This Is Where Communication Begins

Listening is the last thing on anyone’s mind when the subject is communication.

And it’s understandable. From the instant an infant realizes what it takes to get attention, our practical view of communication is shaped by a repeated focus on doing whatever it takes to deliver a message.

Experiences reenforce the idea that charisma, wordsmithing and creative presentation are at the heart of connecting  And so we go about our business . . . mistaking message delivery for communication.

Listening is about keeping quiet — SIlence. Golden, maybe. But certainly not getting any point across. Quick…say something!

Sure…in our gut we know there’s value in listening. We likely even believe we should do more of it. But when it comes right down to it we don’t know how.

And just in case we need to say it, the fact that we’re not talking is no guarantee there’s any listening going on.

A Rethink

Here’s the proposition: communication begins only when-and-if we learn to listen.

It is a counter-intuitive discipline that works exactly opposite of our practice. As opposed to beginning worried about what we should say, listening actually informs and gives shape to messaging that connects.

But All Listening Is Not Created Equal

This is part of the problem, isn’t it? Query a search engine for “types of listening” and you’ll find plenty of content on Discriminating, Passive and a handful of other ways to say we listen differently, depending on the situation.

It is almost impossible to find a market segment that is not flooded with messages, each making as big a splash as possible in pursuit of mind share. There is no way any given audience can hear every message directed its way.

The listening that changes the equation is proactive. It is listening by design, with purpose, with ears wide open.

And though the irony of talking about it this much is not lost, this is a challenge for all of us who have spent years focused on messaging, loving great copy, and spellbound by production possibilities.

Intentional Listening — a proactive, agenda-less process and art designed to learn — is the key to the identification of common ground, shared experiences, and the creation of relationships that endure.

If this isn’t where our communication efforts and campaigns begin — if listening isn’t the first thing we think of when we want to connect with an audience — we should not be surprised when efforts fall far short of the results we seek.

Will Your Clients Stick With You Through Thick And Thin?

A little over a decade ago a small technology start-up was out of money, and about to give up. But a professional service group showed the entrepreneurs a way to convert intellectual property into a revenue stream; and the start-up was reborn. An eighteen month revenue stream that defied even the most optimistic pro forma ensued.

The company praised their advisors. Glowing emails spoke in reverent terms of the counsel and strategy that saved the business from the fate known by many when the tech bubble burst early in the 2000‘s. The relationship between client and service provider could not have been better.

Or so it seemed.

Two years after being rescued, and just ninety days after authoring an unsolicited “we-love-you” email, the company fired the professional service group to embark on a new relationship with a sexy, aggressive suitor.

Assume All Is Well At Your Own Risk

Relationship is both critical, and difficult. Enterprises invests millions in customer relationship marketing strategy and management technology. Yet loyalty is illusive.

One big reason? We misunderstand the experience-to-relationship equation. The advisors noted above thought quality counsel and the experiences of yesterday were enough.

But the professional relationship that endures is characterized by on-going attention and nurture. And in a competitive marketplace the equation that delivers differentiating experiences has three parts:

  • Listening. This is about getting smart. Hearing expectations. Learning what matters most. Even identifying what might put the relationship at risk.
  • Communicating. Dialogue — honest give-and-take — is essential to relationships that grow and last. Here is where plans are born, expectations articulated and shared aspirations identified.
  • Collaborating. This is about the mutual pursuit of objectives and goals.

Consistently build around these three ideas, and the result is the creation of shared experiences. Nothing binds a relationship more.

Give only lip-service to any, and even a strong relationship can be weakened. Leave one or more out — or employ a sporadic strategy (say, a touch-base-quarterly-communication plan) — and any relationship is at risk.

Build around shared experiences, and relationships have a shot at withstanding all that will threaten — from market metrics to blatant rate plays, from aggressive competition to high-consequence change.

Certainly, quality and expertise are essential. In fact, in the markets in which most of us live and work, these are presumed. To an increasing degree, the experience you deliver — daily — is both the most effective means of differentiation, and the DNA of client relationships that last.

