Communications Skills are Not Optional!

One of the great ironies of the times in which we live is that while we have more ways to communicate with one another (and too often, the world) than ever before, our ability to do so effectively has devolved to (metaphorical and sometimes literal) grunting.  Email makes getting messages and documents to anyone, anywhere instantly a simple thing, but is rife with pitfalls.  Social media has enabled endless communications, often unencumbered by the thought process, going from zero to outrage in a single thread, post or tweet.

The fact still remains, however, that good communications skills are essential for both the internal functioning of any business and connecting effectively with customers and prospects.  Knowing what needs to be said and then actually getting that information heard should be at the top of every team’s list of “must dos” for business success.  With the disclaimer that I often run communications workshops for my clients and those take time and reinforcement to achieve success, there are some key considerations which can get you started thinking about communicating differently.

First, hone your listening skills.  Yes, good communications starts with good listening.  Would you want to engage with someone who finishes your sentences, claims to have the answer to questions that haven’t been asked yet, or who knows just what you need before you had a chance to share them? Of course not.  People want and need to be heard, and then responded to.  In private life that lack makes for bubble wars on social media.  In the business world, where people buy and work with people they like and trust, connections have to be real and built over time, and that starts with giving them your undivided attention for as long as is needed.

Second, take the time to validate what you think you know.  Ask qualifying questions, confirm your understanding, ask if you’re getting it right.  Even if you did get some things wrong, allowing yourself to be corrected builds trust and with trust comes better interactions.

Third, consider communications styles.  Some people are very comfortable in the abstract, talking conceptually about how, say a brochure or web page (or kitchen for that matter) will look in the proposed result.  Those are the ones who you see on the HGTV shows who can walk into a horrible looking place and say “we can move this, tear out that, replace these items and it will be perfect!”

On the other hand, many people are the opposite: they’re as concrete as it gets.  Explaining without showing an actual model or picture is a fool’s errand because to respond to a recommendation they have to actually see it—then react.  Those are the people who look at the same room in the example above and say “I hate this place.  Let’s go.”  If you don’t match your communications style to your listener’s everyone will get frustrated and nothing will get done.

Lastly, be sure the think about your mode of communication.  Depending on the topic, the intended recipient and the urgency, different tools work better than others.  This is doubly important given the plethora of available means of being misunderstood. In the interest of space I will point out what I think is the most misused means of communications: email.  Yes, email.  It promotes passive aggressive behavior.  I’ve seen studies which indicate that 98% of people say things in email they wouldn’t say to the recipient in person.

Email promotes laziness and false progress.  Don’t want to deal with a problem? Forward it along (“Bob, I think this one’s better handled by you…”) and get it out of your inbox.  The issue isn’t necessarily solved or advanced, just dumped.  An email that says “Let me give it some thought and I’ll get back to you.” can stall resolution.  Claiming you never got it in the first place is just plain silly.

Worst of all though, is email does not provide the cues we need to fully understand meaning.  We’re sensory creatures: we read body language, voice intonation as well as the words themselves to discern meaning.  In an email, short of a hyperactive use of emoji, all you get is words.  No wonder email threads can get so long, silly and ineffective.  In my experience, if you can’t sort out an issue in three email cycles, get on the phone or walk down the hall if you want it sorted out. No problem has ever been made better by more and more emails.

Effectively communicating is hard—sometimes very hard.  But taking a bit of time to be thoughtful about what you’re saying and how you’re saying it can pay off handsomely whether in interpersonal situations or professional settings.

Politics and your Business

I’ve written previously about the almost impossible-to-avoid blurring of business and personal lives within social media. The pitfalls are many, the opportunities for rich engagement equally abundant, and applying thought to a post before the enter key (or post button) is always a good idea for a professional (or anyone else, for that matter, but let’s not try and boil the ocean).  In a similar vein, and with the potential for greater consequences is the mixing of politics and business.

My grandfather always told me to avoid talking about politics and religion in polite conversation. Did I listen to him?  Nope.  There are few things that escalate an otherwise pleasant chat into a vein-bulging, face-reddening, blood pressure and voice-raising event than expressing a viewpoint on either topic if it happens to contradict the perspectives of your compatriot.  Take that passion, add in social media, and as most readers will have seen for themselves, watch how fast a post on, say, Facebook, explodes into vitriol, without pausing at polite disagreement first.

