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Is Your Wellness Business Getting Suckered?

Most of you are pretty smart cookies when it comes to healthy living and making people better when they’re sick.

But do you ever feel like an easy mark when it comes to the business side?

Watch out for these questionable business practices and practitioners:

1. People who make easy things look hard

Setting up and running a website using tools like WordPress doesn’t have to be hard. Businesses ranging from CNN, Reuters, GM, Sony, and the New York Times all the way down to personal training studios and small local health clubs use it. It’s possible to get a small site up and running over a long weekend, including essentials like payment processing and email integration.

Without heavy-duty programming.

Can you make it complicated? Certainly. And a lot of web programmers make a business out of it. But for most brick-and-mortar health and wellness businesses, your site can function perfectly well without dozens of fitness videos, hundreds of SEO-optimized blog posts about nutrition and healthy living, or a daily posting schedule on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram.

2. People who make hard things look easy

There’s a reason everyone from health clubs to medical practices and corporate wellness providers all pay professionals to do stuff like tax accounting, developing a strategic growth plan, and drawing up partnership agreements.

That stuff is complex and when it’s not your full-time day job, it’s smart to get outside experts.

BUT: far too many outside experts feed on your fear of the complex, promising that if you hire THEM, your problems will go away in a flash, just like that!

Unfortunately, the more you want your problem solved, the more susceptible you are to a scam.

That’s why we always urge wellness businesses to be careful when talking to lead generation companies, for example. One of our clients had previously hooked up with a vendor who then embedded generic fitness videos on our client’s site and then imported our client’s email list in order to send promotional emails. This process was somehow supposed to generate leads because “video is huge these days.” (???)

But what really happened was that clicking the videos sent people AWAY from our client’s site, to a trashy site full of competitive wellness services, that was probably blacklisted by Google. In fact, it’s entirely possible that our client’s SEO ranking was harmed because it linked to this site.

Remember: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

3. People who can’t explain what they do

At best they’re bad communicators. At worst, they’ve never actually DONE whatever it is they claim to be experts in.

If a vendor can’t tell you in plain English what they do — without using foofoo phrases like “strategic business visioning innovation” — chances are they aren’t listening, don’t really know what they’re doing, and don’t really understand your business.

That’s why we warn our smallest clients to watch out for “business coaches.” I’m sure there are some good ones, but most of these folks make me nuts. Running an actual, profitable business for the long-term is not about “accountability” to a “coach” who doesn’t actually know how to DO sales or marketing or customer service or manage a facility or negotiate with vendors, etc., etc. It is not about The Secret or the Law of Attraction.

It is about chopping wood and carrying water, every day — doing the fun stuff AND doing the parts you don’t love.

4. Dreamer-schemers

Sometimes clients approach us asking for advice on partnerships with another wellness vendor. They’re usually just coming down from cloud nine, eyes full of wonder about how some potential new venture they’ve encountered that’s flush with possibilities and just shy of hitting it big.

It’s hard to tell a time-wasting dreamer from a scammer. Your potential partner may actually believe in the possibilities. But unless they’re grounded an a solid, executable plan, that’s all they are — possibilities. And you’re in the position of having to do your partner’s homework so their dreams can come true.

That may be OK if they’re your dreams, too. But it’s a red flag when it’s difficult to get a straight answer from potential partners about what has to happen now and who’s going to do it. That means that either they don’t have a plan, or they’re just so disorganized that they find it distracting to explain it. Either way it’s not good news.

Partnerships are most productive when both parties have established track records and financially solid businesses that are already succeeding and would be better served by working together than working separately.

5. People who name-drop

As Yogi Berra said, “it ain’t braggin’ if you done it.” The flip side of this is that if you’ve done it, you don’t need to brag.

There’s a big difference between establishing your credentials and reputation vs flat-out puffery. They might actually BE the leading vendor of healthcare analytics for bariatric medical practices. Perhaps they really did develop the medically-based weight loss program used by the five largest health systems in the Northwest.

