From Customer Centricity to Customer Connectivity - Fierce Leadership: A Bold Alternative to the Worst “Best” Practices of Business Today - Susan Scott

Fierce Leadership: A Bold Alternative to the Worst “Best” Practices of Business Today - Susan Scott (2009)

Fierce Practice #5. From Customer Centricity to Customer Connectivity

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We fall back on the language of “client centricity” in the unoriginal, secondhand language that is currently the best we can manage. Look at the words—client centricity. How do they strike you? To me, they sound formal, hygienic, cold, mechanical. I’ve never heard a customer say she left because someone wasn’t centric with her. Would you use such language at home? Come on baby, let’s get centric tonight!

Come on baby, let’s get centric tonight!

“Client centricity” is one of the most common terms in business today and a key initiative for many companies. In service to this “best practice”—which refers simply to a focus on customers—companies invest millions in “CRM” (customer relationship management) initiatives aimed at training “customer-facing” employees. There’s no question that acquiring and retaining customers is vital to every company, but it’s the way companies are going about it that’s dead wrong.

Consider the fact that 55 percent to 75 percent of all CRM and customer centricity initiatives fail to meet objectives. Charles Green, coauthor of The Trusted Advisor, points out that many companies have the client focus of a vulture—they pay close attention to what the clients are up to, but only in order to figure out the right time to pounce and tear at their flesh. Green suggests that most CRM systems are not really plans to build a relationship at all—they are just a list of features and benefits advertising the wonderful things the company could do for customers.

I agree. My excitement soared when I read the heading for an advertisement for Kaiser Permanente. “Unleashing the Power of Connectivity in Health Care.” Two bold headings said: “A health-care crisis of communication.” And “Connectivity. The overdue next step.” Bravo! I thought. Let’s see what they’re doing to fix this. Well, what they’re doing, what they’ve done, is replace a paper-based information sharing system with” a continuous loop of information around the patient that will give clinicians secure access to all data, on all relevant patients, all of the time.”

This is a good thing in health care, an excellent use of technology. But what struck me is that for lots of people, the term connectivity is automatically associated with technology. And only technology. The ad goes on to say that Kaiser Permanente spent 4 billion dollars building this system and that “secure, computerized data sharing can reduce errors, redundancies, lost information, and costs.”

Data. Costs. Both are important, no question, and while I suspect that Kaiser Permanente’s considerable investment in technology was one of the right things for them to do, I wonder what else they’re doing on the “connectivity” front.

Sales plans, computerized data sharing, and advertising strategies are not relationship-building vehicles. While an automated phone system may improve an organization’s operational efficiencies, it rarely improves the customer experience. In fact, most have the opposite effect. Recall your latest experience with automated customer service, trying to get to the right place and the right person. Want to get a heated conversation going? Pick an industry and pile on. Try “airlines” and stand back. I used to love Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Now the first bar of “Rhapsody” brings me right back to all those wasted hours in airports due to delayed or canceled flights, with no information, much less empathy, from United employees, and causes a new conditioned response, a flash of frustration—a far cry from what United would hope for.

The Trouble with Customers

Here we are, all set, having plastered on our customer-facing faces, and a client or customer walks in, or calls or e-mails us with a question, problem, or goal that our script doesn’t address. How annoying! The problem is, we advertise for customers and human beings show up. And they never remember their passwords! So we return to the script we’ve memorized, while our customer grows increasingly disgruntled. Go “off script”? We don’t dare.

The point is, though we can learn the language of our industry, sit up straight, dress appropriately, and speak knowledgeably about product, when the conversation doesn’t feel natural, doesn’t respond precisely to the customer’s questions, doesn’t engage the customer in an authentic way, there will ultimately be no sale. And no matter how many times we hear the same feedback (You didn’t listen to me. You focused on features and benefits before you found out what I was trying to accomplish. You didn’t even look at me), we struggle to behave differently because we don’t know how to get beyond our customer-facing “script.” Besides, we aren’t particularly interested in, much less skilled at “seeing” and responding to, each customer as a one-of-a-kind human being, which is a shame, since way back in 1982, in Megatrends, John Naisbitt posed “the triumph of the individual” as a new direction that would transform our lives. And it has.

Today, more than ever, consumers are seeking to be acknowledged as unique individuals with lives, needs, tastes, and desires that differ widely from those around them. One size doesn’t fit all. Consider the myriad options to customize our computer desktops and cell-phone ring tones. Mine is a barking dog. What’s yours?

CRM programs are designed to manage a relationship with a typical customer. The problem is, there isn’t a typical customer. Yes, I know your data says there is, but there isn’t, not really. And even if there were, what customer wants to be managed? Worse, most companies don’t strive to create an actual relationship with customers—they view exchanges with customers as merely transactional, to be completed as quickly as possible.

A client in the manufacturing business told me recently about a vendor who lost out on hundreds of thousands of dollars of her company’s business. When the vendor questioned why he lost the business, the client replied, “It wasn’t because you couldn’t accommodate our needs. You have the capacity to fill the order. It was because you were attempting to push a particular product that we didn’t need or want. You were on a mission to close the deal. If you had taken more up-front time to talk with us, to listen to us, you would have discovered what we were actually looking for.”

In other words, what the customer was really hearing was:

“Kelly, you’re an important client and we value your feedback, which unfortunately has been that we are self-serving, frustrate you regularly, and only consider you a cash cow. You’ll be happy to know that we have now put the words client centricity on our website and named it as a key initiative. Since that should put your concerns to rest, we’d like you to make another purchase.”

Don’t hold your breath. Use a phrase like client centricity and you’ll not only fail to win back the business, you’ll put savvy customers on edge. Your customers don’t want to hear about your client-centricity initiatives. They want to hear that you will work very hard to understand their unique needs and then do everything possible to meet those needs, assuming they’re legal.

How hard can that be?

Very.

You must produce the right product, in the right environment, with the right people to drive the business. You must convey the right messages, consistent messages, at the right time, via the right media, in the right way. You must deliver on your customers’ expectations, keep your promises. And all the while, despite increasing costs, you must maintain margins that assure a viable business and keep your prices affordable. Meanwhile, you must match or outperform competitors who, each day, are coming up with hot new products and services.

Most business decisions are attempts to differentiate ourselves in some significant way from everyone else who is courting the same customers. And with customer choice soaring and loyalty declining, each industry has unique challenges to surmount. In The Experience Economy, Joseph Pine tells us that today’s customers expect far more than good products and services. That’s the baseline, but it’s not enough. Whether they’re purchasing socks, coffee, flat-screen TVs, or consulting services, customers want to enjoy the experience of acquiring and using those products and services, from first contact through to completion of the transaction.

So assuming your products or services are of good quality and competitively priced, one of the most powerful differentiators has to do with the conversations you have with customers. The conversation is the relationship. Remember? If the conversation stops (I often hang up after every attempt to get to the right person is thwarted) or is in-authentic or lacks warmth or is one-sided or canned or self-serving, then … well, you do the math.

A senior executive in a financial organization recently told me about a meeting that had been called to figure out why the company had suddenly arrived at a negative result with several important clients.

She told me, “As we were talking, I noticed one of our more accomplished senior managers, who is usually quite vocal, in the back of the room, deep in thought. I called on him to share his thoughts. He related that because of a series of recent events with a major client, he had been putting off a discussion with that client about fee changes.

“Up until this moment,” she said, “he had felt somewhat secure in having that important ‘fees’ conversation at some time in the not-too-distant future. What really struck him was the sense of urgency he was now feeling to have that conversation today rather than leave it even a few more hours. He just knew that our organization was very close to ‘suddenly’ losing this client because of all of the missing conversations.

“By sharing his sense of urgency, he tapped into a larger awareness in the room. He brought the feeling and awareness to everyone about how our internal conversations impact what we choose to do or not do every day, which ultimately produces our outcomes. It was a great real-life, powerful example and a profound experience for the entire room. He actually did have that conversation shortly after the session and was able to clarify significant issues and secure our relationship with that client.”

I’ll never forget my first Fierce Leadership session with sixteen executives who had flown to Atlanta from around the world. I was eager to get them well launched in achieving their goals for the year.

One big problem. They learned upon arrival that they had just lost the customer that accounted for 20 percent of the company’s net profit. They were in shock. I threw out the planned agenda and helped them process this news and figure out what to do about it.

This is what came up: The client had been a difficult one, unreasonable, accusatory, combative, demanding everything yesterday for less than they originally agreed on and with extra bells and whistles thrown in for free. During the previous two years, every conversation had taken place in a war zone. No matter what good results were produced, the client never expressed appreciation or said “thank you.”

It’s no wonder that whenever someone thought, “I should call the client,” the competing thought was, “Why ruin a perfectly good Wednesday? I’m not in the mood to be chewed up and spit out. I’ll call tomorrow.” And tomorrow became next week, which became next month (gradually, gradually, you see where this is going). Besides, even though there was no love lost on either side, this client was legally, contractually bound to the company in such a way that if it took its business elsewhere, it would have to pay a heavy penalty. It was like being stuck in the mud.