The sort of engagement mentioned above is tough enough to navigate, let alone try and manage, but there’s even more to think about when it comes to mixing politics and your business.   The topic is a complicated one with lots of consequences, good, bad and especially unintended to consider.  If you’re a small business owner, there is an opportunity for you to take a stand on most any issue of the day, and frankly, not only is it your right, it demonstrates integration into the community, especially if it’s a local issue.  Even larger businesses take clear, visible stands on issues, ranging from bathroom usage to expressions of sympathy for victims of hate crimes.  While not everyone may like that rainbow flag waving on the flagpole outside the building, for example, it sends a clear message of support by the business that placed it there.

Things get trickier when you move from issues to politics itself, however.  Few thinking citizens don’t have some sort of near-automatic reaction when seeing a given candidate’s name on a bumper sticker on the car in front of them or on a lawn sign on a yard.  (Usually that reaction is, “what a nut job!  How could they support that #$%#%!”) We live in a world with a very, very narrow middle ground right now, and it’s in that middle ground where reasonable discourse resides.  So as a business owner, or an executive in a larger corporation, the question is, how much can you—or should you—allow politics to infiltrate the workplace?

 

It depends.  There are company policies, state and federal statutes that provide guidance for some things but not for all.  Often a business will host a candidate reflective of the owner/CEO’s particular leanings in the place of business.  The PR folks love it because it typically gets the company a nice photo opportunity, but it’s also a PR risk because of how polarized our politics are right now.  It is said that people vote with their feet, and many a business has seen that happen to them when they show a bias in one direction or another publicly.  Arguably these sorts of visits can serve to educate what is too often an electorate unencumbered by knowledge, but in practice they tend to reflect the one-sided political preference of the person or people in charge.  Employees can be put in a very awkward position of feeling pressured, even inadvertently, to demonstrate support even if it runs counter to their own leanings.  That tension causes stress, lowered productivity or even job loss.  The bigger the company the more complex the issue becomes, I think, and given all due consideration I advise keeping political support out of the workplace.  Issues, well, that’s a different matter, and industry-specific support for changes in regulations or laws are not uncommon, and consistent with the self-interest of the business and those who work there.

As a small business owner, while you’ve got a lot more flexibility to wear your politics on your sleeve, there are still those pitfalls to be concerned about.  That candidate poster you put in your store window, for example, defines your shop in a way that …trumps…your business’s positioning to potential customers.  Only you can decide if having potential customers shaking their heads and walking past is worth sharing your views, and I, for one, respect whichever conclusion you come to.  For me, personally, though, I’d be more inclined to finally take my grandfather’s advice.

Let’s Talk About Faster Horses

In a quote attributed to Henry Ford (albeit with weak evidence) he famously claimed “If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said ‘a faster horse.’”  Accurately quoted or not, the comment brings up an important topic: getting input from your customers. The depth and breadth of customer input necessarily varies depending on your type of business, but broadly speaking, taking steps which bring you from speculating about their needs, interests or wants, and outright asking them can be at the very least informative, and at best, transformative.

You’re most likely already getting input whether you connect the dots or not.  If people stop coming to your restaurant you’ve got a problem.  If customers consistently return a given product or product line, you have a supplier problem. If your customer stops using your software in favor of another company’s there are issues.  In our 24/7 connected world of thumb typing and “likes”, not to mention the increasingly odious Yelp, everyone gets to be a critic, so there’s a lot of separating the fly specks from the pepper to find some useful guidance.

More useful is a focused and proactive approach to your customers.  Reaching out for input can help you adjust strategy, offer valuable guidance to suppliers or partners and tighten the bonds between you and your customers.  Key is to garner information which informs the business–ahead of time.  Customers tend to “vote with their feet”, so you don’t know if there’s a problem until it’s too late—they’ve already taken action.  Why should they go through the effort to let you know why?

Getting out ahead of things is critical.  Keeping the good Mr. Ford’s quote in mind, however, just opening wide the doors and asking your customers what they want isn’t a particularly good way to go either–you need a plan, and that plan has to start with what you’re seeking to get from any input process.  That objective can be almost anything: testing a new product line, finding out how much people are willing to pay for a service, learning what kind of a menu would change a patron’s frequency, what features in a piece of software would make a user’s life less stressful, etc.  Multiple objectives can often be grouped together, but they key it to make sure they are related.

