Ask Better Questions

“Be a good listener,” Dale Carnegie advised in his 1936 classic How to Win Friends and Influence People. “Ask questions the other person will enjoy answering.”  Effectively asking questions is a big part of a leader’s job. Good decision-making is based on information we obtain by asking the right questions. Making a sale, including handling objections, is also supported by effective questioning.

Many of us hesitate to ask questions, unfortunately. Sometimes it’s because we don’t want to be perceived as intrusive. Other times,  we worry that our questions may be viewed as silly and make us appear incompetent.  On the other hand, one might assume that more information is not necessary.  In every instance, an opportunity to obtain valuable information is lost.

Alison Woods Brooks, an Assistant Professor at the Harvard Business School who teaches Negotiation and is affiliated with the Behavioral Insights Group and Leslie K. John, Associate Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, understand that effective questioning is a skill that can be honed to make our conversations more productive.

The two offer guidance on the best type of questions to ask, tone of voice to use, the sequence of questions and how to frame the questions.  The best approach for a given situation depends on the goals of those in conversation.  Is the discussion  cooperative (e.g., relationship-building or accomplishing a task together) or  competitive (the parties seek to uncover sensitive information from each other or serve their own interests), or some combination of both? Brooks and her research team employed human coding and machine learning to identify four types of questions:

  • Introductory questions (“How are you?”)
  • Mirror questions (“I’m fine. How are you?”)
  • Full-switch questions (change the topic entirely)
  •  Follow-up questions (solicit more information)

Follow-up

Although each question type flows naturally in conversation, follow-up questions have special power. Follow-up questions signal to your conversation partner that you are listening, that you care and that you want to know more. People interacting with a conversation partner who asks lots of follow-up questions tend to feel respected and heard. According to Leslie K. John, “Most people don’t grasp that asking a lot of questions unlocks learning and improves interpersonal bonding.” Plus, follow-up questions don’t require much thought or preparation and usually come naturally to the questioner.

Yet be advised that no one likes to feel interrogated. Furthermore, closed-end questions tend to yield one-word answers. Open-ended questions counteract that effect and for that reason, they can be particularly useful in uncovering information or learning something new. In fact, they are wellsprings of innovation—which is often the result of finding the hidden, unexpected answer that no one has thought of before.

Sequencing

If the goal is to build relationships, opening with less sensitive questions and escalating slowly seems to be most effective.  In a set of studies (the results of which went viral following a write-up in the “Modern Love” column in the New York Times), psychologist Arthur Aron recruited strangers to come to the lab, paired them up and gave them a list of questions.  Participants were told to work their way through the list, starting with relatively shallow inquiries and progressing to more self-revelatory ones, such as “What is your biggest regret?”

Pairs in the control group were asked simply to interact with each other. The pairs who followed the prescribed structure liked each other more than the control pairs. This effect is so strong that it has been formalized in a task called “the relationship closeness induction,” a tool used by researchers to build a sense of connection among the participants.

Tone

People are more forthcoming when you ask questions in a casual way, rather than in a terse, official tone. In general, an overly formal tone is likely to inhibit people’s willingness to share information.

Group dynamics

Conversational dynamics can change profoundly depending on whether you’re chatting one-on-one with someone or talking in a group. Not only is the willingness to answer questions impacted by the presence of others, but members of a group tend to follow one anothers lead. In a meeting or group setting, it takes only a few closed-off people for questions to lose their probing power.  Conversely, if even one person starts to open up on a topic, the rest of the group is likely to follow suit.

Art of the response

Conversation is a dance, a mutual push-and-pull. Just as the way we ask questions can facilitate trust and the sharing of information so, too, can the way we answer them. Answering questions requires making a choice about where to fall on a continuum between privacy and transparency.  How should I answer this question? Assuming that I answer, how forthcoming can I afford to be? What should one do when asked a question that, if answered truthfully, might reveal a less-than-flattering information, or put one in a disadvantaged strategic position?

