Listen Up! Great Communication Does Not Begin With The Message

Magnified Hearing(Note: This article was written for and originally published by Brand Quarterly in March 2015.)

We are preoccupied with messaging.

From 140 characters to sixty seconds; Pinterest to YouTube. From the candidate to the evening news anchor, we place a premium on what we say, and how we say it.

The preoccupation is understandable. Personal experience underscores the value of being able to get our point across. Consider how quickly an infant learns that loud and frantic crying is a sure way to relieve the pangs of hunger.

But as innocent as its genesis might be, the obsession precipitates an approach to communication that, when mature, actually limits effectiveness.

We begin to believe that message delivery equates to the art of communication.

Oh, some of us enjoy discussing and hypothesizing over the science of it all. We query focus groups, pour over research and flirt with Big Data. But all too often this is simply prelude; what we really want…what we are infatuated with and will invest in mightily is the art of it all.

From the moment we realize we have a point of view, let alone a measure of conviction or a product or service to sell, we want to do whatever it takes to get the word out. Narrative, elements of design, and channels for distribution are the subject of attention and investment.

Possessing a message is exciting, invigorating. And we rush to cast it about. Hear our message world.

Yet, often when all is said and done — in spite of award-winning creative, jaw-dropping production and distribution genius — marketers are left to wonder what went wrong when efforts fall short. Or completely miss the mark.

If even part of this resonates, stick with me for a few more paragraphs. This is not about the problem; but about a solution.

Remembering Where Communication Begins (click here for full article at Brand Quarterly)

The Best Business Developers I Know Share Four Characteristics

There are markets where sales is little more than a numbers game. Make enough calls, knock on enough doors, ask the question over-and-over, ignore objectionns, and you’ll close some deals.

But you won’t build many relationships.

And that means that next month…or next quarter…or next year you get to start all over again. Call. Knock. Ignore. Persist.

In a recent keynote before the Legal Marketing Association, best selling author and speaker Dan PInk shared the results of a survey of 7000 individuals who were asked to say the first word that came to mind upon hearing the word SALES.

Without seeing the results, you know what dominated the list. It was words like Pushy, Hard, Sleazy, Slimy, and (my favorite) Yuk.

(For excellent perspectives and summaries of Pink’s LMA presentation, see posts from legal marketers Lindsay Girffiths and Heather Morse.)

This distaste certainly isn’t because we don’t like to buy. Most of the time it isn’t because we aren’t seeking information about products or services.

It is, at least to a significant degree, a visceral reaction to a pitch that is little more than one more call made by someone playing the numbers game. We get enough of them. Every day.

In the stereotypical cases all that is required is tenacity; and though this is a valuable characteristic, when it is the foundation of a churn-and-burn strategy, it isn’t going to help build a vibrant professional services practice.

So, visceral responses aside, here are four characteristics that have been present in the best professional service sales and business developers I’ve known.

They are PEOPLE people. Over the long haul — through market dips and drastic turns — if this is just a job…if you don’t like people that will eventually come through loud and clear. All things being equal (read if you’re competing with another excellent lawyer) the market is going to opt to work with a qualified professional who is easy to work with. If you don’t like them, you can’t fool enough prospects enough of the time to build a practice that will last. Be prepared to move from one commodity to the next.

They derive satisfaction from assisting. The best business developers find ways to deliver value to those with whom they work — whether in the context of a billable matter or not. I know a lawyer who, upon learning that a client’s child was looking for an apartment in his city, spent his weekend scouting out locations to recommend. Not billable. Not conditional. But at the heart of why the attorney is a good business developer.

They are Connectors. Define your network as those who need the specific service or product you offer, and your network will almost certainly be too small. Service providers become trusted advisors, in part, because of a propensity for connecting dots…facilitating solution without respect to whether the problem is in my practice or not.

