An app that wins friends, influences people

Dale Carnegie's classic ideas find modern home on Web, mobile devices

By Bill Briggs May 4, 2010

In the vintage parlance of a bygone era: Do you want to win friends and influence people? In the tech talk of today: There’s an app for that.

Dale Carnegie Training, a 98-year-old enterprise built on one man’s unflinching belief in the potency of self-improvement, last month began offering its “Secrets to Success” application to BlackBerry users. In February, the same download was launched for the iPhone crowd, which promptly devoured so many morsels of Carnegie wisdom — like how to “stop worrying and start living” — it became the top-selling paid business app in its debut week.

“It is nice to have a little Dale Carnegie in your BlackBerry,” said Julie Northcutt, an entrepreneur who grew her Chicagoland Caregivers senior home care business into a $2.5 million company before selling it to launch

“When you own your own business, you are often pulled in many directions at once,” said Northcutt, who occasionally uses the Carnegie app to focus her thoughts. “Before an important meeting, I can click on ‘10 Steps to Making the Most of a Meeting.’ Yes, they are all things I know. But I might forget to do them or not think of all them when I have a lot on my mind.”

Carnegie disciples like Northcutt dot the loftiest layers of U.S. business. They include Warren Buffett, Lee Iacocca and J.W. Marriott Jr. Yet Northcutt’s endorsement hints at an undeniable subplot running beneath Carnegie’s foray into mobile devices: This is old advice — or, if you prefer, classic insight from a guy born in 1888, a salesman who began hawking his entrepreneurial tactics in 1912.

In 1936, when Carnegie published his blockbuster “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” Joe DiMaggio was a New York Yankees rookie and workers were pouring the final buckets of concrete to complete the Hoover Dam. (Carnegie died in 1955).

Since then, the global business landscape has been repeatedly scraped off and rebuilt while Dale Carnegie Training has extended its reach into 86 countries. (Roughly half its business is done internationally). Carnegie’s venerable courses have been translated into 27 languages, and the Hauppauge, N.Y.-based outfit boasts graduates at 400 of the Fortune 500 companies.

How has Carnegie Training, and the man’s original teachings, survived and remained relevant all these decades — through the Great Depression, Cold War, Space Race, Internet boom and 13 American presidencies?

“Dale Carnegie was a genius at understanding human nature, and human nature hasn’t changed,” said Peter Handal, chairman, president and CEO of Dale Carnegie Training. “He was convinced that human nature is the same all over the world. (His philosophies have) crossed cultures and continents.”

Carnegie Training has continually adapted its tenets, Handal said, to mesh with new times and foreign cultures. In Poland, for example, where people don’t smile at one another unless and until they are formally introduced, Carnegie teachers don’t encourage sales people to grin during their pitches — a key Carnegie lesson in almost every other country. In Israel and Saudi Arabia, Carnegie trainers hold separate sessions for business men and women out of respect for the religious beliefs of Orthodox Jews and Muslims.

Meanwhile, Carnegie has looked for ways to plug its timeless advice into emerging technologies, offering online courses to supplement its classroom coaching for business presentations. The mobile application, Handal said, is “primarily a marketing strategy.”

“That’s kind why we did it — to show people that Carnegie was a modern company. We are in the Net age. We are digitally aware,” Handal said. “The app is a grand slam home run.”

Carnegie’s push to keep its brand fresh gave sales expert Dave Seidman a brief peek at the company’s veteran machinery. Several years ago, he was invited to help Carnegie plot a path to “reposition itself,” Seidman said.

“Peter (Handal) felt that Carnegie Sales Training was suffering from being quite outdated, having its roots in 70-year-old thinking,” said Seidman, a speaker and author of “The Death of 20th Century Selling” and “Sales Autopsy.” After some initial idea-sharing sessions with Seidman, Carnegie’s executives opted to hire another consultant for the branding rebuff, Seidman said.

How did Seidman view the Carnegie sales methods after his brief look inside?

“Some of their approaches are based on strategies several decades old," Seidman said. "And if buyers see or hear a salesperson coming, it's not good; they get defensive. On the other hand, I've used some very funny, old Henny Youngman (comic) lines with younger audiences, so some of the less-savvy (or younger) buyers are well-handled by Carnegie tactics.”

Sasa Djolic is an entrepreneur who — in age, at least — fits that demographic. He owns SDA Software Associates Inc. in Vancouver, B.C., a software development and consulting company. Earlier this year, Djolic downloaded the Carnegie app for his iPhone. While developing a new product, he has relied on many of the app’s “Human Relations Principles,” including No. 26: “Let the other person save face,” and No. 27: “Praise the slightest improvement.” (The app includes videos of Carnegie trainers demonstrating the techniques.)

“Technology changes,” Djolic said, “but relationships between people don’t seem to change much.”

“Dale Carnegie's ideas have survived and thrived for one simple reason: They work,” said Barry Maher, a motivational speaker and author of “Filling the Glass: The Skeptic's Guide to Positive Thinking in Business.”

“They work as well today as they did when he first wrote them down. The only thing I don't like about ‘Secrets to Success’ is the title because, thanks to the success of Carnegie's work, these aren't secrets anymore. And we're all better off because of it,” Maher said.

Doesn’t that perhaps suggest the Carnegie way is better suited for the sales people of an earlier epoch?

“Dale Carnegie, himself, is old fashioned and outmoded. Many people today would consider themselves far too sophisticated for such simplistic thinking. (But) they would do well to actually read what he said,” Maher said. “Situations and specifics change with time. But much of what Carnegie wrote remains pertinent and powerful.”

In other words: classic is classic, whether you’re talking about music, art, or business advice.

“As I drove home today, I was just listening to a download of Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘Aida,’ a 150-year-old opera,” Maher said. “I can go into my living room and watch ‘Hamlet’ (on DVD). As an aging baby boomer, I find the technology astounding, but I’m not surprised that the subject matter is still appreciated.”

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