Each end of the spectrum—fully opaque and fully transparent—has benefits and pitfalls.  In negotiations, withholding sensitive information (e.g., that your alternatives are weak) can help you secure better outcomes. At the same time, transparency is an essential part of building meaningful connections. Even in a negotiation context, transparency can lead to value-creating deals; by sharing information, participants can identify elements that are relatively unimportant to one party but important to the other—the foundation of a win-win outcome.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: The Dating Game, 1965- 1973 (ABC-TV)

 

 

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Ramp Up Your Customer Service Protocols

Identifying competitive advantages for your business can be a real challenge. You probably have a fine product and service line, but how can you distinguish your company from the pack and rise to the top in the minds of customers? As product features and price are not necessarily the determining factors that they once were.  In response, business leaders and owns have turned to the customer experience to build competitive advantages and brand loyalty that are the bedrock of sustainable long-term success.

Before we go any further, let’s define the term customer experience.  The customer experience is your customers’ perception of how your company treats them. These perceptions affect their behaviors and build memories and feelings to drive their loyalty. In other words: if they like you and continue to like you, they are going to do business with you and recommend your business to the others.  Why should business owners and leaders invest time to map out the customer experience and improve it at every touch point?

  1.  Improves customer retention (by 42%, according to some reports)
  2. Improves customer satisfaction (by 33%)
  3. Enhances cross-selling and up-selling opportunities (by 32%)

A 2013 Deloitte survey showed that 62% of companies now rank the customer experience as a competitive differentiator. They are coming around to understand that what customers really want from your organization is help solving their problem. They want to hear what other customers were able to achieve by using your solution. They want to understand the value and benefits your products promise to deliver, not just the product itself.  The Temkin Group,  a customer experience research and consulting firm, in 2018 found that:

  • 86% of buyers are willing to pay more for a great customer experience
  • 73% of buyers point to customer experience as an important factor in purchasing decisions
  • 65% of buyers find a positive experience with a brand to be more influential than great advertising

 

Excellent customer service means you fix your problems without the customer knowing the problem.  There is no reason for customers ever to see the back of the house problems. Never put that burden on a customer. Customer service also demands a timely response as well as empathy. Customer service also includes mobile, since 52% of customers will not return if they have a negative mobile experience with your organization.

A Harvard Business Review study found that customers are seven times more likely to buy a product when their calls are returned within one hour. In addition to speed and customization, you must handle comments with empathy. “I’m sorry,” is a powerful phrase that can repair a bad experience. Everyone wants to be heard, appreciated and respected. Empathy is free and should be a minimum requirement for any employee that interfaces with a customer.

Customer journey maps include every touchpoint and examine frustration points and areas that create satisfaction. Using internal and external marketing data you can look for gaps between what the customer expects at each step and what the customer experiences. Establish a voice-of-the-customer program, which is a formal process and procedure to solicit feedback and share it across the entire organization to all relevant employees.

From the top down, your organizational culture should encourage all employees to appreciate and respond to customer feedback. Through sharing and by using reputation management software, you can analyze data and can implement actionable goals. Continually look for ways for your organization to improve and continue to become more customer-focused.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: L’here du The. by Albert Lynch (1851 – 1912)

 

The December Holiday Client Outreach Plan

OK troops, you have just a few days left to take advantage of the biggest and easiest client outreach, retention and relationship building opportunity that we’ll have all year—the December holidays.  No doubt you have favorite clients whom you’d like to thank as well as retain, occasional clients with whom you’d like to work more often and lapsed clients whom you’d be thrilled to welcome back and December is the time to activate this most important component of your client outreach plan.  Whether you will limit your outreach to sending a card, or you’ll present a well-chosen gift to special clients, you must act very soon.  I recommend that you mail cards and distribute gifts no later than December 15, to promote the impression that you are always on top of things.

Congratulations to those of you who wisely placed an order in early November for a holiday card that has your business name professionally printed inside and printed on the envelope, the recipient name and address, plus your business return address.  You’re all set to add a brief note of thanks, stamp, seal and mail.

Those who are not quite so organized still have a handful of days to find a box or two of cards that are suitable for clients, meaning the card will contain neither an overt Christmas theme nor religious message.  Good tidings that “celebrate the season” are best for business relationships.