They have super powers. No leaping buildings in a single bound here. But while scores of excellent advisors can see every facet from one perspective, rainmakers see the big picture. Even in the midst of chaos, they listen between the lines, hearing what others miss. Master these powers and the struggle to differentiate your firm or practice becomes much less daunting.

One of Pink’s best sellers is titled To Sell Is Human. There are other important characteristics, of course. But one of the reasons these four are on my list is they go a long way toward communicating humanity — the kind of humanity that connects and motivates.

You can fake it and do okay. Maybe. But if you want to be a better business developer, work on these characteristics. Build your plan of action with these as foundational elements. You will be onto an approach to practice development that you can actually stick with. One that will deliver.

What To Do When Things Never Change

Consequential change — the kind that seeps so deeply into the fabric of everyday that it establishes a new benchmark for normal — does not happen overnight.

We want to believe differently. When awakened to a need or convinced of a cause, we are tempted to believe that a speech, a manifesto, a march, or a compelling pitch can plant, nurture, and harvest change in an hour. Or…if we’re really good…in an 18-minute talk.

And though moments can become the signposts of historical shifts, not even an I Have A Dream moment can realign vision and redirect actions on the spot.

Consequential change is either forced by circumstance — which most of us are unable to dictate — or it is the organic result of a series of better conversations.

And this is where we get to play.

What If…

Whatever the venue, if progress is slow consider introducing a different brand of dialogue.

From business development to the service sector, as leader or team member, from the communities that share faith to the living rooms where we share our most personal hopes and dreams, what if we focused on better conversations?

It is Polyana-ish, I know. But simply talking more, or turning up the intensity isn’t terribly effective. Staking out turf and wordsmithng old soundbites doesn’t seem to be the stuff of conversations that seed progress…let alone instigate change.

Here is the suggestion. At work, at home, in communities and circles in which we move — if what was once a unique selling proposition — or a platform of shared aspirations — has turned into conversations that never go anywhere, it is time to focus on a better conversation.

What might be the outcome were we to refuse to play the same old game, rehash the same tired debate, dig deeper into yesterday’s trenches?

Better Conversations Resonate

You recognize it the instant you are part of one; but what is it about a better conversation that makes it resonate so? And more to the point, how does one go about instigating such a thing? Here are four ideas.

  1. Less Dangling Conversation and Superficial Rhyme. In conversations that matter, rhetoric and soundbites take a backseat to the honest inquisitive nature we were born with. Ask the important questions.
  2. There’s A Lot Of Listening Going On. When the agenda is to win, convert or defend, what must be said takes precedent over hearing anything. And the simple fact of the matter is, when no one is listening, nothing is going to change. Great dialogue begins with intentional listening.
  3. Less About Me, And More About You. Because the focus is on connecting, meaningful conversations have fewer personal pronouns. “What we do” and “how you should do it” is replaced with a relentless pursuit of common ground.
  4. Dispense With Conditions And Ultimatums. Once we realize fundamental change doesn’t happen in an instant, lines in the sand give way to a focus on building bridges…from one conversation to the next.

If the goal is to build, develop, move forward — in any venue you can name — launch a quiet pursuit of better conversations — one at a time. It will change the dynamic of every room you enter. And you’re likely to find yourself at the heart of important shifts — in your world, and in the lives of others.

Contrary To Conventional Wisdom, These Are The Good Old Days Of Business Development

45604844_thumbnailFifteen years ago a know-it-all business development and marketing guy was given a career-limiting assignment: to create national marketing plans for a dozen practice groups in an AmLaw 100 firm.

Naively certain, and with the finesse of the proverbial bull in a china closet, the not-so-smart hot-shot asked a practice leader to describe his ideal target client. The answer — in that instance, and in scores of subsequent interviews across the firm — went something like this:

“My ideal client is the next person that calls me on the phone or walks through my office door.”

While this “waiting-on-the-market-to-come-to-me” strategy was perplexing to the know-it-all manager, the reality is that for decades many professional service providers built a robust practice by — in their view — doing just that.

