5 Keys To Productive Conversations

people talking to each other silhouettes set 9There is little value in having the same conversations over and over. Eventually, the glazed-over-eyes should be a dead give-away: no one is listening. If the goal is to connect — maybe even build a bridge to on-going dialogue — here are five ideas that will instigate productive conversations.

1) Avoid the devils you know. These come in all shapes and sizes. They may be rooted in legitimate analysis or the ghosts of self-awareness. And though understanding the past is one of the ways to avoid repeating it, conversations (in the context of any relationship) that begin with the issues of past experiments and experiences rarely last long enough to break new ground. Change – indeed progress – is born of shared aspirations. Better conversations focus here.

2) Pass on the blame game. It’s popular, and everyone plays it. So much so that, masquerading as analysis, the language of blame (or CYA) is often the default in change related dialogue. Understanding what precipitated difficulties of the past is instructive, but conversations focused on affixing blame are a waste of time. When the goal is to move the ball, play a different game.

3) Change the conversation. This is the game we should be about, because it facilitates connection. Much of the time the reason progress is so slow or minuscule is we’re engaging in the same discussions…over and over. The same debate. The same case. The same retort. And the same result. Try investing in creativity and innovation. Want to stand a discussion on its ear? Drop pre-conceived agendas and seed a new idea. Where true progress is the objective, new ideas – not agendas or platforms – will fuel a better brand of dialogue.

4) Be about solutions rather than winning. Conversations born of a need to convert or win rarely result in lasting progress. Connection requires creative thinking and a measure of courage. Whether on a personal level, in the workplace, or in the most convoluted of socio-political environs, solutions to multi-layered challenges cannot be summed up in sound bites, and always require on-going dialogue.

5) Listen more than you talk. Ah! Here is the rub. To the degree that conversation is merely what we tolerate in order to make our point and present our agenda, there is no real connection. Dialogue is about erasing the whiteboard, and beginning anew. Dialogue invests in intentional listening – without agenda, in search of shared aspirations, because this is where connection occurs.

All of this flies in the face of a communication strategy that says identify your message and stay on point no matter the topic or specific question. Dialogue is hard work. It is not media or camera-friendly. Good sound bites are the accidental product of actual communication.

What if we resolved to be a part of better conversations? If just you and I were to commit, what opportunities might be discovered?

That Negative Client Experience Could Be A Real Business Development Opportunity

Everyone has experienced a client / customer experience nightmare. Call it whatever you like; the fact is that almost every enterprise is going to have a bad day. What is done in the wake of the experience is the real stuff of being client / customer centered.

The Bad Experience

Since the first time we wandered into the Chartres House, it has been one of my wife’s favorite spots in the French Quarter. Nice corner location that opens to the sidewalk (Chartres & Toulouse), and a Cajun & Creole menu (I’m partial to the fried green tomatoes).

A couple of weeks ago we stopped in for Friday night dinner, and it wasn’t good. Specific details don’t matter that much here. Suffice to say that service disappointed and the food did not measure up.

Unwilling to let the bitter taste simply linger, my wife went to the website and wrote a pointed, but objective account of the experience.

The Good

Almost immediately she heard from one of the managers. What was communicated was simple. No excuses. No equivocation. Anything less than complete satisfaction was unacceptable. How quickly could we return so that he could erase the bad memory?

I was not that up for returning one week later; but we did. As instructed, when we arrived at the hostess stand we asked for Josh. It was clear the hostess was expecting us. Josh had saved a primo table, and we enjoyed what I’m certain were the top servers available.

Josh stopped by the table a couple of times. He didn’t overdo it, but he made it clear that he appreciated the second chance…that they were committed to making things right, and he was going to do everything possible to return to that top spot on my wife’s list.

And he did. Service was A+, the food was excellent, and Josh picked up the tab. Toward the end of the evening we found out that it was his first week on the job. He hadn’t even been in charge when we had our less that excellent experience!

That night cost the restaurant the price of our drinks and dinner — including an order of fried green tomatoes — and one of the best tables in the house for a couple of hours. And it won a raving fan — not because they have good food and decent service; we expect that. But because of the experience delivered…even when things went off the rails.

By Contrast, The Ugly

The Chartres House experience reminded me of an opportunity that was botched by another restaurant. Check Deborah McMurray’s Law Firm 4.0 Blog here for the tale of a steakhouse that did nothing. (And to my knowledge, none of the three of us have returned.)

