unlocking business growth opportunities

You are currently browsing the archives for the Business Relationships category.

Two Simple Ways to Make Your Next Meeting More Productive

October 21st, 2015

2136AA314EAre you a Risk Manager or Opportunity Seeker?

Knowing the difference can have a significant impact on your meeting outcomes. Early in my career, I worked for a global consulting firm. I vividly remember one of the first meetings to discuss a new initiative that I had been assigned to spearhead. I laid out the opportunities, expecting an animated exchange. What transpired instead was a detailed discussion of the possible implementation challenges.

That meeting was a Eureka moment in my career. I had approached the meeting as an opportunity seeker, while most of my colleagues had approached it as risk managers.

Since that time, I’ve seen countless examples of meetings that have gone awry because of similar opportunity/risk miscalculations. Chances are you’ve experienced a few yourself. Why does it happen? Most people have a dominant mindset along the spectrum of opportunity seeker to risk manager, and will frame their meeting participation according to that mindset. What’s the difference? These two comments illustrate the distinctions:

Risk Manager: “We must make sure that the trains run on time.”

Opportunity Seeker: “Why does it have to be a train?”

A Meeting of the Mindsets

There’s nothing wrong with either point of view. Each mindset is valuable in developing an idea, project or initiative. The key is to find a balance that allows both ideas to be explored and challenges to be uncovered. How do you give risk managers permission to think in terms of possibilities, and encourage opportunity seekers to consider the downsides? Here are two simple ways.

Ideal Scenario: Begin by discussing the ideal scenario. Ask each participant to describe the ideal scenario for the idea, project, or initiative, from his or her point of view.  Remind everyone to focus comments exclusively on the ideal scenario.

Pre-Mortem: After you have documented the ideal scenario, shift gears using a technique developed by James Macanufo. Fast forward your idea, project or initiative into the in future (next year, end of next quarter, next month).  What could go wrong? Ask everyone to focus discussion on aspects of the idea, project tor initiative that might not go as planned.

Spend the remainder of your meeting identifying steps and processes for implementation that maximize the opportunity and limit the risks.

Opportunity seekers and risk managers both bring useful skills to the table. When you balance their perspectives, the result is a meeting of complimentary mindsets.

How to Be a Leader in Twenty Minutes: Lessons from a Delayed Flight

July 22nd, 2015

Air travel during the best of times can be a drag– but it’s especially challenging on summer weekends.

I recently endured one of those long, drawn-out delays at an East Coast airport. A broad band of thunderstorms was moving through the southeast and central states, causing both take-off and arrival delays.

I sat in the back row at the gate and watched the passengers booked on the first of three flights to Chicago. The flight was already delayed by forty-five minutes and the new departure time came and went. A lone agent, working two gates simultaneously, had no updates until he announced the inevitable: the first flight to Chicago was cancelled, and the second was delayed.

About a hundred passengers from the two flights mobbed the ticket counter for re-routing, demanding answers. I called the airline’s customer service number and waited until the delayed flight boarded and the re-routed passengers left. The third flight to Chicago was now delayed. I started a new line at the counter.

Another passenger joined me in forming the new line. He introduced himself as Mark, and we shared information on our respective flight alerts to Chicago, and our options for connecting flights once we got there. With the lone agent now loading gate-checked bags onto the plane at the adjacent gate, there was no official information source onsite.

Passengers approached us at the empty gate counter, and Mark shared his airline alerts with them. A line started to form in front of him, and passengers started referring other travelers to Mark for information, even though he had no official role. Mark even announced a gate change alert, and like the Pied Piper, he led passengers to the new gate assignment before it was officially announced.

Mark demonstrated five behaviors that work for more than just messed-up travel plans. They’re good practice for business leaders, too. Here’s what he did:

  • He gathered as much information as he could from his own sources
  • He validated his information against other information sources
  • He calmly shared his information and updates with others
  • He made decisions based on the information he had gathered
  • He took action and called others to the same action

These five behaviors influenced how Mark handled himself, his information and his relationships in a critical situation. As a result, he emerged as a leader in less than twenty minutes, with people he had never met before.

