Brown M&Ms, Tripwires and Flags

At the peak of their career, Van Halen included a simple condition for every concert they performed:

In their dressing room, they wanted a big bowl of M&Ms. And they wanted all of the brown ones removed.

This condition usually appeared toward the end of a 30-page contract. It was buried on purpose, sometimes amid other seemingly unimportant requests like “Big tube of KY Jelly” or “Room to practice martial arts”.

When the band reached the venue, they went to their dressing room. If they saw brown M&Ms mixed in with the rest of the bowl, the band knew that other elements of the contract might have been overlooked. So they tracked down the venue’s manager and went through the entire contract line by line, checking electrical connections, security stations and every minute detail. The brown M&Ms weren’t a fanciful wish by a crazy rock band: they were a signal.

Despite paying for your coaching, clients might not follow your instructions thoroughly.

Many coaches are surprised when, after months of working with a client, delivering their excellent service perfectly, the client says “I’m not getting any results here.”

The coach is surprised because they’ve done their job: showed up on time, given the clients the steps to succeed, made themselves available for questions…

And the client appears to have done the work: they’ve been on the calls, they’ve watched all the videos, they’ve downloaded the worksheets…

but they still aren’t getting results. Because they’re not actually doing the work.

Maybe they believe the purpose of the program is to acquire knowledge instead of taking action. Maybe they want to tailor the program to “fit” their situation without the coach’s help, and instead cherrypick only the new ideas. Or maybe they’re scared to execute. Whatever the reason, the client doesn’t see a return and the coach is surprised.

One solution is to set up a tripwire early in your program.

Create one simple action for the client to take in the first week. Make it easy to measure success so the coach can see whether the work has been done.

For example:

“Make a simple post on Facebook with this text.” (We use a 5130 post in Two-Brain).
“Enter your total revenue from last month in your dashboard.”
“Set up a coffee meeting with three of your best clients.”
“Complete this personality test.”

Whatever the task, it should be simple enough to complete within 72 hours, and easy for the coach to check.

If the client doesn’t complete the task, it’s a signal that something is wrong. The client didn’t set off the tripwire, so they’re not walking down the path. The coach can quickly check in on the client to see what’s happening:

“Hey Jim! I’m looking for your revenue entry in the dashboard, but can’t see it. How can I help you get this done today?”

In some cases, simply knowing their coach is checking on them will solve the problem. “Oh, they’re serious! OK, I’ll stay on track from now on.”

Other times, it might highlight a problem early, and create an opportunity for the coach to demonstrate value. “I don’t actually know how to get my total revenue out of my billing software.” Or, even bigger: “I was too embarrassed to post it.”

Failure at the first little task could also highlight a missing skill: perhaps the client “skipped ahead” in your material to the piece they think they need more, instead of following the path in sequence. This creates an opportunity for the coach to explain the sequence even more deeply, building trust; or to teach a skill, building value.

Worst-case, failure to complete the first simple task might unearth some skepticism on the part of the client. I prefer a client get over their skepticism before they buy, but many enroll in programs and never go “all-in”. This is usually because they’ve been burned by an overpromising business coach before. So they scout the program after they’ve already made their commitment, and then decide to continue or back out early. This requires a deeper conversation with the client…but it’s still best to have this conversation before either side wastes more time.

The reason Van Halen added their “brown M&Ms” rider? Because Eddie Van Halen was once nearly electrocuted onstage during an electrical storm when the venue didn’t have proper electrical safeguards in place. Since they couldn’t take an extra day to check the electrical system at every venue, they set up a simple flag to warn them when details might have been overlooked. If there were brown M&Ms in the bowl, the band put the show on pause and checked everything.

Don’t forget to check the details. If your clients don’t do the work, they won’t get maximal results from your program.

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