It was not really that long ago that the combination of a shingle and an excellent work product would create an organic referral, or word-of-mouth network.

Those were the good-old-days.

But the marketplace has changed.

In truth, it was already changing fifteen years ago as I visited with that lawyer. Even then, professional service providers were experiencing something different.

No longer did doing great work assure a deepening relationship. Satisfaction was not a precursor to a return engagement…much less, loyalty. The competitive landscape was getting  crowded.

The Return Of The Good Old Days!

Given the change, it is popular to pronounce that what worked yesterday won’t work in the “new normal.”

But while high-consequence change is undeniable, the basic foundation necessary for successful practice and business development is the same today as it was for your grandfather’s firm.

Before you scoff, stick with me for a few more paragraphs.

Back in the day (you’ve heard the tales…word was bond, and a handshake was more than a social nicety), relationship trumped everything. It engendered trust, and was the impetus for the you-can’t-buy-this-kind-of-advertising of the word of mouth networks.

And all the change notwithstanding, relationship is still the foundation for effective marketing and business development.

What has changed is the way in which professionals must go about building productive relationships. Today’s marketplace calls for a proactive strategic approach.

So here are five ideas on what it takes to build a network that will work — even in today’s marketplace.

  1. Think Strategically. In other posts we refer to this as Smart Targeting. Wait for the market to come to you at your own peril. Instead, consider with whom you most want to work. Build a list of the names of individuals — not companies or industries — that can either hire you, advise you, or connect you to a hiring authority. This is the first step to a network that works for you.
  2. Listen First. Once a target is identified, invest in a season of Intentional Listening. And learn. Research, investigate. Tap the resources in your network in a position to educate and coach. Do this long and hard enough, and you’ll spot the areas fertile for connection, and communication.
  3. Create Visibility. This is about tactics; but resist the easy (and frequently traveled) road. Be creative. What avenues might you pursue that will create awareness with the targets you’ve identified? Do the homework here, and suddenly you’ll know exactly where (and whether) you should advertise, what to sponsor, when to speak, and the subjects to write about. As if by magic, your investments in visibility will begin to pay off!
  4. Deliver Value. #’s 1 and 2 above are the keys here. Those two steps should inform the content of your messages, and the framework of any connection opportunities. And this doesn’t always have to be about your area of expertise.
  5. Instigate Strategic Conversations. This is the substantive face-to-face experience that is the fabric of deep relationships. These are not once or twice a year things. Building relationships requires ongoing conversation; so the number one priority in every encounter with a target is to build a bridge to the next conversation.

There is no silver bullet. (There never was.) And not all relationships are equal. But invest in a robust and strategic circle of relationships, and over time you’ll find you have a pipeline of work — and even produce one or two deep, lasting, and yes, loyal relationships that no measure change can shake.

The Values That Will Frame Today’s Opportunities

Each of us has a value system. It frames days, shapes attitudes and is the fabric of the moments that define us.

Either intellectual and emotional honesty are unwavering guideposts; or we find convenience in shades of gray and situational ethics.

Either we believe word is equivalent to bond; or we live and work in a world devoid of trust.

Either we expect to be acknowledged and rewarded, and this expectation drives us; or we come to every endeavor with the best we have to offer because this is a reflection of who we are. At the most personal level, we give expecting nothing in return.

Either we believe relationship trumps everything — so this is where we put our creative energy; or we believe an agenda or cause is noble enough to warrant our attention, and validate the destruction of bridges to relationship — past, present and future.

Either we forgive; or we likely do not know the exhilarating renewal that comes with having been forgiven.

Based on the values we live by, today will either be one more act of juggling and balancing; or, it represents the chance to frame challenges and opportunities in a context that transcends one day.

If You Only Focus On One Business Development Item This Week . . .

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAIf you wrestle with making progress when it comes to business development, chances are one of the issue is an anemic or nonexistent professional network.