I’m not good about voicing dissatisfaction or filling out those “Tell-Us-How-We-Did” surveys. Most of the time I’ll simply move on, give someone else the next opportunity to win my business, and seldom return to the place that failed to meet (or exceed) expectations.

This experience reminded me of two important points.

  • The value of honest client feedback — especially from those who, for whatever reason, might just move on to the next provider without ever voicing their disappointment.
  • A problem or complaint is an opportunity for a different kind of conversation — one that dares us to do more than simply talk (or write) about serviece.

Thanks to Josh at the Chartres House for the reminders.

You’ll Never Get A Fan To Be Objective

whistle of a soccer / football referee, free copy spaceA fan will always see things based on the color of the uniform. A catch? Were the receiver’s feet inbounds? Did a knee hit the ground? What holding — that wasn’t holding!

Facts are defined by what helps my team.

On the day after, sports talk radio thrives on the debate that is fueled by these alternate views. One caller is confident the slo-mo replay shows one thing; another sees it exactly opposite.

For three hours on game day the only thing that matters is that my team win. Everything related to the contest is seen through that prism.

When the call doesn’t go my way, the refs are biased, unfair or blind. We never get a break. When we lose on a close call, the fix was in. When we win, it is because we somehow overcame a stacked deck.

I love sports. I have always enjoyed competition, and the back-and-forth that used to characterize sportsmanship.

On the other hand, I’ve never much enjoyed being around or engaging with the fanatic who sees only the color of the uniform.

Call me naive, but I have never understood how we can embrace the violent offenders, repeat abusers, and unquestionable bad citizens as long as they help my team win.

Sure, pro sports is a business. But let’s be honest — that is a comfortable excuse. Seems like situational ethics.

In some venues winning at all costs has become the only thing that matters. And before you stop me, this is not the “winning is the only thing” that Vince Lombardi spoke of. We conveniently overlook the context of Lombardi’s comments — focus, determination, hard work and sacrifice.

Fanatic debates are good for coffee breaks and happy hours.

Until alignment with a particular team, or tribe or party predetermines the position we take in conversations that matter.

When perception is constrained by the belief that winning at any cost is what matters most…when my views are defined by what favors my team, when we’re no longer talking about a 3-hour contest between the lines, we’re not talking about fun and games anymore.

A thought: if we really care about moving the ball…if we hope to communicate with anyone other than those who already agree with us…conversations must transcend the color of the uniform.

In Case The Topic of Leadership Is On Your Mind…

SolutionIn his most recent book, Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek has based the title on a practice of the US Marines. When gathered to eat, the most junior members of the group are first in line, while senior leadership waits until everyone else has been served.

The book is, in my view a must read. But here is a timely taste.

The premise is that leaders place the needs, concerns and well-being of others above any self interest, thereby earning the kind of trust that inspires a group to follow — even into the heat of battle.

If you’ve known a real leader, you’ve experienced this brand of inspiration.

Leadership is not about access. It does not flaunt privilege. It is not the automatic byproduct of title or rank. It is something one earns over time.

Sure — some titles come with a nice office and access to a platform; but turn the platform into a pulpit with empty rhetoric or self promotion, and don’t expect to grow the ranks of those willing to sign up for the mission you wish to lead.

Leaders are not consumed by a need for acceptance or accolades. Solutions, ideas, constructive dialogue — this is the stuff of a leader’s focus.

If we’re constantly lobbying for a seat at the table, wishing for the acknowledgement we deserve, entangled in debates that are far from mission critical…it is worth asking whether we’re modeling leadership. Is our dialogue about personal agenda and advancement? Or is it focused on the needs and critical interests of those we aspire to influence?

One can have a seat at the table, own a title for a season, or even post up on a bully pulpit and demand action. But this is not leadership.

leader inspires conversations that matter, dialogue that is about solution, changes that endure, and a legacy we can be proud to leave behind.

What does leadership look like? This is from Sinek’s book:

Leaders are the ones who run head-first into the unknown.They rush towards the danger. They put their own interests aside to protect us or to pull us into the future. Leaders would sooner sacrifice what is theirs to save what is ours; and they would never sacrifice what is ours to save what is theirs.

This is what it means to be a leader. It means they choose to go first into danger, head-first into the unknown. And when we feel sure they will keep us safe, we will march behind them, and work tirelessly to see their visions come to life. And proudly call ourselves their followers. — Simon SInek.