In addition, clients with whom you have a long-term relationship, or who provide you with generous billable hours (or you’d like to increase the chance that you will soon be on the receiving end of same) consider sending a holiday gift.  Your gift is a lovely gesture that demonstrates gratitude for the business you’ve received and the relationship that has developed.  You needn’t spend a lot of money.  Many useful or attractive gifts can be bought for $50.00 or less.

This year, I’ll give two jars of jam that are made by an acquaintance and I’ll hand deliver them to a short list of clients no later than December 18, with my holiday card tucked into the gift bag.  Home made chutney or artisanal honey also make excellent gifts.  Fruit or other gift baskets are a perennial holiday favorite and I’ve seen prices range from $40.00 to $400.00, depending on contents.  An appealing take on the holiday gift basket is the California Sunflower arrangement of premium dried fruits, priced at $50.00 + shipping.

If you know that a client still finds traditional pocket calendars more convenient, I recommend the pocket diary  by Time Traveler USA.  I’ve happily used the brand for several years.  The calendar offers a one-month view and has space to write in appointments.  There’s also include a weekly view that’s spread over two pages. Diaries come in several colors and are $15 each, plus $2.50 for the gift box.

Then again, you might consider buying a tech gift.  Even non-techies might appreciate potentially useful gifts such as Skullcandy wireless headphones , priced at $35.00 + shipping.  Finally, if you have little time and money to spend on client gifts, look at air plants that come in attractive containters (and be sure to include the care instructions).  Mahoney’s Garden Center has a nice selection at various prices and they’ll ship.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: 18th century Rajasthani painting by Nihau Chand

 

Follow the Winners

In one of my favorite lines in one of my favorite movies, The Godfather Part II (1974), Michael Corleone (youngest son of the Godfather) says “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” That advice was quickly adopted by those in business, who interpreted the line as a warning to keep a sharp eye on competitors.  No one wants to be blindsided by the competition and made vulnerable to the loss of revenue and market share.  That fear can keep one awake at night.  But how much time and effort should be spent looking over one’s shoulder and how often does such behavior result in anything that’s actionable or profitable?

Some business experts recommend that rather than obsessing over competitors, perhaps wondering what you might copy, instead study successful business leaders in other industries. When looking to keep your organization relevant and vital, strategies implemented by leaders at successful companies in industries other than your own can provide lessons and inspiration that will benefit you and your business.

To launch and sustain a profitable business, it is essential that you offer products or services for which there is a growing market, that you recognize and articulate a strong value proposition that attracts customers and that you devise a smart and efficient business model to put it all in motion and deliver the goods.  It makes sense to study innovative entrepreneurs from a variety of industries, so that you can learn what worked for their organizations and think about how certain of those strategies and tactics might be applied to your venture.

You might start this unique form of competitive intelligence by walking into a bookstore and browsing through the business section. You’ll be certain to find at least one or two interesting books, perhaps in memoir form, written by entrepreneurs who overcame significant obstacles and setbacks, only to prevail and build multi-million dollar organizations.  You might also look for speaker programs at nearby colleges, local chambers of commerce, or other business organizations that from time to time are known to host speakers who tell the story of how s/he built a successful enterprise.

Finally, since so much in life hinges on relationships and developing a strong and supportive network, remember also to reach out to those whom you know.  When you stop and think, you’ll realize that you cross paths with business owners and leaders on a regular basis.  We see and interact with these smart, successful professionals at neighborhood association meetings, at the garden club, at our place of worship, while at the gym and when serving on a not-for-profit board.  I’m willing to wager that you’ll be able to develop a friendship with at least two of these individuals and find opportunities to talk business now and again.

So extend yourself and get to know a little better the people with whom you regularly interact.  Start with some friendly small talk and and work your way toward having real conversations that lead to developing relationships.  At some point, you may be able to segue into a conversation about business, at your organization and theirs.  If you reach the level of trust that includes sharing stories about business challenges and tactics, you’ll be fortunate to have found a friend and perhaps also a mentor.  The experience will be much more satisfying, and effective, than spying on and obsessing over your business rivals.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: Nike, goddess of victory, awards Heracles (Hercules) with the prize of a laurel wreath for his win at the 776 B.C. Olympics. Courtesy of the British Museum in London.