A CEO’s Formula For Progress In a Changing Marketplace

Changing for idea“Move more. Assume less.”

This was the response of a CEO friend when asked about his success in turning around a consulting firm on the brink of extinction twenty-two months earlier.

Don was retiring, and he was reflective.

“In the early days we were determined to meet the market at its point of need. That was our mission. We loved to use words like agile and innovative to describe our approach. We believed our successes were the result of an ability to be in the right place with the solutions to our clients’ concerns. But we’d forgotten that foundation.”

When asked about earlier attempts to right-the-ship, his tone was almost one of disbelief.

“We knew we were losing ground; so we sat around in plush chairs and nice conference rooms and discussed go-to-market strategies that were really about how to get the market to come back to us so that we could keep doing things the way we’d always done them.”

Don’s view of leadership was rooted in two deeply held beliefs.

First, that success depends on listening, and figuring out a way to respond to the challenges and opportunities you uncover.

“Ignore what you hear, or rationalize that the concerns are unfounded, and you’re dead…because someone else will hear, and respond.”

For the consulting company Don had been with for twenty-four years this meant listening to the target audience with absolutely no agenda.

“We had to change…I mean completely rethink and often reinvent the way we approached operations and processes. Success of the past actually made this difficult. We assumed we had things completely figured out. But the marketplace had changed, and we’d missed it.”

There are plenty of variations on this theme; but wherever the way we do things today is based on an assumption that the way we’ve always done them is the only way to fly . . . well, we all know what happens when one assumes.

Combine this view of listening with Don’s second personal belief, and you catch a glimpse of what makes him an extraordinary leader.

“I believe the individuals I work with — inside as well as outside of the organization — and by extension, anyone touched by our organization should be better for having had that experience.”

He anticipates the reaction of his audience.

“I know what you’re going to say. Pie-in-the-sky fluff. But I believe it. My team knows I believe it. Call it corny if you want to; but we share the mission. Move to the market. And the only thing we assume is that the market will be a better place because we’ve been there.”

Don is right, of course. Many will scoff. Sure that might work for Google or some venture funded start-up; but it doesn’t feel practical for a professional service firm.

Maybe not.

On the other hand, while this may not be the conversation we’ve always had…what if it turns out to be part of a prescription for what ails once great companies, organizations and even communities.

And all we have to do is move more (toward each other), and assume less.

We Can Do Something That Makes A Difference

I shared a first version of this post in December of 2012 in the wake of the unthinkable in Newtown, Connecticut.

And here we are again…unable to imagine the news we woke to…searching for a way to digest the senseless…groping for words that mean something…wondering what we might do to make a difference.

I don’t know about you; but my knee-jerk reaction is to want a big answer. A solution no one has ever thought of. A response so complete that the solution resonates around the world.

But even if that is a possibility — and history argues against the likelihood — we’re left to hope someone else can pull it off.

But what do we do?

I only know of one thing. We can become makers of everyday peace — in homes, schools, city halls, corporate boardrooms, playgrounds and yes…even in nightclubs. We can be the ones who listen…inspire honest dialogue and collaboration…the ones who build bridges.

If we decide to, we can be the ones who question, probe and debate without engendering adversarial relationships.

The Condition

Wherever two or three gather — never mind three-hundred-million-or so — do we really expect that we’ll all agree? Diversity in opinion and outright disagreement are a certainty. Some of the differences are insignificant. Others will seem insurmountable.

I have always enjoyed vigorous debate. The exercise is healthy. The dialogue can be productive. Unless lines in the sand or litmus tests render the debate a pointless exercise, thereby precipitating conflict.

Look around. Wherever progress is minimal (or non-existent) and every conversation polarizing, check the debate. Chances are the conversations are contentious. Often even angry.

Long-term progress in any community will always depend on collaboration.

