The pitfalls of perfectionism vs. good-enough marketing

There are so many obstacles that can prevent a business owner from following through on the decisions he or she knows she has to make for the business.  Marketing is one area that I have observed frequently gets put on the backburner.

When you think about it, there are legitimate reasons why people don’t market their businesses in the way they know they should.  It usually boils down to a lack of resources — either money, time, or knowledge.

  • You don’t feel you can afford to market your business.  You know you need a website, but you don’t think you can afford it.  You are ready for YouTube, but you think video is expensive.  You don’t have a logo, etc.
  • You are so busy, you just can’t carve out time to develop a plan, or hire someone to help you create a marketing plan, and execute it. You don’t even have time to think about it.
  • Or you just don’t know what to do, or where to start, or who to ask for help.

So these resource issues are legitimate reasons to postpone marketing your business indefinitely.  I wouldn’t let it stand in my way, personally, but I can understand why it is an obstacle for many intelligent, dynamic, and motivated people.  Among all my clients, I have seen these issues come up in one way or another.

There is a fourth issue, however, that is more insidious, and nearly as frequently occurring,  and is the one I would like to address today.

Perfectionism.  Perfectionism will derail your success.

Most successful people are prone to at least a little perfectionism, from time to time. If they aren’t perfectionists about work, they might apply it to their personal lives. Who isn’t familiar with the person who tried to plan the perfect vacation? Or the perfect wedding?  Or the perfect Thanksgiving?  No one is immune to the pitfall of perfectionism, occasionally.

But some business owners are victims of their own perfectionism.  To me, a personality trait or habit like perfectionism becomes problematic when it gets in the way of something you really want to to do. That is my litmus test for identifying an area of your life that requires change.

Perfectionism, if you are prone to it, can completely undermine your efforts — and mine — to market your business.

You would think that perfectionists produced amazing work, and have great attention to detail, and are tremendously prompt and courteous.  You would think, being the perfectionists that they are, that they make wonderful clients.  And they do, on occasion, produce very fine work, and they are conscientious and considerate clients.  They are capable of wonderful things. But the irony is, it is far more likely, their perfectionism causes them to be late or cancel appointments, miss deadlines, and not follow through on projects and commitments.  Results elude them, and they are perfectly miserable about it, and contrite.  But still, they cannot move forward with their marketing, because they cannot accept “good enough” in lieu of “perfect.”

I feel for them in the worst way, and I try to offer as much support as I can to help them come to terms with acceptance of acceptable results, versus perfect results.

Here is an example of how a client became their own worst enemy because of their perfectionism.

I had an enjoyable initial meeting with a local firm who was ready to tell their story with video.  I was hired for the job, but couldn’t get the client to meet with me to plan and schedule the video.  Meeting after meeting was canceled and rescheduled because they said they could not get organized enough to meet with me to discuss their questions and plans.

As much as I tried to reassure them that I would not judge them and that it was actually my business to help them identify and solve their marketing challenges, they could not bring themselves to present themselves to me as less than prepared.  Their problem was not disorganization — they were a reputable and highly organized design firm.  Their problem was perfectionism.

When they cancelled a meeting with less than two hours notice, saying they just didn’t feel ready, I provided them with the feedback they needed to hear and billed them for my time.  That was three years ago, and they still have not produced a video, or embraced social media in any form.

I think perfectionists may also struggle with giving up control.  As an example, I had a client contact me nearly four years ago to develop a relatively simple website for their firm.  All of their competitors had websites.  We continued to have meetings on and off for years, most of them involving the client providing me with reasons why the work could not proceed, or why they could not provide me with content I required.  While they could not provide basic information about their business, they came up with various suggestions for the website functionality that exceeded the scope of the project.  It was like they wanted to create a souffle but had not yet learned how to crack and make scrambled eggs.  This summer, I was finally able to complete the website, but not before each step had to be explained and managed.  There were the predictable delays and cancellations along the way.  A project that could have been finished in four weeks took nearly four years.

I understand the perfectionist personality, and I sympathize with the plight of people who struggle with it.  Although I do not consider myself a perfectionist, I have been married to a perfectionist. I could tell you some very funny stories about my ex-husband, but I still love him dearly, although I could not live with him.

Oh, okay.  I will tell you one story, because it is illustrative of how heart-breaking perfectionism can be.  I was engaged.  My mother-in-law-to-be and I were washing the dishes, and she revealed that when my fiance was younger, he had been a concert-level pianist, and could have had a musical career.  I was amazed, because I did not even know he could play.  Not wanting him to overhear, knowing that he was sensitive about the subject, she suggested we take a drive.  When we got in the car, she inserted a cassette of my fiance playing the piano at a concert.  It was amazingly beautiful.  Yet, although he had a piano at home, I had never heard him play a note.

After we married, he asked me what I wanted for Christmas.  I loved music, and told him more than anything else, I would like to hear him play, just once, even if it was just Jingle Bells.  That was all I wanted.  He told me could not, that he had not practiced.  Not once in our marriage did he ever play piano when I could hear it.