6 Conversation Starters for Your Next Networking Event

At last! You’ve been thinking about going to a chamber of commerce meeting for three years and you’re finally doing it.  The speaker will address a relevant topic.  The weather forecast is good.  You know where to park.  The only downside is that you probably won’t know anyone in the room.

You’re not shy, but neither are you keen on ping-ponging around a roomful of strangers, in search of your next client, or at least someone to talk to.  You have no fear of meet and greets, but wouldn’t it be great if you knew some conversation starters that can steer folks away from the usual sports talk and “how’s business?” Let’s learn how to sidestep mindless small-talk and get into conversations that can launch a relationship.

  1. What subject has your attention right now?

When you’re meeting someone and searching for ways to connect, this question can open the door to a discussion about business, family, extracurricular activities, a much-anticipated vacation, even home renovations.  The person to whom you put this question will light up and be happy to talk and you’ll be on your way to building a relationship.

2.   What are you looking forward to?

This question opens the door to the person’s hopes and plans for the future.  Again, this makes it possible to start a real connection as the conversation progresses.  You communicate your genuine interest in that person and what s/he feels is important.

3.  What’s the best thing you’ve done this year?

Or what’s the smartest thing, or the luckiest?  Here, the person gets to distinguish him/herself and has the pleasure of boasting a little bit.  You’ll get to know what s/he values and what makes him/her proud.  You’ll gain some insight into the person’s past in this question.  You’ll get to know what makes him/her happy and also one of the sources of his/her self-esteem.

4.  What’s your story?

I’m careful with how I pose this question, to avoid appearing as if I’m looking to invade boundaries.  Maybe showing a bit of humor when you ask will make it go over well? Now you’ll give the person you’ve just met a chance to do what most of us adore—talking about ourselves! Here, you allow your new acquaintance to take center stage and discuss his/her past successes or challenges, reveal how s/he has overcome obstacles or taken advantage of opportunities and share his/her aspirations by shedding light on the road ahead.

5.  What are you currently reading?

Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Edith Wharton, or Stephen King? Getting to know someone through his/her choice of books is wonderful.  You’ll learn something important about your new acquaintance.  It’s possible that s/he seldom read books and instead prefers business journals and blogs and watching a lot of movies. Whatever.

While in conversation, you may be pleased to learn that you both enjoy certain authors (and actors) and that opens the door to an engaging conversation and the perfect opportunity to build a relationship, business and/or personal.

6.  How can I be most helpful to you right now?

An offer to help your new acquaintance to take a step closer to achieving a goal or objective is the highest compliment that you can extend and demonstrates that you trust him/her enough to put your reputation on the line on his/her behalf.  The building blocks for a relationship are about to be put into place.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Rosalind Russell as party hostess extraordinaire Auntie Mame (1958). The film won Best Picture and Best Actress (Rosalind Russell) Academy Awards.

 

Holiday Gifts for Your Top Clients

OK procrastinators, it’s time to finally bust a move and get busy with the holiday cards and maybe gifts, too, that Freelance consultants MUST send to every client you’ve worked with over the past five years.  Relationships are everything in life and it’s up to the Freelancer to cultivate and sustain business relationships that help you grow your client list.  It’s important to periodically communicate with clients past and present and the good news is that at holiday time, there’s no need to invent a reason to reach out.  The December holidays are an important element of every Freelancer’s client retention strategy.

I’m happy to report that my business holiday cards were mailed on December 12.  So far, I haven’t felt the need to give client gifts.  BTW regarding cards, the vast majority of your clients are Christian and they’ll celebrate Christmas to some extent.  However, 2014 data shows that 30% of adults in the U.S. do not practice Christianity and it is for that reason your holiday cards should avoid a specific religious theme and instead refer to “the holiday season.” Because you know your clients, the brief message that you’ll write in each card (whether or not you order them pre-printed) can reference Christmas, Ramadan (which can occur in December), or Hanukkah.

If you feel that presenting selected clients with a gift (to acknowledge your gratitude for generous billable hours), take action and order today.  Corporate gifts are mailed, as are cards, so you must allow for shipping time.  Start with a call to the client’s HR department to inquire about corporate gift restrictions.  There may be a cap on the amount, or alcoholic beverages may be prohibited.  Once you’ve confirmed the policy, decide what you feel is appropriate to spend, consider your gift options and choose the company you should order from.