Two Keys To Makers of Everyday Peace

We can’t fix unspeakable tragedy. But we can change the world we live and work in every day. Anyone can be a peace maker. Here are two keys.

  • Makers of everyday peace value on-going dialogue above winning a debate. The goal is continuity — to keep the conversation going.
  • Peace makers seek to understand as much as to be understood; winning takes a backseat to gaining perspective; intentional listening becomes the baseline for communication

Want to do something that makes a difference? Tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that, be a peacemaker. We have scores of opportunities each day. Progress will seem slow; but blessed are the peacemakers.

5 Things Rainmakers Do That Put Them In The Right Place At The Right Time

Successful business developers seem to have an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time; but when it comes to consistently making it rain, this is rarely happenstance.

In fact, the epitome of strategic business development and marketing is increasingly about executing a plan that connects with those most likely to buy your product or service.

So, if it isn’t about luck of the draw, what is the makeup of such a strategy? What are those individuals and teams doing that repeatedly creates a timely intersection with opportunity?

For your consideration, here are five keys to a strategy that eliminates the guesswork around where to go, when to be there, and what to do or say when the opportunity is presented.

1. Identify A Target

While some make it seem easy, consistently being in the right place isn’t a matter of fortune. It is a matter of smart targeting. It begins with knowing specifically who you want to connect with, and the role each target plays in the development of your professional network.

Strategic targets fall into four categories.

  • Individuals (or carefully selected groups) in a position to serve as a referral source. Consider former clients, other professional advisors, and those in a position to know or be connected to those likely to seek the service you provide.
  • Individuals ready to recommend you as a source for the professional service you provide. This should certainly cover past clients; but it may also include a broader group of colleagues in a position to attest to your trustworthiness.
  • Individuals who can provide business intelligence and/or “coaching” insights with respect to those who might hire you.
  • And those in a position to actually make the hiring decision.

One additional note about target identification — it is about naming names. Industry segments, companies and broad general descriptions don’t count. A strategic target is an individual with whom you can build a professional relationship. And that individual has a name.

2. Learn What Your Target Cares About

Once a target has been identified, those who make business development seem natural invest the time and energy necessary to learn what is important to the target.

Put simply — great business developers listen before they speak (or pitch).

What drives your target (or what drives them crazy)? What do they care about? What keeps them up at night?

Business intelligence that identifies the challenges and opportunities being faced by your target, as well as an understanding of what the competitive landscape looks like will shape how you communicate and connect.

3. Plan Strategic Visibility

This is the being in the right place part of the equation. Forget guessing about what networking events to attend or sponsor. Take the mystery out of when and where (or whether) to invest in an ad, or what role social media should play in your strategy. Should you be blogging? Speaking more?

The options for creating and maintaining visibility are many, and each can be seductive. Strategic visibility is about connecting with the targets you’ve named — as opposed to scatter shooting at the broad side of a barn.

Make visibility more than the dispensing of content by incorporating collaborative opportunities. Sharing the podium, participating on a panel, or even white-board brainstorming can expedite the building of a relationship. Interviews and focus groups offer opportunities to listen carefully…and communicate volumes about what it is like to work with you.

4. Build Equity

Simply being visible — the fact that the marketplace knows who you are and what you offer — doesn’t constitute relationship. And it is no guarantee a path will be beaten to your door. In a competitive marketplace the professional services practice grows and is sustained by professional relationship equity.

This equity comes from the value you bring to the table. And while work product must certainly measure up, the definition of equity-building value is much broader.

It is not unlike what is required in the context of personal relationship: intentional listening; the absence of an agenda (a focus on the interests of the other); and on-going dialogue. Use this as the formula, and your efforts will transcend the average business development effort, and generate the kind of equity that builds a practice and engenders loyalty.

5. Give It Time

Rewarding relationships are not built with a single act, in the context of an anecdote or the process of a pitch. If you’re looking for bottomline impact in the near term, here’s hoping you’ve been maintaining visibility and delivering value to qualified targets for some time now.

