Do you encourage your staff to think?

Seth Godin writes an interesting blog entry today about the dangers of ‘doing things by heart’. He relates an experience of going into a noodle bar and asking for something that wasn’t quite what it showed on the menu (the picture showed it came with sauce, he didn’t want any). The waitress brought the dish with sauce with a ‘that’s-the-way-we-do-it-here’ attitude.

I read in the paper yesterday about an incident on a train. An little old lady had inadvertently boarded the wrong train and therefore had an invalid ticket. The conductor insisted she had to pay for a new one (over £100) but she couldn’t afford it and got rather upset. A fellow passenger remonstrated with the conductor but to no avail. So the passenger went up and down the train, explaining the story to the other travellers and suggesting they club together to pay for the old lady’s ticket. He succeeded in raising the money, but was detained after the journey for begging!

As Godin points out, the way we train staff often stops them from using common sense. The best companies revolve around certain core values and these are communicated to and totally absorbed by their employees. Where the letter of the rule book conflicts with those core values, their employees will stop and question whether the stated procedure is the right course of action.

The power of belief

serena-web1Two years ago Serena Williams was struggling against an opponent in the Australian Open. She was overweight and was ranked a lowly 81st in the world, following a period during which she fell out of love with tennis. Deeply affected by the death of her half sister Yetunde, killed in a drive-by shooting in 2003, Williams had found solace in her local donut store and neglected her practice regime. But that match proved to be a turning point in Serena’s career. Frustrated by a poor shot, she screamed out loud and somehow found the strength and motivation to win that match. Remarkably, she eventually found herself in the final, along with the in-form Maria Sharapova. The Russian was heavily fancied to end the Williams fight-back, but Serena not only defeated her opponent – she totally annihilated her 6-1, 6-2.

Two points here. First, as human beings we barely scratch the surface of what we’re capable of. There’s usually something that holds us back and professional coaches employ the formula performance = potential minus interference. Something spurred Williams to rediscover her ‘real’ game, perhaps the realisation that she was wallowing in self-pity, letting down her lost sister or disappointing her fans around the world. Perhaps we’ll never know, but the change in her performance was dramatic.

Second, our performance tends to conform to what we believe. If we THINK we’re weaker than our opponent, we’ll probably be beaten. A speaker recently asked us to slowly swing our arm behind us, stretching it as far as we could and noting where our arm reached. She then asked us to relax, close our eyes and imagine our arm stretching a whole 360 degrees around us! Opening our eyes, we repeated the exercise for real and found we’d all stretched considerably further the second time.

Now as Simon Cowell will tell you, there’s a world of difference between self-belief and delusion. If you want to sing like Beyonce but have the world’s worst voice, you’ve got to assess whether you’re in the right business. But for most of us, we’ve already got the tools to do what we’re striving for. They may need sharpening, but with a little belief and the right motivation we can surprise both ourselves and our peers.

3 Great Speaking Tips

obama-speaksBased in Oregon USA, Barbara Kite is an actress-turned-coach who draws on the performing arts to improve people’s speaking skills. I’d recommend her blog and was drawn to 3 simple tips she offers for improving our presentations. She talks about filling the room with energy, not by talking louder – more by changing the way we think and feel. We have to ‘feel’ that we inhabit every corner of the room as we speak. Acting coaches sometimes refer to this as the third circle of concentration – the way we project our energy to all sections of the room.

Second, we have to breathe properly – crucial in singing, equally so in public speaking. But when we’re nervous we often hold our breath and the voice suffers. Here’s a few breathing tips for speakers.

Third, she reminds us to slow down. Again, nerves usually makes us speak faster. Maybe we want to get it over with? Or perhaps we just want to avoid spaces, worrying we’ll lose the audience or allow others to interrupt? But spaces are powerful. They’re the mark of a confident speaker.

There’s an interesting exercise you can do. Read a piece of text out loud and have someone time it, and listen to it. Then read it again, and make it slower. Ask your partner to time it. The difference between 30 seconds to 35 seconds seems HUGE when you’re speaking, but it nearly always sounds much better. You’ll insert more pauses and employ more modulation in your voice. It’s more enjoyable to listen to and more convincing.

Ditch the Pitch

I’ve got a lot of time for marketing guru Steve YastrowIn his latest blog post, he puts forward a controversial suggestion – that as salespeople we should stop pitching!

It’s such an easy trap to fall into. We’ve passionate about our product and we can’t wait to launch into a pitch that extols the virtues of what we do and how satisfied our customers are. Yastrow’s point however is that we have to get to know our prospect first before we can possibly think about delivering a proposition. That means asking questions and listening to the answers.

Most sales people lapse into monologue rather than having a genuine conversation with someone. Yastrow even comes up with his Conversationonemeter (the spell checker doesn’t like THAT one!) as a way of checking how effective your skills are in this area.

It reminded me of a story I read somewhere about a rather self-centered actor. He’d read the script but had a query for the director, “What shall I do in the gaps?” he asked. The director didn’t think there were any gaps and asked him to clarify. “I mean the gaps between when I’m speaking.”

