When a Win-Win…Is Not

Special thanks to Noelle who participated in a Being a Trusted Advisor program Charlie and I led recently. Noelle told a similar story in class that was the inspiration for this post.

I had an experience with US Airways recently that shed light on the difference between what I’ll call a Sears Win-Win* and a Real Win-Win. In short, the difference boils down to incentives.

The Story of an On-Time Departure

It seems that US Airways is placing a lot of emphasis on on-time departures these days.  Works for me! As I was getting settled on a recent flight, I noticed that the flight attendant working my section was particularly smiley and up-beat, urging everyone to get buckled up and ready to go in a most effervescent way.

I acknowledged her demeanor as she paused near my row. "We’re working hard for an on-time departure today and it looks like we’re going to make it!" she beamed.

"Wow," I said, a bit taken aback by the commitment and the positivity.

Then she added, "And there’s $50 in it for me if we leave the gate on time!"

(Apparently, US Airways implemented a new program in 2009 where employees below the director level can earn up to $150 per month in incentive pay when they achieve top-three rankings for on-time performance, mishandled baggage reports or customer complaint numbers.)

"Oh," I said.

And then we left on time…and arrived on time.

Why Motives Matter

On the surface, this sure looks like a win-win: I won because we left and arrived on time; the flight attendant won because she got her bonus. The corporate incentive program worked! Or did it?

I say it didn’t. Not really. It clearly achieved a desirable result (me arriving on time). And that result came with–what’s the word I’m looking for–baggage (me feeling like chopped liver). Which is why I call this a Sears Win-Win, not a Real Win-Win. If we look throught the lens of the Trust Equation, my friendly flight attendant’s Self Orientation was sky high. And therein lies the problem: the source of her interest was her own benefit, not mine.

How Do We Make the Ending Happy?

Here are some conclusions I draw from this story:

  • Incentives are great. And they’re not enough
  • When one or more parties in a business transaction leaves that transaction without feeling cared about, it’s a loss, not a win.
  • Motives aren’t only spoken; they’re exuded
  • Real Win-Win’s are motivated by caring, not by numbers.

Which begs the question, how do you incent–and incite–someone to care?

Any answers out there?

*Reference courtesy of Frank Zappa

Intimacy 201

At first blush, intimacy is a strange word to use in a business context. "What, I’m supposed to intimate with my clients?" In the sense that being intimate means being familiar, informal, and emotionally connected…yes, indeed.

Intimacy is one of the four components of the Trust Equation and it usually gets the short-shrift. For most, it’s more natural to build trust by increasing credibility and reliability. And yet, without intimacy, business transactions are just that–transactions–and the "safe haven" experience that is the hallmark of Trusted Advisor relationships is a pipe dream.

Here is a Top 10 list of intimacy-builders to help answer the question, "How do I build intimacy with my clients?"

Caveat: While the three  groupings (Be Positive, Be Personal, Be Bold) are relatively universal, the specifics underneath are written from a U.S. orientation (mine) and should be adapted as appropriate to fit different cultural norms.

Be Positive

1. Tell your client something you appreciate about him. Don’t just think it; say it. "Amal, before we dig into our agenda today, I just wanted to say I really appreciate how you handled the meeting yesterday. You were clear and direct while also listening to the concerns that were raised. I think it made a difference for the staff."

2. Celebrate successes together. Give the tendency to be a Task Master a little reprieve. Suggest meetings, coffees, lunches–whatever–that are specifically focused on reflecting on/toasting a job well done.

Be Personal

3. Use your client’s name when you communicate with him/her. They say your own name is the sweetest music to your ears. Address your client personally in your emails, voicemails, and conversations.

4. Use colloquial language. Check the consulting jargon and multi-syllablic words at the door. Practice human talk. Simple. Straightforward. To the point.

5. Be empathic in all your interactions. Empathy creates emotional correctedness. Stop to demonstrate that you’re really tuned in to what your client is saying (both the words and the "music") before you ask your next question or make your next recommendation. "It’s clear this is a stressful situation, Frank" or "I can appreciate the difficulty in that" or "That sounds like a victory worth celebrating!" (see #2)

6. Be willing to express your own emotions. They’re legit too. "Gee, Johannes, I must confess to feeling pretty frustrated by what you just said" or "You have no idea how happy I am to hear that."

7.  Share something personal. The next time you’re doing the Monday morning how-was-your-weekend-fine-thanks-yours bit, don’t let it stop at a superficial exchange. "My weekend was great, Surita, thanks for asking. My parents were in town and Sam and I really enjoyed the built-in babysitting. We got a much-needed break."

