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Acquiring Soft Skills: You Gotta Practice the Scales

I’ve led a fair number of trust-building workshops over the years. I’ve even written a book or three on the subject of trust. One thing hasn’t changed much: I still hear the same question, no matter who I’m speaking to, no matter what country I’m in.

“Do we really have to practice the soft stuff?”

It’s inevitably followed up with some variations of “I get it, but this isn’t going to help me close the big deal I have on deck,” or “Yes, but it’s different here,” or the classic, “This is so basic, why are we wasting our time?”

Let me answer that.

You’ve heard this one.

The New York tourist asks the cab Lyft driver, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”

“Practice, practice, practice,” comes the answer.

The joke is well known – but sometimes we forget how broadly it applies.

Students of classical and jazz piano and guitar often don’t like doing the scales; but most have to do them nonetheless. I remember learning to play all seven modes (Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, etc.) starting from all four fingers from the same starting fret; then moving up a fret and starting over again.

My guitar teacher told me that the next step was to do the same cycle for minor, major seventh, dominant seventh, diminished and augmented scales. “This is the point,” he somberly told me, “at which all the jazz greats picked up heroin.”

Suppose a music student tells the music teacher, “Scales are boring; I get the concept, that’s all I need. Doing scales just cramps my style and inhibits my improvisational skills.” What does the teacher say?

They typically smile and say, “Yes, the scales are boring – but you’ve gotta do them anyway. Do you know how to get to Carnegie Hall?” Etc. etc.

But what about soft skills training? Suppose a corporate training student tells the trainer, “This role-play stuff is boring. I get it, OK? It’s simple. I don’t need to do repetitive drills – it just makes me sound phony.”

What does the trainer say? What does the trainer’s boss say? What do the training department’s clients say?

We Do Muscle Memory Exercises in Music: Why Not in Soft Skills Training?

It’s my experience that, sadly, corporate soft-skills trainers’ responses are not the same as those of music teachers. Faced with resistance, the trainers are more likely to say, “Well, OK, if you say so.”

In fairness to the trainers, it’s not usually their fault. And I don’t think it’s the fault of the client organizations either. I think the blame  lies mainly with L&D organization leadership itself – for not pushing back hard enough, even for partly buying into the clients’ rationalizations that somehow you can cognitively understand your way into learning soft skills behaviors.

The truth is, there is no substitute for realistic “muscle memory” activity when it comes to learning soft skills. You simply can’t “think your way into” skills like active listening, much less empathetic listening. You can’t just memorize a set of canned “answers” to a buyer’s “objections.” You can’t just write sentences ahead of time and think you will be able to give acceptable feedback. (Go re-watch the movie Up in the Air for an amusing example of cognitive vs. muscle-memory learning).

The equivalent of scales in soft-skills training comes in several forms – role-plays, video replays, case discussions. For my money, nothing beats a “fish-bowl” role-play; two volunteers role-play a case in front of a room. When something happens – and it always does – everyone sees it, and knows it. There is no escaping the real-ness of what just transpired.

If trainers know this is true, why then don’t they insist on it just as strongly as music teachers do? Music teachers have one advantage: they are typically older than their pupils, hence in a natural position of authority; whereas trainers are often junior to, and subordinate to, the line people in their sessions.

One trainer told me of being politely informed by an AmLaw 20 law firm that there would be no role-plays in the upcoming session. “Just discuss the technique,” the partner client said, “our people are smart enough to pick it up quickly – no need to waste time on faux drama.” Right.

The Real Reason for Resisting Soft Skills Drills

As is often the case with negative behavior, fear is at the root. No one, me included, enjoys doing role-plays. I also don’t like the taste of some medicine, but if I’m sick, I know to over-rule my taste buds.

In other words, participants just don’t want to do it. Of course, they don’t say that. They say it’s boring, they don’t need it, comprehension is enough, and so on. But it’s still the L&D folks who must not let them get away with it.

I find that each of the major staff functions has a generic effectiveness issue. For IT staff, it’s speaking in jargon and over-promising. For legal staff, it’s an inability to balance risk-minimization with general management perspective.

For HR staff – in my experience – the weakness is a desire to be accepted at the Big Table. Combined with the fact that HR people have no secret vocabulary – they speak plain language – this means that clients will predictably abuse them.