4 Ways You’ll Acquire Work in 2017

Plan Gauge Proactive vs Reactive Strategy for SuccessThere are four ways you’ll acquire work and build a professional services practice in 2017.

  1. You’re already connected to someone who knows you and is inclined to use the services you provide;
  2. You are plugged into a group (network) that connects you and will refer or outright recommend you to someone in need of your service;
  3. You will proactively pursue a target(s) for strategic reasons;
  4. You get lucky, and wind up in the right place at the right time.

What does this mean for your business development investments this year? Consider what these four methods for the acquisition of work really mean.

You’re Already Connected

If you’re already connected to the right targets, your reputation speaks for itself. You don’t have to talk much about about experience or expertise; it is a given with this crowd. This reality isn’t the result of marketing initiatives  launched last quarter…or even last year. Being hired based on reputation is almost always the byproduct of having visibility and consistently delivering value over an extended period of time. You can’t buy your way in overnight.

A Network That Connects You

Being plugged into a network that connects you to work is the result of roll-up-your-sleeves-efforts over time. Developing these connections is why you speak, blog, do CLE events, and work through awkward moments at lunches and happy hours where you’re not sure what to say. If you invested wisely — meaning, if you’ve been strategic versus chasing every new “opportunity” that comes along — and focused on developing professional relationships — your business development plan will bear fruit in the coming months.

Proactive Pursuit

Being proactive isn’t about being busy. It begins with the painstaking challenges that accompany the smart identification of a target. Not every potential client is a smart target. In a high functioning business development culture this means doing the work that names those you want to work with, and why. It leverages your networking investments, incorporates an understanding of drivers in the market, factors competitive intelligence and focuses on meeting the target’s need. Effective pursuits utilize strong relationship mapping, create quality visibility and deliver value. If you’re making pitches and not getting work, it is a safe bet you’re taking a short cut somewhere. Viable pursuits are carefully crafted, and take time.

For the most part, these first three ways of acquiring work do not stand alone. They are interconnected in a number of ways.

  • They take time. If you’re just now addressing a need for business development, no matter how much you talk about it or how many initiatives you launch, you can’t accomplish number one, two or three in the span of a month, quarter or even year. Successful business development is inexorably linked to professional relationships; and these don’t materialize over a fortnight.
  • 2 + 3 = 1. If you’re doing number two and number three — focusing on your network and engaging in strategic pursuits — and delivering on your promise, a reputation (a brand) and all that comes with it will begin to flow your way.
  • The past is no predictor. A killer reputation and a robust network are the result of the work you’ve done in the past. But rest on laurels and risk obsolescence. Only number three — proactive pursuit — is focused on the future.
  • What about luck? Individuals and firms focused on numbers two and three are often the ones that seem to enjoy the repeated good fortune of being in the right place at the right time. Coincidentally, they often enjoy the big reputation. Translation: much of the time we make our own luck.

The Choice: Be Reactive or Proactive

When it comes to business development in the coming months there are really two options: to wait…and then react to what the market throws your way — and hope for the best; or to take matters into your own hands, get strategic and become proactive.

Being proactive isn’t easy. But unless you have a robust network already in place, and a reputation that drives the market to your door, the smart identification and proactive pursuit of targets represents the shortest distance between where you are today and the practice you want to build. That…or getting exceptionally lucky.

Hoping The Market Will Knock On Your Door in the Coming Year?

If you find yourself wondering where work will come from in 2017, two things may be true about your marketing and business development efforts.

Your professional network needs some attention; and you have a shortage of strategic targets.

Many have been led to believe that a quality work product combined with excellent client service will result in a successful practice. Capable and willing on both counts, optimistic professionals shop for the best place to plant a practice and hang a shingle.

But left to build a practice in today’s marketplace, it doesn’t take long to realize that the possession of the greatest mousetrap in the world is no guarantee the market will beat a path to your door.

Combine competition and volatility with a market that presumes expertise and quality, and an increasing number of professional service providers are left to wonder what it takes to differentiate. And hoping the market will somehow find them.

Too bad we’re not marketing a mousetrap.

We could shoot a video, create a slick brochure, and add some copy that focuses on effectiveness and efficiency. We could build a cool website, add some state-of-the-art SEO, write a blog and take to Twitter . . . and then sit back and wait for the phone to ring.