Each contentious conversation and each missing conversation took the relationship down, as emotional capital—which was never really there from the beginning—leaked out of every crack, window, and door. Have you noticed that quite often, the biggest problems and the greatest prices paid are not because of the conversations we tried to have that didn’t go well, but because of the ones we didn’t have? The ones we avoided. The missing conversations.

Meanwhile, who do you suppose was in there talking with this client? Right. The competition. And gradually, then suddenly, those conversations persuaded the client to come over to the other company and even managed to justify paying the penalty to break the contract.

The executives I was working with hadn’t been aware of these conversations with the competition. How could they, when they had basically curtailed communication? But they were certainly aware that losing 20 percent of the company’s net profit was not okay. What to do? Could anything be done?

First was to realize how the account had been lost.

Second was to ask, do we want this customer back? Are we certain? The answer was yes, but with a greatly improved relationship. Life is short, and with some clients it feels way too long!

Third was to get the customer back the same way they lost it—one conversation at a time. So I helped them build a game plan to do just that.

The plan included humility, intimacy, accountability, apology. It included thought partnership and significant innovation, which the competition was not providing to the same degree. Mineral Rights came in handy. Eighteen months later, the client returned.

Take a moment to think about your customers. Who needs to hear from you? Write their names:

The House Feels Cold

Over lunch, after struggling to articulate the reason he wanted to meet with me, the head of sales effectiveness for a large organization offered this analogy: “Our people are good at designing excellent, comprehensive solutions for our clients. If you compared building a solution to building a house, they build strong houses, smart houses that can stand for all time. The trouble is, when you walk into the house, the house feels cold. We need an interior designer to warm it up.”

“What words do your clients use to describe your people?” “Self-serving. Comes up again and again. It’s a killer.”

“What words do your clients use most often to describe your people?”

“Self-serving. It’s a killer. Clients use the same words over and over to describe our people: cold, no warmth, no connection, in-authentic, kept selling no matter what I said, only care about how much money you can make off of my company It’s costing us a fortune.”

I accepted his invitation to observe three days of sales training. The theme was good old “client centricity,” and it kicked off with a senior executive’s presentation of the company’s “burning platform,” followed by a session on “inspirational leadership” (yawn), a training in negotiations, and six simulated sales meetings with salespeople who were given just one assignment: SELL.

Here’s what I noticed.

The executive’s opening “burning platform” focused entirely on numbers, some of which were troubling, and barely contained his pride that the company’s people were always selling. At one point, he said, “Because we’ve been losing some talented people, we may need to raise some salaries and show appreciation for people.” Something he failed to do in his ninety minutes on stage.

At the end, when asked what behaviors he would encourage, given the goals and challenges before the company, he said, without missing a beat, “Pricing! We’ve got to get that right.”

Of course, I’m not saying that pricing and sales goals aren’t important to the bottom line. But what his presentation failed to acknowledge was the humanity, the individuality, and the value of his customers and of his employees. No wonder the company had trouble retaining both.

There was another huge “tell” later on, when the instructor showed the following slide to four hundred people on a screen ten feet tall:

Definition of Successful Negotiation:

· satisfies the company’s interests well

· satisfies clients’ interests acceptably

· satisfies others’ interests tolerably

I almost fell off my chair. It doesn’t get more self-serving than this. After I had recovered, what I wanted to know was, when someone first floated that slide, did anyone say, “You’ve got to be kidding!”

By the final session on day three, stragglers were coming in late, shirts limp and wrinkled, faces damp from running. They dropped their four-inch-thick sales leadership notebooks on the table and wearily opened them to “Client Meeting Simulation #6.” Time to put everything they had learned into practice and advance or close the sale.

Though I was rooting for them, I was concerned. It had become clear in earlier simulations that even when urged to demonstrate client centricity, nowhere in this training had these very smart people been taught how to connect with clients in a real way, much less at a deep level.

For one thing, their initial “warm-up” attempts were perfunctory and inauthentic. They simply went through the motions, and in every case, opening comments were about golf, which is about as predictable, impersonal, and insincere as you can get.

“Been spending time on the golf course?”

How are you? I’m dying. Glad to hear it. How much would you like to spend with us today?

“A little, not much, given the big change we’ve got on our hands.”

“Hmm, well …”

(awkward silence) then they would jump into active sales mode.

It might as well have been: “How are you?” “I’m dying.”

“Glad to hear it. How much would you like to spend with us today?”

Needless to say, no one engaged emotionally. What’s more, the trainees missed the huge clues tossed out by clients (“… the big change we’ve got on our hands … “) that could have provided opportunities to learn more about the client’s agenda and, in turn, could have provoked more compelling conversations, clarified appropriate “solutions,” and raised clients’ trust level.

When it comes to warm-ups, I’m a fan of getting to the point—no inane chitchat about golf or the weather. If it’s a first meeting, why not simply say, “Thank you for your time. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.” (And mean it.) And then “What’s most important to you to accomplish in our time together?” And get on with it, with stellar eye contact throughout.

If it’s a second or third meeting, you can inquire about something that came up in your first meeting. This shows not only that you were listening, but that you cared enough to commit it to memory. “How was Costa Rica?” or “How did last week’s meeting with your team go?”

Back at Simulation #6, the “clients” had been instructed to begin by saying, “Before you start, I should tell you the big news. We’ve just been acquired by ABC Corporation. So, as you can imagine, everyone here is distracted because a lot of us will undoubtedly be laid off, including me. So once the deal is inked, I might not be here.”

What I wanted the trainees to say at that moment (you would have wanted it, too) would have been something like “That is big news. Tell me more.” Or “Let’s set our meeting agenda aside. How are you doing and how can I help?” And perhaps “If you leave the organization, I’d like to make some introductions. I work with several companies who might jump at the chance to bring someone of your caliber on board.”

But noooooo … I watched three simulations, and in all three cases, the trainee’s immediate response was, “Hmmm. How do you think this will affect our project?”

When I tried to tip off the last duo prior to their simulation with a note that said: “EMPATHY! Ask him how HE is?” they nodded, walked in, and said, “Thanks for the meeting. How are you?” And when the client told them about the acquisition and his possible departure, they immediately expressed concern—not about him, about the project.

“How are you” was their five seconds of “client centricity.” I realized that they honestly didn’t know HOW to empathize and, even more concerning, didn’t seem to understand why they should.

The result? The “house” felt cold indeed. One frustrated client provided a terrific analogy: “If you came home and discovered your wife weeping in the kitchen, would the first words out of your mouth be, ‘Does this mean dinner will be late?’”

If you came home and discovered your wife weeping in the kitchen, would the first words out of your mouth be, “Does this mean dinner will be late?”

At the end of the day, the head of sales training confessed to me, “This is always the point in the training where I am tempted to drink heavily.” No wonder.

Happens Every Day!

No matter what your job is—whether you sell pipe fittings, design high-rise condominiums, or serve cappuccinos—the key is your context, your beliefs about your responsibility to customers and the relationships you intend to enjoy or endure with them.

For example, if I’m in the checkout line at my local grocery store (or any checkout counter anywhere in the world), it would be easy for you to think that you’re doing your job if you ring up the sale and hand me my purchases, the correct change, and a receipt. That you get points for using my name and more points if you make actual eye contact with me. That you get a bonus for pointing out reusable bags I can buy for use today and in the future. That if you have a customer loyalty program, you get more points for asking me for my membership card so you can check to see if I get a discount. And that if I don’t have a membership card, you get even more points if you recommend it and I sign up.

But I’ll tell you what makes the real difference. That you look into my eyes and connect with me, even if only for a few seconds. Human to human. A real smile that suggests, “I see you.” This seems like such a small thing, perhaps foolish to some, yet it’s what we all want, deep down where it counts. To be seen.

I’m reminded of the African greeting sawu bona, which means “I see you.” The response is sikhona, which means “I am here.” The order is important. It’s as if until you see me, I don’t exist. Raking your eyes quickly over someone’s face is not seeing them. So if you want to see your customers, really look at them. What takes mere seconds can make people want to return again and again.

Practicing Squid Eye

What might you notice if you were practicing squid eye that would suggest you and/or your organization are not “seeing” your customers and clients as individual human beings? Check any of the following tells that apply to yourorganization.

You have an initiative called “client centricity.” The fact that there is an initiative on the subject in the first place is a tell to your customers (and to everyone else) that you are not client centric, you are the exact opposite; otherwise, you wouldn’t need an initiative in that area.

You use the term customer facing. This should disturb you. It implies that you have a special face that you pull out of a drawer and slap on when you’re about to talk with a customer. What happened to you being you, consistently, no matter whom you’re with? You already have a face. Yours. It’s a perfectly good face. Wear it everywhere you go.

You already have a face. Yours. It’s a perfectly good face. Wear it everywhere you go.

You confuse “presentation training” with sales training. Your employees are rarely taught how to have conversations—two-way exchanges of ideas and sentiments—with your customers. They prefer to pitch, and even though your customers tell you that at every stage of the sale, they would greatly prefer a conversation to a presentation or a pitch, your people pale at the thought of abandoning their PowerPoint decks.

You use the term high-performance partnering, though that is not your customers’ experience. “High-performance partnering” is often jargon without action, without real meaning. In actuality, there is no shared clarity in the organization about what high-performance partnering really is, how it would benefit your customers, what it actually requires, or how to sustain it once you’ve made the sale.