And so when the students resist doing what the L&D people know perfectly well they should do – the teachers don’t push back.

This is of course my pet theory, though it is based on my experience. What’s yours?

If your students ask you how you get to corporate Carnegie Hall, tell ‘em, “Role play, dammit!”

Client Service vs. Client Servility

With every technological advance in communications, we get another chance to negotiate the boundaries between good client service and client servility.

Where do you draw the line?

Better yet: How do you draw attention to a line that’s already there, if we think about it rightly?

Most client-serving organizations I know make a pretty big deal about client service. It is right at the top of their list of stated virtues. And rightly so.

But sometimes, things can get a little twisted.

What do you make of:

o The SDR who unquestioningly responds in detail to every detailed request, without adding perspective. Regularly.

o The project manager who video-cons the team on Sunday to re-work the slide deck. Regularly.

o The senior officer who drops in on the staff meeting to “show the flag” but leaves early because “when the client calls, you know…”  Regularly.

o The salesperson who cuts price at the drop of the hat when the client demands.  Regularly.

o The VP who cancels the cleanup position on the third round interview because, “I had no choice, the client changed the date.” Regularly.

o The manager who joins the training session late and slips out to take calls between scheduled breaks, because “we’re in the middle of a really tough time for the client – they need me.”  Regularly.

The key word is, of course, regularly.  Any one of those examples can be held up as a case of client heroism.  If, that is, it’s an isolated event. But if it’s endemic – then that’s not client service, that’s client servitude.

They are not the same. Great client service is being willing and able to behave in unusual ways when faced with unusual situations; and doing them selflessly, for the sake of the client.

Being servile is quite another thing. It means seeking out options to give faux service.  Terms related to servile include sycophant, suck-up, boot-licker, and toady.

We suspect those who are servile of dishonesty – of speaking falsely in an attempt at self-aggrandizement. Their motives are suspect; which means their credibility is at risk as well.

Ironically, their servility costs them in terms of respect from the very people they are most trying to impress.  Above all, we don’t trust such people.

If we’re honest – I’ll just speak for me here – if I’m honest about it, there’s always a tiny touch of servility lurking around the edges of most client service I perform.  It’s hard to be unaware of the value of being perceived as client-serving.

The trick is to not be overcome by a need for recognition. To do the next right thing, yet to be detached from the outcome; particularly whatever benefit clearly might accrue to me from doing the right thing.

This is the heart of it.  Client service is doing good for the client.  Period.  We are not surprised when we get credit for doing it.  But expecting good from doing it is Station 1 on the slippery slope; the End-Station is doing client service  in order to get credit for doing it.

That way lies client servility.

Most clients don’t want servants at their beck and call – they want equal partners at the table who can make a plan and stick to it; who have enough respect for themselves and their own firm that they will, on occasion, push back; who take the partnership seriously enough that they will keep their own team healthy enough to deliver in the long run, rather than burn it out in a never-ending series of faux client crises.

And if you really think you have one of those rare clients who actually wants servants – then put your money where your mouth is.  Give that client to a competitor.

The Single Fastest Thing You Can Do to Increase Trust

Trust takes time.

Well, as I’ve said countless times – that’s the biggest myth out there. Trust can be built in a matter of moments. It’s all about how you go about it. And I can share with you how you can build trust…fast.

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That’s quite a claim. But I think I can back it up. (This thing also requires little time or money, meaning it’s also high ROI).

First, let’s define terms.

• By “increase trust,” I mean something Person A can do that increases their probability of being trusted by Person B;
• By “fastest,” I don’t mean easiest, nor most powerful. I mean least elapsed time between interaction and resultant trust.
• By “trust,” I mean legitimate trust, trustworthiness on the part of Person A. No fakery.

It’s simple, though not easy. Let me tell you what it is; then give you 11 reasons why it is indeed the single fastest way to increase trust.

It is simply this:

Return calls and emails really fast.

That’s it. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? But let’s explore further.

First, here’s the basic template for doing it:

Joe, I want to let you know I got your message. I may not get to it until Thursday, but I want to let you know I’m on it. I’ll be working it between now and then. It’s on my to-do list, it’s in my mind first thing in the morning and last at night. You can take it off your worry list, I’m on the case.

Now let’s explore what this does for you and your client.