Be Bold

8. Acknowledge uncomfortable situations. Caveats are conversational jewels: "Wow, this is awkward…" or "I wish I had better news…" or "The timing with this is embarrassing…"

9. Say what needs to be said. Practice doing it in 10 words or less. "We’re not going to make the deadline" or "We just don’t have the executive sponsorship we need" or "Jim is leaving the team." The direct approach works especially well in combination with caveats (see #8).

10. Take responsibility for mistakes. Yeah, it’s risky. It’s also human (we all make ’em) and refreshingly real. "Janet, part of the problem here is that I dropped the ball."

Of course, none of these "techniques" creates intimacy if they’re forced or disingenuous or robotic. It’s okay (and perfectly natural) to be a little awkward and unpolished–in fact, that just creates more intimacy.

Why Mistakes Build Trust

My mechanic taught me something the other day about being a Trusted Advisor. He screwed up in a big way. And I ended up trusting him more as a result.

An Old Car and an Intimate Relationship with AAA

I love old cars and I drive a 19-year-old Mazda Miata as my primary vehicle to prove it. This necessitates an intimate relationship with AAA, as well as Gray’s Auto in Arlington, VA, where I’ve taken my cars for years with good results. A few weeks ago my car overheated on the way to an appointment. AAA came to the rescue, depositing me at Gray’s where Kevin and crew graciously inserted their unexpected visitor near the top of the list of waiting customers. it took days (and a lot of money) to diagnose and fix the problem. When I arrived at the scheduled time to pick up the car, it wasn’t ready–still being test-driven. It didn’t pass the test. I sat in the grimy waiting room for nearly three hours until it was (ostensibly) ready to go. Then half a mile into my drive home it overheated again–dead as a doornail in the right-hand lane of a busy DC thoroughfare. It was Saturday; growing dark; raining. I wasn’t the happiest of campers.

I called Kevin. He was embarrassed and frustrated, and tried valiantly to find a wrecker (on their dime) to retrieve me faster than AAA could. No luck. "We’ll stay open for you," he assured me.

Ninety minutes later my haul and I were back at Gray’s, where Kevin and crew waited to take care of me. They handled the situation beautifully. They were responsible and apologetic, not defensive and guilt-ridden. They didn’t explain or justify or blame; they simply said, "We’ll take care of it." Then Kevin’s boss insisted on driving me home, stopping along the way for take-out (on his dime) so I wouldn’t have to worry about dinner. And in the end, there was no additional charge for the final repair, even though they’d spent considerable money on parts and labor replacing another failed temperature sensor. We joked when I picked up the car the second time about a mutual desire not to see each other again for at least a couple of months.

Trust Doesn’t Just Trump Screw-ups: Screw-ups Can Create Trust

So why do I trust Kevin–and Gray’s Auto–more as a result of this experience? Because I’ve seen their true colors. I know what they stand for. And I am confident that, given another challenging situation, they will rise to the occasion. Could they have fixed the problem the first time? Maybe; I don’t really know and I don’t actually care. What I’m left with is an experience of being looked after by people who chose to do right by me, which far outweighs the costs (tangible and intangible) of a one-time goof.

Mistakes are an opportunity for us to show the world what we’re made of–to make known how we handle ourselves and who we choose to be in a moment of truth. Don’t be afraid to screw-up. When you do (and you will because we all do), don’t cover it up with excuses or defensiveness or blame or avoidance tactics. Show your clients who you are for them. Do the right thing and they’ll learn they can count on you for far more than parts and labor.

Trust and Golf: How Neither Makes Sense

I’ve been reading Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith.

I was particularly struck by the way they told Robert Scoble‘s story (a success story, but not usually painted as a trust story).  They call Scoble one of the first trust agents ever on the World Wide Web. 

Though hindsight is 20-20, many people watching Scoble’s moves at the time would have labeled him at best irreverent, irresponsible, and committed to career suicide … at worst a complete idiot. But looking at him through the lens of what it takes to become trustworthy, I’m siding with Brogan and Smith—what he did was brilliant.

The Scoble Story

In 2004, Scoble, then a Microsoft employee, took to blogging about serious issues Microsoft and its end users were experiencing. He even candidly sung the praises of Firefox, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer competitor.

Not only did Scoble not get fired, he got readers. And Microsoft got business. Brogan and Smith report, “People began eating up everything he said. If his very next blog post had praised Notepad as ‘the best app ever,’ his readers probably would have said, ‘You’re so right!’”