You have a relationship with your clients based primarily on very shaky ground—price. Because you are not connecting with your clients, because you have not acquired emotional capital, your price- or fee-based relationships with clients are hanging by a thread and clients are leaving because competitors are offering a similar product or service for a lower price.

You are operating on information clients shared with you six months ago. No plan survives its collision with reality, and reality changes for you and for your clients in a heartbeat, seriously complicating your favorite fantasies about how things were going to go. When was the last time you asked your customers, “What has changed since last we talked?”

Your language turns customers off. If your message or marketing materials include clichéd or insincere words and phrases like “be your own boss,” “100% free,” “act now,” “amazing,” “Dear Friend,” “double your (income, satisfaction, weight loss),” “easy terms,” “financial freedom,” “information you requested,” “instant,” “limited time,” “now-only offer,” “satisfaction guaranteed” (and so many more), STOP IT! These words underestimate your customers’ intelligence, and they’ll trust you about as far as they could throw you.

You rarely challenge your customers. No matter what you’re selling, you will never clink glasses with your clients to toast great results if you don’t challenge a request or idea you feel is not right for them. That’s true whether you’re selling million-dollar solutions or prom dresses. If you enable bad habits, bad choices, bad behavior, and questionable decisions, you may struggle to look in the mirror after cashing another of your clients’ checks, and it may be the last check of theirs that you cash.

You rely on software to build the “relationship.” You’ve invested thousands, maybe millions in CRM software, which can be very valuable if it helps inform your conversations with customers, personalizing and deepening the relationship. But if CRM is primarily a data bank to be managed, sans conversations, your investment will return very little. Where in the plan do your customers, as individuals, truly reside?

You are cautioned not to use certain words that have taken on a negative connotation. The word solutions is an example. In the consulting field, it’s considered a bad word. Apparently, customers don’t like it. The question is: Why don’t they like it? It’s a tell when a perfectly good word gets a bad reputation. A further tell is that we think we’ve solved the problem by simply replacing the word with another. The word is not the problem. Why not focus on solving the real problem?

What Were We Thinking?

So if client centricity initiatives often fall short of expectations, why do they continue to hold such a prominent, costly place in our communications with our customers? What were we thinking?

We were thinking, but with only one part of our brains, the wrong part. The part that looks at relationships as only a means to an end. The part that wants to connect with customers only to the degree that it will take for them to hire us or buy our stuff so we can make money, grow the company, satisfy shareholders, pay our mortgages, and put groceries on the table and gas in the tank.

“Business,” broadly speaking, has taught us to spend the minimum amount of time with customers needed to make the sale or resolve the problem, so that we can get on to the next customer. What efficiency expert came up with that one?!

As a result, we’ve made it almost impossible to make a real connection with our customers. Again, think about how hard it is for customers to reach a real person who can help them. Instead, they must listen to a lengthy list of options, none of which has anything to do with why they’re calling. When they finally get to us, we come across as unengaged automatons, whose response to most queries is: “It’s the company’s policy.” Often preceded or followed by “It’s not my decision.” But hey, we’ve been encouraged to use the customer’s name! We know they like that, right?

Apparently, some companies don’t want a meaningful relationship with their customers. Not really. They think, “Why should we be expected to develop genuine affection for, much less an emotional connection with, our customers? That’s hard enough at home! We’re pleasant enough, aren’t we? We wish our customers well and hope they are happy enough with their purchases, with their decision to work with us. But we don’t need to treat them like living, breathing people with families, homes, dreams, and birthdays. How about if our CRM system automatically generates birthday cards with a coupon for 20 percent off?”

If you believe this is the way business must be conducted, the way success is measured, you are destined to struggle.

What argument are you waging, and what are you winning if you can prove you’re right?

WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE?

Take a look at the following list of beliefs and check those you currently hold.

I believe that:

I believe that:

The notion of forging a real relationship is unrealistic; I mean, really, who has time?

My most valuable currency with customers is relationship, and relationships are enriched or damaged one interaction at a time.

Customers don’t want a relationship. They just want products or services.

Customers want to be seen, responded to as the individuals they are. Their “conversation” with me may be the only meaningful conversation they’ll have today.

Customers can be annoying. They ask naive and stupid questions. I don’t have the time or the patience to go into detail.

Customers’ questions remind me how valuable my expertise is. Customers need my help.

My job in sales is to sell as much as possible for the highest amount possible, and since commission is based on that number, up-selling something a customer doesn’t need is just the nature of the game.

My job in sales is to provide the best possible service to my customers. I want to sell a lot and I want long-term customers who come back time and time again. Sometimes that means saying, “Don’t buy that.”

Customers can check the status of their accounts, get answers to FAQs, place and manage purchases online. This is efficiency at its best. It’s unrealistic to think we can talk with every customer. There are too many of them.

The solution to the wonderful dilemma of having too many customers to talk to is not a maddeningly pleasant voice that tells customers, “I’m sorry. That is not a valid option.”

If you hold the beliefs on the left, consider the implications.

· You will be providing poor customer service, a really lousy strategy. This is unsustainable unless you are the only company on the planet that sells what you sell. If that isn’t the case, you are already in decline. You just don’t see it yet.

· You will be underfunded. Lacking emotional capital, you’ll also have dwindling financial capital and will be forced to focus your attention on keeping the doors open or on the next round of layoffs, rather than on innovation, trends, strategy, execution.

· Customers will leave, are leaving. ‘Nuff said.

· Word will get out. Thanks to the Internet, it’s easier than ever for customers to find out what others think of your company. Your company has a reputation, and it’s out there. And you have a reputation, which will follow you throughout your career.

· You won’t enjoy your work. Losing sales and market share or working with perpetually unhappy or departing customers is no way to live. You’ll burn out, contemplate selling seashells on the seashore, which might be a good idea. Anything to relieve the stress.

Think back to the company whose salespeople held the view that their only job in client meetings was to sell. That’s their context: sell, sell, sell. Growth is key—increased market share, improved margins, mega deals.

I have no argument with the overall goals of that organization. None at all. Growth is key! And that company’s people have the intellectual chops to get it right for their clients. They know their stuff, believe in their stuff, and want to close the sale.

Trouble is, their clients have different, competing beliefs. In addition to goals achieved and problems solved, they want thought, leadership, innovation. They want to have their learning provoked, hear new ideas. They’d like to be thinking differently when the conversation is over. They want to know what other companies are doing that’s smart. They want to be alerted to mistakes and pointed toward the path that is best for them. They want flexibility and innovation on the structure of the deal, as well as the solution. They see a clear line between self-serving behavior on your part and what’s best for them, and they will be extremely irritated if you cross that line. And sometimes they just need someone to talk to because things aren’t going so well and they’ve had a tough day.

In short, they don’t want to be treated like customers; they want to be treated like people. That is real client centricity. And in addition to considerable professional expertise, it requires deep listening and the ability to connect as human beings—proven time and time again to win customer loyalty, boost profits, and make your company the kind of place where consumers like to do business and talented people like to work.

The Fierce Practice: Customer Connectivity

If you want to become a great organization, one that endures and thrives despite economic downturns, fluctuations in the global stock market, climate change, and escalating costs of doing business, then gain the capacity to connect with your customers at a deep level, or lower your aim. And this practice starts with you; it is the individuals in our organizations who build relationships with customers and consistently win new business one conversation at a time.

Connecting with customers is neither a naive notion nor a “soft skill.” It is an essential skill, one that requires courage, because it involves a fair degree of intimacy, which is initially uncomfortable for many people.

I like the following formula from David Maister and Charles Green, coauthors of The Trusted Advisor, because it adds intimacy to the mix and also accounts for the significant damage done when we put our own interests (closing the sale, making our quota) before the interests of our customers.

Most successful companies are credible and reliable, but they don’t always view intimacy as an important part of the equation; in fact, many don’t even have a good model for what intimacy is, what it would look like in action.

Remembering the names of your customers’ dogs may score you some points, but it won’t land you the contract. Neither will lowering the price, except perhaps in the very short term. And neither will halfhearted, meager “customer-facing” or “client centricity” initiatives. Only true intimacy—being warm, authentic, truthful, and familiar—can transform a bad relationship into a good one.

Assignment: Think about a customer relationship you value and diagnose where the strengths are and where the relationship could use some shoring up.

Jot down your insight(s):

How can you add intimacy to your conversations with customers? By having conversations with them that they can’t find on any street corner. No matter what your company does or sells, whether your customer conversations are typically lengthy or brief, ideally your conversations with customers will …

· interrogate reality (concerning your customer’s agenda and well-being)

· provoke learning (about your customer’s goals and needs)

· tackle tough topics (clarify a next step to take, whether it’s to produce a tall breve latte or prepare a proposal)

· enrich relationships (acquire both intellectual and emotional capital)

… leading to high-performance partnership—experienced, delivered!

In case you’re thinking, “Intimacy? I sell cupcakes!” (or mutual funds or computer software or knives), let me remind you that this formula works, no matter what business you’re in. If you want to sell LOTS of cupcakes (or mutual funds or computer software or knives) to happy repeat customers, there is something here for you. And what’s more, while there are cultural differences across the country and around the world, the suggestions in this chapter work well no matter where you go.

