Author Archives: Tim Luscombe

Is there a conversation you have been avoiding? 

Is there a conversation you have been avoiding?

If there is, the chances are that is the one you need to have.

Most of us don’t like confrontation and are very hesitant to say something that might start an argument or just cause offence, so often we put off having the conversation. It’s when you hear yourself saying “now is not the right time” repeatedly that you can begin to suspect you are avoiding the conversation you need to have.

That doesn’t mean you must dive in and have the conversation at a difficult time, just because you have finally made up your mind to get on with it! Choosing the right moment, when both you and the other party are relaxed and receptive is very important for the success of your conversation.

If you keep putting it off, the danger is that the problem you are planning to address will grow and fester, becoming a larger and larger issue. That can mean the resolution is both harder to achieve and more damaging to both the participants and the business.

So if you can’t keep putting it off, what’s the best approach?

If this is a performance issue with a member of the team, try this.

Set out in writing what you want to be different because of the conversation. Often that will help you identify the source of your concern, refining it to the core issue. 

Set out in writing the impact the undesirable behaviour is having on the rest of the team.
Those two notes will help you stay on message and in control of the meeting.

You will present them factually, unemotionally and with conviction. The recipient is more likely to respond in a similar manner, accepting the facts. You will often find that the behaviour is not a conscious choice, and they did not realise the impact they were having on the team.

What’s logic go to do with anything?

Do you expect your customers or your team to react logically?

You will often be disappointed if you do!

Fans of the Star Trek series will remember Leonard Nimoy playing the character Spock, who was half human and half Vulcan. The emotional human half was suppressed by the unemotional Vulcan half and Spock often found himself struggling to understand his human colleagues’ emotional reactions.

Your customers are not Vulcans or robots. How you make them feel is at least as important as how well you do your job / provide your service.

How you make them feel is going to be determined by their interaction with your team – so your team (who are also human, not Vulcan or robot) must appreciate that how they make the customer feel is crucial.

If your team are not happy and enthusiastic about your business they will struggle to make the customer feel loved and valued.

Have you ever been served in the local supermarket by the Saturday girl who quite clearly did not want to be at work – she’d rather be hanging out with her friends or still in bed?

Every time your customer or prospect connects to your business they form an impression of the business.

It’s not just when you are on your best behaviour, giving a fantastic sales presentation, or when they’ve come to see you at a trade show. It’s all the little contacts in between, from the receptionist through the customer support team to the sales team and the directors.

You can deliver the best product, the best possible service and get everything right, but if your customer doesn’t feel good about doing business with you it won’t matter.

Remembering the sayings “A man who never made a mistake never made anything” and “to err is human” aiming for a satisfied customer really won’t get you to the point where you can slip up, make a mistake, provide poor service, and be forgiven.

Turning your customers into raving fans not only creates easy sales wins – they will refer business – it also cushions you against any shortfall in service.

Are you in an adaptive state?

The world is changing all the time and we don’t work in isolation – we work with suppliers and customers, partners and competitors, laws and regulations making up our business environment.

Changes that affect the environment will affect us – and will have an effect on us.

We have to be alert to the changes as in every business there’s a need to adapt and adjust to the new circumstances.

Ignoring those changes, as many business leaders seem to try to do, is just storing up problems for the future. That’s pretty obvious if you think of laws and regulation where failure to adapt to the changes is likely to lead to a fine or even imprisonment for those who fail to comply.

We have all heard that ignorance of the law is no defence so we keep watch on those changes, but do you watch for other changes in the environment?

If there’s a change in your supply chain, are you ready to respond? Do you have multiple sources of supply for key items?

Whatever business you are in, technology is affecting it. Recently I was helping a membership organisation where they had failed to adjust their membership processes.  A few years ago, we would expect to submit an application to join a society through snail mail and then wait a week or so for the membership pack to arrive, but now we expect to apply online and receive immediate membership. The membership organisation had not adapted their methods and membership applications were described as “laborious”

If your competitor is introducing a new product, are you ready to react and provide even better service to your customer? Are you watching the market, or better yet leading the market!

There’s a book by Marshall Goldsmith – What got you here won’t get you there – and applying just the title to your business thinking will help you move to an adaptive state.

Don’t worry, be happy!

I see a lot of business owners and leader who find work very stressful.

I’m reminded of this quote from Reinhold Niebuhr:

“Lord, grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Business owners feel responsible for everything and everyone in the business, but they often worry about things they cannot change.

Worrying about the wrong things – those things you cannot change – does you no good, does your blood pressure no good and most importantly does the business no good!

If you’ve done all you can for the customer, you can’t change the decision they are going to make next week or next month.