When an unplanned situation arise in an airport, on the job or with a customer, people look for leadership, not management. The first step to managing the problem is leading the people.

Reinventing TGIF: Top Business Development Activities for Summer Fridays

July 9th, 2015

There are nine Fridays between the Fourth of July and Labor Day. How much new business will you generate with yours?

The idea of working on Fridays in the summer seems counterproductive. It can be easy to talk yourself into not working or leaving early: everyone’s on vacation; no one’s serious about business on Fridays.

Here’s the surprise: research indicates that taking Fridays off during the summer can be counter-productive. In a survey conducted by Captivate Network, fifty-three percent of those surveyed said that reduced hours on Friday lowered their productivity and increased their stress. Leaving early on Friday and dreading Monday all weekend is the ultimate waste of time.

Summer Fridays are the time to work smarter, not harder. Take advantage of the relaxed vibe and the slower pace with these tips.

Schedule Friday Morning Meetings

Busy executives wind down on Fridays and their calendars are often more open than other days of the week, especially during the summer. Meeting at a breakfast or coffee spot that is convenient to your prospect’s office can provide a brief change of venue without taking up much time. This approach can be especially effective as a follow-up conversation to an initial meeting. Nine Fridays? That’s nine opportunities to move nine potential buyers closer to a close.

Do Lunch, Get an Introduction

Summer Fridays are an ideal time to schedule lunch with former colleagues or business associates. Always confirm that you’ll meet at their offices, and ask in advance if they’d be willing to introduce you to their boss or other executive at the company that you’d like to meet. When you meet your new contact, be sure keep the conversation brief and informal. Remember, it’s not a sales call; it’s an introduction. By the end of the summer, you’ll be back in touch with nine colleagues and you’ll have nine new business contacts.

Send “Three by Three” Emails

Fridays are also a good time to refine and test your email messages to prospects. Pare yours down to three sentences, then test sending a few by 3:00 p.m. on Friday to three types of prospects:

  • New prospects you haven’t met
  • New contacts you have recently met
  • Contacts you know but have not approached as prospects

The typical business executive receives over 600 emails a week. This inflow slows down as the work week closes, and your email may get more attention on a Friday afternoon than on a Tuesday morning. 

Clear Your Desk and Your Head

When I worked for a global consulting firm, we had an unwritten rule: don’t leave the office on Friday until your desk is clean and your week ahead is planned. It seemed restrictive at the time, but it’s a practice that pays big benefits: it frees up your head space for weekend pursuits. Nothing boosts productivity like coming back to a clean desk and a game plan on Monday morning.

If you work smart on Fridays in the summer, you won’t be alone. But you will be ahead of the competition.

Three Ways to Practice Listening as a Business Skill

June 25th, 2015

Watching with your ears pays off in improved business relationships

When I lived in Latin America, frequent trips to government offices to keep my visa status updated meant a lot of bus travel. I learned to close my eyes as soon as I got into my seat. By being “asleep” I could avoid any unwanted attention I might cause by looking around. It also developed my listening skills. Watching with my ears taught me to observe my surroundings and still focus on information about my stop or connection.

This came in handy during an especially crowded second-class bus trip during Easter week. My seatmate was a woman traveling to market with a live chicken in her lap. I can still hear that chicken’s off-beat clucking as Olivia Newton-John’s “Let’s Get Physical” played through scratchy speakers. Despite all those layers of distraction, I still managed to hear the driver announce my stop.

About forty-five percent of a typical business day is spent listening, so watching with your ears is not only a smart travel strategy. It’s also a valuable skill for business owners and salespeople. Here are three ways to practice watching with your ears to maximize the value of every business interaction.