Kate Carter, a barista on Orcas Island, achieves intimacy by remembering what her regular customers like and going the extra mile to provide it. The first time I met Kate, she noticed me hesitating when she asked, “One shot or two?” So she said, “How about one and a half?”

“You can do that?”

“You bet!” And now that’s what she prepares for me each time I come. The perfect latte. So imagine my disappointment when I ask for one and a half shots at other coffee shops and am invariably told, “We can’t do that because it’s not programmed into the order system, so there’s no way to charge for one and a half shots.” Now I ask you, would that really be so hard? A child could do the math.

So when I’m on Orcas Island, where do you think I choose to go for my coffee? I can’t begin to count the number of one-and-a-half-shot breves I’ve purchased from Kate. And even when she’s very busy, she manages to talk somewhat intimately with each customer. It’s not the coffee or the coffee shop alone that draws me, though the view is spectacular. It’s the experience that draws me. It’s Kate that draws me.

Connecting with customers is critical and entirely possible, in fact EASY. The customer conversation that achieves intimacy, connection, better and quicker than any other is Mineral Rights, which I introduced in Fierce Practice #2 as a way to point people toward accountability.

As you’ll recall, the goal of a Mineral Rights conversation is to identify the most important issue you should be talking about, achieve greater clarity about the issue (including what part of the issue has our DNA on it), create impetus for action (accountability), and enrich the relationship. That conversation is also covered in depth in Fierce Conversations.

Here, we will adapt Mineral Rights for conversations with your customers. But before we do, there are several other things I encourage you to practice.

CONNECTION BEFORE CONTENT

First and foremost, stop selling! Customers don’t want to be sold to. They want you to genuinely care about them, to be there. In Asian cultures, it’s always connection first, business second. Many years ago, when I lived in Japan, I studied the tea ceremony, which is entirely focused on providing someone with an exquisite, total sensory experience. Not only is tea carefully prepared and served, but everything about the environment in which the ceremony is performed—sight, scent, sound, and gentle conversation—is given thought. Thus, the tea ceremony provides an experience of being cared for. Today, business meetings in Japan are often begun with a tea ceremony, not always the lengthy and formal ceremony that I studied, but at the very least an unhurried, relaxed enjoyment of tea, accompanied by equally unhurried and relaxed conversation—one that facilitates connection.

In the United States we make the mistake of business first because “that’s how it’s always been done.” We start meetings or relationships with “all business” because it makes us look “professional.” But connection trumps “professional” every time. I’m not advocating that you swing the pendulum to just “connection.” I’m recommending that you balance your “content” agenda with a “connection” agenda, so that you are a “connecting professional.”

Did you know that the fastest way to connect with someone is through laughter? When was the last time you and your clients had a good laugh?

Enrich the connection by checking in with your customer following the “sale”: “How are things working? Are you happy? Is there anything you need?”

FOCUS ON INDIVIDUALS, NOT COMPANIES

Remember, you are selling to an organization via an individual. Or several individuals. Don’t forget that ABC company didn’t buy your services, ANDY did. Or Susan, Katherine, and Chad. So how do you sustain relevant relationships with individuals with the decision-making power in their organizations?

Do all that you can to ensure their success. Work to understand and embrace their agendas. Make their agendas your own. Understand what individuals are trying to do, and personalize your work with them. Be voracious about learning. Sit in on meetings. Understand their competition. Make your interest personal, authentic, and passionate. Strap on your helmet and take the field with your customers. Then stay in the game until the whistle blows.

Rally the rest of the team around the client’s agenda. Make sure no one tries to sell anything that doesn’t connect to the client’s agenda. The right thing at the right time to the right person.

If you can influence individuals’ success—whether it’s by bringing them the deal that will wow their boss or by selling them the minivan that will get their kids to soccer practice on time—you will succeed. Plus, these relationships will come in handy down the line. People are mobile. A tenure of two to three years at a job is normal. That’s a positive for you if you have the relationship. When you knock on someone’s new door, she will let you in because she knows you and trusts you and you stayed close to her through thick and thin.

SLOW THE CONVERSATION DOWN, WAY DOWN

Consumers have become cynical. So no matter what product or service your company is selling, people’s perception of your intent is far more important than any technique you might employ. When you’re in a rush to close the deal, customers’ trust radars will go up. Slow the conversation down so that it can find out what it really wants and needs to be about. Your goal is to earn your customers’ trust by connecting with them, creating a container of safety and intimacy in which they will talk candidly about what they need so that you can help them achieve their goals—no matter how long it takes.

BE WILLING TO PLAY “LITTLE BALL”

Chris Douglas, a key executive at Fierce Inc., has season tickets to the Mariners games in Seattle and uses the concept of playing “little ball” to explain how client relationships often evolve over time. In Chris’s words, “Don’t go to the plate swinging for the fences. It’s more important to get on base. Once you’re there, you can open up the game. Often people contact us for a very specific, targeted reason. It’s important to explore that and then open the conversation up to other possibilities.”

This can be tough when you know there’s a larger idea, product, service, or “sale” that would benefit a new client or customer significantly. When you’re eager and excited to tell him about it and because it would solve multiple problems for him, it’s hard to listen to him talk about this teeny-weeny solution about which he’s inquiring. But if you don’t really listen because you’re waiting for the chance to swing for the fences, your customer will pick up on that. Think about the effect this will likely have on your opportunity to connect with this customer right here, right now.

Even though a far bigger engagement will accomplish more of what your customer needs, and your intentions are good, stop. Practice principle 3 of Fierce Conversations: Be here, prepared to be nowhere else. Shove all other agendas aside and pitch your tent on this conversation, this issue, this individual, this next best step. If you do, your next turn at bat might be a home run.

SELF-DISCLOSE WHEN APPROPRIATE

If you are open, vulnerable, disclosing, more likely than not it will be reciprocated and walls will come down. In contrast, if you are “steel encased in concrete,” as a brilliant and lonely executive once described himself to me, your relationships will be tenuous at best, because no one will feel they know who you really are.

Do all of us and yourself a huge favor and get beyond golf, the weather, and the local sports team. Talk about your family, vacations, et cetera. Ask about theirs. Send photos of yourself and family so that they can attach a face to your voice. You don’t need a professional head shot. The photo on the jacket of this book is a photo I sometimes attach to proposals, so people who are just getting to know me will get a feel for who I am. I’m wearing jeans and wellies, not a power suit, and I’m surrounded by my dogs. Beside the photo, I usually write, “I look forward to our next conversation.”

My colleague Cam Tripp shares a photo of his son, Gabriel, with Fierce clients and, as a result, Cam’s clients are deeply connected to Cam and even send him photos of their own families.

Go into your calls and meetings with a genuine curiosity about the person with whom you’re talking. Look at each conversation as one that may lead to or deepen a friendship. Ask a personal question, and share something personal about yourself. If you are present and stay interested, you will learn and remember personal things that can take the relationship deeper. Obviously, don’t talk too long about yourself. One man whom I respect professionally talked ad nauseam about his daughter every time I saw him, until I found myself avoiding him. Yeah, yeah, she’s a great kid, but pleeeeease spare me another long story about her achievements.

BE AUTHENTIC (ASSUMING YOU AREN’T AN A&@&?E)

Hand in hand with self-disclosure comes authenticity, which is missing in most customer conversations. Do away with the notion of “customer facing.” Stop trying to project an image you imagine your customers desire, and instead, show up as YOU. Assuming you have the right products or solutions for your customers and the ability to execute, who you really are will work just fine—better than fine.

On the other hand, refrain from disclosing things about your personal life that may make customers see you in a negative light. For example, I’ve seen people take the unconscious strategy of trying to connect by sharing information about their messy divorce and the curse they’d like to place on their ex, or the argument they “won” last night at the bar.

Authenticity also requires that you know when to say “I don’t know. Let me look into that and get back to you.” This is far more productive than pretending to know the answer, and customers will respect you for admitting you might not have all the answers and for being willing to go the extra mile to get them what they need.

BECOME A RESOURCE

Most customers aren’t looking for a white knight who will single-handedly vanquish all the dragons. Customers are looking for someone who will help them get it right, keep them out of trouble, and bring them resources. In a global economy where customers face increasing choices and the bar gets higher and higher, this is one of the best ways to build and enrich the relationship.

A common mistake is to underestimate what you know and overestimate what your customers know. Bring them the ideas, the innovation, that only you can bring. When there are others who can do aspects of the job far better than you can, make introductions. Because you understand the PERSON, you know the sort of people he or she will like to work with. When your clients look at the teams you have assembled to help them, you want them to have strong respect for everyone you’ve introduced to them and be very upset if anyone leaves.

Share articles, research. If there’s a connection to be made, make it. If there is something another company is doing that might benefit your customer and you are free to disclose it, tell him or her about it. If you think a customer is about to step off a cliff, warn him or her and point him or her to the safety net, even if it isn’t your net. This is about paying it forward with no agenda.