If you’ve done the research and created the marketing campaign that you all think will work, you must try it to see if it will work. Worrying about it won’t change the outcome.

So what will your worrying do?

If you are worried, it’s like an infectious disease that you will pass on to the team. They will worry as well. If you are worried, you may not (will not) be focused on the things that you can change – where you will make a difference. If you infect the team with your worries, they won’t be focused, will second guess themselves, take longer and probably make more mistakes.

Taking longer and making more mistakes leads to an increase in workload. Extra workload can mean more stress and more worrying – it’s a vicious spiral.

The business leader who appears not to be worried takes away a lot of stress. The team look to the leader and if he’s not worried then we don’t have to be.

Think of the captain of a sports team, or a leader on the battlefield. They are confident and positive, not worried and negative. Sometimes that is just an act – they really are not confident, but they won’t let it show because that damages the team.

So ask yourself “Can I change this thing I am worrying about?” and if the answer is no, move on!

Perfection can be the enemy of progress

There are times when perfection must be achieved but also times when it is the enemy of progress.

If you have a product or service in development that is not yet perfect and you continue the development until you reach what you regard as perfection, you may just find the market has been taken from you by an inferior product. They call it “first mover” advantage or first to market advantage.

There is also a strong probability that the product (or service) is not quite what the customer’s want or need. You’ve used your knowledge and experience to build this, but if you don’t have customer feedback it is easy to go down the wrong road.

That’s an obvious example, but the same principles can easily be applied to your internal projects. I was responsible for the roll-out of a new IT hardware system. We were a relatively small company, and were not using IT professionals – it was mostly down to me. I had a plan for the roll-out but as with any plan, things did not work quite as expected! In this case, a printer that had worked perfectly in one environment decided not to work with the new system.

In the perfect world, I would have setup the printer and everything else in a test environment before deployment. I’d have found and resolved the problem. That would have taken an impractical amount of time (I had a day job, this was a set of additional responsibilities) and money.

In the real world, we deployed the new system and the printer failed. We could have reverted to the old system (that was my ultimate backup plan) but managed to find a workaround that let us operate. We had the new system running within the day, the operations and the customers were not hampered and the business could benefit from the new faster hardware.

If you’ve got a backup plan, and failure won’t affect the customer, roll out the project and fix it when you know what’s wrong.  If you’ve got a new product, get it to market in beta or prototype form. Don’t wait for perfection!

Objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear 

The other day as I was driving home, a car in the nearside lane pulled out as I was alongside it. I don’t know how they missed me!

I was reminded of the legend you often see in car door or wing mirrors: “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear”

The same is true of deadlines; they are always closer than you think.

If you plan to complete something that will take five days work and you want to complete it in 6 months time it is very easy to think “Ok, I’ve got plenty of time to do that” and do nothing.

Before you know it the deadline is only 3 months away. Apparently, half the available time has disappeared but progress on the project is still zero.

If you factor in the other commitments on your time – the things that you have to do every week, and every month – the time you have available for this project can be very limited indeed!

Take your six-month deadline and deduct from that any holidays – personal or public. That’s a couple of weeks. Then take away your normal committed hours – for the sake of ease let’s assume you have one day a fortnight available for the project.

Six months is 30 weeks or 150 days, but you are on holiday for 10 days and busy for 135 days.

Your available time at the outset is 5 days to complete a 5-day project, so you don’t have a moment to lose!

Completing a project on time and on the budget – whether that is a time or an expenditure budget – requires, first of all, a sensible assessment of the available resources. If you really don’t have the 5 days, you are not going to complete the project. You may have to reduce other commitments to make the time/free up the resources.

A really useful second step – especially with more complex projects – is to have milestones that have their own deadlines. You can review progress on an interim basis and adjust the project plan based on those reviews, either by additional resource or by extending the timetable.

Satisfied customers can be bad for your business

What do your customers think of you – do you know? Have you asked them?

If they think you are great and rave about you all the time, that’s perfect.

If your objective is to satisfy your customers you may fall short from time to time, and even if you don’t you are vulnerable to losing customers to competitor activity.

A satisfied customer is some proof that you met expectations. You satisfied them. You could probably replace satisfied in their responses with “OK” as in I am OK dealing with them

If your customer is only OK dealing with you, they are only one bad experience away from leaving you. You were OK until you messed up this last order, so now I am going to go and find someone else who is equally OK in the hope that they won’t mess up.

Equally, if they are only satisfied with you, how much of a special offer or an incentive will it take for a competitor to poach them? Probably not that much of an effort, after all, your customer thinks you are only “OK”.

How different is the situation when your customer is a raving fan?