The reason for the difficulty is not that you were not born a rainmaker. There’s no secret handshake. You don’t have to be naturally gifted at working a room or making small talk.

You do have to consistently, and with some rhyme and reason, invest in building and nurturing a viable network.

This is not about attending every event that comes along, handing out business cards and brochures. It is about establishing connections — with centers of influence, referral sources, and the seats of decision. It is about strategic relationships that introduce, inform and educate.

Networking is not about partying. . Nor is it about schmoozing your way onto a preferred provider list.

The art of networking is what it takes to establish and nurture a productive link to your market; it is what eventually creates a pipeline of future engagements. A vibrant network minimizes those painful lulls that occur when you have no idea where the next piece of work will come from.

A killer network markets for you even when you believe you’re too busy to think about marketing.

This is not to suggest it is easy. It requires tenacity, and doesn’t happen over night. But work on your network, and anyone can develop a robust book of business.

The Hard Part

Building a community — that’s the way to think about your network — is a proactive exercise. And for many, the most difficult part is resisting distraction, and focusing time and energy in the right place. This isn’t about creating a cloud of dust with activities.

Events, speaking, writing and social media can all be tools. And they can be unproductive distractions that drive one to despise the idea of networking.

The key is focus. And actions aligned with strategic targets.

Effective networking is about establishing and nurturing connection with individuals and groups that will refer, recommend, provide counsel or actually hire you. An aligned investment of time and resources requires some up front decisions about who you should be networking with. The adage go fish where the fish are applies.

If You’re Just Getting Started

Finally, if you’re just now beginning your practice development, here’s some of the best advice you’ll ever receive. It comes via a colleague and long time consultant to law firms — Ann Lee Gibson — and was shared during a Legal Marketers discussion on Facebook.

Maintaining the relationships you already have is key to lifelong networking. {The} biggest, best thing {you} can do is come up with an actual plan to stay in touch with friends who have gone on to work for companies that {you / your firm} may work for one day. It means scheduling on a calendar…”

Great advice.

If you struggle with business development, and — for whatever reason — can only get one thing accomplished in that area this week, make it strategic work on a network. You’ll reap the rewards as long as you practice.

3 Keys To Preventing Excellence From Slipping Between The Lines

In the 1980’s there were few management conversations, conferences, seminars or workshops that didn’t have at least a topic instigated by the book In Search of Excellence. The work by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, Jr. was seminal.

Still in the early days of a new gig, I recently dusted off my copy. Though (in my opinion) every bit as relevant today, I read it with a more attentive (and hopefully, discerning) ear thirty years later.

One takeaway of this most recent reread is that excellence is often about the little things as opposed to the big ideas and initiatives.

Often the difference between excellence and average (or a bust) is the degree to which we pay attention to that space between the lines.

This is the silence…where understanding is assumed. It is the vacuum between intent and follow through. It is often the tension between strategy and execution.

At times it can be lost in a knee-jerk response.

But the art of managing the space between the lines while nurturing an entrepreneurial spirit — not to mention, training and mentoring along the way — is an art not easily mastered.

Experience is, of course, a great though unforgiving teacher. Offered here, as an alternative learning experience, are three things that might help prevent excellence from disappearing between the lines.

  1. Clearly articulate (and over-articulate) goals and objectives of a project, event or initiative;
  2. Never let a bias for action trump a goal or objective;
  3. Take a minute to watch a future movie — see the project in finished form through the eyes of your client — imagine what their experience will be.

Sometimes a rush to activity is mistaken for the bias for action referenced by Peters and Waterman. Certainly, as Seth Godin frequently points out, sometimes you simply have to launch the project or deliver the product or service.

But great managers understand that activity does not necessarily equate to progress.

The quest for excellence includes an approach that reads (and listens) between the lines…employing the eyes and ears of the client.