Even if one assumes that is a workable strategy, the professional service we offer doesn’t come in a box. It can be difficult to quantify, and much of the time there’s not much tangible until a matter closes, a contract is contested or a case won.

Stop Waiting For The Market To Find You

For everyone tired of waiting for the phone to ring, there is a much more productive and proven approach to business and practice development.

It begins with a proactive focus on your network. Before you tune out, consider this. The care and feeding of a strategic network is the key to developing a pipeline of biz dev opportunities.

How large does your network need to be? Ideally, large enough so that there will always be someone in your network in need of the service your provide.

A robust network — one you faithfully nurture — is key to minimizing those periods where the silence of the market can be deafening.

If this seems like a reach to you, think about the rainmakers you know. That thing you think of as an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time is, more likely than not, reflective of a robust network.

Where to begin if you don’t have this kind of pipeline? What to do next if you haven’t been working on your network?

There are no cookie-cutters; and specifics will depend in part on the stage of your career. But here are two ideas to consider.

1. Begin with a focus on groups you’re already plugged into — alumni associations, civic clubs, servicei groups, professional affiliations, and churches are a few of the most common. Get involved. Volunteer. Be visible. Contribute.

2. Become strategic. Begin to identify specific targets. Listen and learn — about concerns, needs and critical business drivers. Seek ways to deliver value in response to what you learn. (If you’re not clear how to contribute value, chances are you still have some listening to do.)

These two ideas encompass the nuts and bolts of a strategic business development pursuit. And they are the alternative to sitting back and hoping the next phone call or email brings an opportunity that will make your new year.

5 Guiding Principles For When, Why and How to Use Social Media as a Business Development Tool

Social IconsIf you’re considering a deeper dive into social media for business development punposes, are attempting to evaluate your current investment in social, or are among those just now waking to the reality that social media is actually out there changing the market, this post is for you.

And it is a response to the fact that I continue to hear professionals wonder whether there is any value in blogging, whether Twitter has a place, and whether we should mess with Linked In.

Full disclosure — I am biased. I regularly reap what I believe to be the rewards of participating in social media. It comes in the form of professional conversations and relationships. On the other hand, many professional service providers enter the arena with unrealistic expectations, and asking the wrong questions.

With that caveat, here are five principles for your consideration.

Principle #1

When it comes to business development, Social networks — Twitter, Linked In, Facebook and the like — are above all else, connection tools. While the market at large sees them as content distribution channels, you had better have a market-shaking message if you hope to enter the social-sphere and have immediate impact.

Unless you’re a rock star or have celebrity status, the value to be derived from social media is realized in the creation of conversations. And relationships.

So the question at the outset is not who can we get to follow us? or what do we say?.

Instead, begin by asking with whom do we want to connect? Who should we be following?

Principle #2

Worry less about being heard and invest disproportionately in listening. This isn’t sexy, but assuming you’re connecting to individuals and companies for strategic reasons (versus just padding the followers count or grasping for any distribution channel you can find), an ear on dialogue in the social marketplace will pay off with an opportunity to tap into conversations that reveal topics of interest and issues of concern to your targets.

Principle #3

Business development is still all about relationship. Viewing soctal media as an avenue for broadcasting is to miss its dynamism. Sure — if your message/content is explosive, has broad appeal or impact, or is the latest and greatest pet video, you might get lucky and create a viral splash. But as a tool for building a professional services practice, social is only worth the investment if it plays an important role in the relationship equation.

Principle #4

Closely related to #3, if you’re basing success on the numbers game — well, you’re missing the point. If you want instant followers, there are plenty of ways to buy them. Or write a salacious blog headline, and watch your “hits” skyrocket. But if you seek quality connections — the kind that can turn into relationships and clients, the strategy for gaining connections should begin with smart targeting — just like every other aspect of professional services business development.

Principle #5

Once you’ve thoroughly adopted 1 through 4, you’re ready to consider messaging. What should your content be? It should:

  • Be relevant to your targets;
  • Help establish you as an important contributor to this conversation — a subject matter expert;
  • Deliver legitimate value;
  • Encourage dialogue;
  • Set the stage for the next conversation.

Consider these five principles as you develop a social media strategy. Be diligent, and allow the time necessary for meaningful conversations to emerge, and you’ll have a basis on which to measure ROI — are quality business development relationships forcing their way into your pipeline?