Asking and Listening: A former colleague of mine kept a roll of duct tape on his desk. It was his reminder to ask questions, shut his mouth and listen. Listening starts with asking open-ended questions that begin with what, how, who or where. In a business negotiation, examples of open-ended questions might be: 

  • How would you describe your current (workflow/maintenance/customer service) process?
  • What types of issues have surfaced in your current process?
  • What impact have those issues had on your (customers/employees/partners)?

The key is to ask, and then listen without interrupting. Practicing this skill with a friend or colleague can help you to notice and modify your interruption tendencies.

Listening through Layers: Listening through layers is a technique that can help you to uncover underlying issues or motivations. Try listening through three primary layers: listen for facts first, then thoughts and beliefs, and then for feelings. Often you’ll discover that you or others have made assumptions at one or more of these layers. Listening through them helps to clarify what’s important to each person and help to identify the next steps you can take together. 

Taking Action after Listening: Listening is half of the process. Identifying the next steps to a common goal is the other half.  Asking additional, open-ended questions can be useful in reaching workable future steps, such as:

  • What would you think if…?
  • How does _______ sound?
  • What are the options?
  • Who can help with that?

It’s not always easy to step back from telling or interrupting. Perfecting your listening skills takes a little practice, but it’s worth the payoff in avoiding in tense negotiations and improving the quality of your business relationships.

Living Your Personal Brand

April 22nd, 2015

Sometimes, setting an example for yourself sets one for others.

I recently accepted an invitation to speak at a business school forum. I typically don’t charge a fee for speaking at student events, but since I would be booking a flight, I asked if travel costs were covered. I was assured that they were, and I purchased a ticket. Then, a week before the event, an administrator apologetically informed me that that there would be no travel reimbursement. Somehow, despite several conversations and email summaries of the arrangements, the students had misunderstood the budget.

On the plus side, this was the first and hopefully only time I have ever encountered this situation. I have to admit that my first reaction was disbelief. Did this business school really expect me to fly 1,500 miles on my own dime to speak for free?

As I moved from indignation to introspection, two questions kept crossing my mind:

  • How can I turn my response into a positive learning moment for everyone involved, including myself?
  • How could I use this situation as an opportunity to live my personal brand?

I’d gotten a good deal on the flight. With a little effort, I could arrange business meetings before and after the event. I could catch up with a longtime friend over dinner that evening. I could also choose to be insulted, turn down the invitation and end my interactions on a polite but unpleasant note. What kind of message would I be sending about my personal brand if I did that?

The next day, I sent a brief email message to the students and the administrator:

The mixed messages were unfortunate and I appreciate your apology. I honor my commitments, and I will honor this one. I look forward to seeing you next week.

During the forum, the administrator apologized again and reimbursed my flight. I had a conversation with another speaker that led to new business for me. Most important, my decision to speak despite the miscommunications allowed me to make a quiet and potentially powerful statement about my personal brand, and perhaps set an example for the future business leaders who attended the forum.

This situation reminded me that, regardless of external circumstances, we always have choices. We can allow our choices to be determined by the decisions and behaviors of others. Or we can make our own, intentional choices, based on what we stand for and what we intrinsically know is the right thing to do. The learning moment for me? It’s easy to find a substitute speaker. But there is no substitute for the integrity of living your personal brand.

Here’s to the Role Models

March 16th, 2015

I recently participated in a networking event for students at Johnson County Community College. This event allowed students to practice introducing themselves to business professionals, engage in conversation for a few minutes, and transition politely to another conversation.

In the course of these conversations, I met a student I’ll call Jana, who was studying fashion merchandising. I asked Jana how she became interested in merchandising, and she told me, “It started with a mistake I made at work.”

She works part-time selling women’s apparel in an upscale department store. One day, she sold the outfit on a mannequin. Rather than leave an undressed mannequin on the sales floor, Jana created a new outfit for the mannequin.

The following week, the regional merchandiser summoned Jana for a meeting. “I thought I was in trouble, that I was going to lose my job,” Jana told me. The merchandiser told Jana that the clothing promoted on mannequins was a corporate decision, but that wasn’t the primary reason for meeting. The items worn by Jana’s mannequin had sold well in the previous week, and the merchandiser thought Jana had talent. The merchandiser told Jana about the fashion merchandising program at the college, and encouraged her to apply. She has continued to mentor and encourage Jana, and wants to hire Jana when she completes her degree.

