Look for the cause

Whatever business you are in, it is worth considering cause and effect whenever something good or bad happens.

It’s a bit like a doctor diagnosing the illness that is causing the fever, not just treating the fever, but far too often we focus on preventing the bad stuff, not repeating the good stuff.

The same principle applies to quality systems. There are procedures and processes like root cause analysis and the 5 whys principles that help you determine the real cause. Once you have done that you can prevent the root cause, which prevents the effect.

I am at least as interested in what went well as I am in what went badly. Eliminating errors and preventing problems is great, but doesn’t move the business forward.

A few months ago I had a meeting with a prospect who was initially quite hostile, so much so that I struggled to get him to agree to a meeting at all. I’d been introduced by a colleague, so he had expressed an interest in getting his business ready for sale, but even so he was difficult.

The meeting went OK. It was not the most positive experience, and I think if you’d asked me to rate my chances of securing work immediately after the meeting I would have said perhaps 30%.

Two days later, I had a phone conversation with this same person. He was really enthusiastic, telling me that he was just off on a business trip but that he would be in touch and we would be working together.

I like the effect – having a prospect tell me that he will be engaging with me is good news, but without knowing the cause I could not repeat it.

When you have a sales meeting that fails or a marketing campaign that didn’t work, I suspect you have a review process to determine why. Do you have the same process when you win?

(By the way, I think my prospect became my fan as a result of reading my book, Deal Finance)

What’s new about social proof?

At your local fruit and veg market, the stall holder doesn’t just serve you and take your money. He or she is quite likely to loudly tell everyone in earshot (and that’s a long way for a market trader) what you’ve bought. The other prospective customers hear that you bought a lovely bunch of bananas (or even coconuts.)

When you’re looking for somewhere to eat in unfamiliar circumstances, you are likely to look for the restaurant that is busy and avoid the one that is empty. You can see that other people are eating there, so it must be ok.

If you go to a trade show or an exhibition, you will pass by the stands with no visitors but if there’s a crowd gathered around a stand, you will wonder “What’s going on there?” and perhaps join the throng.

I keep hearing about this new thing “Social Proof” which I think of as “the reassurance that people like me are buying this product that I am considering” and examples abound all over the internet, from Amazon reviews through to holiday sites offering user ratings and the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) with film and TV show ratings.

I don’t buy anything without checking the reviews, and I don’t think I am alone. How many times do you see the word “trust” used in marketing efforts today?

If your marketing material and your website don’t contain customer testimonials and reviews, you are like the lonely exhibitor with no one to talk to. They are all over at the busy stand. Worse than that, the prospect who is considering you may look at the lack of reviews and decide they are the one making the mistake. No-one else is buying from here, that’s a big risk, too big a risk for me. I’ll find an alternative where there’s some proof.

Social proof isn’t new – but gaining access to it as a buyer is easier than ever. Ignore it at your peril, get those testimonials and reviews

Sometimes it is good to wait

When we are in conversation, there’s a natural rhythm and most of the time we read the signals, we know when the other party has finished speaking and make our comments at the appropriate time. When that goes wrong, we end up interrupting each other and failing to listen.

If you are not a fearsome interviewer called Paxman or Humphreys that is probably accidental, or it is driven by emotion – usually anger.

Interrupting someone by speaking over them is bad manners, and can provoke the speaker being interrupted.

It can be necessary, especially if you have someone veering from the point of the discussion, to bring them back on track but you don’t have to speak over them – or worse shout to get your voice heard.

Often, a quizzical look is enough, but if that doesn’t work try raising your hand and waiting. Most people will pause, and that pause offers you the opportunity to comment.

You can use one of several phrases at this moment. You might say “That’s interesting, can we come back to that in future?” or perhaps “Fascinating, but we were discussing XYZ and I’d like to complete that discussion before we move onto this topic”

The pause is one of the most powerful – and underutilised – conversational (and public speaking) techniques.

Try inserting deliberate pauses into a conversation when you are trying to elicit information, or want to convince your conversation partner to contribute more. We don’t like silence and the temptation is to “fill in the blanks”

Combine it with the technique of asking open questions – simply questions to which the answer cannot be Yes or No – and be patient.

In a one to one or small group conversation, the other parties will feel compelled to share their thoughts.

Make Meetings Fun

Sometimes we think that having fun and being serious are opposite ends of a scale, but if you consider it carefully the opposite of fun is gloom, and the opposite of serious is frivolous.

The words that go with gloom (in a business sense) are boredom and oppression. Do you really want your meetings to be boring and oppressive?

You don’t want the meetings to be frivolous, where the definition is “not having any serious purpose or value” but far too many meetings are just that. Meetings must have a purpose!
Giving a meeting a purpose is straightforward in principle if a little more difficult in practice!

Create an agenda, and ensure that each meeting spends more time focused on the future rather than the past. The summary of the meeting should be the points agreed and the actions resulting from the meeting. The chairman’s job is to move the meeting on, not just from item to item but also from focus on the past to the future.

Making meetings fun and enjoyable also requires some effort. Break the ice – even with an established team – by a few light-hearted remarks at the start of the meeting. There’s always something – and you can use events in the attendees’ personal lives such as birthdays, upcoming holidays or even a liking for a biscuit!

Celebrate successes from the past. We feel good when we are recognised and lauded, so find something to praise.
Offer support for problems. There’s very little benefit to be had by “tearing a strip off” in a meeting. Public criticism of a team member should be the last resort, but that doesn’t mean you don’t hold them to account. Explore the situation in some detail and ask the question “What can we do to help?” or “What help do you need?” so that no one is in any doubt who holds the responsibility.

Next meeting, you will be celebrating the successful resolution of the problem. You’ll find the team working together to eliminate the problems before the meeting – so they really do become fun!

Subtle approaches

There are times when you see a colleague struggling, or perhaps just not making the grade. You may not be directly responsible for them, so in many ways, it is not your problem and they probably won’t ask for help.

There are also individuals who are closed, and not receptive to advice or guidance. They react very negatively if you try to tell them how to do something or suggest a better way.A phrase that you can use in both these circumstances is “If I were you I would…” It works by inserting a qualifier – you are making your suggestion conditional upon being the other party – which means it is not a direct instruction. It’s a suggestion for consideration.
In a similar vein, when I am approaching business owners on behalf of a potential acquirer, I find the direct approach can lead to high levels of rejection.The instinctive answer to “Would you like to sell your business?” appears to be “No”

If I ask a slightly different question “My client would like to explore a closer working relationship with you – is that something you would consider?” the answer is nearly always yes.That allows me to enter into a conversation, find out more about the company and make better decisions based on that additional information.
I’m reminded of the saying “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”

I am instinctively polite and would feel uncomfortable asking anyone to do anything without adding a “please” 
If you have the opportunity to use slightly more subtle language, try to do so.
It’s very rare that your meaning doesn’t come across loud and clear!

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!