Entertaining The Ultimate Business Development Question

Several years ago Fred Reichheld, among others, began working on a conversation and a system that would prompt organizations to rethink clients / customer relationships.

In his book, The Ultimate Question (now available in an updated 2.0 version), the discussion zeroes in on what the author defines as the ultimate measure of loyalty — whether a client would recommend you / your work to a friend.

The discussion of how to quantify loyalty outlined in these volumes precipitated important conversations. Satisfaction, while critical, should not be mistaken for enduring relationship. Appreciation and allegiance do not necessarily equate to advocacy or evangelism.

Reichheld’s work is a must-read for anyone serious about gauging customer engagement and the client experience.

But for any service enterprise intent on conspiring to create or deepen relationships, there is another question. The answer cannot be scaled one-to-ten. It doesn’t elicit a simple “yes” or “no.”

The ultimate business development question is rooted in a different value system – the economics of listening – or, as Bob Garfield termed it, Listenomics.

The question has consequences. And enormous potential.

The Question

Specific articulation will vary depending on the situation; but here is the essence.

What do you wish a firm / a company (like ours) would do that we’re not currently doing? What should we be focusing on? If you could design it, what would our working relationship look like?

It is a simple question; but the response can be disruptive. Eliminating the nonsensical – “cut your rates by 70%” or “give away your product, portfolio or expertise” – and suggestions will likely center on the need to innovate…to meet the realities of a volatile market with new thinking. New solutions.

There are plenty of reasons to resist: the market doesn’t understand the realities of our business model…clients don’t always know what best serves them…and what about unforeseen risks.

On the upside, there are the rewards. Like the differentiation and loyalty afforded a business partner.

If you wrestle with how to engage your targets or clients, ask the question. But be prepared. Asking implies an interest in the ensuing conversation.

The Pursuit of Better Conversations: A Thanksgiving Perspective

There are a few things that are either black or white. But very few.

Most of the time almost everything is defined based on perspective.

Thursday many  in the United States will enjoy a holiday tradition that has come to combine turkey and the National Football League. We’ll argue the blurry line between solid defense and pass interference. Or the one that separates a legal hit from a suspension-worthy blow. Even with the multiple camera perspectives and the benefit of instant replay, there will be a handful of plays that are far from black and white.

This is the problematic nature of lines in the sand. Or absolutes. It is next to impossible for our view to transcend our perspective.

But these days it seems the rhetoric is laden with the belief that things are black or white — that virtually everything is about red or blue.

Collegial debates have deteriorated into strident contests with one goal – to win. At all costs. And in the process, the exploration of aspirations – once the stuff from which shared and dynamic vision was born — has morphed into positions adopted solely based on the color of the jersey we wear. Or the appropriate positions of red versus blue.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a good debate. Ours was a home where mom and dad would articulate positions they did not believe in — partially to teach youngsters in the room to think; and partially because we all enjoyed the sport of debate.

But the debates these days aren’t fun. They’re venomous, rife with name-calling. Short on listening. And too much of the time everyone walks away angry.

The Demise of Dialogue

When I did time in radio, conversations around sex, religion and politics (with a dose of rock-and-roll) were the staple for ratings. These topics were certain to engage listeners from opposite ends of a spectrum. And while this strategy insured lively conversation, there was little real dialogue. Everyone was out to convert.

Maybe it was entertaining; but not many of us are open to conversion.

So what are we to do? Fight each conversation to an angry draw? Are we doomed to never again share aspirations…pursine great dreams?

Lines drawn in the sand, however clear and deep they seemed when originally cast, are easily obscured. Even erased. A gust of wind or the shuffling of real life tends to blur things, alter perspectives, or even create new lines.

What becomes of our communities…if we refuse to explore, collaborate, and engage in real dialogue?

A Thankful Perespective

One of the things I value most about the season that is upon us in the United States is that it affords a moment conducive to realigning our perspective. For the next few weeks it seems easier to focus on the very few things that are, in my view, black and white. Here are two:

  • Nothing outlasts real relationship. Disproportionate investment of time, energy and emotion here is the mistake to make.
  • It is in giving that we receive.

I offer this not as a political, theological or social argument; it is born of personal experience. Call it what you will.

If you’re reading this post, chances are we have some things in common – not the least of which is we have much for which to be thankful. Conversations that spring from this perspective might just give rise to healthy, productive dialogue in coming days and weeks. Maybe even progress, and vision.

Happy Thanksgiving!

LexBlog