Does It Pay to Trash Talk

The Doyle Report: Does It Pay to Trash Talk?

Where do you stand with your mouth? Do you get uppity with your words or simply go about your business without criticizing your competitors?

"It ain't braggin' if you can back it up."

The preceding quote is from Hall of Fame baseball great Dizzy Dean, one of the hardest-throwing pitchers that ever played baseball. In addition to his marvelous arm, Dean was know for his verbal barbs, which ran the gamut from cruel to pithy to thoughtful. Trash talking was as much a part of his game as his fastball.

While we tend to think of trash talking as a relatively new phenomenon, it’s not. Sports stars have assailed one another for more than 100 years. Politicians, too. When frustrated with two congressman who continuously hogged the bully pulpit, then U.S. Speaker of the House Thomas Brackett Reed (1839-1902) quipped, “They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge.”

Businesspeople have also been know to trash talk. This includes everyone from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs to Richard Branson. Jobs once famously said in an interview, “The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste.” For emphasis, he went on to add, “…and I mean that in a big way.”

Sometimes business leaders let their mouths get too far over their skis. In 2010, then Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz quipped, "Google is going to have a problem because Google is only known for search.” (We all know what long-term impact that critique had.)

In contrast to Bartz, there’s T-Mobile CEO John Legere, whose outspoken views have translated into business gains. He didn’t plan on trashing AT&T at the CES show in Las Vegas in 2013 when he famously said, “I saw more honesty on a Match.com ad than on AT&T’s coverage maps,” but he sure made headlines afterwards.

In the aftermath, he dedicated himself to making changes that have upended the status quo.

“I know that you can’t shoot off your mouth unless you do the work to back it up, so I challenged my leadership team, and together we began making dramatic and ultimately successful changes to our product strategy,” he wrote in the Harvard Business Review earlier this year. This included the elimination of long-term contracts, roaming charges and convoluted pricing schemes.

Recently, MSPmentor showcased the ongoing back-and-forth between two competing executives, ConnectWise’s Arnie Bellini and Kaseya CEO Fred Voccola. Readers had plenty to say about the back and forth, but many thought it to be “childish.”

Which brings me to you: Where do you stand with your mouth? Do you get uppity with your words or simply go about your business without criticizing your opponents?

For insights I looked to Penton Xpert and Ulistic CEO Stuart Crawford. As someone who has done some trash talking himself, he had plenty to share on the topic. Whereas Legere sees the practice as a way of setting the record straight, Crawford sees it as a showy excess that will only come back to haunt you.

“Trash Talking? Oh, it’s my favorite subject,” Crawford says. “Don’t do it. I regret some of my comments I have made against some of my competitors in the past. I have lost business opportunities because I couldn’t keep my big mouth shut. I have lost a lot of respect from my peers, lost friendships, including ones I counted on to be there for me. Some of them, have just vanished into thin air.”

In his opinion, it pays to take the high road—even when you can’t stand your competitors and believe that some are unethical and ripping people off. “Just don’t do it… always be professional,” he says.

Stuart Crawford, Ulistic
Stuart Crawford, Ulistic

While not universally followed, the sentiment seems to be the prevailing norm in the industry. A frequent (and knowledgeable) contributor on the Reddit MSP forum advises fellow MSPs to never disparage a rival.

“If you can compliment the competitor, do it. If they are a junk company, don't say anything good or bad… If you can say, ‘I have heard good things about them, we offer a different solution and we think we are better, but I might be a little biased : ),’ that will get a little chuckle (and intrigue [as] people always want to know what they are missing),” he says.

So how often does trash talking occur? A new study reveals more than you might think. In an interview with [email protected], Wharton visiting scholar and Georgetown professor Jeremy Yip and Maurice Schweitzer reveal that 57 percent of employees say the practice occurs on a monthly basis if more. Rather than give a trash talker the upper hand, the practice often backfires.

“…Very consistently in our studies, we find that targets of trash-talking become very motivated,” says Schweitzer.

So where do you stand? As cross-town rivalries heat up, outsiders move in and newcomers come to fore in various markets, can a reputable tech consultancy that specializes in providing digital services go to market via the high road? Or must it adopt a new, competitive stance?

While you’re mulling that, you might want to consider the latest bit of trash talking making headlines, courtesy of professional fighters Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather. Their brand of showmanship is enough to turn heads—and stomachs.

Let me know your thoughts: [email protected].

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