Jana’s story was the most memorable introduction I heard that day – but what impressed me even more than Jana was the forward-thinking merchandiser. This woman not only recognized Jana’s budding abilities, but also had the courage and confidence in her own abilities to take the intentional step to be a role model and mentor. She set a proactive, professional example for Jana, who hopefully will see herself as a role model for other young women as she progresses in her own career.

Whether we think we are or not, we are each a potential role model and mentor for someone in our business, industry or job function. Here’s to the role models, like the merchandiser, who are paying it forward by mentoring others.  

Networking for Meaningful Business Relationships: Three Questions to Avoid

March 3rd, 2015

It happens all the time at networking events: someone asks a question that is awkward to answer.

At one such event, I was standing in a semicircle getting acquainted with three other attendees. After I introduced myself, a person in the semicircle asked me,

“What are the two biggest issues you face in your business?”

Three sets of eyes fixed their gaze on me, waiting for my answer.

Every networking situation has a context, and if you’ve ever engaged in small talk with business people you are meeting for the first time, the questions you ask and answer depend on the context. For example, the kind of exchange you might have with someone you’ll probably never see again while waiting for your flight at an airport terminal is very different from the exchange you might have at a business networking event.

How do you establish a meaningful connection in a business context, often in five minutes or less? First, be aware of three types of questions to avoid.

Personal or Private Questions// “What are the two biggest issues you face in your business?” is a relevant question for a salesperson to ask a prospect, but only after establishing a connection and developing a relationship of trust. The question is out of context in a first, informal meeting with someone you’ve never met before. People like to connect with people who bring out the best in themselves and in others. “How did you get started in the industry?” is a context-appropriate option that fosters a connection.

Yes/No Questions// Networking questions build rapport by building momentum into a conversation. Asking yes/no questions is like trying to play tennis in a padded room – it absorbs all the forward movement your exchange. If you’re asking questions that begin with do/does or is/are, reframe them as what, where or how questions.

Why Questions// In a first meeting, your goal is to find common ground. Why questions can seem judgmental, or imply that there’s a right or wrong answer. Don’t risk putting a new contact on the defensive. Like yes/no questions, why questions can often be reframed as what, where or how questions. For example, “Did you like the speaker? Why?” could be reframed as, “What are your thoughts about the program?”

In addition to being intentional with your questions, be intentional with your answers. When you’re faced with an out-of-context question, answer it with a context-appropriate question. My answer to the question about the two biggest issues I face in my business:

“That’s an interesting question. What I love about my business is helping clients find new revenue streams. I’m curious – what do you enjoy most about your work?”

You have only a few minutes to establish a connection. Make that time meaningful by matching your networking questions to the context.

Risk the Simple Question

July 31st, 2014

What every company should ask customers – and themselves.

Ask a friend what makes you different from another friend, and he or she can probably tell you in insightful detail.

Ask a business colleague what makes one co-worker distinct from another and you’ll probably get an equally complete comparison.

Now think about one of your company’s competitors. What would happen if you asked a customer or prospect what makes your company different from your competitor? What answer would you get?

Most business owners only risk this question, if at all, with people and companies with whom they have a positive relationship. Yet the greatest benefit often comes from asking the customers and prospects who have the most difficulty answering the question. The people to whom you have revealed little of yourself and your company are the ones who don’t know you and can’t answer.

Everyone and every company stands for something, whether they have consciously decided to make what they stand for important, or whether they stand for something by default.

Asking your customers and prospects what makes you different from your competitors involves more than the risk of hearing what you may not want to acknowledge. It also involves asking yourself first, with clarity and candor, what you and your company stand for. The answers to these questions unlock the potential to create business relationships based on knowing, liking and trusting.