Musings On How Easy It Is To Be A Critic

Speak no evilIt is easy to be a critic. About anything. To point out what is not right. To spot weakness. To identify shortcomings. To react.

Sure…there is value in having a few keen observers close at hand to set things straight.

But is full-time-critic really the way we want to drive conversation? Is it worthy of so much of our attention? Does it warrant the lion’s share of my emotion and energy?

Just wondering out loud. There is certainly a mountain of editorial commentary on what is wrong — in politics, with religion, with every generation but mine, in the office, with the significant other — you name it.

The Attraction

One reason we are so drawn to the role of the critic lies in the power of community. In a provocative article — What It’s Like To Go Without Complaining For A Month, Jessica Hullinger suggests that “nothing unites people more than a common dislike.”

How is that for an attractive community dynamic? These days it is not difficult to make noise and draw attention. The group might grow a little. But is anything accomplished? Does anything change? (And where is the joy in that group?)

Here is the question: what has our considered expertise in pointing out all that is wrong in the world accomplished?

Has all of the (too often shrill and abrasive) criticism ever resulted in any improvement? Surely it works at some point; otherwise we’d find more productive avenues for improvement. Right?

I don’t believe it changes anything. Pick the venue — at home, at the office, in any governing arena — dialogue rooted in the negative rarely stimulates anything positive.

Is anyone the least bit weary of all the name-calling and just plain caustic tone of many would-be change agents. We would never condone verbal abuse; yet, as Critic we too often stoop to a level that sure feels close to a lack of respect for human beings.

It’s on full display on talking head shows, in blogs of every variety, and in postings on any social media platform. Sadly, you’ll hear it in the context of neighborhood disagreements, PTA debates, and anywhere people take sides.

Sorry, Mom!

Mom was fond of the saying, “if you can’t say something nice, say nothing.” Yours likely had similar advice. I have never done a great job of this; going negative is so much easier.

Reacting requires much less than leading. Pointing to flaws is easier than crafting solutions.

Resorting to names and epithets demands little imagination or energy.

Some will argue (passionately) that on some issues there is no common ground; that to compromise is to sacrifice principle. That we must fight fire with fire.

But the question remains: where is the progress? Who is leading change for the better?

I am making a conscious effort to catch myself when about to hold forth on all that is wrong around me. I believe this is a more potent dynamic than uniting around a “common dislike.”

Mom’s advice was born of a gentle and attractive spirit. What if — for a season — we tried getting together around this dynamic?

Great Marketing Events Are Catalysts To Business Development Conversations

FireworksThe event you just hosted, sponsored or participated in represents a good beginning. Introductions. Conversations. A chance to build a bridge or two…or shore one up.

This is what the event driven activities in your business development and marketing plan are about. Connections. Face time. One piece in a strategic plan of action.

If you’re doing your fair share of this kind of activity (throw in meals and happy hours), but not seeing the business development needle move in the right direction, you may be relying on the event itself to accomplish too much for you.

What you do after the party is over will, in large part, determine the return on your investment. If your plan doesn’t include meaningful follow up, you’re leaving opportunities on the table.

Sure, once in a while you might be part of an event that differentiates you from your competitors. But let’s face it: the object of your business development and marketing efforts will attend another five-star dinner next week. Another concert, ballgame or field trip with a competitor is likely already on the calendar.

Go silent for six months at the risk of missing opportunities.

A Bridge To On-Going Dialogue

Follow up differentiates. Partially because so few pay much attention to it. The right kind of follow up determines whether the big dinner, ballgame, seminar or field trip will actually lead to work, or was just another in a string of one-offs.

Your events should serve as a bridge to on-going dialogue with your best clients and targets.

