Isn’t it infuriating when things you come to rely on to work perfectly – even (or perhaps especially) when you only use them occasionally – suddenly don’t? I had one of those experiences with my (fairly new) shredder recently. It worked perfectly last time I used it. This time – no sign of life whatsoever. With anything electrical, there are a few things I always try first. A different socket? Nothing. Change the fuse in the plug? Still nothing. See if it’s just having an off day and will feel better tomorrow? No different next day. Painstakingly fish out from between the sharp blades as much of the old shreddings as I can, in case it’s just a jam? No good. At that point I hunted around until I found the user instructions. They didn’t seem to have a trouble-shooting section. Perhaps it was time to look at the guarantee, so I went to the website looking for details. Nothing much helped, but I did find a ‘contact us’ button, so as it was a weekend I wrote an email explaining the situation. Much to my surprise, I got a phone call on the Monday morning from a lady saying she was from Fellowes and she believed I had a problem with my shredder? She took me through a fault-diagnosis process, tailored to my shredder model, and including the sorts of things users do uninstructed (like putting a plastic bag in the bin to collect shreddings). In less than five minutes the problem was solved.
Great customer serviceWhat a great customer service experience! I finished up being a very satisfied customer with a working shredder. It felt a more positive experience than I would have had if I had identified the problem myself from the instructions. There were minimal delays and no one had any costs of shipping the unit anywhere. The cost to the company must have been minimal. In fact it was a very economical bit of promotion. Providing written fault-finding might seem the obvious thing to do. In fact, even if it had worked it would have been a missed opportunity. It pays to think beyond the obvious! This article was first published at www.otteryconsulting.co.uk.
Many years ago, I was given a piece of advice by a sales manager colleague which has stuck with me ever since: “God gave you two ears and one mouth. Use them in those proportions!” This is not just about sales in the formal sense. Whenever we are trying to influence people for any kind of outcome – and let’s face it, that is most of the time – we should remember it. Where does influence come from? To gain influence, first we need to be trusted. People need to believe that we are behaving with integrity, that we have their interests in mind, not just our own. Naturally it is best if that is actually true. Second, we need to be respected (in fact, ‘respect for’ is almost shorthand for ‘willing to be influenced by’). Much of respect comes from a perception that we speak with authority, which presupposes trust in what we say. How do we establish trust? That is where the ears come in. Sadly, the experience of many people in many organisations is that managers never find the time to listen to them properly. Even if you are sitting in front of him or her, it may be clear that the manager’s mind is only half on the conversation you are trying to have. How can you know what matters to someone if you don’t listen when they tell you? If you don’t know, how can you be trusted to look after them? Those ears are very powerful! As a change manager, listening is a particularly powerful tool. It is a truism that most people dislike change, but I believe that much of that is about feeling they have no voice in it. Even when people come into a meeting feeling angry about a change that is being imposed on them, it always amazes me how much more acceptance can be achieved simply by spending time really listening to them tell you what they don’t like – even if you can’t alter it. Good listening involves the mouth as well: how do they know you heard them if you don’t play it back? Once you have listened and built some trust, you are in a position to build respect too: by explaining the changes in a way that relates to their concerns but is anchored in reason. They will still need to move through the change curve, but by using your ears and your mouth in the right ways and the right proportions you can make that easier for everyone.
Walking along Blackfriars Road in London the other day, I realised that there was something odd about the very ordinary building I was passing. I must have walked past it quite a few times before, perhaps thinking about something else, perhaps looking the other way, perhaps just being unobservant – but this was the first time I had noticed. How often are we so conditioned by what we expect to see that, so long as it more or less conforms to the norm, we build the oddities into our prevailing view rather than seeing things from a new perspective (curved window sills? A bit odd, maybe, but architects like to try out different ideas)? Change is difficult to implement, but the biggest problem is often getting started in the first place because people find it very hard to change the way they look at the issue, and so can’t see the need for a radical re-think. Another visual parallel is photographs of things like moon craters – do they go in or do they go out? Once you see it one way, it is hard to see it the other. As a change agent, part of my job is to help people to see issues from a new perspective, and then to see that that new perspective leads to a new and better way of organising the response. If there is no new perspective, there is nothing to justify the change, and it is easy to see why people would choose to carry on as before. If you still haven’t got it, look at http://www.london-se1.co.uk/news/view/7248 - or just try looking at the picture upside-down! [contact-form][contact-field label='Name' type='name' required='1'/][contact-field label='Email' type='email' required='1'/][contact-field label='Website' type='url'/][contact-field label='Comment' type='textarea' required='1'/][/contact-form]
Coming home from work the other day I saw a poster on the Tube which grabbed my attention. Leaving out the unnecessary details, it said “Buy a ……, get a free …… worth £49!” Is it really? Value, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The company may choose to sell the gadget for £49 normally, but that certainly does not mean it is worth £49 to me. In fact, it almost certainly isn’t – it might be worth more, in which case even if I had to pay for it I would think I was getting a good deal (and I may well have already bought one anyway), or it is worth less, in which case I’d never buy one normally, but might be tempted to get one for nothing. It is pretty unlikely that they have hit on exactly the right value for me. Our entire economic system is based on the idea that things have different values to different people. That is how trade works – if it were not like that, it would be impossible to make a profit on trading, so there would be no incentive to do so. I buy something because it is worth more to me to have the thing than the money. The seller sells it because they value having the money more than the thing. It may be in the trader’s interests to confuse value with price, but in the end we all make our own judgements about what something is worth to us. [contact-form][contact-field label='Name' type='name' required='1'/][contact-field label='Email' type='email' required='1'/][contact-field label='Website' type='url'/][contact-field label='Comment' type='textarea' required='1'/][/contact-form]
A couple of weeks ago, I had an evening out at the opera. I’d never encountered this on previous visits, but throughout the performance, there was a lady at the side of the stage translating the sung words into sign language. At the time I thought it rather odd – why would deaf people come to the opera at all? In any case, the words were displayed in English text over the top of the stage. Was this accessibility gone mad? That prompted me to do a little research, and to realise that there are many reasons why there might be deaf people in the audience: from the obvious-if-you-think-about-it possibility that they might be with partners who are not deaf, to the much more important facts that most deaf people have some hearing and may well enjoy music (and even if they have no hearing, may find musical enjoyment in feeling the vibrations), and the more profound realisation that for some deaf people the English spoken and written around them may be ‘foreign’ compared to sign language.