Scoble attributes part of this phenomenon to something he learned when he helped run retail stores in the 1980’s. If he told a customer that a competitor had a better selection, they often came back and asked to do business with him anyway, “’cause I like you better.”  (Maybe he got it from the Macy’s Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street, who recommended competitor Gimbel’s on occasion).

What’s Golf Got to Do with It?

One of the reasons trust is so hard to get a grip on is that it’s rife with paradox. For example, the thing we’re most afraid to say or do is precisely what will build the most trust. Or, in Scoble’s case, the best way to generate sales is to have the courage to be brutally honest about your product’s weaknesses and your competitor’s strengths.

Here’s the link to golf (pardon the pun): I am not a golfer. To me, the only logical way to get that tiny little ball to travel hundreds of yards off the first tee towards that tiny little cup is to hit it as hard as possible. If you’re a golfer, you just shook your head in dismay because you know what my strategy will yield: a nice left hook into a thick forest of trees.

Scoble came to be seen as someone who could be trusted because he knew that building trust is like a golf swing: hype your product and you hook the ball; be honest and land it square on the green.

Golf Aside, Motives Matter

Leaving the golf metaphor behind for a moment, it’s important to remember that motives really do matter. Buyers have a sixth sense for manipulation. Had Scoble been talking trash about his products with the intention of closing deals, his strategy would have backfired. Which leads us to another paradox: the more you try to build trust with the intention of closing deals, the less deals you close.

Take a look at your business model. How might the lessons of golf—and Scoble—improve your game?

How to Be a Self-Deprecating Horn-Tooter

shucks meowcheese.comI recently ran for a seat on the condo board of the brand new community I live in. I lost. In front of about 60 people.

My reaction was a mixture of gratitude (“I think I just got spared a LOT of work”), huffiness (“How could they pass ME over?”), and a dash of embarrassment (“Oh no, I think I just looked like an IDIOT in front of a large group of people”).

In reflecting on what worked and didn’t about my little platform speech (I had three minutes to pitch myself to the group), I realized there are some important lessons about trust-based selling to tease out of my defeat.

What Worked

My dominant strategy was to lead with high Intimacy and low Self-Orientation, and to differentiate myself a bit. How? By telling them first why they might NOT want to elect me. I shared openly that I’m a first-time home buyer and had never before been on a condo board – in fact, I had just made my first condo payment ever. My self-deprecation was effective, I think, in that it got a good laugh and set their expectations about what they could and couldn’t count on me for (couldn’t: Board/home ownership expertise; could: honesty and lightheartedness).

What Didn’t Work

There was one thing I didn’t do that left my constituents understandably less than confident in my abilities. I was too humble. I fell into the trap that (sweeping generalization coming) many women do of being tentative about tooting my own horn.

Sure, I told them a little bit about my professional background (close to 20 years in consulting, the latter half with an emphasis on teaming and relationship skills, which lends itself well to community-building endeavors). But I didn’t let them know that when it comes to starting something up (new community, new board), I’m your woman.

I didn’t tell them that eight years ago I launched a business that now boasts a client roster of global companies that generate millions and billions in revenue each year. I didn’t tell them about the community service program I created that, within six months of its inception, was given a prominent mention in SELF magazine and then acquired by a national non-profit.

(Even as I write this, my brain is screaming: Enough with the tooting horns already!)

Bottom line: I didn’t think about what would be of value to them, link that to what I brought to the table, and say it out loud.

What I’d Do Next Time

Of course, this is all speculation; I might have lost because they didn’t like what I was wearing – who knows. I think it’s safe to say, though, that next time I’d be more effective (and certainly less huffy and embarrassed) by doing the following:

– Take five minutes to prepare. Think about what my fellow condo association members might really want in their first set of officers, and know what the link is to my experience and skills.

– Lead with the same opening – why you don’t want to elect me. It’s honest. Plus it’s a little contrarian, and I like that.

– Toot toot toot away. Confidently, succinctly, matter-of-factly, with an emphasis on the aspects of me that directly address their interests and concerns.

I’d leave them with a more complete picture of me–not one that’s either over- or underexposed.

Seems to me these guidelines apply no matter who we are, what we’re selling, and to whom we’re pitching the sale: prepare and be honest about both your strengths and your weaknesses.

That and choose your clothes carefully.

The Great Empathy Famine

I spent the weekend in California. It started as a mini-vacation—joining a friend’s 50th birthday celebration. It ended with most of the time in my hotel room with the flu.

