July 2013 archive

It Pays to Ask the Right Questions

pjlogo2I’m in a band with my husband and three friends. We’re a newer band but we’ve grown into serious musicians with a high level of work ethic. We started playing outside the garage sixteen months ago.

We’ve learned a lot in the last year — things like working as a team, building a following (because most bars aren’t really hiring a band; they are hiring a crowd), and choosing the right songs. Playing out has given us great insights. Our band’s brand and playlist are well-defined and we like each other. No unnecessary drama; just rock and roll.

A Band is Like a Typical Business

You know how it is. When your business is new, you are just dying to get a customer — any customer. You take anything that remotely fits just to get some revenue coming in. And truthfully in the beginning, you don’t really have a good idea of who the best type of customer for you is. It’s a learning process. It takes time to gain that gut instinct that tells you “This is the right one” or “Run!”

Our band is finally starting to really connect with our gut instinct. We’ve filled our calendar with appearances at any place that would give us a chance. We’ve played a good number of venues and events. With just six weekends left to book for this year, we can start to be choosy.


One of the most important lessons that gelled for me this last weekend was one I learned many years ago in my business: it pays to ask the right questions.

Here’s what drove the lesson home for me. We returned to play at a bar this last weekend that was one of our first gigs. It was a tough experience the first time, mostly because we were new to everything: the setup of the venue, most of our songs, the need to make sure you get paid before you walk out at the end of the night, and bar manager expectations.

The bar manager voiced her disappointment that we didn’t have many of our own following at that first gig. Remember that I said a bar isn’t hiring a band, they are hiring a following. Since that is important to have a following, we waited for a year to go back.

The thing to remember about a following is that there are different reasons people come out to see your band. Some wait for an appearance at a venue close to them. Some won’t go to a smoky bar. Some have prior commitments on the nights you play. Some only come to an early show. . This isn’t something you have to worry about when you play a private party.

I haven’t figured out what that ideal follower number is where we can schedule a show and count on thirty or more people to come to our show just to see us. I’m sure there is a tipping point too where suddenly you start racking up the followers. I’m looking forward to that day for sure.

Since we are still building that coveted following, we’ve worked to put more money on a bar owner’s bottom line in other ways. These are especially beneficial for a bar that has an established customer base:

  • Making sure the servers are well-tipped
  • Letting customers know about upcoming bands and events
  • Keeping customers in the bar longer and talking about specials, thus increasing bar sales
  • Putting on a great show with short breaks so people stay in the bar longer.

Fast Forward a Year

The bar manager has hired us back. We are booked for two dates but she tells us that we better have a following if we’re going to get the second date. Last weekend was the first date.

We did a great show. We were prepared. We promoted the show heavily to our following. We had a successful setup. We had great comments and interaction from the customers. The customers stayed for two or more sets. We reminded customers about upcoming bands and events at the bar. The servers had a stellar night for tips too. Most of those results usually mean more bottom line revenue, but I don’t know those final numbers.

I checked in with the bar manager later in the evening to see how she thought things were going. She wanted to know where our following was. Didn’t we have one? She could only see four people who were not her regular customers. I knew we had a few more people say they were coming who didn’t. That was typical. And frankly, I expected her to have a few more customers of her own too.

I’ve had a lot of tough experiences
because I didn’t ask the right questions.
I’ve also felt some temporary angst
when I turned something away,
especially at a time when
I really needed the work.

After I asked some questions, I realized that her only success objective was whether new customers came into her bar. She measured nothing else. She expected us to bring in enough new people to clear our fee in $5 cover charges because her regulars weren’t enough to do that. Needless to say, we didn’t meet her expectations.

We regard our relationships with our bar managers as a mutually beneficial business arrangement. I’ve done a good job of asking questions about how things went at the end of the night. However, my husband handles most of our booking. He’s the initial point of contact for our venues and event planners. His questions involve fees, dates, and times.

He’s never asked about their objectives, but I bet he will from now on. We knew that she expected a following. If he had asked enough questions, we would have realized that she expected to pay our fee with the revenue from cover charges. We would have known that our typical five to ten followers were not going to make up for her lack of regular customers.

If we had asked what bands normally bring the most people, we would have realized that she has a far bigger regular crowd with a country band. We should have asked what she planned to do to promote our appearance. We would have discovered she wouldn’t do anything. With these important details, we could determine that we would fail to meet her objectives. In essence, we weren’t a fit for her establishment and should have turned down the invitation to play.

The last thing we want is an unhappy customer. We offered to release the next date with her so she can bring in another band whose following is likely to come to her bar. She accepted our offer. There’s a month so hopefully we fill our open date with a bar that is a better fit. She has a good chance at finding another band. We’ve already turned down several offers for that weekend in past months because we were booked. Unfortunately, there are far more great bands than bars here. I’m not certain that we’ll fill the date unless another band cancels at a venue we normally play.

Questions Should Help You Determine if This is the Right Relationship

My business is ten years old this month. I learned to ask the right questions in the first few years. The answers I received when I asked the right questions told me about client objectives and whether I could meet them. I learned what I needed to make on a job to pay the bills and make it worth my time. I also learned how to change unrealistic expectations if possible. If not, I learned how to decline politely or refer them to someone who was a better fit.

I’ve had a lot of tough experiences because I didn’t ask the right questions. I’ve also had some temporary angst when I turned something away, especially at a time when I really needed the work. But time after time, customers either came back with realistic expectations or I was approached by a suitable customer that I could serve well. Lesson learned then. Lesson learned now with the band.

About Carrie


Carrie Perrien Smith MBA is a training, communication, and publishing industry veteran. Since running screaming from her corporate training and communications career over eleven years ago, she’s not only become a speaker but runs a professional speaker bureau and a publishing company that primarily serves the needs of speakers who write and writers who speak. She is also the host of Business: Engaged! radio show for business owners on Blogtalkradio. Her most recent book is called Currency: Striking Networking Gold in a Relationship Economy. If her free time, she is a community activist, home improvement junkie, and singer in a party band called Paper Jam. You can learn more about Carrie and her company, Soar with Eagles at www.soarhigher.com.

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