Life Lessons from Mary Kay

The founder of the cosmetic empire shares her secrets.

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Over 20 years after it was originally published, the bestseller The Mary Kay Way is hitting the shelves again, in an updated version. The book outlines the "timeless principles" that Mary Kay Ash used to lead her eponymous cosmetics company. (She died in 2001; the book contains a forward from her grandson.) The book stresses the importance of making other people feel important, listening, following through, and having enthusiasm.

So much of what she says applies as much to the consumer world as it does to the entrepreneurial world. Consider these lessons:

• "Make people feel important. They are." One of the most common mistakes people make when interacting with companies as consumers is being rude to customer service representatives. They forget that the people who answer the phone often hold significant power in how they get treated. By treating them with respect—or, as Ash puts it, making them feel important—consumers are more likely to get what they want, especially when complaining.

Of course, this kind of psychology can also be used against consumers. Ash admits to splurging on pricey Mercury after the salesman bought her a dozen roses because it was her birthday. "The salesman got the sale because he made me feel important," she writes.

• "Sandwich every bit of criticism between two heavy layers of praise." I find that when I'm making serious complaints to companies—when they make a mistake on an order, for example, and I want a refund—it helps to include some positive comments along with the negative. For example, I recently ordered customized T-shirts for my dad's birthday, but they arrived with a typo on them. When I complained, I thanked the company for its speediness but pointed out the error and asked for a refund. I don't know if the positive comment helped at all, but the company did give me a discount on my next order, along with a new batch of correctly printed T-shirts.

• "Nothing great is ever accomplished without follow-through." Whether it's rebates, credit card rewards, or saving for retirement, smart money management usually requires constant monitoring. Many people forget to cash in their rebates and rewards cards, for example, or neglect to set up their workplace retirement accounts. Being organized and following up can earn consumers big bucks, as Mary Kay taught her sales force.