Next, consider the means of gathering the information you’re seeking.  We’ve all seen, and perhaps participated in, formal focus groups where an assortment of consumers are asked to try a product or share perceptions about a product, service or company.  These are great, but they are financially out of reach for most of us, and arguably are “too much” for most purposes.  The concept is important though: define the questions you want your customers to ponder, and ask for their responses.  This can be done in a survey form, face to face (singly or across groups), and can be a single event or an ongoing process.  Regardless, rather than leaving everything open-ended, it’s important to test your hypotheses against those questions.  Part of what you’re looking for is validation or correction of assumptions you’re using to guide your business plan.  Leaving them room for additional thoughts and input above and beyond your framing gives customers some latitude to offer up suggestions you may have not thought of.

One of the most valuable ways to engage with customers and gain insights and input is a customer advisory board or customer council.  Common in the technology world, a bargain of sorts is offered: in exchange for early access to your strategy and product/service roadmap and new product features, selected customers invest time to react, share their thoughts and provide input which can be extremely valuable in validating—and modifying—your plan.  Done quarterly, twice a year or even annually, these sessions can stop a company from heading down a rabbit hole.  Equally important, it can put the customer in a position to “put their money where their mouth is” relative to requested products or features.  Saying you want something and being willing to pay for it are often two different things as many companies have discovered over the years.

Getting your customers’ input in a structured and useful form takes work both ahead of and after the process is completed.  Managing expectations, filtering out the “faster horse”, and applying judgement to considering which input rings true are not trivial activities.  They are, however, very valuable ones and usually worth the work both in terms of information and strengthening customer relationships.

The Importance of Hiring Well

Today I  take on the topic of hiring well. It’s a topic rife with hidden complexities and uncertainty, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a small business or a billion dollar corporation: you need to have employees, and that means you have to find them and hire them.  If you’re large then most likely you have a department dedicated to the process of recruiting, screening, testing, and ushering candidates through to either acceptance or the front lobby.  Most small businesses don’t have that luxury; the task probably falls on your shoulders.

While hiring can be daunting regardless of size, industry, or function, it’s particularly tough when you’re trying to hire marketing or sales staff.  Why?  If you’re looking to hire someone technical, there’s a high likelihood you won’t understand two out of every three things the candidate is saying.  Most non-technical folks will find someone who does speak the candidate’s “language” and rely on that person’s assessment to determine suitability—or pretend to get it and see what happens.  When you’re hiring marketing sales staff, however, interviewers (even technical ones) suddenly become experts.  So you talk a bit about work experience, check out how well he or she is dressed, maybe even ask toss out some marketing-techie words like “demand creation”, “bounce rates” or “conversions”.  With sales staff interviews things get even mushier, and often sink down to gut feel.

Most of you reading this (I hope) are shaking your heads and exclaiming “I’d never do that!!” but the fact is, in most smaller businesses where owners and managers wear lots of hats, we often do.  It’s unfortunate but true that most business people stink at hiring and they fall back to factors not always connected to the job itself, and measuring a candidate’s personal attributes against their own foibles. That creates a hidden set of assessments: Am I intimidated by him? Would she or he give me trouble or happily take orders? Would he try and take my job? Do I like her smile? Does he seem like a good guy?  While nearly everyone who hires people thinks about some of these at some point in the process (unless you’re seriously enlightened or extraordinarily over-confident) they don’t really get you to whether or not the person can do the job for which you’re hiring.  The very real risk is that you wind up looking for someone who will do what you want your vision of the job to be without fuss, and that can be limiting to both the company and the employee.

To hire better requires some effort and a modicum of maturity to keep personal biases at bay: draw up a job description for the role, let others in the business provide some insight (watching, of course, for other agendas that may creep in) but come to a clear understanding of what the person will be doing or managing.  Then as you are interviewing, assess the candidate against that role.  Ask questions that let them demonstrate their knowledge and problem solving skills.  Give them a challenge.  A marketer will want to explain how to generate leads, improve market presence, handle a PR challenge.  A sales rep will jump at the chance to talk you through how he would sell something to a skeptical prospect.  As they do, pay attention and most important, take notes!  Write on the resume or a pad but mark your thoughts at the time or just after a meeting is done.  Before the next candidate.  Before your day to day tasks consume you again.