As for the plan you’re developing tokay, count on investing some time. Plenty of potentially effective efforts are doomed thanks to the unrealistic expectation that a vibrant and relevant network can be created out of thin air.

Productive networks do not materialize overnight. And the kind of relationships that a stable practice is built upon do not typically fall into your lap. Bring your best creative energies and resources to the strategic identification of targets, and the creation of experiences that deliver value. Then stick with it long enough to let the seeds of relationship take hold.

These five ideas are the foundational principles of a business development plan that will put you in the right place at the right time with the right message. It is far from a matter of luck.

When Cheap Talk Masquerades As Brand Promise

Broken trustA long time ago I worked for a guy who talked a great game. He talked about a workplace with great culture…about transparency and trust…about being the kind of place the best and brightest wanted to work.

That’s what he said. But he rarely delivered.

Once every couple of weeks he would make the rounds, sticking his head into everyone’s office. “How is everything?” He would awkwardly linger making small-talk for what his keen intuition must have told him was long enough to communicate serious interest, and then he’d muster his best managerial-tone; “Well, if there’s ever anything I can do to help you, just let me know.”

Few took him at his word more than once. It didn’t take long to recognize that the offer — indeed, his entire approach to management — was empty talk. Scripted leadership. And juxtaposed to the reality we knew.

Once in response I mentioned that the flimsy chair I’d been using for a year or so didn’t support my back; and, if there was any possibility, I’d appreciate an upgrade.

For twenty-four more months he continued making his rounds. But I never heard a word about the chair.

Saying It Does Not Make It So

Whenever the two are not aligned, the experience delivered will always be more eloquent and resonant than anything we say.

Client-centered, a commitment to value, the pursuit of diversity, transparency — we might create compelling prose around any number of issues and ideas; but to an audience oft burned, it is going to take something more than words to break through the cynicism.

The same is true inside the organization.

Years ago a friend told the story of being responsible for the fiscal health of a growing partnership. In the course of reconciling expenses he detected and eventually confirmed that someone was raiding the firm’s snack closest. Specifically, chewing gum was being consumed at an impossible rate — enough Juicy Fruit to stock an entire little league team was being lifted.

My friend’s solution was to lock the snack closet, requiring every employee to ask for the key, thereby intimidating anyone taking more than a reasonable share of any item.

The glitch in this solution came when the senior and founding partner of the firm responded to the cost-saving strategy with something less than enthusiasm.

That’s an interesting idea; but be sure to let me know the day the lock is on the closet because that will be my last day at this law firm. I won’t be part of communicating to our entire staff that we don’t trust them with our snack inventory.”

The equity of a brand — personal or institutional, inside an organization or in the heart of the marketplace — is created in the context of the experiences delivered.

Inside, trust is one of the things that differentiates a handful of great organizations from those that are just good enough.

In his book Leaders Eat Last, leadership and organizational growth consultant Simon Sinek underscores the reality that individuals go above and beyond in organizations where they feel safe.

Build an organization around fear and mistrust and be prepared to deal with consequences in the form of high turn-over, employees that watch the clock and seldom give up anything for the good of the whole.

And when it comes to a go-to-market mission, the experience we deliver is how clients and prospects learn what it is like to have a professional relationship with us. Are we trustworthy…do we keep all of those promises we make in marketing copy and proposals?

The aligned organization pays careful attention to both messaging and client/customer/colleague experience. Otherwise all of the investments in messaging are little more than cheap talk.

What Does It Take To Turn Contacts and Connections Into Productive Relationships?

It is news to no one that when it comes to business development in the professional services arena, relationship trumps everything.

Not connections. Or fans. Or followers. Real honest-to-goodness-relationships.

Establishing a connection is relatively easy. Building a relationship is decidedly not.

Do it right, and a single event can yield scores of business cards. Devote some time (or buy information someone else has compiled), and it is possible to connect with hundreds of thousands via social platforms like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Add a budget to the mix and it is possible to put together a list that would tempt any marketer to play the old numbers game.