To that end, here are four thoughts on how to create events that are catalysts to better business development conversations:

  1. Give your follow up a personal touch. An email is better than nothing, but move up the hierarchy of personal as much as circumstances and schedules allow. All other things being equal, a phone call is preferable to an email. And hand written notes (almost a thing of the past) differentiate instantly.
  2. Make it timely. While there is no cookie-cutter for timing, there are two principles to keep in mind. First, don’t let too much time pass. You’re working on a relationship; and relationships need attention. Second, think in terms of a communication process, not a single occurrence. Start by planning quarterly touches with your primary targets.
  3. Deliver value. A serious business development plan incorporates multiple ways to deliver real value to a target. In most cases this will include a combination of personal and professional value — and might range from an anniversary card, to an introduction to a valued connector, to a complimentary workshop on your target’s business driver.
  4. Ask strategic questions. While you likely won’t be asking for work each time you connect with your target, you should always be asking strategic questions. A couple of examples? What will determine your personal professional success over the next 12 to 24 months? And, what can I do to assist? And, of course, when it is time to ask for the work, don’t hesitate. If you need a bridge to this question, try what can I do to make it easy for you to put me to work on your issue?

Events are great tools. View them as catalysts (and plan appropriately), and your marketing events can have a long tail — and lead to actual business development.

4 Keys To A Better Business Development Pitch

So far this week I’ve taken nine — count ‘em — nine sales calls at my desk. And those are just the ones that have gotten through. You get them, too, I know.

Almost every one greeted me as though we were long-time friends: “Eric! How’s it going today?” It feels like an attempt to make me wonder whether a long lost friend might be on the other end of the call…a ploy to engage.

Sure…sounding friendly is preferable to the alternative. But the moment is ruined when it becomes apparent that not a single one of my would-be business partners had little more than surface knowledge of our firm.

What each did have was a strong suspicion that I might manage a budget. This was all it took to qualify me as a target. None had any real idea about our business.

The truth is I’m an easy audience in many situations. Maybe because there’s something in me (and most marketers?) that wants to give any pitch enough room to breathe; that admires tenacity; that feels compelled to participate. Plus, everyone that calls has a job, and is working hard to do it.

So I’m predisposed to listen. But I was not a good target for any of these sales calls. The callers were wasting my time; and, to the degree that I let it go on, I was wasting theirs.

The Bridge To A Productive Pitch

It is easy to sit back and take pot-shots. The fact is I know I’ve slipped into my own version of a similar approach when it’s come time to sell an idea or initiative.

So the productive question is what are the keys to a business development, sales, or marketing conversation that resonates as authentic, connects with good targets, and actually grows a practice?

Here are 4 ideas.

1. Forget the numbers game. If you’re just working a list, dialing up the next prospect, you’d better be pushing a commodity everyone wants, have a strong price-play, and have the time and resources to work long enough for the numbers to shift in your favor. On the other hand, do the roll-up-your-sleeves work necessary to identify legitimate and strategic targets, and you’ve changed the game.

2. Make it all about the Target. Unless you’re selling that commodity we spoke of in #1, opportunities to communicate with your targets are about listening — even between the lines, and learning about the base-line business drivers. Practice intentional listening and your target will let you know what’s important to them.

3. Enough talk — deliver some value. Most targets have heard the best sales pitches around. They’ve seen the PowerPoint, watched the video or done the lunch, and gone to the mega-events dozens of times. Know enough about your target to deliver value around something of importance to them, and you’ll have their attention.

4. Build a bridge to the next conversation. A strong bridge is the byproduct of delivering value. And one of the goals of every encounter you have with a target should be to bridge to the next conversation. Even after a deal is closed. An ongoing dialogue is the stuff of clients-for-life.

We all know sales folks that do it right. They do smart targeting, listen, probe in order to learn, and genuinely care about the success of their clients. 

Then there are my callers thus far this week. Smooth pitches, sophisticated collateral and a good phone voice don’t cut  it. And it isn’t because their products or services aren’t good. It’s because they didn’t target smart, and their pitch is a one-size-solution to any marketing or business development need. They might as well be using tin cans and a string.