When you’ve identified two or three companies that seem to be good possibilities, do an online search to find out if there have been problems with customer service, delivery times, or the quality of the merchandise.  The company should track the delivery of the gifts you’ve ordered from them and let you know when they’ve been received by your clients.  Alternatively, the company should make it possible for you to track your gifts and confirm receipt.

Furthermore, the company you order from should not include its promotional material in the gift box.  Not even your company promotional material will be in the gift box.  Your purpose is to thank your clients for the business relationship.  The company can include a sticker or business card so that it can be identified as the source of the gift.

Every corporate gift company will allow you to include a personal note, so be sure to draft one before you place your order.  A note expressed in your words will communicate your thoughtfulness and respect to the recipient.

Finally, look for a company that will guarantee the gifts with a refund policy for missed delivery times or damaged goods.  Here are a few corporate gift suggestions at various prices:

  1. Texting gloves —keep hands warm on frosty winter days and give fingers touch screen conductivity    $10.00 – $80
  2. Uber or Lyft gift card— sure to be appreciated and quickly used    $20 minimum
  3. Plant—scientific research shows that adding greenery to the environment boosts a person’s mood and energizes the overall ambience of the space. Choose a plant that’s easy to care for and not fussy about the light required.  A geranium could work and they flower year round.  Call a local greenhouse to order.    $20 – $50
  4. Docking station—You may want to oder one for your home office! It’s a sleek charging station for your mobile devices.    $20 – $100
  5. Spiral notebook and mobile charging station from Time Traveler USA    $65  http://timetravelerusa.com/notebook-powerbank-corporate/

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: The New Bonnet (1858)  Francis William Edmonds                                            Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art   New York, NY

 

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa

Those in the crisis communications sector of public relations will have a very Merry Christmas indeed.  Your client list is growing and billable hours are overflowing! Accusations of powerful men (and at least one woman—Mariah Carey) behaving badly have been flying thick and fast.  The professional, political, personal and financial fall-out will be enormous.  Whose brand will be resilient enough to survive the scandal?

Re: the accused, the smart (and probably most evolved) perpetrators quickly ‘fessed up, accepted responsibility and apologized to those who felt violated and hurt, whether a presumed victim or family member (e.g., soon to be ex-Senator Al Franken and comedian Louis C.K.).  My guess is that those with the pragmatism, if not decency, to own up early on will fare the best in the long run.  A couple of years of restorative PR may possibly allow them to re-enter polite society and re-start a public career,

The arrogant—-most notably, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer—are probably finished.  Their public careers are over and they’ve seen the last of good tables in the right restaurants.  The trophy wives of Lauer and Weinstein have jumped ship, now that indiscretions of which they were well aware have become public (Cosby’s wife opted to ride it out).

Yet the most arrogant and most teflon of all publicly accused violators—former President Bill Clinton—faced allegations so serious and believable that he was successfully impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives in 1998, only the second impeachment of a president in U.S. history (he was acquitted by the Senate in 1999).  Furthermore, he was compelled to pay a settlement that exceeded $850,000 to former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones, who sued Clinton in 1994 for sexual harassment.

High profile feminists (Gloria Steinem, Senator Dianne Feinstein, et al.) defended Clinton to the end and they still do (as they attack President Donald Trump for less onerous and numerous incidents and remain silent on Weinstein, who’s been a big contributor to “liberal” causes).

Clinton never apologized to anyone for anything and he vociferously denied his actions (“I did not have sex with that woman!” [Monica Lewinsky]). Like it or not, it’s obvious that the Clinton brand is the strongest in the land (and the most controversial, too).

Regardless of the Bill Clinton style, effective leaders learn how to apologize.  What is an apology and why is making one necessary?  An apology is a statement in which an individual expresses sincere remorse for behavior that can be considered inappropriate and that person acknowledges that s/he has hurt, mislead, embarrassed, or betrayed another—the public trust, a friend, colleague, or intimate partner.  An explanation, not to be confused with an excuse, could be made, as might an offer to make amends or restitution.