AssumptionsAll too often, we make assumptions about how other people see things. In this case, the conflict between my assumptions and the evidence led me to investigate, and find out that my assumptions were wrong, but much of the time our assumptions go unchallenged, and so un-investigated. In change projects, this is a particular danger. People who are feeling threatened or alienated by a change may be unwilling to point out that wrong assumptions are being made, even if they are not assuming that “management must have thought of that – it’s not for me to say”. Change managers must try to unearth conflicts like this by building relationships widely, and giving people at all levels encouragement to bring their concerns into the open. Change projects often fail, at least to some degree. I wonder how often that is because the manager did not realise, or bother to find out why, the assumptions were in conflict with the evidence. [contact-form][contact-field label='Name' type='name' required='1'/][contact-field label='Email' type='email' required='1'/][contact-field label='Website' type='url'/][contact-field label='Comment' type='textarea' required='1'/][/contact-form]
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="240"] Central London Traffic (Photo credit: oatsy40)[/caption] Driving through London a day or two ago, I was amazed to see in front of me an advertising van unlike any I had ever seen before. Half of the back of the van was taken up with a large screen, repeatedly showing a short advertising video clip, obviously in full view of the drivers behind. It certainly got my attention! Call me old-fashioned, but this seemed to me to be an innovation too far. Driving in London is hard enough, with heavy traffic, bicycles, pedestrians, buses stopping and starting, complex road layouts etc. to pay attention to, without adding advertising which is so clearly going to distract drivers. Health and Safety rules have a bad reputation, but this seemed to me to be something they really should apply to. But it did remind me that if you want something to grab someone’s attention, you should make it move! Years ago (even before the first PCs), I was a University Lecturer, and had to put on a display of some research for an open day. Nearly all the displays people made were static. Even though my subject was hard to make exciting for the public, and though my animated display on an early computer screen was small and very crude (in those days anything more would have been very hard), the fact that it moved and had a very simple coordinated sound track attracted far more visitors than most other displays.
Change gets peoples' attention!Change is like that too. It moves, so it gets peoples' attention, unfortunately more often negatively than positively – like the advertising van did for me. But if you can find a way to make people curious, and if possible engage them in the exploration of the change, the results can be quite different!
A few years ago, I was attending a meeting which was a few minutes’ drive from my office. I left a little later than I intended, and although the roads were quiet, when I arrived I had to park further way from my destination than I had expected. The extra walk meant that I arrived at the meeting, which had started promptly, a couple of minutes late. Naturally, I apologised for my lateness and explained what had happened as I sat down, thinking little of it. It was only two minutes after all. I was completely taken aback when the chair of the meeting replied in an angry voice “Two minutes can cost a life”. I should explain that he was an ex-military man, and I can understand that being late for a rendez-vous on active service could have very serious consequences. However, not only were no lives going to be lost as a result of my lateness to that meeting; no lives were likely to be lost as a result of anyone there being late to any meeting, ever.
Use criticism carefullyI might have been held up by a phone call to an important customer; I might have been resolving an important safety issue; I don’t remember. In business we are always having to balance multiple priorities, and I probably made a priority choice that I felt was in the best interests of the company. So first of all, it is always a good idea to understand the reasons for what has happened before criticising. But just as important is to make the criticism (if there needs to be one) commensurate with the offence and appropriate to the circumstances. Criticising me in a way that might conceivably have been appropriate in the army, but took no account of a completely different context, diminished my respect for the manager and left me feeling angry at his irrationality. As a result, at the very least it reduced the value of my contribution to that meeting, while I fumed; it probably had much longer-term consequences for our wider relationship. Criticism is a dangerous weapon. Used carelessly, the unintended consequences can be serious.