You are in a much better place. Competitor activity will not attract them – they probably won’t even notice it – and because they are your fan they will forgive the occasional mistake.

How do you create raving fans?

First, set the expectation in the business – in every department – that you are always going to go the extra mile for every customer.

Second, talk to the customer. Ask the customer “What can we do better?” and “What will it take for you to become a fan?”

The things that you think matter to your customer may not matter at all and things that you don’t even notice may irritate and upset your customer. You will only find out if you ask!

Not every question needs an immediate answer

There’s a temptation to give an immediate answer to any question that comes your way. If you can answer quickly and completely, that’s great. The person asking can get on with whatever it was that they were dealing with and you can go back to dealing with what is on your desk.

Or is it great?

You’ve been distracted and it takes some time to regain your focus and get back to where you were. That’s especially true if you are dealing with a complex issue.

The person asking the question has also been distracted – possibly for even longer that you were, as they’ve given the problem some thought and tried to resolve it themselves before looking for assistance – or have they?

Some questions are just laziness.
Some questions are just seeking reassurance.
Some questions are just social interaction.
Some questions are serious questions around difficult problems.

If you are interrupted with a question, which category is it? If you can answer it immediately, it is probably one of the first three.

Laziness is when the information is available, the person has previously asked and had the answer. They can’t remember or have not referred to the previous example.

Reassurance is something we all need from time to time, but if this is a long established well-trained person, it may be time for you to “look in the mirror”. They don’t feel empowered to make that decision and need your stamp of approval.

We’re all social animals and there will always be a level of interaction, but it should not be a cause of distraction. If that becomes a pattern, make a point of giving the questioner some additional time in the coffee break or over lunch.

If it is the last category – a serious question around a difficult problem – you probably should not be answering it immediately.

If you can answer the question immediately, did it really need to be asked?

Was it a productive use of your and the questioner’s time?

Giving Feedback

There are few things more important in running a successful business than the review and feedback you give the team around you, yet many business owners are guilty of doing the minimum possible.

I think it’s a fear of confrontation, or perhaps of causing offence

If you don’t give your team their reviews you are not just following bad practice, you are damaging the business.

If you are not happy with someone’s performance and you don’t tell them, it is never going to get any better. On the other side of the coin, if you are really pleased with what they are doing and don’t tell them, don’t be surprised when they leave for another job where they feel more valued!

You can and should use the review process to set objectives and measure progress towards those objectives. I like to set objectives that are measured on a weekly or monthly basis – if you like the objectives for the day job – and set some that are more strategic, probably cannot be achieved overnight but will benefit the business longer term.

The review should not be confrontational and you should not be giving or causing offence but we are so used to concentrating on the negative and the things that need improvement that we dive straight into them. That’s where it is easy to be in a review meeting where the reviewee is defensive and the reviewer frustrated. When we become defensive we close up, physically, and mentally. We stop listening!

You can adapt a model we use in the speaking world.

Use a feedback sandwich. Very simply, say something nice to start with. It will relax the reviewee and they will be open, attentive and listening. You can then move on to the things that need improvement, and if you treat it as “needs improvement” rather than “you did that wrong” you’ll have a better chance of keeping their attention.

Finally, close with some more positive messages. Don’t worry, the reviewee will remember the negative far longer than they do the positive – so you don’t need to rub it in.

It’s not about Fred

Is there a bit of your business that you hate, yet it seems to come around more and more often? Is it the same problem in a different guise?

I often see businesses that have become reliant upon an individual’s knowledge, yet that knowledge is being applied to the relatively mundane. It’s being used to resolve problems and issues that quite frankly should not need that level of attention. They keep reappearing and take valuable time and resource.

People are like water and tend to take the path of least resistance. You know that Fred has the knowledge to solve the problem, so the easiest thing is to go and ask Fred. He obliges, you solve the problem and the world goes on.

Then comes the day when Fred is not available. Perhaps he is on holiday – or perhaps he has retired. All that knowledge and know-how has left the business.

If you had taken the slightly harder path and worked with Fred to create a process to deal with the problem, you can still deal with the problem when Fred isn’t there. Yes, it takes a bit longer the first time but the benefit can be significant. You are spreading the knowledge, probably training others, and giving them a more interesting job all at the same time.

Fred finds he has time to apply his knowledge to something other than problem-solving. He will feel less pressured and more valued – and he will be contributing at a different level.

Making things part of a process or procedure is not about compliance or about forcing individuals to follow rules; it’s about best practice and continually improving your business.

You might even find that Fred’s way isn’t the only way. Once the process is set out, others can see the path, and perhaps they will improve on it as well.