1. It immediately removes FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) from your client’s mind. All those concerns (did he get it? why hasn’t he answered me yet? was it something I said? Is he avoiding me? is he fighting me?) are gone. Cut off. Stopped cold. You have committed to engage.

2. It allows you to proactively schedule things out to Thursday. (Don’t worry—if they actuallydo need it Tuesday, they’ll be back to you about it).

3. By making a commitment to engage, you create a chance to improve your perceived reliability and integrity—by proceeding to do just what you said you’d do.

4. It demonstrates your attentiveness to the client’s issue.

5. It demonstrates your sensitivity to the client’s time needs.

6. It forces you to address an issue. The tougher and more difficult the issue, the more important this is. How many people have not returned your call in the last three days? The more uncomfortable an issue is, the more likely we are to delay, or avoid, facing it. Unfortunately, the other person knows it. They in turn silently accuse us of passive-aggressive avoidance. And they’re right.

7. By dealing with tough issues—putting them squarely on the table—we show that we are not afraid to constructively engage. The work of John Gottman in marriages shows the enemy of relationships is not confrontation, but disengagement. Returning that difficult phone call forthrightly builds relationships.

8. By scheduling it for Thursday, you show that you’re in charge of your schedule, therefore an efficient server of clients.

9. By scheduling it forthrightly, you show confidence that you can deal with the issue, and confidence itself is confidence-inspiring (I’m assuming here you can back it up).

10. By responding quickly and directly, you validate the client’s sense of the issue as being accurate and timely.

11. You’re going to have to deal with this thing anyway. You can do it efficiently, effectively and confidently and gain all the above benefits; or you can put it off hoping either the issue will die, the muse will descend from the heavens, or the client will forget about it.

Do the right thing. Return that call or email really fast.

Win a Free Copy of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook Redux

We’re excited about the early success of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust. It’s gotten a #4 ranking on The Washington Post Book World paperback bestseller list, a five-star Amazon review, and a growing list of features and media mentions.

Find out what all the hoopla is about―reply by Friday, December 2, 2011 midnight EST to win your free autographed copy of the book. Details below.

And the Winner Is…

Last month we ran a contest inviting readers to tell us about your favorite Trust Tip based on the daily countdown of #TrustTips on Twitter (144 in total from the time we started till October 31, the day The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook was officially released). We listed a few of our favorites, then turned it over to you to share yours.

The lucky winner is Dawna Houston, who gets a copy of the new book autographed by both of us, as well as this opportunity to be singled out on our site (also known as “eternal fame”).

Dawna’s favorite Trust Tip was #TrustTip 8: Trust enhances innovation: it allows people of different views to convert conflict into collaboration.

Dawna observed, “I have watched fear and anxiety absolutely shut down creativity, both personally and professionally; this tip is a great reminder that when we cultivate trust, our minds naturally open and our awareness expands.” Well said, Dawna. Congrats!

Are You Feeling Lucky?

You’ve got another chance to win. Simply take a look through the free download of chapter 1 and tell us how much money Charlie gave the taxi driver. If you get it right, you’ll be entered in the drawing. Send your answer in an email by Friday, December 2, 2011 midnight EST.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Ian Brodie Takes the Trust Quotient Test: Video Interview

Ian Brodie is a sales and marketing consultant to professionals. Based in Cheshire, England, Ian’s low-key, self-effacing style belies some deep content mastery.

Ian and I crossed paths years ago at Gemini Consulting, and have gotten back in touch in recent years.  As part of our promotion for The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook, Ian agreed to be a guinea pig and take the TQ (Trust Quotient) Self-Assessment test.

Not only that, but he agreed to share the results – on video! – with TrustMatters readers.

If you’ve been curious about the TQ test, have a look at what Ian (and his wife!) gleaned from it in this YouTube video.

Andrea and I thank Ian for his participation. If you’re interested in the TQ test, you can find out more about it here.

And as long as you’re onsite, have a look at The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook.

Working On Trust: David A. Brock

To anyone who doubts the power of social media, I tell them how I came to know David A. Brock. Dave’s resume is old-school – IBM, Tektronix – and I have a feeling he’s even (gasp) older than I am, but Dave is all over twitter (http://twitter.com/davidabrock), he writes a fine blog, and he knows the inner workings of WordPress.

