just needed a price for this. I couldn’t, what’s the process? What’s the price? 

So I called the quality of the audio is terrible. So the person started shouting at me, you know, and what’s your tracking number? And I’m like, okay, so I should have first of all, not like this phone number that I’ve dialed should not have just gone to somebody asking for a tracking number. I ended up hanging up on him just because he couldn’t hear me at all. So like, okay, I’ll try a live chat in the same window where I’ve typed in what I want, the chat bot hasn’t been able to help me, I get on with an agent. And the first answer is, I’m taking a look at what you’ve sent us to get up to speed on your issue. 

And then two minutes go by, and she says okay, so what’s your tracking number? You know, like, okay, I don’t have like, this isn’t my problem. And it is sad. That was like, one of the worst experiences I’ve had in a while. Just like the most frustrating are like, this isn’t, like you have all these resources, this should be streamlined. Somebody, I need to talk to a sales person or a business development person or whoever. But not just tracking the package.

Nicole: And don’t miss that that is part of those skills you were talking about earlier. I just want to dovetail back to a little genius, you dropped earlier where it’s like, I don’t need you to just follow the script. What’s your tracking number? I need you to ask me some really good questions, and do this really amazing soft skill called listen?

Melanie: Right. And be able to if you’re not the right person, even if it’s problem solving to point somebody in that direction. But it was very much like okay, I’m getting pawned off on another department. And I’m definitely not getting sent to the right person now, either. So, Nicole, I was gonna ask you, since you are avid reader, what, if you were recommending some of your fiction favorites? What would be your recommendations for someone wanting to work on a leadership skill? Or, or just what are some of your favorites? If you don’t have anything through that leadership lens because it is a different way to think about it.

Nicole: Yeah, well, I will tell you the two that I just finished was The book about Eliza Hamilton.

Melanie: Is that My Dear Hamilton? 

Nicole: Yes, yes. Yeah. 

Melanie: Oh my gosh, so good.

Nicole: It’s this thick, and I was turning the pages. And I adored it. And I thought it was fantastic. And then the same author, but it’s the one about Thomas Jefferson’s daughter.

Melanie: Okay, I haven’t read that one. Was it as good as the Hamilton one?

Nicole: Yes, it was so good. And the reason why I loved it is and for those of you who might not read historical fiction, that they put in as many facts as they can research. Yeah, kind of fill in the blanks with some nice things that make the story come alive or whatever. But the thing that I thought was so interesting is about, you know, when we talk about these characters and fiction, and what leaders should do, and, and, you know, one of my questions is always, why do some leaders, why are they successful, while other people struggle? Why other leaders struggle? My answer is always the quality of their character. 

And the thing I love most about Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, Martha is she was wildly loyal. In like, if you’ve seen Hamilton on Disney or seen it in the theater, they kind of make fun of his personality. You know, I was over you know, getting hot with the French and all this kind of stuff. So he was kind of a playboy, apparently, okay. But, but his daughter knew how incredibly smart he was. So she, she, like, forgave him for his shortcomings and always celebrated and was loyal to his genius, you know. And so I just don’t know it just like the quality of the character traits. 

And then Thomas Jefferson’s partner at the end of his life was Sally which was one of his slaves, and how incredibly loyal she was. And how even though it wasn’t, like, politically correct at the time or whatever. But these two women were partnered and taking care of Thomas and had and had a really great relationship. I don’t know, all of that just shows me how we can from a DEI perspective, diversity, equity and inclusion and how these two women like kind of work crossing those boundaries way back when you know. Because they loved Thomas, which I think you’re so cool. Yeah.

Melanie: I mean, I liked on the My Dear Hamilton when it was interesting, too, because it’s from Eliza’s perspective, and I’m switching into more of the I think calling her Eliza is more Hamilton, like the musical. But I think, you know, the other thing is Hamilton was an incredible leader and visionary. But he had the support. And so I do think that that’s interesting, as well as like, who are the people who surround somebody who’s becoming that leader?

Nicole:  Yeah. And she, she, too, was wildly loyal, you know, even after he cheated, and whenever I mean, so. And hey, listen to everybody. Listen to all these great ladies. I’m just saying it. But anyway, yes. But it’s pretty cool. Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. No, but we love you fellows. That’s for sure. All right. So here’s the thing I want to I want to ask you, I know we’ve been talking for about an hour, I’ve had an absolute delightful time talking to you. So here’s what I want to ask you. 

I want to ask you one little final question here. You know, if there was one special listener out there, and they’re like, oh, Melanie drop me one more nugget. What little nugget would you drop for them? You know, like, here’s things to think about. So you know, you’ve told us have a growth mindset. You’ve said, you know, you’ve got you’ve got to be vulnerable, you’ve given us all sorts of little goodies along the way. You got to look at the customer experience, way deeper leaders. Wake up, wake up. What else would you share?

Melanie: You know, what I would, what had first come to mind is different then I had a second thought that popped in. So the first thing was.

Nicole: Do both, you can do both.

Melanie: Yeah. So no matter even if you’re a really effective leader keep working to become better. And I think we can and I’d encourage people to be really creative about how they approach, that doesn’t have to be reading fiction, that’s not everybody’s thing. And I’m not trying to convert people who don’t enjoy that. But be creative and maybe playful with how your professional or personal development however, this wherever that fits into your life for you. Just keep working on it. And don’t take it for granted. 

But the second thing is almost an ask, rather than a piece of advice, which is, is there somebody who’s in your world who might be struggling? Or is taking that first leadership role? And can you give them some pointers? So first of all, grace with their learning curve. But then also, yeah, I mean, how, think about how you can develop leaders around you, especially for people who are early in their, in their career path.

Nicole: Yeah. And so I’m gonna go back to something you said again, because yeah, just to enhance it. You know, she said, she had this leader that sat down with her and said, hey, look, here’s the competencies. That is not always everywhere in every company, unless you’ve got some kind of fantastical learning and development team working there, or an HR department, advanced or whatever. But like to say now, like here are eight things. And now the the new manager has a little clarity and a place to grow from. So essential.

Melanie: Yeah, I think it helps. Just knowing that you’ve got somebody on your side, like if you’ve taken the time to kind of go, hey, here’s here’s a roadmap, or here’s what we should be looking for. Here’s what you might want to pay attention to. Just think, just having that support is huge.

Nicole: Yeah, yeah. And here’s the thing. We want to follow leaders that know, that care, that we know care. I mean, that’s just the end of the you know, exclamation point, right? All right, everybody. Well, we have been here for an hour with Melanie Bell. We wish we had three more hours but we don’t. Maybe we’ll do a second episode with Ms. Melanie Bell. All right. Well, here’s what we can do everybody. We can find her at www.leaderswhofiction.com

You can get on there, join up, join one of her groups and read a great book and get to know her personally. Also, don’t forget you can find her on LinkedIn. So it’s LinkedIn. And of course you just Google Melanie Bell and look for her there. She’s on Facebook and also on Twitter so you can find her all over social media. She’s a marketing person. She’s out there. Melanie, it’s been so great to be with you. I am so grateful for your time and energy. 

Melanie: Thank you so much, Nicole.

Nicole: Thank you for being on the Vibrant Culture podcast. 

Melanie: Thank you.

Voiceover: Ready to build your vibrant culture? Bring Nicole Greer to speak to your leadership team, conference or organization to help them with her strategies, systems and smarts to increase clarity, accountability, energy and results. Your organization will get lit from within. Email Nicole@nicolegreer.com. And be sure to check out Nicole’s TEDx talk at nicolegreer.com.

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