Trust, respect, team building and performance will be positively impacted when you make it clear that you, the leader, are willing to hold yourself accountable for your behavior, including your missteps.  Your apology is the core of that process.

Lolly Daskel, President and CEO of Lead From Within, says that there is a wrong way and a right way to apologize and I’m sure that you’ll agree.  Most of us have received so-called “apologies” that were offered grudgingly, sometimes under duress, or given disingenuously, in an attempt by the perpetrator to evade responsibility for his/her actions.

An apology is a statement in which an individual expresses sincere remorse for his/her behavior and acknowledges that s/he has hurt, mislead, embarrassed, or betrayed the public trust, a friend, or an intimate partner.  An explanation, not to be confused with an excuse, might be made as might an offer to make amends or restitution.

THE WRONG WAY TO APOLOGIZE

Blaming

A former colleague from the my days in the corporate world was known to say “Never complain, never explain.” Lolly Daskel would add “and do not blame.” Pushing responsibility onto others when it was you who dropped the ball is the wrong thing to do, every time.  As temporarily uncomfortable as it may make you feel, put on your big girl pants and admit your mistake.  Apologize to those whom you offended or inconvenienced.  Make restitution when possible and move on.  You will when respect and admiration when you do.  Blamers are losers and they never win.

Excuses

While there may have been legitimate reasons for making a mess of a situation, or burning dinner,  or not completing an important assignment, be careful that you don’t devolve into making too many excuses as you explain to those who may want to know what happened.  Just say you’re sorry and that you should have stayed on top of things, or started earlier, or whatever.  Once again, it’s about taking responsibility for your behavior.

Justifying

Don’t even think about trying to defend your behavior when you’ve screwed up.  I mean, there goes your credibility, down the drain.  Own up and apologize.  Now.

Minimizing

When you’ve let someone down, it is imperative that you take their hurt or inconvenience seriously.   In no way are you entitled to deny the full measure of the outcomes that are the result of your failure to hold up your end.  That other person has every right to be upset when they’ve been let down.  If you did not come through as expected, squelch the temptation to resort to manipulation and accept responsibility, apologize and make amends ASAP.

Shaming

Those who feel that they are doing quite enough for you (whether or not that can objectively be considered the truth) may sometimes feel entitled to break promises large and small, if they eventually find fulfilling that obligation inconvenient or expensive in some way.   When you speak up they attack and accuse you of being ungrateful for all the “other” favors they’ve done for you.  You have a right to expect that someone will keep their word.  Shame on them for being both unreliable and manipulative.

Stonewalling

Refusing to apologize, discuss, or acknowledge your mistakes or bad behavior and the difficulties it causes other people is called stonewalling.  It is abusive behavior.  It is hugely disrespectful.  Seek therapy immediately if this is common behavior for you.

THE RIGHT WAY TO APOLOGIZE

Timing

An apology is much more meaningful when it is delivered sooner, rather than later.  The longer that the offending party avoids making a sincere apology, the greater the risk to the relationship.

Acknowledge

Admit what you’ve done and apologize for the inconvenience, misunderstanding, hurt feelings, or embarrassment that you’ve caused.  This is an important step toward maintaining or rebuilding the trust that the other person had in you.

Accept

Own your behavior.  Show the respect that you have for the injured party and the esteem in which you hold him/her when you make a proper apology.  Demonstrate that this person matters and is entitled to your integrity.

Express

The apology made must be sincere and not self-serving.  Be prepared to grovel a little, if you’ve really dropped the ball, or if the other person(s) is very hurt or angry.  You can explain why or how you miscalculated, but don’t fall into excuse making.  Ask for forgiveness.

Amend

Do what you can to mend fences, so that you can soothe hurt feelings compensate for disappointment,

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: Secret Hearts #88, 1963  (the study for Ohhh Alright, 1964)  Roy Lichtenstein

Christmas Party Networking: What Would Santa Do?

Holiday season is here, hooray!  OK, maybe not hooray for everyone.  Not everyone celebrates Christmas.  Those who do sometimes feel pressured to spend more money and time on gifts and activities than they’d like, all the while projecting a façade of holiday cheer, in order to avoid disappointing others.  But the season is what it is and it’s not going to change.  If you can talk yourself into the right frame of mind, it’s probably possible to get something more valuable out of Christmas than 10 extra pounds and a stack of bills to pay.  Let’s talk about it.