Much more importantly – David is just a delightful human being. Generous, warm, self-effacing, quick to pick up the phone, always about the customer. Dave is a superb management consultant.  Nominally, his subject is sales; in truth, it’s about making business and organizations better.  And he is very, very good at it.

Working on Trust

Which is why I’m so pleased that Dave interviewed me and Andrea Howe about our new book.

In the interview, Dave gets the conversation going about the role of trust in sales coaching.  We also talk about what someone can do when stuck in the company of untrustworthy others.  We finish up talking about what can actually be done to make customers trust us (hint: think Bonnie Raitt).

If you aren’t familiar with Dave Brock, please get to know him. His blog is called Making a Difference.  I can attest that he does.

Story Time: Risky Business

Our Story Time series brings you real, personal examples from business life that shed light on specific ways to lead with trust. Our last story told of the upside of being willing to walk away. Principle pays off in today’s story.

A New Anthology

When it comes to trust-building, stories are a powerful tool for both learning and change. Our new book, The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust (Wiley, October 2011), contains a multitude of stories. Told by and about people we know, these stories illustrate the fundamental attitudes, truths, and principles of trustworthiness.

Today’s story is excerpted from our chapter on risk-taking. It vividly demonstrates the potential upside of sticking to your guns.

From the Front Lines: Telling a Difficult Truth

Lynn P., a career systems consultant serving largely government clients in the United States, tells a story about taking a risk under pressure.

“Eleven years into my career, I took over a major project. A key phase, testing, was way behind schedule, and the Testing Readiness Review was only two weeks away. Passing the review was a very big deal: it meant completing a milestone and getting a payment for my company.

“I was due to present to all the clients and the senior managers of my own company. It was intimidating—and I was intimidated.

“I was under significant pressure to keep the program moving by passing the review. I also knew that we were not ready to pass.

“Knowing it could cost me my job, I went line by line through our assessment, citing the facts as I saw them. I said we did not pass the review and that we would need to delay to correct the critical items.

“There was complete silence in the room.

“My top executive asked, ‘Are you sure?’

“I said yes.

“After the meeting, both my client and my senior managers approached me informally to commend me for ‘sticking to my guns’ and recommending what I believed to be right.

“Apparently, I had created trust—a lot of it. Over the next 18 months, I was given roles of increasing responsibility, and was eventually promoted to program manager.

“I now believe it was this event that drove the client to increase my role. The experience gave me greater confidence in my own judgment and skills. And finally, it was this program’s success that ultimately propelled my career to the next level.”

The willingness to take a risk by being principled can pay off hugely—as long as you’re doing it for the principles, not the payoff.

—As told to Charles H. Green

When have you stuck to your guns? What payoff did you get?

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Read more stories about trust:

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Listen to a podcast interview with Andrea Howe and Charlie Green on Trust Across America Radio.

“Consult This” Consults Us

Charlie and I recently recorded a podcast interview with Mike McLaughlin on the subject of trust and professional services. We covered a lot of ground in 16 minutes, including the one piece of advice we’d each give consultants about building trust with clients.

Consult This

Mike is an accomplished thought leader in the world of professional services. A former partner with Deloitte Consulting, he’s the author of two books (Winning the Professional Services Sale and Guerrilla Marketing for Consultants, in collaboration with Jay Conrad Levinson), the founder of MindShare Consulting LLC, and the publisher of Management Consulting News, a monthly newsletter that delivers practical ideas to thousands of professionals around the world. He also writes another monthly newsletter, The Guerrilla Consultant, which extends the concepts and strategies in his first book.

Mike regularly taps into experts on a variety of relevant topics, and posts his own insightful content on his blog, Consult This. Some examples include:

  • Let Them Take Credit. How, by giving up the credit, you actually earn credit (and more business).
  • What’s in a Name? How the job titles we use on business cards, email signature lines, and web sites convey a world of meaning to others, some of which isn’t helpful.
  • When it All Hits the Fan. Why we should consider ourselves lucky when a client calls us on the carpet for a customer service failure.

We were honored to be among the likes of Peter Block and Peter Bregman, whom Mike has interviewed in the past, among others.

