There is never a bad time to get going on the things we’ve ignored for too long. To do things that are good for us, like dieting. Incidentally, a current study says that health club memberships are at an all-time high, even though the amount that people exercise has remained flat for 20 years.

As we’re all quick to admit, these things start with good intentions that are soon ignored.

One might conclude that, faced with such abject failure, we would try a different approach. Not so. Like B.F. Skinner’s famed Harvard-trained pigeons, we just keep on pecking away with the same old resolutions.

Perhaps we should come at the problem another way. For example, instead of starting a diet, it might be easier to stop eating so much. In other words, stopping may be better than starting. Here are six examples that could help in business:

1.Stop doing dumb things that tick off customers. It’s the little things that make people unhappy. You go on the Internet, find an article that interests you, click to download it, and instantly a window opens and you must fill out a form before you can get the article. Then, almost instantly, your phone rings. You wanted information, but what you got was a sales call.

Make it easy for a visitor to get acquainted with your company. Why not send a return e-mail thanking the person for requesting the article and offer a free subscription to a newsletter?

Also, retailers should stop giving coupons for things customers don’t want or those with short expiration dates. CVS is a great store, but they use coupons to control purchases, not to please the customer. Some CVS vice president should watch customers throwing them away as they leave the store.

Dumb things drive customers crazy - and away.

2.Stop looking for answers. Why is it that business people avoid questions, but are eager for answers? We are drawn to answers like moths to a candle. Unfortunately, we also get burned.

If a competitor is advertising on television, we scramble to get on the air. If we go to a meeting or read an article, we look for something we can do, without even asking why.

We went through the send-100,000-e-mails-a-week phase and then discovered that the only people who made any money doing it were the ones who sold the service.

Now, blogging is the answer. Yet, about one in 20 blogs I’ve visited haven’t been updated in months and were abandoned after two or three entries.

Jason Calacanis, of Weblogs Inc., estimates that less than 10 percent of blogs are updated regularly. There are about 100,000 new ones every day, according to Technorati. This, too, shall pass and we’ll be on to the next new, exciting, and worthless gimmick. The only people to make money blogging are those that sell books such asBlogging for DummiesorHow to Blog Your Way to Success.

What about asking a few questions: What do our customers want and why? Could they tell us something that might impact our business model? What should we be thinking about to stay ahead of the curve three and five years from now? Are we doing any dumb things? If so, why?

Answers are more fun, while questions require work.

3.Stop stupid advertising. Advertising isn’t easy today. At times, it seems as if the ad industry is catatonic. Ads are everywhere. Our kids ride to school in buses sporting advertising messages, while more and more products are popping up on television shows. Now, advertisers are turning their attention to the 2.5 billion cell phones worldwide. There’s ad space on page one ofThe Wall Street Journal,a premium location if there ever was one, along with page one of other sections.

What’s happening to advertising? Today, it’s more and more about less and less. Instead of being about how many customers you can reach, it’s about how few. Just because a group may have a certain income does not make them homogenous in terms of interests, concerns, aspirations, and views. Instead of talking to large groups, the task is now much more complex; it’s speaking to very small segments.

And even two- to five-second radio spots are available. Are they effective for advertisers or just another way of turning around declining radio revenues?

Changing interests and new technologies make the advertising task more difficult, demanding, and uncertain.

4.Stop ignoring solid information. The Chrysler people discovered that cute doesn’t work when they transformed CEO Dieter Zetsche into “Dr. Z,” a clown-like character racing around in the big, brutish, high-margin trucks and cars with Hemi V-8 engines as customers clamored for fuel-efficient vehicles.

Chrysler, along with Ford, has paid dearly for its persistence in the face of changing consumer preferences. Sales had to hit the wall before both companies admitted their business models were broken. No one wanted to hear what the customer was thinking. If they had, the story might be different, as Toyota has shown.

On the other hand, a smaller insurance agency in Pennsylvania commissioned a survey to discover how their customers felt about the organization. Drilling down revealed the customers’ hot buttons, the issues that cemented their relationship to the agency. This information served as the basis for the agency’s message to its customers and prospects. It just shows that being big doesn’t mean doing it right.

Information isn’t a distraction; it’s what creates the customer traction.

5.Stop looking in the mirror. On the first page ofThe Change Function,author Pip Coburn makes the most telling point of his entire book. It dawned on him some years ago that the presentations by technology companies looking for investors always focused on them, “what they had created, and why buyers would be smart enough to figure out how smart their technology was as the price came down.” As he goes on to note, “It was all about the smart technologists and the magic that the smart technologists had created. The alternative approach is for technology companies to become riveted to the needs and wants of the users they seek.”

How many companies suffer from severe cases of “corporate narcissism?” The 10-month identity development program initiated by a large financial services company illustrates this dangerous condition. When all the meetings ended, the studies were put away, approvals received and the invoices were paid, the firm proudly announced its competitive advantage: “superior customer service.” In effect, they asked, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” and the answer came back with great clarity, “We are.”

6.Stop beating up on salespeople. Salespeople are easy targets. They can be insufferable and painfully irresponsible. Their reputation for arrogance is well-deserved. They like to think that the destiny of their employer rests with them and that everyone in the company should cater to their whims.

Even so, it’s their employers who can be the cause of their arrogance and high-handed behavior. They are piled with endless incentives, prizes, free vacations, and awards, and handled with kid gloves. They are also threatened, berated, and admonished to do more and more, as they are handed larger territories, additional accounts, and higher goals.

Rarely, however, are they given what they need most to accomplish the required objectives. Like Sisyphus of Greek mythology, their destiny is to push the boulder up the hill time and time again. It’s no wonder that closing rates are so low, often hovering at under 20 percent.

A financial services company isn’t alone in expecting its reps to enter new territories without advance marketing support. Is it any wonder the sales staff spends its days attempting to overcome customer doubt, skepticism, misunderstanding, and pricing issues? Is it any wonder that they are forced into making unnecessary concessions in order to get the business?

Absolutely not. Far too often, companies let their salespeople flounder and even fail unnecessarily, and then try to rehabilitate their sense of worth by tossing in a weekend at some resort. Salespeople deserve and should expect as level a playing field as possible.

If you’re looking for the model of the 21st century salesperson, visit an Apple store. These highly trained people just seem to hang around and come across as passive. While you’re playing with an iPod or computer, trying out new software or asking a question, they are right there helping to facilitate your experience so that you have a smile on your face and the next thing you’re saying is, “Wow.” Apple gives them what they need to be top salespeople. Is it any wonder that the Apple stores are so successful?

The point is simply this - stopping may be more effective than starting. Success may come from what we stop more than what we start.

Publication date:05/21/2007