As Yastrow points out, most selling isn’t about pitching, it’s about diagnosing – and that’s a two-way process.

A lesson in focus

Playing golf the other day, I was reminded of an important principle of performance – that we tend to get more of what we focus on. Rather like life, a round of golf is a journey that’s made difficult by a series of obstacles. But when presented with a shot over a lake, most golfers only see the water! Their inner voice goes into overdrive – “Don’t go in the water… I always go in this lake…think I’ll play an old ball…” Then of course the inevitable occurs – a big splash.

When the waiter brings us our cannelloni and warns us to be careful as the dish is very hot, the first thing we do is touch the dish! He’s put something in our mind and it just won’t go away.

That’s why coaches encourage us to think in terms of what we want, not what we wish to avoid. Bear this in mind when you find yourself focusing on problems and bad experiences. Learn from mistakes but don’t dwell on them. Find the positives in bad experiences and move on. Visualise the outcome you want and you’re more likely to achieve it.

Learning from the TV shopping channels

Yesterday I attended a most enjoyable business event organised by Dawn McGruer at Business Consort. Hosted by the Aston Martin showroom in Wilmslow (Cheshire), the event featured a guest speaker – the splendidly named Dexter Moscow.

A regular presenter on the QVC shopping channel, Dexter’s theme was our ability to influence people to do what we want them to. Not surprisingly, he quoted the famous book by Dale Carnegie, ‘How to win friends and influence people‘ and talked about the importance of emotion in the buying process, something we’ve touched upon recently in this blog.

As students of business will know, humans are primarily influenced by the avoidance of pain. Thus, as sellers it’s extremely important that we identify what this pain is and clearly communicate to our audience how we’re going to take it away. You might say we’ve got aspirins and we’re looking for people with headaches! Many of the products that fail to attract investment on Dragon’s Den flounder for this reason – either there’s insufficient pain in the first place, or the owner fails to get the pain-removal message across.

QVC presenters are extremely good at influencing viewers to buy, and expertly communicate how the product will make life better for the customer. But more than that, the presenters understand what emotions to play on in order to stimulate orders. I’d recommend a daily dose of shopping channel TV for those interested in improving their marketing skills – but you might want to lock away your credit card first!

Strengthen your customer relationships

I’m delighted to announce that Waterstone’s in Macclesfield have agreed to launch a new book discussion group based around personal development and business literature. The idea is to attract people interested in exploring their capabilities and applying some of the principles put forward by the best authors. Attendance is free and the store has kindly agreed to provide wine and nibbles (the session commencing just after the store normally closes).

It’s a great example of a business offering something that strengthens its relationship with its customers and differentiates itself from its competitors. The group meets for the first time on the evening of Monday 14th September and although this group is now full it may well lead on to other such groups in different areas. I’ll let you know how it goes!

How to become a more confident performer

There are all sorts of performances in business – giving a speech or presentation, meeting people for the first time, having or giving an interview, or even serving someone at reception. From time to time people who have to perform like this lose confidence. Perhaps they’ve had a bad experience – an attack of nerves or a difficult interaction with a customer? Their self-esteem takes a pounding and they avoid such encounters, convincing themselves they’re not cut out for such activities. But when it’s your job to serve customers or make phone calls and persuade people through presentations it’s important to face your fears and re-build confidence.

One solution is to separate act and actor. In other words you should recognize the distinction between the performance and the performer. Just because the performance was a failure doesn’t mean YOU’RE a failure. If you start from the premise that you’ve got abilities and unfulfilled potential, you can start to view poor performance in a more detached, academic way. “OK, that was lousy…what could I have done better?” In this way each failure is followed by a cool analysis of performance rather than an emotional personal attack.

Using this approach, you’re more willing to keep trying rather than avoid further risk of failure. Each time you’re learning from the experience and getting closer to the moment when the performance more closely matches your capabilities.

Getting the feeling

As consumers we usually make buying decisions on the basis of how the product or service makes us feel. But it’s curious that as marketeers we often find it difficult to express how what we’re selling makes people feel. Maybe it’s part of our British reserve but we’re not terribly good at talking about emotions.

I often ask clients to think about which emotions might help determine buying decisions for certain products. For example:

A Porsche (pride, status, ego, excitement?)

Insurance (peace of mind, fear of loss?)

Gym membership (health, fear of loss?)

Home alarm system (security, fear of loss, peace of mind?)

Posh meal (status, ego, joy?)

The thing is, if you’re intent on marketing a product successfully you have to get in touch with the emotions that influence potential buyers. A good start is to get in touch with your own emotional side – and think like a consumer!

Dress to impress

I must admit I did feel a bit sorry for MP Ed Vaizey (well just a very tiny bit). At the end of his interview on yesterday’s Radio 4 Today Programme, the Shadow Arts Minister was rather taken aback by interviewer Evan Davis. “You’ve got your shirt on inside out,” observed Davis helpfully. Vaizey’s riposte was to blame the early hour and express disappointment that the ‘red light’ was still on.

I guess those of us who attend business breakfast meetings will have little sympathy for the MP. We’re used to getting dressed in the dark!