Q & A

Mike asked us some interesting questions. He wanted to know:

  • Do buyers trust professional service providers more, less, or about the same as they did when The Trusted Advisor was published?
  • If you’re meeting a client for the first time, what are the best steps to take to begin to build trust?
  • On the flip side of the coin, what common behaviors do you see that detract from building trust?
  • What do you say to the pushy sales manager who wants you to “accelerate” the sale before trust is established?
  • If you’ve lost trust with a client, what can you do to regain it?
  • If you could give a consultant just one piece of advice about building trust with clients, what would it be? (Charlie and I had different answers for this one.)

Check out his blog post today to find out how we answered.

Connect with Mike on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Hot off the Presses: The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook

We are very happy to officially announce the publication of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust. Published by Wiley Books, it is now being sold at fine bookstores worldwide and online at major booksellers.

Whose shoulders does it stand on? The book’s pedigree begins with the classic The Trusted Advisor, by Charlie with esteemed co-authors David Maister and Rob Galford in 2000.  In 2005, Charlie wrote Trust-based Selling, which squared the circle of trust and sales.

What’s up with the leadership emphasis? Since 2000, the world has gotten flat, connected and linked—trust drives success. The relevance of trust to leadership has increased 470% (our subjective estimate). We connect the dots.

What’s new? Material on creating a trust-based culture; networking; risk-taking; selling to the C-suite; rapid trust creation; leadership. And more.

Why a “fieldbook”? It’s practical, tactical. Loaded with how-to’s. Deals with the nitty-gritty of situations from business development to dealing with untrustworthy partners. It has so many lists it has a list of lists.

Who likes it? Tom Peters, David Maister, Chris Brogan, Neil Rackham, Jim Quigley, and more…

Find Out More

We want to make it easy for you.  You can:

Tell Us What You Think

Making a Trusted Advisor of the Procurement Function

The procurement function in an organization can play an important role—potentially both strategic and advisory. It can also, however, be dragged down into petty negativism. It’s in everyone’s interest to get it right.

Getting it right is the subject of a new article by the two of us, called The Role of Procurement as Trusted Advisor to Management. Link to a.pdf version here.

Following is a quick overview.

Procurement as Strategic Partner

Ideally, a firm’s procurement function helps broadly. Of course it manages the buying of commodity stuff cheaply.  It should also design good overall purchasing processes.  But ultimately it should also help an organization invest its expenditures wisely.

That last is a mandate most CPOs and CEOs alike would welcome—in principle. But they rarely get there, because procurement gets bogged down in a classic trust conflict: the conflict between transactions and relationships.

Procurement has pushed hard to attract brighter and better staff, but capability is not enough.  A genuine understanding of and concern for clients’ ambitions and goals is needed: procurement needs to be benevolent as well as capable in the way it works with clients.

The Transaction Trap

Most organizations measure procurement by how much they can cut cost.  This simple fact—the focus on cost savings as a metric—has outsized influence.  It means discussions are always about price—but not value.  Expenses—but not expenditures.  Cuts—but not contexts.

The cost savings focus drives procurement to excessively favor market-based, impersonal processes—which too often prevent the value of trusted relationships with suppliers. The transactional focus implied by cost metrics also favors explicit contracting, rather than the constructive use of implicit contracts on occasion.

This focus also leads to destructive gaming: you can’t prove savings if you’ve already cut the source of waste by strategically redefining processes, hence procurement organizations are tempted to “squirrel away” savings to appear the biggest.  The cost focus also means that purchasing’s clients know that ‘savings’ just means their budget is going to get cut.

The whole ‘savings’ focus drives dysfunctional, non-strategic behavior by everyone.  And it’s gotten worse since 2009: CPOs and CEOs alike, in a bad economic environment, have said, “Just go find some savings.”

The Trust Cure

It’s not often that we should start with metrics instead of strategy, but this may be the cart that should drive the horse.  Instead of focusing so extremely on cost savings, we suggest procurement focus on a Spend Control Index.  Details will vary by organization, but the gist of it is a unified scorecard that makes procurement accountable for all external spend—based on revenue, adjusted for items like salaries, interest, and above all, linked directly to strategic decisions.

Such an approach is easily linked to strategy; it enhances strategy implementation; and it is easily auditable. Most importantly, it allows for reframing of discussions between management and procurement; allowing the latter to behave like a trusted advisor.

Read the whole article here, or in .pdf form here.