Yes, asking involves risk. But if risk-taking didn’t involve some risk, as rock vocalist Tim McMahon observed, “It would be called sure thing-taking.”

What do you stand for? Are you willing to risk the simple question?

Easy on the “I’s”

July 21st, 2014

How to create a relevant sales conversation

Recently I attended a corporate sales meeting. On the surface, the salespeople seemed to be having good conversations, punctuated with jokes and loud laughter. But their subtexts revealed more. They often interrupted each other in mid-sentence. Some people seemed not to be listening at all, scanning the room for other people. Others impatiently watched for a pause in the conversation to take back the floor. Most of what everyone had to say started with the word “I”. 

That meeting made me think about my first business trip to Japan.

I was in Tokyo to negotiate the terms of a strategic alliance, travelling with a Japanese-American liaison and translator. For our first night in Tokyo we stayed in the home of his cousin. A single woman in her forties, Takayo was a realtor in Tokyo who spoke some English and had studied French. My Japanese was limited to polite phrases that were useful for small talk but not so useful for a true conversation: comments about the weather; yes I liked Japanese food. Takayo and I managed to a mix of deconstructed English with some French thrown in and a little Japanese here and there, spiced with unintentional humor. 

After dinner I thought about our conversation and realized that she rarely used the word “I” in speaking to me. It was as if she had held up a mirror to our conversation. Instead of admiring herself in the mirror, she reflected back everything she said in terms of its relevance to me and what I had said. 

We were using the same words but we weren’t really speaking the same language. I was speaking “I to You” and she was speaking “You to You.” 

“You to You” communication is part of Japanese culture and it taught me an important lesson early in my sales career: relevance is a business relationship essential, regardless of the culture.

In business dialogues – whether they are with partners, prospective customers or social media audiences that influence perceptions of our brands – responding is much more than making your point. It’s listening first and then expressing your views in a way that reflects and incorporates the viewpoints of those on the receiving end. That’s “You to You.” And that’s as relevant a business skill in Texas or the digital world as it is in Tokyo.

 

Going Portfolio

July 1st, 2014

Reinvent your work and career before someone else does

In his book “Great Work, Great Career,” Stephen Covey describes Charles Handy, the Irish oil executive-turned-academic-turned-social and organizational philosopher and author, waking  up one morning and deciding to Go Portfolio. That pivotal morning marked the moment when Handy’s full-time professional attention was no longer devoted to one prescribed job using one defined set of skills in one organization. That day, Handy himself became the professional he describes in his books and lectures: the portfolio careerist.

Consultants are arguably the ultimate portfolio professionals. The best adapt broad experience and deep skills to a wide range of companies, business situations and buyer communities. They are not alone. From consultants and entrepreneurs to corporate managers and functional specialists, all professionals are part of an increasingly portfolio-based business environment. Going Portfolio is not a luxury or an option. It’s a requirement for thriving in any business, whether it’s a business of one or a global corporation of one million.

Deciding to Go Portfolio is only the first step. The greatest gains come from managing your portfolio once you’ve gone there. When a business unit identifies a previously undefined niche market, it’s on the path to Going Portfolio. The sales team who understands that they need to reinvent their business development strategy and their sales skills is beginning to manage its portfolio. When you take a chance to develop new skills or apply your skills in new situations, you are Going Portfolio. When you learn to adapt your skills and experience in response to your business environment, you are actively managing your portfolio for both business results and personal satisfaction.

Intentionally or not, we are all going portfolio because our world demands it. The companies, customers and communities we serve with them are constantly fluctuating, and so it the value they seek from each of us. You have to be willing to continually adapt the skills you use and the experience you rely on to add value, right here and right now.

That’s Going Portfolio.  What’s in yours?

Elizabeth Usovicz is principal of WhiteSpace Consulting®, specializing in top-line revenue and business strategies for high-growth companies, new ventures and business units within established companies; keynote speaking and strategy session facilitation. She can be reached at elizabeth@whitespacerevenue.com or (913) 638-8693.