At first, my demeanor was positive (why compound physical misery with a bad attitude) but steadily declined as I negotiated all the logistical changes required to extend my stay until I could haul my ailing self back across the country. 

Of all the service providers with whom I interacted (hotel desk clerks, cleaning ladies, airport rental car attendant), not one acknowledged my matter-of-fact revelation that I was asking for help because I was sick and couldn’t go home.

Why Is Empathy So Hard to Find?

Now, I wasn’t looking for sympathy from these folk (well, maybe a tad).  It just would have been nice if, when they learned of my situation, they had given some hint that they had actually heard what I said.  "Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” would have completely sufficed. Or “Oh dear!” Even “Bummer, dude.” 

But no.  Nothin’.  Nada. When I finally emerged from my room, the cleaning lady had an attitude – the Do Not Disturb sign that hung on the door for 48 hours straight had kept her from doing her job.

The Alamo car check-in guy dutifully read – word-for-word – the statement on the back of my agreement justifying the additional $10.99 late return charge.  Waiving the $10 might have made me a customer for life.   Just saying, “I’m so sorry that my job requires me to tack on this extra fee under the circumstances” might have led me to consider  renting from Alamo again.

These are not unhappy or unfriendly people. Hey, it’s California. They get a lot of sun. And it’s not like they were in roles not requiring interpersonal skills — I’ll give the hotel housekeeper a pass, but the rest were front-line customer service types.  And honestly, I wasn’t being a cranky-whiny-pain-in-the-you-know-what sick person – I promise.

I’m not sure what the problem was.  Perhaps they weren’t really listening. Or they just didn’t know what to say.

Empathy Isn’t Really All That Difficult

The thing is, empathy isn’t that hard. It comes in many forms: “I’m terribly sorry,” or “I’m sure that wasn’t how you wanted to spend your weekend here!”  or even “That sucks!” (sorry, Mom, I know you hate that word).

Just acknowledge — rather than avoid — the emotional reality of the human being on the other end of the phone/service counter/board room table.
Are you uncomfortable in this touchy-feely zone? That’s perfectly normal.  But it’s also a bad excuse for doing nothing. Awkward empathy beats no empathy any day of the week.

In our Trusted Advisor and Trust-Based Selling  programs we spend a lot of time practicing empathy. Put in the terms of the Trust Equation, empathy creates intimacy and intimacy builds trust.

Empathy is imperative in professional services; listening is what drives influence.  Just asking good questions is not enough to be a good listener.

Having your client get that you got him — emotionally as well as cognitively — is what earns you the Top Listener award, which in turn earns you the right to be heard.

Next time you ask your client how her weekend was, and she mutters “Not quite what I expected,” try putting the meeting agenda aside just long enough to say, “I’m sorry to hear that” or – context-permitting – “Bummer, dude.”

And if your client ever reveals something that leaves you feeling itchy and unsure what to say, say that (“Oh … I’m not sure what to say”). Any attempt will do.

Consulting and the Art of Self-deprecation

According to Wikipedia, comedians use self-deprecating humor “to avoid seeming arrogant or pompous and to help the audience identify with them.” Sounds like a good strategy for anyone looking to build trust and rapport with another human being. Sounds like an especially good strategy for anyone in the consulting profession.

Ask any client who has worked with consultants over the years – they’ll have at least a few horror stories to tell about the Big Important Expert they hired. That creates messes we are all left to clean up.

Self-deprecation is an art that should be routinely practiced by anyone who claims the title “consultant.”

Here’s some material for your toolkit (original author unknown):

Top Ten Things You’ll Never Hear from a Consultant

1. You’re right; we’re billing way too much for this

2. Bet you I can go a week without saying “synergy” or “value-added”

3. How about paying us based on the success of the project?

4. This whole strategy is based on a Harvard business case I read

5. Actually, the only difference is that we charge more than they do

6. I don’t know enough to speak intelligently about that

7. Implementation? I only care about writing long reports

8. I can’t take the credit. It was Ed in your marketing department

9. The problem is, you have too much work for too few people

10. Everything looks okay to me

Share this with your clients. They’ll enjoy laughing at your expense. And they’ll appreciate your ability to laugh at yourself!

To Hug or Not to Hug?

I’ve had several awkward moments greeting several different clients in the past few months, where the unspoken question for both of us has been, “To hug or not to hug?” The question seems to arise with clients who fall in two categories:

1 – Business friends – these are clients with whom I don’t necessarily socialize outside of work, but with whom I have established a relationship that’s far more than strictly business — a relationship marked by candor, warmth, genuine caring, and the easy exchange of personal as well as business information.