DITCH THE BUZZWORDS, THE JARGON, THE POWERPOINT DECK

Are you aware that most of your customers groan inwardly when you come to a meeting and fire up your laptop? It’s true. Yet I’ve been told by many executives that their people would be paralyzed without their PowerPoint decks—that they don’t know how to simply have a conversation, that the thought terrifies them.

I can hear you now. “But with PowerPoint, we can put up cool data on the screen that visually illustrates the case we want to make, whereas our people would have a tough time just describing it in words. Besides, some people are visual. They need something to look at.”

Instead of looking at a screen, your audience should be looking at, connecting with, you. I love technology and am one of those visual people. And we do use PowerPoint slides in our Fierce training classes. But we use them sparingly. And that’s the key. I can almost promise you that your next client call or sales meeting will be far more successful if you either abandon PowerPoint altogether or cut the number of slides by two-thirds. Come on, take the leap!

The same goes for jargon. It amazes me when a salesperson or consultant confuses me with impenetrable jargon—confusing, unspecific terms or phrases that mean nothing to people outside their field or organization. Are they showing off? Is their goal to be condescending and annoying?

Internally, jargon provides a useful shorthand that everyone understands, but customers are irritated when we insist on using jargon they don’t understand. Compile and ban your own list of “nonwords.” Above all, lose the word centricity. Don’t be customer centric or patient centric or student centric or anything centric. Take it off your website, out of your marketing materials. It’s jargon and fails to convey in any meaningful way what you intend and your customer desires.

INVITE CUSTOMERS TO PLANNING SESSIONS

Many business development and salespeople are shocked at the thought of having a client planning meeting with the actual client present. They offer lots of reasons why they shouldn’t, why they couldn’t, why it wouldn’t work, why it would be too uncomfortable for them and for their clients. But in fact, it is a wonderful way to deepen the connection and enrich the relationship.

Think of this meeting as simply a forum for your client to tell you more. After your initial conversations with a new client, a planning session is an opportunity to ensure you heard right. Focus the meeting on further defining and agreeing on the ideal outcomes. If they are not clearly defined or are unrealistic or inappropriate, or if there is no verbal agreement or commitment to an agreed-upon “end in mind,” you are setting yourself and your client up for frustration, possibly failure.

Say, “Here’s what we think are your focuses and priorities. Is this right?” Clients often share new information during this meeting that is critical for your success.

During this meeting intent is far more important than what you actually say. If your intent is right, that will come across. And only after you and your client agree that you understand should you talk about some of the things you are doing with other clients and give your initial recommendations.

If you will be accompanied by a colleague, have a plan for the call. Will you “show up” as two soloists competing for airtime or as a well-coordinated team demonstrating mutual respect? If you are both skilled at Mineral Rights conversations, you might agree that both of you may probe during each step but that one of you will determine when it’s time to advance to the next step.

INQUIRE ABOUT YOUR CUSTOMER’S ÜBERGOALS

At an appropriate time during an early conversation with your client—only when she trusts your intent completely—ask about her company’s or department’s overall goals and strategies. Tell her you’d like to understand these things because you understand that her success will be based on her ability to make better decisions on a long-term basis and that you are committed to making sure that everything you do will support her larger goals and possibly help directly with them.

Say, “Keeping your goals and strategy in mind, here are the things we’ll do, the principles we’ll follow to help you with these things. This is our commitment to you.”

ENGAGE WITH CUSTOMERS AS EQUALS

Two frequent customer complaints are “You haven’t taken the lead as strongly as needed” and “You haven’t challenged us enough.”

The customer conversation should be a conversation between equals, containing a feeling of mutuality, rather than talking at someone, talking down to someone, or being subservient to someone. In fact, so should all the other conversations you have in your life—with family, friends, colleagues, the CEO of your company, your favorite barista, the waiter at the Mexican restaurant, the prime minister, the butcher, the banker, the candlestick maker.

You may not agree that we’re all equal, and I’m not here to convince you otherwise. But I do want you to consider that when you see yourself as less than, lower than, or subservient to someone else, he or she picks that up, and most (with the exception of a few crazy dictators) don’t respond well. And it isn’t healthy for you. And if you think you’re superior to or better than others, well, get over yourself.

PUT SKIN IN THE GAME

Be prepared to invest. Whether negotiating a deal, making a sale, or drafting a contract, sometimes we forget that customers judge what they think you invested. If you try to sell an expensive piece of work that doesn’t take a lot of effort or investment on your part, even if it gives your client a good return on investment, your client will not be confident in your commitment. Clients don’t mind your making a healthy profit. They do mind feeling that the deal is unbalanced and you are not putting in the effort that justifies the fee. So the value is in the outcome your work produces relative to your perceived investment. All parties should have skin in the game.

WIN THE RIGHT CUSTOMERS, THE RIGHT WORK

Ah, the time, dollars, energy, and sleepless nights wasted on brightly colored Easter eggs that look pretty in the basket and are never going to hatch. I’m referring, of course, to all those sales that never closed. We were bewitched, excited, hopeful that the deal would go through. But maybe these eggs were never going to hatch from the beginning. How would we know? We can ask ourselves, “Did we spend enough time testing the client, gathering evidence that our product or service would meet his or her needs? Did we ask ourselves often enough whether we should even pursue this work? Did we do the market research to make sure we weren’t chasing customers we shouldn’t be chasing? Did we go after customers who insist on a first-rate result for a fourth-rate price?”

Yes, your competitive edge will be your ability to connect with customers. That said, you absolutely needn’t connect with everyone. Some customers, some people, some industries, some individuals simply aren’t worth the time, energy, and resources you’d have to put into them. It’s kind of like fishing. You can spend as much time and energy hooking and hauling in what turns out to be an old boot as you can hauling in dinner. I bet you can think of a customer right now that was or is a giant sucking sound in your life, that has sucked up tons of your time and energy and left you parched and exhausted. Every seasoned businessperson I know has worked with very small clients who were more demanding and required more time and energy than large clients. And large clients who were, well, jerks!

One of the smartest things you can do is be more rigorous in your initial conversations with prospective customers, so that you win the right work and can focus on delivering it. When we’ve got a number of great clients, we tend to be more selective and don’t end up fishing in so many wrong ponds and going on so many bad “dates.” Some suggestions:

· Determine what your ideal win ratio should be. If you could win 50 or 60 or 70 percent of the work you go after, what effect would that have on the quality of your life, on your income, on your enjoyment of your work?

· Be realistic about how many clients or customers you can handle. No individual has the capacity to do good work for an unlimited number of customers. If you take on too much work and stretch yourself too thin, you may find yourself overworked and exhausted, and your results for ALL your customers and clients will suffer.

· Upgrade your prospective client list so that they contain only viable prospects. Consider declining blind requests for proposals where you have no relationship.

· Look at the potential yield from a prospective customer over the course of a year. Does it make sense for you to spend the same amount of time on unprofitable work that will suck the life out of you as you would on profitable work that is enjoyable?

ACKNOWLEDGE MISTAKES

Ideally, you’ll deliver what you agreed to deliver on time, within budget. Otherwise, you’re just noise. Charming, perhaps, but just noise. But given that you’re not perfect, sometimes you’ll make mistakes. How you handle this, stepping up to the issues when things are challenging, is beyond important; it’s critical. Ducking the issue or trying to dodge responsibility is the quickest way to the exit. Remember, you should be modeling accountability at all times! Be forthright and transparent about any missteps you’ve made, as soon as you know you’ve made them.

A tip on how to apologize: Don’t say, “I’m really sorry you feel that way.” That’s the response of someone who won’t acknowledge his or her contribution to the problem. Don’t be sorry someone feels that way. Be sorry that you did whatever you did (or didn’t do) that caused the person to feel that way. Say, “I’m sorry that I [fill in the blank]. I messed up, and I want to correct this, make this right.” Stop there. Don’t go into WHY you messed up, all the reasons and excuses for messing up. Just say you’re sorry and move into “fix-it” mode.

MEET WITH CUSTOMERS IN PERSON

Nothing replaces or beats connections made face to face. When two people are in close physical proximity, the heart reads and understands the other heart (i.e., intention, spirit, et cetera). Stop advocating for larger budgets for technology that “manages” an online customer conversation. Advocate for larger travel budgets so that you can visit clients face to face. Individuals on the Fierce team have traveled, at our expense, to Brussels, Sydney, London, Dubai, and other points on the compass to meet with key contacts face to face, even if only for a few hours. This has invariably resulted in deeper connection and intimacy and is a very real demonstration of our investment in the relationship. Is air travel costly? Yes, it is. But the cost of lost customers is higher.

LIST OF “DONT’S”

Don’t try to go around protocol or bypass a customer who is ambivalent or seems hostile toward you by going over his or her head. This will alienate the person you tried to avoid and make an enemy for life. Don’t criticize him or her to others and don’t violate his or her values unless not doing so would violate a core value of yours.

Don’t give clients a position on difficult issues, then back off it when challenged. This will not only confuse your clients, but damage your credibility.

Don’t convey the attitude that you disrespect your primary competitor or anyone else in the business.

Don’t make presentations. Don’t “present,” period. It shuts people down. Have a conversation instead.