And while there can be value in all of the above (making contact is where it begins, after all), it is a mistake to think a connection is anything more than a start. Relating with an individual almost always requires two things — dialogue and shared experience. And for many this is where it gets tricky.

If we misunderstand what constitutes dialogue, or underestimate the critical role it plays in building and maintaining relationships, we’re in for a long and likely frustrating journey.

The problem — or at least part of the problem — is in the way marketing communication is typically defined and used. We invest significantly in the delivery of a message. The result is the creation of entire web sites, advertising campaigns, and collateral communication materials that, with varying degrees of effectiveness, begin and end with a lot of information about us.

Even when the story is well told, it is one dimensional. Meanwhile, the potential that resides in relationship derives from the art of listening.

We know this, even though we often struggle to put our finger on why efforts to get beyond connection fall short.

We experience it every day — with family, friends and in the workplace. The more time I spend listening the closer I get to the fabric of meaningful and productive relationships.

For years the sophisticated marketing organization has invested in research designed to identify what might prompt the market to buy. Today the smart organization understands the value of investing in shared experiences —  in listening to and understanding the target’s (or client’s) story.

This is where game-changing relationship takes root. Listen hard enough and this is where we learn what it takes to become trusted.

In the midst of skillful and intentional listening clients migrate from satisfied to loyal.

What should an organization do to develop loyal, lasting relationships Begin by investing at least as much time listening as we typically invest in the creation and delivery of our message.

In fact, ask the right two or three questions, listen closely, and the market will tell you exactly what it takes to move from contact to relationship.

We might decide this is the most eloquent messaging strategy there is.

Want To Have Confidence Your Business Development Investments Will Produce?

What constitutes appropriate ROI on all that we plow into business development efforts?

In a post on the similarities between business development and planting a tree, we recounted the story of French Marshal Lyautey. The story underscores the fact that growing something strong takes time.

The practical challenge is that between the planting and tangible signs of growth, it is difficult to measure progress. And tough to be patient because so often we address business development needing to see immediate fruits from our labor.

Add the fact that because we only engage in this seeding process sporadically, and it is tough to believe the work will eventually pay off. This is not a comfortable place to be. Unable to see signs of growth, we shift from yesterday’s silver bullet to the latest flavor-of-the-month solution.

By contrast, a mature and successful strategy is one that has been in play long enough to include a healthy blend of investments in the future, and past efforts that have grown strong relationships.

The Formula For Successful Planting

Build around silver bullets and quick fixes, and you might be good enough to rock along with the same level of biz dev success you’ve enjoyed. If you’re lucky (and some are), you’ll invest in the right place at the right time often enough to enjoy modest growth.

On the other hand, if you’re interested in designing a strategy that delivers marked organic growth from the investments you make in business development, consider these three principles for effective sowing and reaping.

  • Plant wisely. Strong relationships don’t grow on trees. Throw seeds everywhere, and you’re wasting time and resources. Here are three ways to have confidence you’re investing in the right place. Look for areas:
    • undergoing high consequence change
    • where you have personal affinity
    • where you possess (or are connected to) deep expertise.
  • Nurture carefully. Want to have to constantly wrestle with weeds growing in the midst of your marketing and biz dev efforts? Pay attention to them only when its convenient…or urgent, and you’re not going to find much you can build upon. Quality relationships grow in the context of conversation, collaboration, and valued contributions. Invest here…and invest long enough for something to actually grow.
  • Pay attention to the season. Success is built around an understanding of time. Each effort is unique; but if you’re planting today and counting on seeing significant results in less than somewhere between 12 and 24 months, you’re not building around a realistic timetable. This doesn’t mean you won’t see results based on work done earlier; often a focus on quality nurturing activates some “planting” already done.

Target smart, focus on building relationships, and allow time to maximize your investments, and you’ll begin to see something far too rare — measurable growth that you can connect directly to your business development investments.

