Coffee, zombies and marketing – An interview with Peter Shankman


August 9, 2018

Peter Shankman sold HARO in 2010, but its underlying idea is still at the core of his business philosophy. His most recent book, Zombie Loyalists: Using Great Service to Create Rabid Fans, focuses on customer service, which he believes is the next big thing for companies looking to gain customers and earn their devotion.

“First cup of coffee is on me,” it reads on the “Events” section of Peter Shankman’s website. Best known for founding Help a Reporter Out (HARO), an online aid for journalists needing credible sources, Shankman is a big fan of people helping people – no matter how small or big the favor.

Such a big fan, he’s written books about it. Shankman sold HARO in 2010, but its underlying idea is still at the core of his business philosophy. He’s based in New York City, writing and working, and traveling often to speak on the topics of marketing and PR. His most recent book, Zombie Loyalists: Using Great Service to Create Rabid Fans, focuses on customer service, which he believes is the next big thing for companies looking to gain customers and earn their devotion.

We spoke with Shankman about his distaste for golf, how he learned to thrive on taking risks, and why it’s so important for businesses to be human.

You have a really unique hobby – skydiving.

Shankman: It’s a blast – and for me, it’s psychologically needed. When you jump out of a plane, you’re essentially ctrl-alt-deleting your brain. You’re getting a complete reset, because you’re going from zero to 100 percent of dopamine, serotonin and adrenaline in about a half a second. Your body has to do something to prevent you from looking at the sun, going, “ooh, shiny!” and forgetting to pull your parachute.

It’s like filling a giant sink with water. When you release the drain, it doesn’t all dissipate immediately – it takes time. For a while, my brain is chock-full of these chemicals, and they’re there for the next three or four hours. I’ll bring my laptop to the drop zone, do one skydive, then sit down and bang out 10,000 words in an hour because I’m so hyper-focused.

Do you see long-term results from this? You can’t exactly go skydiving whenever you get writer’s block.

Shankman: That’s why I exercise every morning, because it works the same way for me. I will never play golf. I tried it once, and by 9:30 a.m. I was not in a good place. Because I am ADHD, I have two speeds. I don’t have the ability to moderate, and I need to have this natural chemical energy to keep me going.
I understand how my brain works, and that’s key to understanding how to set up your life with rules that allow you to do well. One of those rules is that everything I do requires a backstory to it—why am I doing this? I have to ask myself, will doing this help or hurt? It prevents me from going down rabbit holes.

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You’re a speaker, author, serial entrepreneur, and much more. Some aspects of your career you’ve now moved on from – like selling your businesses. What advice do you have for people who are feeling stuck or unsure how to move forward in their career?

Shankman: Some of the greatest advice I ever heard was, if you don’t like where you are, then move because you’re not a tree. If you’re doing something that you’re unhappy about, figure out how to do something else – and the best way to do that, in my opinion, is to get uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable means that you’re pushing ahead.

I think it’s good to have haters, because it means you’re fighting against the status quo, you’re asking yourself what you can do differently, and you’re taking risks.

You said in your recent book, Zombie Loyalists, that customer service is what’s going to drive business in the next 50 years. However, customer service seems to be a low priority for many companies. How do you recommend those teams effectively communicate the importance of their roles to the rest of the company?

Shankman: When it’s the middle of your workday and you go out for lunch, you take off your work hat and put on your customer hat. You expect to be treated well at the restaurant, and so on, but when people come back to the office, they take off their customer hats. They should leave it on. Think about the people you’re going back to and servicing – how are you handling them and talking to them? Anyone who is a customer of any business is a customer because they have a problem. And if you can identify and solve that problem, you’re a hero.

Right. Everyone – not just the customer success team – has been a customer, so they have their own experience to prove how important it is to have your need recognized and solved.

Shankman: The beauty of this is that, currently, the bar is really low. I don’t need you to be awesome, I just need you to be a little better.

If a company is limited on resources and time, what’s something they can do to make a big impact on their customer service?

Shankman: One of the most basic things is the concept of smiling. Smiling, and reaching out to the customer when you have nothing to sell them. Just try to say “hey, what’s going on, how can I help you?” You can send an email; for example, when a customer who orders every month hasn’t in a little while. Just make sure everything is okay and find out if there’s anything you can do.

People with resources tend to offer opportunities to people they trust. You can earn their trust by being there when you have nothing to sell – by being likeable. And people don’t expect that.

Show them that you care about them about a person, not only as a customer.

Shankman: Exactly.

You mentioned that the haters hate change. Last year you wrote about adapting to change, and it seems even harder to keep up with now, from technology to culture, politics, and so on. What kind of coaching would you provide for people to better adapt to those changes without losing their minds?

Shankman: The number one thing you need to do is understand that everything in the world is fluid. Some things that are awesome now are going to be terrible at some point in the future, and the same might be true for things that are terrible now, because we live in a cyclical world. If you can capitalize on the things that are awesome at any given time, you’re going to do okay. And then understand that you can’t control everything. The universe does tend to unfold the way it should. Knowing that, it’s a lot easier to move on and to breathe.

The universe unfolds the way it should. I like that.

Shankman: It tends to. Not always, but it tends to.

Right, sometimes it doesn’t. The universe makes mistakes, and so do we.

Shankman: Oh, I love making mistakes.

You’ve mentioned in a blog post that you didn’t trust your gut, and that led you to make mistakes. Can you share a mistake you’ve made that helped you learn?

Shankman: I think one of the best stories to tell you is one from when I was seven years old. I was at a summer camp, and it was coming up on the Fourth of July, and the counselors asked us who wanted to be on the parade float. I didn’t know what a parade float was, so I said no. The day of the parade, I was watching with my parents, and I saw the float going by, with all of my friends from camp on it. I wanted to run to join them, but my dad grabbed me and stopped me because I had said no to it a few days before. On that day, I learned to always say yes. Of course, not everything I’ve said yes to has really worked out, but too many bright ideas never see the light of day because the people who came up with them are too afraid to put them into play.

Like you said, sometimes it doesn’t work out. Can you explain more why you said you like mistakes?

Shankman: The key for me is, I ask myself what’s the worst that can happen? If it doesn’t mean that you’re homeless, or you’ve started an international incident, or you’re getting kicked out of the country – If the worst that can happen is I lose a couple hundred bucks, I learned a lesson, that’s awesome. That’s the best way you can possibly do it—you might make a mistake, but it’s never a failure.

Peter Shankman spoke at PIMpoint Americas 2019 on Oct. 4, and held an exclusive book signing party for his latest book, Zombie Loyalists. For details on PIMpoint and more visit the event website.