Don’t be so sensitive to internal politics that you are scared to tell customers what they need to know because you’re trying to protect your relationships within the company. If you are unable to dissuade someone from doing something you feel would damage his or her company, you need to take action.

Don’t train new people on the backs of client relationships. In other words, don’t bring in new people then quickly move them, so that just when a customer feels someone is getting to know him or her, that person is gone. It’s not about whether your people are good or bad. It’s about their ability to gain a client’s trust and confidence.

Don’t mistake customer apathy for customer loyalty. Don’t assume that because a client is still with you, he or she is loyal to you. He or she may just not have gotten around to making the switch. Customer loyalty lasts only as long as the transaction. If you do a bad job, you’re replaceable. You win and retain work in a competitive context. Always.

Let’s look at Mineral Rights, the best customer connectivity conversation I’ve ever experienced.

Mineral Rights with Customers

There are essentially two gears in customer conversations—active and receptive. In active gear, your goal is to sell—whether it’s a product, a service, a plan, or an idea. You do most of the talking; the customer listens. You are often smiling, talking fast, enthusiastic about your subject. You might not always recognize that your customer is tuning out, turning off.

In receptive gear, the goal is to understand the customer’s agenda through a balance of questioning and listening. The challenge is to lower your internal dialogue so you can focus on the other person. Your customer does most of the talking. This is not a passive gear. It takes energy to concentrate, to pay attention to what is really going on. If you don’t listen to exactly what your customer is telling you, you won’t be able to ask good questions. And if you don’t ask good questions, you won’t find out what you need to know. Many people miss opportunities because they fail to draw out the key information that will help them get the best results. Plus, when you’re good at the receptive gear, asking questions and listening intently, it raises customers’ energy level and increases their engagement in the conversation. Many customers, if they’re not being asked good questions, disengage.

Most people, especially salespeople, are skilled in the active mode. But Mineral Rights requires that you be strong in both gears and be able to fluidly shift between them. It is the combination of active and receptive gears that allows a breakthrough to honest ground and expanded possibilities with your customer.

Whether your goal is a one-time transaction or a long-term relationship, the Mineral Rights conversation will help you gain a deep understanding of your customers’ needs, rather than make quick assumptions (“Oh, I know just what this customer needs”). It will help you stop talking and listen to learn rather than to pitch. The conversation should be a mutual exploration during which you resist suggesting products or solutions. Remember, products and solutions have no inherent value—relationships have the value. Mineral Rights builds these relationships not only by clarifying needs but also by uncovering emotions. I think of it as a Swiss Army knife we should carry with us at all times!

The secret sauce, the element that differentiates the Mineral Rights conversation from all others you may have had with customers, is that it allows you to surface your customer’s emotions by inquiring about what is at stake to win or lose if his or her goals are not met. If you can feel yourself putting the brakes on as you read this (maybe you think that asking about emotions seems awkward or unprofessional or not “you”) remember that people—customers—make decisions first for emotional reasons, second for rational ones. We talked about that in Fierce Practice #2. If your house is cold, you could lose the business or the sale because there is no real “heat” (emotion), nothing for a lit match to ignite.

Note: I always ask “What do you feel?” rather than “How does that make you feel?” Nothing makes us feel anything. Our emotions are an inside job, a choice we make, often unconscious.

The Mineral Rights conversation will also help you determine if this is a viable opportunity for you or your organization. After all, do you want to make a run for everything that crosses your path, or might it be wise to scrub your pipeline, so you can focus on key opportunities?

The model helps you sense when to change drill bits and probe deeper. Part of your job is to slow this conversation down so it can discover what it really wants and needs to be about, to help your customer identify the core issue, so that you can partner with your customer in identifying the best product or solution. To recap, the steps in a Mineral Rights conversation are as follows.

STEP 1: IDENTIFY THE ISSUE.

You are essentially asking: “Why are we talking? What is the most important thing we should be talking about?” The biggest error salespeople make is to suggest products or solutions at this stage or immediately jump to a story about how they solved this exact problem for ABC Company and what a spectacular result they got. DON’T DO IT! Even if your customer asks about solutions, don’t dive into your sales pitch. Instead, realize that your mission is first to understand what matters most to your customers, where it hurts, what they’re trying to achieve or resolve. Until you do, you won’t know which of your products or services, if any, will be the best fit.

Don’t be so quick to assume you know what’s important to your customers. You could be in for a big surprise. Hold off and return to the problem they’re trying to solve and the result they’re trying to achieve. There’s much you could talk about. You want to choose exactly the right product or solution to focus on, and it’s way too early in the conversation to do this. Additionally, I’m sure you’ve noticed that what a customer asks for isn’t always what a customer needs.

STEP 2: CLARIFY THE ISSUE.

This is where you’ll work to identify the real issue and begin to determine how (and if) your company can address it. There may be multiple issues. You may not be dealing with the real or most important issue. Is the issue your customer is presenting a symptom or a root cause? Might your organization be able to solve the entire problem or just part of it? Or none of it?

Check your assumptions as well as theirs, particularly those that could cause both of you to miss the mark. Assumptions such as

· There actually is a problem and a solution.

· There is only one problem and only one solution.

· I understand what the problem is.

· I have the solution.

· I’ve got a solution, and I’m pretty sure you’ve got a problem, and even if you don’t, the solution is so cool, you should want it.

STEP 3: DETERMINE CURRENT IMPACT.

This is where you begin to qualify the “opportunity.” Is this a viable opportunity for your organization, or should you decline? Draw out the customer. What evidence is there that the problem exists? What results is this producing? Is the evidence hard or soft (anecdotal, opinion-based, not measured effectively)? How do you measure this? How is it impacting the organization? Who else is this affecting? How is this affecting you? When you consider everything you just described, what do you feel?

STEP 4: DETERMINE FUTURE IMPACT.

Clarify the importance of this issue. Is this truly a priority relative to other problems or initiatives? Will there be sufficient ROI when this is resolved? What systemic implications must be considered? Will solving/achieving this cause even bigger problems elsewhere? Who is committed to solving this problem? Take away the solution and see if the customer cares.

If they fight for it, great. If they don’t you just learned there’s no opportunity here.

STEP 5: EXAMINE INDIVIDUAL CONTRIBUTION TO THE ISSUE.

This topic is rarely explored in conversations with prospective customers. Asking it will certainly differentiate you from your competition, and though this level of inquiry may seem risky, it will likely send your credibility skyrocketing. It indicates that you’re courageous in your search for all of the relevant “truths” that are key to resolving the customer’s problem or achieving his or her goals. And occasionally, the biggest obstacle to success is the individual sitting in front of you.

Problems can be caused by systems, by individuals, by both. Ask your customer or client, “How might you have contributed to this problem/issue? In other words, what piece of this issue has your DNA on it? Might you and/or others find it difficult to make the changes required for resolution? If yes, what would it take to create impetus for change?”

STEP 6: DESCRIBE THE IDEAL OUTCOME.

So far, the conversation has been focused on the problem, what the problem is costing the organization, and your customer’s emotions around the problem. Now it’s time to lighten up and clarify ideal outcomes, specific goals, what “winning” would look like, how it would be measured, and what your customer’s positive emotions would be if outcomes were achieved.

STEP 7: COMMIT TO ACTION.

If there is interest and willingness, on both sides, to pursue this opportunity, and it’s clear that partnering with you will provide more value to your customer than going it alone, it’s time to determine mutuality of effort and next steps. Find out what could get in the way. Ask, “How will the decision to stop or move forward be made? Who will be involved in that decision? What do you see as the next most important steps? What might get in the way, and how will we get past that? What’s the time frame? When would you like to meet again? Who else should be there?”

Sometimes when I demonstrate a Mineral Rights conversation at a training session, I ask the audience to note what questions they would have liked to ask during each step. I am always impressed and humbled by the terrifically insightful questions they come up with and wish I had thought to ask them myself. So don’t be bound to the words I’ve suggested. Ask the questions that make sense given the topic. Just don’t stray out of a step onto a rabbit trail that derails or confuses the conversation.

STEP 8: OFFER SUGGESTIONS.

By now, your customer will be sincerely interested in hearing your ideas because something invisible and critical has developed—a real connection. You’ve gained credibility because you’ve kept the focus on his or her problem and goals, not on your products or services. Once you’ve earned your customer’s trust and given the in-depth exploration you’ve facilitated, whatever you suggest toward the close of the conversation or meeting will be far superior to anything you might have suggested earlier in the conversation.

At this point, you’ll also want to ask your customer if he or she has all the information he or she needs about you and your organization to make a decision about going forward. And you should ask about your competition. With whom has the customer talked? Is he or she pleased with the ideas he or she has heard so far? If not, what would have to be different?

You’ve earned the right to ask this last question because you’ve achieved intimacy—the key, often-missing ingredient in conversations, the ingredient that tips the scale on how much information a potential customer shares with you, as well as the final decision.

Your score = 100. You win. And so does your customer.

I’ve never—and I mean NEVER—had a customer pull back or resist this conversation. Many customers even find it so useful that they begin to practice this model with their customers. They lean in—we both do—because even though it may be a formula, it is the right formula, there for the right reasons: not to manipulate, but to connect, to understand, to enrich the relationship and get it right for the customer. Of course, in any business, the goal is still to sell, but to sell the right things to the right people or organizations, at the right time, in the right way. Big bonus: genuine affection for and emotional connection with your customers, which translates to returning customers who trust you.