Just as important as capturing impressions (and the same goes for anyone else on your team who is interviewing the candidate) is reminding yourself that you’re hiring someone to manage a role or perform a set of tasks.  It will be their challenge to achieve the goals that are set out within whatever parameters are laid down by you and the business, but part of their success or failure should not be tied to how you would do the job.  Sales people have distinctive styles even if they are all hired with similar characteristics.  Writers have differing ways to get a message across with clarity.  Software developers can be easily identified by how they write their code.  As you’re deciding if the person sitting in front of you, hoping for a chance to work for you is a good fit for the business, work hard to look past your own personal biases and consider the candidate in the broader sense of their possible contribution.

Do Your Job

One of a series published in www.seacoastonline.com and the Portsmouth Herald business pages

There are many capable leadership coaches in our community. I am not one of them.  However, over many years of managing successful teams, large, small, local and distributed, I’ve managed to learn enough about both team dynamics and management skills to feel comfortable sharing my experience and perspectives.  Recently while was watching the latest New England Patriots dismantling of their opponent I was reminded of Coach Belichick’s oft repeated phrase, “Do your job”. Three simple words that appear now on tee shirts, inspirational posters, internet memes, even (poorly thought-through) tattoos.  To me, the phrase is shorthand for “stay focused, do what you’re supposed to do, and all will be well.”

Now, anyone who knows me at all knows what I think of inspirational posters and phrases (visit www.despair.com if you’re curious), but in this case there’s both merit in the phrase (and its variations) that are useful to anyone running a growing business, especially if you’re an owner and entrepreneur. In my last column I suggested taking some time to look yourself in the mirror and ask some important questions about business and how your operation is running.  This time, sans mirror, I want you to think about Coach Hoodie’s phrase and this variation: “Should I do your job?”

Consider the characteristics of an entrepreneur: vision, passion, relentless work ethic, an unshakable belief in the value of the product or services he or she is bringing to the world.  A mentor of mine once characterized a self-described visionary as being “not always right, but never uncertain”, and that has stayed with me.  Those same attributes that give someone a chance to be successful can also create a complicated workplace which can undermine the foundations of that potential success, but through even a modicum of self-awareness (and some trusted, knowledgeable advisers) you can create a great environment in which to work and the business to grow.

Creating that environment can be a challenge, but it’s critical to success.  You’ve got to make good hires, of course, but then you have to give those people room to Do Their Job.  Putting aside a discussion around the hiring process (which would take many columns), when you, as a business owner or entrepreneur hires someone for a function, it’s important to provide guidance and support, not to hover or interfere.  Ask yourself how often you think “it’ll be easier if I just do it myself.”?  Easier for who?  You? Better for the business? If that’s true then you should fire everyone and, indeed, do it yourself.

But that’s not really true, is it?  And it certainly doesn’t allow the business to scale. Often the biggest “concern” for an owner isn’t making sure something’s done right so much as it is the fact that it may be done differently than you’d do it.  Not better, not worse necessarily, but certainly different.  The same internal impulses that cause one person to love red and hate blue, or to adore Picasso and not like Matisse, or to crave steak and recoil in horror from sushi are the same impulses that generate a creative, additive energy in a business and should be encouraged.  Contradictory though it may seem, leadership is about letting go, not tightening a grip, and that’s something that does not come naturally to most entrepreneurs.  Having spent years in and around the venture capital, early stage company world, I can tell you first hand that investors worry most about the entrepreneur-as-CEO, and it can be a huge impediment to growth.

Often an entrepreneur will ask me how to proceed once leadership is hired for key functional roles like sales and marketing, two areas where most entrepreneurs find the most affinity.  My answer is usually the same: Do Your Job–be an evangelist.  Drive the vision for the product or services the company offers. Let the sales and marketing team use you as the celebrity you are.  Set the tone for the company culture but don’t try and make everyone a clone of you—or judge them as lacking because they’re not you.  Competence takes many forms and as long as they are doing their job and you are doing your job and you’re making sure your job isn’t the same as their job (did you follow that?) then you’ve got your best chance to succeed and grow.  You can do this.  In fact, it’s your Job!