One of our corporate wellness clients really HAS worked with 8 of the top 10 financial services firms in the world.

On the other hand…we talked to a wellness vendor last summer whose president told us that he knew Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Also Barack Obama. And a few more headline names. Even if that were true (and we suspect it wasn’t), who cares? It’s not relevant!

If you’re a small to medium wellness business, and a vendor’s telling you that they’ve worked with CompanyYouveHeardOf, be skeptical. Big companies tend to buy from big companies. Did they work with the entire company, or a just a division? Did they actually close a contract, or just provide a quote? Did they provide a comprehensive solution, or were they a tiny part of a much bigger puzzle? Most important: can they provide a reference from that company?

Ask yourself if claims like these pass a sniff test. Yes, we’ve actually done specialized strategy projects for big insurance carriers you’ve heard of — but if we told you we had done their marketing, you ought to question that claim! Why on earth would a multi-billion dollar company with vast internal marketing resources need Radial?

6. People who solve common problems with proprietary tools

One of the most obvious examples: special software (these days, often cloud-based, as if that somehow made it even better) for business planning and creating investor pitches. Another one I worry about: Ning, which offers a content platform that’s kind of like a mashup between YouTube, Facebook and old-school message boards, intended to help small businesses monetize content.

First problem: the hard part of business planning and crafting an investor pitch is the THINKING. It’s anticipating questions and concerns. It’s knowing how you’re actually going to turn a good idea into a profitable product — in detail. And it’s actually understanding how all those sales, marketing and operational details actually translate into revenue, costs and expenses, capital spending, headcount, and so forth.

You have to know all those answers before you can use the tool. At which point you really don’t need the tool any more.

The second problem is that these are proprietary tools. If these tools go away next month, your work is down the drain. It’s much smarter to work in tools like PowerPoint and Excel. Like it or not, these are the tools that get business done.

And much better to control the platform your content sits on, not hand it over to a platform like Ning that might not be here in a year. We’ve had several clients who put huge amounts of work into creating enormous amounts of high-end, premium online content and uploading it into Ning, and I think it’s really risky.

The third problem is that these tools often are far from best in class, and they don’t get updated. For example, we’ve had several clients that used a web development firm which specializes in health and fitness clubs. But their “integrated email solution” is homegrown. It looks flat-out terrible, and it doesn’t have anything like the functionality of a MailChimp or Constant Contact, much less the rich features you find in higher-end email solutions for larger companies. What’s even worse is that they don’t have the operational contacts with ISPs to stay on top of email deliverability issues and trends.

7. People who sell “information”

It’s not a coincidence that every word in the “Four Hour Work Week” is, in fact, a four-letter word. I think “information product” ought to be a four-letter word too.

The original idea was fine — information products like webinars, white papers, e-books, videos and so on are indeed great ways for vendors to showcase their business expertise in order to attract prospective clients.

Where it goes wrong: hiring a vendor whose entire business model rests on selling information products, not on actually providing a valuable customer-specific product or service.

These folks routinely exaggerate their credentials and accomplishments while offering superficial advice and insights. They’re more like shadow puppets — their real core competency isn’t marketing, or strategy, or sales, or customer service, or anything else — it’s making a tiny squirrel look like an impressive grizzly.

8. People who want to solve problems you don’t have

There’s nothing wrong with a vendor trying to expand the scope of a project they’re working on — provided you need it.

I invited an HR consultant in once to work with my management team on some people issues. I had used this guy before on similar projects, so he was the first call I made — didn’t even think twice about considering other folks.

So imagine my shock when after the introductions, he spent about 10 minutes on our HR issues and then whipped out his laptop and brought up a business planning website he wanted to show us! It became clear very quickly that he was trying to market this tool even though it had nothing to do with the reason I had brought him in.

BZZZZT! “Thank you for being on our show, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

By keeping an eye out for questionable business practices and asking the right questions, you can avoid getting suckered, throwing good money after bad, and help avoid the pitfalls that trouble wellness businesses that don’t have the resources to waste on strategic missteps.