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300"] English: Terraced house façades, Montague Street See also 1608624 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)[/caption] I’ll never forget my first serious experience of negotiation. I was selling my first house, a small, terraced house in a cheap part of the city. I loved it, because it was the first house I had owned, and because I had put a lot of work – and a lot of myself – into it. I had decorated every room; I had refitted the kitchen; I had installed central heating to replace electric storage heaters. I was moving to a new area, where I knew housing was going to be a lot more expensive. I had received an offer to buy my house from a junior colleague at work. Obviously that made things slightly awkward to start with. But I was unprepared for what happened when he asked if he could visit again, with a family friend. They duly arrived, and I showed them around. The family friend, an older gentleman, was very appreciative, admiring everything I had done, complimenting me on my workmanship, and so on. And then, at the end of the visit, he pitched me a new price, substantially lower than the offer my colleague had previously made. I was caught off guard. Having refused the new price, I felt I had to respond to his questions, starting with what was the lowest price I would accept? He came back with requests to throw in this and that if they agreed to a higher price, and so on. We eventually agreed a deal – which actually was not such a bad deal from my point of view – but I was left feeling bruised. Looking back, I have to admire the technique. All the praise, all the efforts to make me feel good first, worked a treat, and there was nothing in the negotiation itself that I could criticise. He did a good job for my colleague. So why did I feel bruised? The one thing that was missing in the exchange was creating an honest expectation. I had been led to believe that the friend was there to give a second opinion. It was my colleague’s first house purchase, just as it had been mine, so understandably he wanted someone else to endorse his judgement. I had not expected that the friend was there to negotiate on his behalf – after all, an offer had already been made. Perhaps I was a bit naïve, but I was caught unprepared; the negotiation had high financial and emotional value for me, and I had no experience of handling something like that. I felt that I was backed into a corner, and that personal trust had been breached. So what is the lesson? Don’t just play fair – make sure everyone knows what game you are going to be playing beforehand, especially if personal relationships are involved. Trust is too important, and too hard to rebuild, to risk losing.
How often have you found yourself having a conversation, and it gradually dawning on you that the person you are talking to thinks the conversation is about something quite different to what you thought? It happens to us all from time to time, and normally it causes at worst mild embarrassment as one of you says, ‘hang on a minute, I thought we were talking about x’ and the other looks bemused. Sometimes though, miscommunication can cause real problems.
E-mail FireworksPerhaps the most common place for miscommunication to cause problems in the working world is in e-mails. Maybe the relationship is a bit sticky already, or perhaps the subject is emotive. You write an e-mail, for example telling someone what you are going to do. Writing the message down gives you a chance to choose the words carefully so that they can’t be misinterpreted, right? Wrong! Within a few microseconds of pressing the ”send” button, you notice that your computer has started to smoke from the heat in the reply that has just clanged into your inbox. You read it – how could they have misunderstood your intentions so wildly? They must be spoiling for a fight! Your emotion finds its way into your reply, and the exchange just escalates. E-mail fireworks are never productive. Why are e-mails so fraught? Mainly, they are too easy. We dash them off with little thought. For straightforward factual messages that is not a problem. The trouble comes when the exchange has some (often unexpected) emotional content. Although they seem like a way of keeping the emotion out and so appear to be an easy option, humans are emotional creatures: we don’t often do purely rational. Be especially careful when you are worried about the reaction, and it feels safer to keep your distance. By omitting the emotional context of the message, which we detect mostly from body language and tone of voice, we take away the very cues which would help the recipient to know whether we meant to be provocative or were just not choosing our words very well. Poorly-chosen words in the context of a friendly tone and an open expression will usually only prompt clarification, but without these, people usually assume the worst. Here are five tips for minimising the risk of e-mail fireworks, and getting things back on track if necessary:
- If you think the message might have some emotional content, don’t rely on e-mail if you can possibly avoid it. Start the exchange face-to-face, or at least with a phone call, so that there is an emotional context. Only once the tone has been set should you follow it up with an email.
- If you didn’t think the message was emotional, but the response appears to be – or even just indicates misunderstanding - never send an email reply. Pick up the phone straight away to clarify, or go and see them if you can.
- If you have to send an email which you know may be emotive, save a draft overnight before sending it, and re-read it in the morning. You have a better chance then of seeing how someone else might mis-interpret your words, and stopping it before it is too late. I rarely find I change nothing the next day!
- For really sensitive messages which you have to put in writing, ask someone else to check your words before you send them.
- If an exchange has gone emotional, apologise face to face – even if you don’t think you have anything to apologise for.
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300"] Wing mirror VW Fox (Photo credit: Wikipedia)[/caption] Last week I had to drive my daughter to France to start a year of study at a French University. As you can imagine, the (small) car was packed to the roof with all the things she needed, or at least believed she needed, and which could not possibly get there any other way. Result – the rear view mirror only gave me a view of some pillows, which was not a lot of help. However, I very quickly adjusted to relying entirely on the wing mirrors, and felt reasonably safe even though I was driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. The strange thing was that on the return journey, having unloaded in Nantes, I continued in the same way. It was only chance that I glanced in the direction of the main mirror, and realised that it was (of course) no longer obstructed. Information inertia!