Isn’t that sad?  But to bring it back to a business context, perfectionists often have gifts, like my ex-husband’s, that never see the light of day.

To a certain extent, I think when you work with perfectionists, you have to have a “tough love” approach, or they would get in your way and theirs, and nothing would get accomplished.

To this end, I have instituted safeguards in my work agreement that ward off the consequences of perfectionism.  These include a non-refundable deposit, a maximum of two revisions (additional ones come at a charge), time limits, and fees for last-minute meeting cancellations. Perfectionists can have unreasonable expectations (I’m not sure it’s entirely their fault), so it’s important to set boundaries for them.

Do you have perfectionist tendencies?  Do they get in the way of marketing your business, or hiring someone to help you?  Would you like to change?

Elizabeth Scott, M.S., has identified the classic attributes of perfectionists, versus high achievers, and I’d like to summarize some of her findings in case you work with perfectionists, or tend to be a perfectionist yourself.

Results: A high achiever sets goals, works toward them, and achieves them.  If he or she doesn’t reach 100%, the high achiever is okay with very good results.  A perfectionist sets goals, works toward them, but does not achieve them.  Their all or nothing thinking makes them think anything less than perfect represents a failure.  So they rarely finish projects.

Critical: I can always spot a perfectionist. They tend to be self-denigrating, in a surprising way. I say surprising because most perfectionists I know are gifted individuals.  If you talk about their acheivements, which are often outstanding, instead of saying “Thank you, I worked on hard on that.” or “Yes, I was proud of that.” they will put themselves and their work down.

You would think this would not be a business problem, but it can be, for the consultant, because perfectionists can also focus and obsess on details that don’t matter as much as other needs in a project.  Occasionally, they can be hyper-critical, as well, although I have been fortunate not to have too many hyper-critical clients.  Because they set unrealistic standards for themselves, and sometimes for others, they have trouble being truly happy with the results of a project.  Not so with a high achiever.  People who are accepting of the results they achieve are happy, and tend to pursue more goals.

So, let’s say your perfectionism is getting in the way of marketing your business, and of hiring someone to achieve results for you.  What can you do?

Well, the first step, of course, is to recognize you have a problem, identify the ways the problem impacts you and your business, and determine to do something about it.

Next, you have to think of ways you can become more flexible and accepting, not only of yourself but also of others.  Learning a new way to be is hard, but it can happen, with time and practice.  Here are some ideas:

Make a Pros and Cons List

Next time you are faced with a decision, make a list of pros and cons.  What would be the best results associated with making a decision; the worst?  And what would be th best and worst outcomes of not moving forward?

Practice Positive Self-Talk

Do you tend to be self-denigrating?  Eliminate words like always or never when you think about yourself.  Those words rarely apply to people and situations.  Be kind and understanding with yourself, as you would with people you love.

Instead of “I can’t believe I’m late again. I’m always late!”

Tell yourself: “I am late this time, and I’m disappointed.  But I’m not always late.  Next time, I will leave earlier so I can be on time.”

Find Little Ways to Give Up Control or Ask for Help

Control is a scary thing for some people to give up.  You can give up control in fun ways to get accustomed to the idea of not having to be 100% in control all the time.

  • If you are the type of person who never asks for directions, try asking for directions when you are not lost, just for practice.  Work up to asking for directions when you are just a little bit disoriented. Enjoy where the directions may take you.
  • Go to a museum and ask the information desk person to recommend an exhibit for you to see.
  • Ask the waiter to order for you in a restaurant.
  • Play with a very young child, letting them call all the shots in a game.  Or go for a walk, letting them set the way.

Learn to Accept the Less than Perfect About Yourself

  • Take a beginner-level class in something you feel sure will be fun, but difficult for you, especially if it might make you feel a little foolish or vulnerable.  Examples of these might be learning a foreign language you have never studied before, or learning how to belly-dance, or ice-skate.  Try to enjoy doing something that you are not necessarily expert at.
  • Start a blog, and write as frequently as you can, about a topic you care about.  Accept the fact that you will make grammatical mistakes, or that you might not appear monstruously clever in each post.  Learn to be okay with it.
  • Ask a friend or relative to take at least twenty-five pictures, just of you.  Or record you telling a story.  Look at these images and footage fearlessly.  Don’t throw them away.  Try to find what is beautiful and special about you, and be okay with the imperfections you may not be able to change.

How are you embracing “good enough” today?  What are you doing to overcome perfectionism in your work?  What suggestions do you have for working effectively with people who tend toward perfectionism?


About Mary Fletcher Jones

Mary Fletcher Jones is a mom, teacher, and blogger. She is also the creator of "Living Well With Autism," an online resource for caregivers of children, teens, and adults with autism and related special needs.

Posted on March 14, 2011, in Client/Agency Relationship and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.


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