During a Fierce Conversations training at Starbucks, after practicing Mineral Rights, the managers recognized that one of their top executives has used this conversational model for several years and consequently has differentiated himself from others in leadership roles, excelling at creating value for the people he leads, even during challenging economic times.

WHEN MINERAL RIGHTS ISN’T PRACTICAL.

Of course, there are always going to be situations where it is neither practical nor appropriate for you to take your customers through Mineral Rights. For example, if you worked at a coffee shop and someone ordered a nonfat latte, they’d think you were nuts if you tried to launch a Mineral Rights conversation, and your manager would point out the long line of customers waiting! How do you feel about skim milk versus one percent? Can you identify your emotions surrounding this issue? So when your typical transactions are quick and fairly basic, what can you do to connect with customers?

· For starters, LOOK AT THEM. I acknowledge that there are cultures where making eye contact is considered disrespectful, but those are exceptions. Since a basic need of most human beings is to be seen, not looking at your customer is a missed opportunity. I’ve shared the African greeting sawu bona (I see you), and the response, sikhona (I am here). If you aren’t looking at your customers, the message you’re sending is that they don’t exist. Not a good strategy to encourage return business.

· Smile. I’m sorry if you’re having a bad day or if you don’t feel so hot, but don’t transmit your sour mood to your customers. When things are seriously “off” for you, either stay home or learn how to fake it! This is about them, not you.

Taking It to the Organization

Think back to the story I told you about the cold house. Your company could have the most solid foundation and the most sturdy structure, but if it is freezing inside, no one will want to come over for dinner. The point is, “sell” isn’t a wrong message. But how you sell will make all the difference, so in addition to training your sales force in Mineral Rights, here are some broad ideas that can help your organization connect with customers in a warm, meaningful way.

ENCOURAGE CUSTOMER RELATIONSHIPS AT ALL LEVELS OF THE ORGANIZATION

Too often, leaders and executives write white papers, craft case studies, and build PowerPoint decks while avoiding conversations with the living, breathing people upon whom the success of the company truly depends.

I know an executive whose people go the extra mile for the company and its customers in part because this executive talks with customers one on one, inviting candid input and listening intently to whatever customers say. She’s a busy woman who runs a large company, and everyone would understand if she only left her office to attend meetings, but she understands the importance of acquiring both intellectual and emotional capital. One of her employees told me, “When she’s with you, she’s really WITH you.”

Some executives might think that building relationships with customers is a job for the sales team or for the customer service department. And it is, but everyone in the company—no matter what their rank or position—should have a personal connection with customers, at least on some level.

measure and reward connectivity
throughout the company

What gets tracked and rewarded tends to improve. So if connectivity is important to you, track and reward it. This is one of the things they do at Starbucks, where connecting with customers has always been and continues to be a key to the unique Starbucks experience. An idea—Blended Beverage BINGO—conceived in 2001 by John Moore and Paul Williams is still talked about today as an example of a great program that encouraged Starbucks employees to connect meaningfully with customers.

When John was asked to develop ideas for a store-level incentive contest to drive sales of Frappuccinos, he turned to Paul for help in coming up with a creative approach to product sampling, which had been a major driver of the company’s success.

When it comes to sampling, there are two approaches. Passive sampling is when customers help themselves to a sample of a product sitting on a table or near a register. Active sampling is when a store partner (employee) physically hands a customer a sample and engages him or her in a conversation. It’s probably no surprise to you that active sampling is by far the best way to connect with customers and drive product sales. The challenge for John and Paul, then, was to create an incentive for employees to walk around the store inviting customers to actively sample products.

On FastCompany.com, John Moore posted John and Paul’s story in “The Anatomy of a Starbucks Customer Experience Program.”

PW: As we were brainstorming, we started talking about how much fun we had playing timeless childhood board games like Candyland, LIFE, Connect Four, and Mousetrap. The kitschier the game, the better. We thought it would be great to connect with store partners by turning the incentive contest into a board game—like the ones we used to play as kids. I mentioned that I had recently played BINGO with some friends and that is where we had our EUREKA moment.

JM: Paul suggested we model the incentive contest around BINGO. We wouldn’t use numbers. Instead, we would replace the numbers with a fun activity that would ask a store partner to interact with a customer all the while sampling them a beverage.

PW: For example, we created activities like: Sample a Mocha Frappuccino to a customer working on a laptop; sample Tazoberry to a customer wearing a red article of clothing; teach a customer to order their favorite blended beverage using the “Starbucks drink language.” For the center squares, we got really wacky with one that asked store partners to get five customers and two partners to form a “conga” line in-store. JM: Not only was this program fun for store partners, it was fun for customers. I remember one store sent us their completed BINGO card and a laminated poster that featured photos of their store partners and customers doing all twenty-five activities on the BINGO card. PW: The end result was sales of blended beverages increased and the morale of store partners increased as well. Just last week, I was at a meeting where someone mentioned this tactic from 2 years ago! Time and time again, Blended Beverage BINGO has been mentioned as one of the most successful ways we helped partners deliver great customer experiences.

Moore added that not only was this an innovative way to enhance sales and drive profit by making sampling fun and top-of-mind, but it enhanced the Starbucks culture by encouraging meaningful interaction between store partners and their customers. “It created dialogue, offered our customers a special treat and delight, and provided store partners the chance to step out from behind the bar and interact with their customers.”

What could your company’s version of Blended Beverage BINGO look like? How would it be played? Where would it be played? By whom? With whom? What would you call it? What would be the ultimate goals? How could you capture activities? In addition to having fun, connecting with customers, and increasing sales, what incentive would excite your employees or team members?

Of course, people want to be stars, want to get credit for their ideas, want to “own” the customer relationship. This ambition is natural, given that many people are evaluated or compensated based on performance—and this is often linked to the business they bring in or the sales they make. But remember, the deal or the sale should be secondary to the relationship. So I’d advise you to reward or incentivize your people for making the connections, not just closing the deal.

KEEP EVERYONE ON MESSAGE

It goes without saying that everyone in your company should get the message about the importance of building deep, authentic customer connections and that you should practice what you preach and back this up with actions.

If your “burning platform” focuses entirely on financial scorecards but fails to address, capture, and enrich your customers’ experience, you’re in no danger of bringing customer connectivity to life. Worse, you’re out of integrity.

For example, a goal of an organization I’ve worked with is to target and win “heavenly clients.” Based on my experience of it, the organization needs to become a heavenly client for its own vendors. They cannot attract what they themselves are not demonstrating. Case in point was Fierce’s extended arm wrestling in the circus tent with someone in the organization’s legal department (let’s call him Fred), whose demands were so inappropriate, uncalled-for, and arduous, the only way we could get through it was to laugh. And the contractual nightmare we had to go through to get a reasonable agreement in place, just so I could pay the organization the visit it had requested, gave us serious pause.

Another huge tell that something was seriously wrong in this organization was that Fred resisted a conversation. He did not supply any phone number we could call and ignored requests for a phone call, which meant a lot of unhelpful e-mails back and forth. Even though an eventual conversation helped us arrive at clarity and agreement, Fred continued to nitpick with a lot of legal garbage around stupid details—all via e-mail—which required more unnecessarily time-consuming work on our side. We determined that if we continued working with the organization, we’d have to raise our fees to cover the legal costs incurred by our dealings with Fred. Some people are jumpy around spiders. Apparently, Fred is spooked by the “threat” of a conversation. Wonder what he’s like at home!

The point is, just one bad apple in an organization can sour the entire relationship. So build a compelling message or “stump speech” for your organization and make sure everyone—and I mean everyone—gets it. Ask yourself:

· Where are we going? This is an opportunity to paint an inspiring future vision that includes your ideal relationship with your customers. Write it from your customers’ point of view. What is it you do for them that matters to them?

· Why are we going there? There must be something beyond the stock price. Obviously, it makes good business sense, but what’s in it that is deeply meaningful for the company, for you, for your customers beyond making money?

· Who is going with us? This is an opportunity to flag key attitudes and behaviors you desire in the people who work in your company, such as the ability to connect with customers and build long-term relationships with them.

· How are we going to get there? This is an opportunity to emphasize and einforce key elements of the strategy.

If you’d like a copy of the stump speech with which I launched Fierce Inc., e-mail me (contact information is at the back of this book) and request it. We revisit it annually, and it continues to serve us well, even as we’ve adapted our business model and strategy to meet the needs of global customers, including our Fierce in the Schools division.

FORM A CUSTOMER ADVISORY BOARD

How would your customers, your clients, describe the conversations your organization is having with them? Throw yourself into the deep end and get feedback from demanding clients with high standards who push you to raise the bar. Get them together at least once a year to give you the good, the bad, and the ugly. Clarify what would make an “opportunity” a yes or a no for you and your organization. Make no be okay.