Holidays mean parties and parties are about renewing and creating relationships.  If you go to the right parties you will have a good time, if you let yourself.  So why not go for it and make the holidays work for you?

Christmas party invitations will slip into your inbox and give you decisions to make.  Chances are you will not have the time, energy, or money to accept all of your invitations.  One way to plan your December calendar is to divide your party possibilities into business and social categories and edit from there.

It might be most enjoyable for you to attend a mix of business related and social occasions, to promote a healthy work-life balance for yourself.  Social invitations can be ranked according to your relationship with the host.  You’ll be happy to turn out for a party given by a dear friend or favorite cousin with a bottle of wine or some other host gift in hand, because you are a good friend and a good guest.  If you are a member of a social organization, you may choose to attend that party as well.

Professional association parties require a more carefully crafted strategy, because networking with the goal of identifying someone with whom you can create a potentially profitable business relationship will be on your mind.  Which parties are likely to offer good networking opportunities along with an atmosphere that makes it fun to catch up and schmooze with colleagues? There will be an admission charge and cash bar.  Where might you get the best value-added? Ask yourself two questions and evaluate your choices:

  1. Who are my best business prospects?

To which industries do you sell your products and/or services? Are your customers B2B, B2C, or B2G, for-profit or not-for-profit, small, medium or Fortune 1000? What are the job titles of the decision-makers and key influencers?

     2.   Where might I meet those prospects?

If your customers are small businesses, then chambers of commerce or neighborhood business associations are good places to find business owners, who are the decision-maker for all important products and services.

If your customers are Fortune 1000 or even prosperous mid-size businesses, you’ll be better off joining a committee or the board of a not-for-profit organization, or exploring service clubs such as the Kiwanis or Rotary Club, which are hubs for professionals who want to volunteer their services.  You will be much more likely to find decision-makers at the philanthropic organizations.  Invest your time and talent and get to know potential prospects and referral sources as you demonstrate your competencies and leadership skills through the service work that you do.

If networking is your purpose for attending a party, you’ll have more success meeting people when you go alone.  You’ll be forced to introduce yourself and talk with others and in so doing, you’ll meet people whom you may not have met if you brought along your spouse, good friend, or colleague.

Nearly all party invitations are now sent by Evite and that gives guests the huge advantage of seeing who has signed up to attend.  Otherwise, if you have the right relationship, call the host to RSVP by phone and tactfully inquire about the guest list.  Don’t be ashamed to perform an internet and social media search to help yourself prepare talking points and questions for guests you’d like to reconnect with or meet.

Finally, figure out the party dress code.  A Sunday afternoon tree trimming party at the home of friends or family means relaxed business casual attire.  Wear business attire to professional association parties, which are nearly always held on a week night. Gatherings at someone’s home or at a social organization on a Friday or Saturday evening can mean that guests will wear anything from black-tie to more relaxed, yet festive attire.

Now, go check your email!

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: Roman Sarcophagus (detail), 240-260 BC    Courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art  Kansas City, MO

 

Client Retention: Surpass the Minimum

In 1990, the consulting group Bain & Company and Earl Sasser of the Harvard Business School analyzed the costs and revenues derived from serving clients over their entire purchasing life cycle and found that regardless of the industry, the high cost of acquiring clients will render many business relationships unprofitable during their early years.

Acquiring a new client can cost up to five times more than it does to retain a current client.  It is only over time, when the cost of serving a long-term client falls as the volume of their purchases rises, that these relationships generate big returns.

The Bain-HBS review found that when the client retention rate increases by 5%, profits increase by 25% – 95%.  Also, long-term clients are more likely to refer new clients to the business and increase sales revenues and profits accordingly.

That said, an ongoing client retention strategy is a must-do for all Freelance consultants and business owners.  Read on and discover how your organization can embed client retention practices in nearly every step of your client interactions.