2 – Personal friends who have become clients – these are clients with whom I had a personal relationship long before we did any work together.

The dilemma arises when a handshake seems completely inauthentic because it’s too formal and distant, and yet a hug seems out of place in a business setting. So what usually results is a really awkward, jerky-movement thing, like two chickens in a barnyard – one of us sticks out our hand while the other moves in for a light embrace, then we both pull back and switch, trying to match the others’ first move.

Trusted Advisor work teaches us to seek intimacy — not fear it – through emotional connectedness with clients; to dare to show clients that we care about them and that we see them more as human beings than walking, talking revenue streams. And yet the question, “To hug or not to hug?” raises all kinds of ancillary questions. Such as:

-What if my client doesn’t like to hug anyone, let alone his or her consultant?

-Should the rules be different depending on whether my client is a man or a woman? The same gender or the opposite gender?

-What if someone else who is “outside” the relationship is there to witness (or be left out of) the hug?

-What is the equivalent dilemma in a country with different cultural norms, where hugging might be completely off the table but kissing might not?

-How much is too much? Where do we draw the line?

Your thoughts?

I Screwed Up

Thanks go to President Obama for timing his first major Presidential misstep to coincide with my delivery of a “Being a Trusted Advisor” workshop.

In class, we had been talking about human nature and the gravitational pull to avoid admitting culpability and generally looking bad when—voila—there appeared the perfect teaching point on the front page of the New York Times.

Whatever your politics, there are two key lessons to be derived from the “I screwed up” message that President Obama delivered on the heels of Tom Daschle’s withdrawal from consideration as the next secretary of Health and Human Services:

1.  Take full responsibility. He pointed his own finger at himself. He didn’t say “I regret the unfortunate circumstances and misinformation that led to the selection of Mr. Daschle.” He didn’t hitch his wagon to Daschle’s admission of his own mistake. No, Obama said, “I screwed up.”

2.  Keep it simple. He used plain talk. Three simple words. I told workshop participants to use no more than ten words when there’s a hard truth to be told. Obama came in seven under.

Telling the truth when the truth makes you look good (as in, “Mr. Client, I have 20 years of experience solving the kinds of problems you are facing right now”) increases your credibility by demonstrating your expertise.

Telling the truth when the truth makes you look bad (as in, “I screwed up”) is a trust trifecta: your honesty boosts your credibility, your humanity creates intimacy, and your willingness to subordinate your own ego lowers your self-orientation. 

It’s another part of the trust paradox: doing what makes you look bad (telling the truth) makes you look good.  As long as you really mean it.


Why Consultants Speak Like Idiots

I have always been simultaneously amused and appalled by consultant-speak–and no more than when I hear it coming out of my own mouth. You know the buzz words. Like snakes in the underbrush, they lie everywhere, buried inside complex sentences:

* “The key to success for your organization is to discern how to leverage your assets for maximum return.” (Nowhere in Merriam-Webster is “leverage” a verb).

* “We’re experts at operationalizing your business strategy.” (“Operationalize” is simply.  not. in.  the.  dictionary).

* “Let’s utilize existing frameworks wherever we can.” (This one actually is in the dictionary, but it’s  a pretty complicated way to say “use,” dontcha think?)

More cringe-inducing, we don’t just write idiot-speak, we actually talk it!  It’s humorous at best, but trust-damaging at worst.  Imagine being a client and having to decipher all this lingo.  Imagine being a client, sitting through the 100th presentation given by the third consulting firm to be hired in the last three years, and thinking quietly to yourself, “I thought these guys were going to be different.”

One way we can stand apart – while simultaneously creating real human-to-human connection – is to simplify our language. You know, say it in plain language.

For an insightful and humorous take on this subject, check out Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A Bullfighter’s Guide written by Brian Fugere, Chelsea Hardaway, and Jon Warshawsky – notably, three consultants. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

“Jargon, wordiness, and evasiveness are the active ingredients of modern business-speak, and they make up the Obscurity Trap. This trap is particularly pervasive, and its perpetrators are evil people who want to destroy civilization as we know it. (Well, okay, not really, but it felt good to get that out.) We call this a trap because the people who spew jargon and all of that evasiveness really aren’t evil at all.

"They’re us.”


What can we do? 

Listen to yourself. What do you hear? What are you really trying to say?