Personal Action Plan

1. Make a list of customers who need to hear from you, expanding the list you made earlier in this chapter. Include clients who bring very little revenue to the table. Write down these customers’ names—the people’s names, not just the company names. Write down the core issue (roadblocks) or other issues that need resolving. Don’t be too confident that there are no issues, that all is well. Consider that “pricing” is often a mask for other issues. Write down your deadline for having these conversations. There should be urgency here.

Before you have these conversations …

2. Bring together the best connectors within your organization. Share your thoughts about what your customers want and need that you and/or your company are not providing. Get their thoughts on how you can:

a. Make it easier for your customers to tell you what they really want and need, even if your customers don’t think you can help with those issues.

b. Expand your work with customers. Perhaps you’ve been merely playing in the yard when there is a large field of possibilities nearby. Your goal is to maximize the possibilities such that your customers leave with more than they expected, and you leave with the maximum they are willing to give.

c. Say, do, or offer something that will demonstrate that you have your customers’ best interests in mind—versus your company’s needs or your personal sales quota.

3. If you would like to do something “crazy” for your customers—something above and beyond the normal precedent or protocol—make a compelling case to your boss and ask for permission.

4. Be prepared to go off script. Nothing turns customers off more than a scripted presentation loaded with jargon, like “solutions.” Don’t “present” and don’t flatter. Go into Mineral Rights mode. Ask, “What is the most important thing you and I should be talking about?” Also ask questions such as, “What has changed since the last time we talked?” and listen! Be yourself, natural. Let the conversations go where your customers want them to go, understanding that each conversation may be quite different because every customer is unique. If a customer becomes emotional, even angry, thank your lucky stars! You’re close to something real, something important for you to understand and to which you can respond.

5. Whatever you promise to do for a customer, do it by the time agreed or earlier.

6. Take personal accountability for any missteps you or your organization may have made. No buck passing.

7. Loosen your death grip on pricing, and focus on imbedding. You’re in this relationship for the long haul. What little step can you take now?

8. Respectfully challenge a customer’s thinking if you are convinced it is wrongheaded or shortsighted. On the other hand, clarify your walk-away point, even with a large customer. Some customers’ demands are unworkable, and at times, saying good-bye is the most productive thing you can do.

9. Have conversations with your customers in person, if possible, even if it means getting on a plane. When budgets are tight, this is a big ask but one that’s well worth it. The greatest opportunity to enrich a relationship with a customer is when you are face to face. You know this. Fight for it.

10.Finally, remember that you are always building or destroying your reputation and your relationships with your customers. The direction is up to you. People will buy an inferior product from someone they like over a superior product from someone they don’t like. How do you suppose Microsoft would be doing if more people liked them? If someone likes you and what you do, they’ll tell twenty-five people; if they don’t, they’ll tell one hundred twenty-five. And though many would argue this point, a relationship with a customer is not a means to an end. The relationship itself, is the end, the goal. When you connect with a customer at a deep level, the rest will come.

CONCLUSION

Remember that what gets talked about and how it gets talked about determines what will happen. Or won’t happen. And that we succeed or fail, gradually then suddenly, one conversation at a time.

Remember that every conversation with someone, whether a co-worker, a customer, or a family member, either enriches that relationship, flatlines it (so what’s the point), or takes it down, so if we lose emotional capital with the people who are important to our success and happiness, gradually, then suddenly, we may find ourselves out on the street corner, alone, in the rain.

Remember that when you and I see a newspaper headline about a bankruptcy or the leave taking of a key executive, or when we learn that someone is estranged from a family member or getting a divorce, we’re seeing the “suddenly” part. The result was influenced gradually, gradually, gradually, until the outcome became inevitable and we arrived at suddenly.

While in London last year, I was invited by Mark (not his real name), the newly appointed UK rainmaker, to view his organization’s brand-new client “war room,” which had been designed to impress clients and win consulting work. Mark wanted to know what I thought of it.

The room was high-tech nirvana. An oblong, beautifully crafted, low conference table with six cushy leather chairs around it. Embedded in the tabletop were two computer monitors, so that looking into what at first you might think was a glass top, you could see graphs, charts, PowerPoints, video.

There was a podium for the senior consultant (the rainmaker) from which he or she could push buttons, like the Wizard of Oz, sans curtain. There were two small monitors to the right and left of a larger monitor at one end of the table. There were seven-foot-tall wraparound screens enveloping the conference table and chairs, on which softly colored graphics and provocative phrases drifted, fading in and out.

Floating above the conference table was a screen onto which clouds were projected. Inspiring music and mood lighting completed the scene. I sank into one of the leather chairs and was taken through a simulated client presentation.

Graphs on one screen. Faces of consultants and clients on another. Filmed case studies of impressive work on the big screen at the end of the table. And videos of happy clients touting successes backed up by numbers. The wraparound screens showed the results of electronic input provided by the prospective client—in this case, me. I pushed buttons to vote, prioritize issues, introduce additional concerns or goals, et cetera. It was damned impressive.

At the end of the “show,” a floor-to-ceiling curtain opened, revealing a view of a stunningly beautiful harbor and the beginnings of a spectacular sunset. I was offered a drink and chose a Shiraz. Music set a relaxed, convivial tone. We toasted technology. We toasted the budget for the room. Two million, I seem to recall.

Mark, his assistant, and the man who had taken me through the simulation leaned back in their chairs, smiling.

Me: Spectacular.

We sat for a moment, sipped the wine.

Me: Okay, here’s my question.

Mark: (Raised eyebrows)

Me: Where was the conversation?

Mark: (Eyebrows inch higher)

Me: I love technology, so this place knocks my socks off, and you had me when I walked in to great music and was seated in a stylish, comfortable chair. I loved the intimate setting, felt cocooned surrounded by screens. You impressed me with tales of successful engagements. And the sunset over the harbor, well, here’s to major ambiance. This Shiraz is excellent, by the way But when did you connect with me, rather than with the computer monitors?

Mark: (Silence)

Me: I was here for an hour, was exposed to an onslaught of technology, resulting in a sensuous derangement of intimacy. I get that you’ve gone beyond PowerPoint decks, that you can do some amazingly creative things with technology, but I actually temporarily lost touch with who I am, and I have no idea who you are. There was little eye contact. No one talked to me, with me. You talked at me.

Mark: (Silence, a bit uncomfortable now, and I am feeling pretty low myself. Two million is a lot of money.)

Me: So, for example, what if in this amazing room, you periodically put a gorgeous, nondistracting background on the screens, turned the music off, looked at your clients, asked questions, and listened.

Mark: (Eagerly) We do all that on the front end. From the first call and subsequent meetings, leading ultimately to this session, we do our due diligence before we come up with a solution and build a presentation like this.

Me: It’s clear you’ve done due diligence, which has its place in this meeting. I just don’t think you should lead with it, because for global clients like yours, reality is a moving target. Something significant may have changed since last you spoke with them. So for example, even if you checked in with them last week, you might want to begin by asking them if there’s any late-breaking news you should be aware of. And though this presentation demonstrates your capabilities, your competition has similar capabilities (yes, I know you don’t agree) and may pitch similar solutions. When they’ve seen everyone’s pitch, assuming expertise and reasonable fees, your clients will most likely hire the people they think they’ll enjoy hanging out with the most over the long haul.

(The discomfort was obvious.)

Me: I’m not saying don’t use what you’ve got here. I’m suggesting that you layer in eye contact, time to respond, to question, to listen. So the client will feel seen, heard, understood. In fact, it has to be more than a feeling. Your client will be seen, heard, and understood, which meets a basic human need and is good business practice. Otherwise, you won’t get to the heart of what your client on their best day would look like. And don’t have someone standing at a podium. Everyone should be seated, so this feels like a conversation, not a pitch, and your people must be willing and prepared to go off script. They must be willing to go wherever the client wants to go during the conversation.

(Silence!)

Me: What are you thinking, but not saying?

Mark: Well, to be completely candid, most of our people, those who would be using this room, would be uncomfortable without a prepared, scripted presentation. Free-flowing conversations, as you call them, would be very difficult for them.

Me: You’ve got to be kidding me!

Mark: (Shakes head)

Me: Well, then here’s where I suggest you begin. Train your people to have conversations, especially ones that enrich relationships.

(Silence.)

Me: Here’s another idea you’ll likely choke on. Since you can make anything happen on these screens, when it’s time to just talk with the client, why don’t you change the monitors embedded in the tabletop to a crackling campfire, possibly even with sound effects—very low, of course. Most people have good memories about campfires. The smell of wood smoke. Easy conversations, scary ghost stories. We connect with families and friends around campfires. It would be a fun touch, a human touch, unexpected.

Mark took my suggestions to heart, including the campfire idea. His current win ratio is so impressive, he currently heads up the firm’s “mega deal” team.

Here’s the thing. The first organization in any industry to really connect with clients will win the field. It might not be the biggest competitor out there. It could be a quietly emerging company you don’t even see coming. It might not have the fanciest product or the cheapest prices or the cleverest ad campaign—but if it has the relationships, emotional capital with its customers, it will take the hill.

And as a leader, you may be highly competent, convinced that your product or service is superior to those of your competitors. But at the end of the day, your competitive edge is you, specifically your ability to connect with your customers at a deep level. Once you achieve intimacy and connection, I predict that innovation, partnership, execution, and success won’t be far behind.