In Pursuit of The Business Develoopmet and Marketing Culture

If the only time we turn attention to marketing, business development or sales is when there is a fear things might be slowing down — or worse yet, after the slow-down has begun — three things are likely true. The experience:

  • is decidedly frustrating;
  • solves few if any of the short term issues;
  • in the long run, still leaves you hoping the market finds you.

If this describes your experience, one thing is certain.

Business development is not part of your organization’s culture.

The Test

Wherever practice development is given twenty minutes during a quarterly meeting, don’t expect much to change.

If integration or cross selling is left to chance — meaning there is no framework or process that ensures desired action steps — don’t hope to magically leverage the value of the relationship equity that should exist in a partnership.

If a system for religiously gathering and assessing feedback from clients and prospects does not exist, don’t hold out hope that your clients will move from satisfied to loyal…much less, that you will transform from service provider to trusted advisor.

If key relationship succession isn’t the subject of on-going conversations long before senior partners are about to retire, don’t be surprised when long-term clients evaporate as an inevitable changing of the guard takes place inside the client’s organization.

If innovative thinking around inclusion and diversity is initiated only in the wake of market pressures, be prepared to repeatedly have the same conversations.

Multiple cliches apply. Put your money where your mouth is. We measure what matters. What you do speaks so loud I can’t hear what you say.

Take your pick. But know that time is not on your side.

The hard truth is that an organization concerned with strategic organic growth reflects this in its institutional priorities.

Where the roles of marketing and business development are understood, these disciplines are not bound by a department. The responsibility for  brand equity isn’t defined by job description or title. The opportunity to market resides in every member of the organization that touches the marketplace.

A marketing culture, enduring brand equity and growth through strategic business development efforts are not the byproducts of accidental fortune or occasional conversation.

And the enterprise interested in seeding such a culture succeeds by virtue of intent, and the attention requisite to the highest priority.

The Currency of Communication

Chat Dollar SignVolume can be misleading.

Increasing the decibel level is no guarantee a message will be heard. Exercising the loudest voice in the room doesn’t equate to connecting with anyone. Bigger and louder — shake-the-ground-you-stand-on-boom notwithstanding — doesn’t ensure anything will resonate.

And siren call aside, the same is true for even the most seductive distribution channel or platform. The grandest pulpit, a bazillion Twitter followers, even revered global networks have been party to colossal misses when it comes to connecting.

You’d think by now we’d know better than to view these things as the currency of communication.

Buy Low

If you’re investing in the creation and delivery of a message, consider investing in something often overlooked.

Let’s revisit that room — the one where someone or some group is turning up the volume in an effort to grab attention (or maybe simply dominate).

It is worth reminding that silence might be golden. Even profound.

The fact that someone else in the room is reluctant to engage or become caught up in the “noise” should not be mistaken for the absence of a message.

When it comes to connecting, resonating and inspiring, intentional listening is, more often than not, undervalued. Or overlooked. Yet it always precedes effective communication. Here’s why:

  • Intentional listening broadens experience. This is critical because experience is the stuff of which solid bridges to new relationships are built.
  • Intentional listening provides a context in which empathy takes root. And empathy gives rise to understanding.

Double Your Return

An investment in listening inspires more listening, because real empathy shines a light on the fact that I have no idea what I don’t know. For one with a modicum of self awareness, this is enough to prompt silence.

Granted…an oath of silence isn’t a practical approach to survival in the professional arena. But if we can resist going to the extreme, there might be a practical point here.

Consider those for whom you will stop-down and listen…no matter what. Discerning questions, insightful contributions…the right words at the right time.

The effective communicator understands and consistently invests in the real currency of the art. It isn’t volume, channel, platform or even eloquence.

The currency of communication is intentional listening.

One wonders what adventures, innovations and successes, might await were we less preoccupied with the accoutrement of being heard. Where might we build bridges were we more inclined to focus on hearing…as opposed to being heard.

What might leadership sound like?

Were we to place appropriate value on intentional listening, what might that mean for our adventures in the marketplace?

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