Review – Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business by Nancy Lublin

Zero does have a seemingly magical impact on our brains (see The Power of Free), though zero isn’t always a good thing. Zero resources, for example, are generally not good for business! That’s exactly what many non-profit organizations start with, though. In Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business, author Nancy Lublin translates her years of experience in under-resourced non-profits into strategies that can be applied by any company.

Some of Lublin’s prescriptions are already widely employed, or at least given lip service, in for-profits. Some of her more pedestrian examples are things like, “It’s important to understand customer motivations,” and “Put your brand specifications on paper.”

Lublin does have some great ideas, though, that are rarely employed by for-profits. She encourages firms to use their “alumni” – ex-employees – to good advantage. Obviously, employees terminated for poor performance or other reasons may not be great spokespeople, but all too often companies fail to maintain contact with employees who left under positive circumstances. Instead of treating such alums as disloyal traitors, smart non-profits stay in touch knowing they may provide support in the future.

I think that corporations should create the job of alumni-relations director. This person would conjure ways to cultivate the many ex-employees out in the marketplace working as great advocates. Develop a section of the corporate website targeting alumni. Establish an open forum so they can reminisce and reconnect with other ex-employees. Bring people together for face-to-face reunions. Get them to contribute some of their institutional memories. Send them coupons. Remind them of their connections with holiday cards. Tell them how the company’s doing…

If they are going to sell the company, they need to feel like they still belong.

Another interesting point Lublin makes is what she calls the “Tote Bag Principle.” She noticed that wealthy donors were sometimes absurdly interested in the low-value stuff that came in the “goodie bag” handed out at fund-raisers. Even though the items contained in the bag had inconsequential value, even billionaires requested them. (Could this be a manifestation of reciprocity effect?) Her lesson for business is to use free gifts strategically to make customers feel good about the firm and to promote the brand. She cites Estee Lauder as one firm that constantly rewards its customers with free gifts when they buy something. Even though the customer could easily afford items like the free mascara or travel bag, and even though the cost of the free items are built into the product price, Lublin notes, “Free feels gooooood!”

Overall, there’s a lot of good advice in this book. In particular, a manager faced with too many complaints like, “There’s not enough money to do that!” will find some excellent counterarguments and thinking-outside-the-box examples in Zilch. Just about every point Lublin makes is illustrated with one or more examples, and her style is breezy and very readable.

Nancy Lublin is the CEO of DoSomething.org and the founder of Dress for Success.

  1. Alison Craig says

    Roger, thank you so much for another great post. Ms. Lublin’s book sounds great. I have personally experienced such situations with free give aways for both my company and the non profits I am involved in. I agree with you that it equates back to a sense of feeling wanted, needed, and thanks. So thank you for all the wonderful information you share with the world for free.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Just practicing what I preach, Alison! 😉


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