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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.

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?