Context and expectations

When you propose a solution designed to help your client resolve a problem or achieve an objective, include in the conversation your rationale for presenting that particular path rather than another.  Make it possible for the client to better appreciate your decision-making process and divulge how you carefully considered his/her priorities, values, budget, staffing, or other factors that impacted your recommended solution.

We may infrequently discuss the behind-the-scenes thinking that guides the possibilities we envision for a client and his/her organization.  Revealing your big picture thinking demonstrates the depth of the value you attach to the client and his/her unique circumstances and that builds loyalty, trust and a good relationship.

Become an adviser

Don’t shy away from asking questions that will surface your client’s sometimes unexpressed expectations or concerns.  You may discover a solution that is ideally tailored to the clients’ needs when you employ the consultative approach to selling.  You and your client can collaborate on the development of the solution if s/he is comfortable with that process.  Buy-in is a given when the client is a co-author of the process.

Along the way, let your client know what to expect as the solution is implemented; it will also be helpful to review what success looks like.  Communicate often, so that the client understands where you are with the project, especially as regards milestones, Key Performance Indicators, the deadline and other agreed-upon metrics.

Moreover, depending on your product or service line, recommend services to your clients, based on their previous purchases.  According to a 2015 survey of marketers, this personalized touch generates a high ROI.  It shows that you’ve paid attention to client preferences and it is a compliment.

Finally, we are nearing Holiday time.  Make sure that you send cards to clients you’ve interacted with over the past five years.  Who among us does not appreciate a card at this time of year, when we reach out to those who matter?

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Corine Vermuelen (2013)  Alicia and John George, owners of Motor City Java House in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood

 

 

The Power of Listening

Recently, I attended a reception at the women’s club where I’m a member.  When I attend programs, I make it a point to circulate and talk, usually joining three or four tables over the course of an event.  I’ve been fortunate to participate in dozens of conversations, meaningful and superficial, and I’ve formed some good relationships.  When in conversation, ideally, I listen more than I talk. That ebb and flow is the subtle dance of communication.

While in conversation, learning to keep one’s mouth shut and ears open, so that you can focus attention on the person who is speaking, requires mindfulness and discipline.  So often we do not really listen, we only pause, to formulate an answer that will help us win a debate or demonstrate expertise in the topic.  Conversation can become a game of one-upmanship, when we’re more interested in being clever, or seeming to be very wise or au courant.

When you take the time to listen, the ego must be set aside as you signal the unique value of the other person by allowing him/her to express thoughts and feelings, insights and knowledge.  You may appear to be passive but in reality, listening well is quite active.  When we listen with intention, most of our senses are activated.

We watch facial expressions and detect happiness, distress, interest, or boredom in the eyes and mouth and even the posture.  We hear the cadence of speech, the choice of words used and the tone of voice.  In this way, we take in the story as it is told and we begin to understand the other person’s values, worries, joys, competencies and humor.  Listening with conviction is the highest compliment that one can pay to another human being.  When we listen, we get to know people and build relationships.

Careful listening also allows you to grasp what a person does not say and that could be very revealing.  Hone your listening skills and learn to “listen between the lines,” so that you can more fully understand the motivations and perhaps hidden agendas of those with whom you interact.  Listen and get a sense of who is telling the truth and who is hiding behind a facade.  Whether you are in a negotiation with a client, interviewing a job candidate, or at dinner with someone you wonder if you should see again, listening well will guide your next steps.

Listening skills are a key ingredient of selling skills.  Listen carefully to your prospect and learn what is most important to him/her and then describe how your product or service will resolve the need and eliminate difficulties.  If you are a Freelance consultant who is interviewing with the hope of winning an assignment Dave Mattson, CEO and president of Sandler Training, the sales training firm, recommends that you get straight to the point and ask what three criteria define success for the project and then listen, and truly hear, the answer.  You will quickly discover whether you are a good fit for the project and what you must say and do to win it.

Finally, listening will allow you to adjust your style of communication to align with the person you are speaking with and that is a very important part of building trust, demonstrating proficiencies, telegraphing empathy and being persuasive, the building blocks of both good relationships and effective selling.  Essentially, your heightened listening will allow the two of you to speak the same language and that is the heart of effective communication.

Thanks for reading,

Kim