Getting Out There

I read a short interview with Pandora Founder, Music Devotee, and Road Warrior Tim Westergren on Fortune.com.  For the past two years, the creator of the Pandora Music app on the iPhone has traveled from one city to the next, from music scene to music scene to talk with his app's fans, get their feedback, and groove on some tasty tunes.

But Westergren seems to be one of those rare exception of a leader that can do the best thing possible for their company and live out their dreams.  For Pandora--and many other companies—visiting with customers, listening to their problems and ideas, and getting priceless feedback is paramount to not only increasing sales and market share, but also ensuring that the existing customer base is strong and the company stays current, or even ahead of the curve.

For most business leaders however, spending two years traveling around the country is impossible.  In fact for most it would be too much of a drain on time or money to even spend a month away from the trenches.  The good news is that they can stay where they're needed and still get out to “shake hands” across the country and the world.

They can do this by using teleconferences.  Using conference calls, they can meet with a handful of diehard customers, or an auditorium's worth of customers, potential customers, and fans.  Add video conferencing to at least show their smiling face to the masses, if not see some of theirs.  And with web conferencing, they can hold a meeting complete with presentations, “handouts,” and visuals that rivals or even surpasses a face-to-face.  And these business leaders can do all of this from their computer at the office or home.

Westergren's crusade is an impressive feat, and one that would be excellent for any company to duplicate if it wasn't so generally impractical.  With the right tools though, a business can reach out to their customers and engage them in a similar way.  Because it's not simply a handshake and a smile that forms a bond… it's the thoughts behind them that count.

Rules of the Remote

Telecommute

A big perk these days is the opportunity for employees to have a day or two where they work from a home office.  They get to be productive—sometimes getting more done in less time—avoid a commute, and of course, work in their bathrobe.  But a justifiable concern for a company with remote workers is making sure the work gets done, communication stays strong, and discipline doesn't fall overboard.

If your company is considering an off-site program, has had one for a while, or even simply has a few concerns, then you'll be interested in a the rules for telecommuting that I found in an article on ManageSmarter.com.  These are my top two favorites:

"Manage Results Not Activity" – It's easy—and tempting—to monitor instant message programs for inactivity icons, track emails sent, or login/logout times, but it's also time-consuming and counter-productive.  Remember the point of "work" is to get things done.  While the urge is strong to get the most for your money out of an employee, you want results, not activity.  Establish timelines and objectives for remote employees, then monitor if things get done and on time.  If the "idle message" is more common with a particular employee, maybe they need more to do, or less time to do it in.

"Define Rules of Responsiveness" – How soon should you expect a reply to an email?  What about an instant message, or even a voicemail?  Does everyone at the company—telecommuting or not—know what's appropriate for each communication medium?  Establish guidelines for responding to emails, instant messages, missed calls, voicemails, texts, and possibly even tweets on Twitter.com.  Once everyone is on the same page, if there is sluggish communication from someone, you'll know there's an issue rather than suspect one.

What are your rules for the various forms of communication?  How do you keep tabs on remote workers?  Leave a comment and share your off-site or home office program experiences.

Foundations of Good and Bad Communication

Why didn't the team finish the project in time?  How did she accomplish so much in such a short meeting?  Both good and bad communication doesn't just happen, there are root causes underneath. 

I came across two articles that at first seemed to be polar opposites.  After reading them in depth however, I realized that both were about the underlying causes of effective or defective communication. 

The first article, from AllBusiness.com, studies the roots of poor communication because:  "Only by understanding the root cause can you effectively work to solve the underlying issue."

A very good point.  And the number one root cause?  Fear.  Fear of failing, fear of losing a position, fear of ridicule for a bad idea, these different manifestations can shut people's mouths, even when it's best-for them and/or the team or project-to speak up.

Good and Bad Communication

Confusion is another big producer of poor communication.  Who is in charge?  What role does each person have?  Where do I send my part of the project?  Confusion can take a highly-capable group of people and make them produce sub-par results.  At best, multiple solutions are conceived and developed.  At worst, you get cross-purpose actions clash and fail.

Fear can be allayed and confusion routed by good communication.  But what are the underlying principles of that?  From BNET.com, the Corner Office blog, I read four general, but solid principles to build your communication foundation:

  • Be direct and concise – "Say what you mean and mean what you say."
  • Be honest and genuine –People can tell if you're being genuine, even if it's only subconsciously.
  • Be present and open – This is a bit Zen, but a more practical application would be to listen with your ears and mind.
  • Be confident but measured – Stand by your views and statements, but remember that others have their own thoughts and views.  In other words, avoid putting your foot in your mouth.

Changing Customer Interactions

Crowd

I learned about "crowdsourcing"--and its poster company, CrowdSpring--in a recent article on BusinessWeek.com.  What caught my eye though, was a small paragraph about croudsourcing and customer participation

Because of the internet, social media, and websites like CrowdSpring bringing design and decisions to the professional masses, customers are starting to feel left out.  They want to have a say about what should or should not be in the products they are buying.  But it's more than just input, it's also complaints, problems, and issues as well.  It's gotten easier for customers to speak up, so shouldn't their voices be heard?

A lot of big companies like Dell, Best Buy, and Starbucks have said, "Why not?" and created bespoke and expensive websites, or hired thousands of customer service agents to better hear from their customers.  What if your company wanted to do the same, but that much expense wasn't a viable option?

On a separate article on BusinessWeek, I read about the company Intuit, whose 8,000-employees conduct "follow me homes" with their customers by going to homes or offices to make sure the products are working well there.  This method works well for Intuit, but again, it's probably not feasible for anyone else.

This is where I started thinking about several companies I know that use audio conferencing to pursue participation.  Typically, they host a monthly web conference for their new customers, but then they have another audio conference that anyone can join.  Part of the time is spent on updates, a good portion is set aside for Q&A, but most of the conference call is devoted to the customer's comments, complaints, and ideas.

I think these companies might be on the right track.  Regular conference calls are much easier than a "follow me home" for both customer and employee, far less expensive than a mega-website, and just as effective for learning what the customer thinks and wants.

How do you ensure good customer interaction at your company?  I'm interested to know some more techniques, so leave a comment and tell me about yours. 

Questions for Effective Presentations

Business communication is different from other types of communication.  It always needs to be clear and concise, and most of the time it needs to be fast.  But fast or slow, when you give a speech or presentation, or send an email or memo, remember that you’re giving them information, but you also want them to do something with it.

To help make sure your communication has the right focus, the Michael Hyatt blog has five questions to ask yourself while preparing to communicate.  They are:

  • What do they need to know?
  • Why do they need to know it?
  • What do they need to do?
  • Why do they need to do it?
  • What can I do to help them remember?

Especially if you have a lot of information to convey, these questions can help keep the presentation focused and easily digestible by the participants.  They should also drill-down the scope of what is to be covered to just the parts that are pertinent or important to the actual audience.

The question that I believe is the most crucial is number four.  It’s tough—and frustrating—to be told to do something without knowing why or how the task fits into the big picture.  Telling people the why along with the what lets them be a part of the team. 

But my favorite part of number four is that if everyone knows the goals and greater purpose, then each can be on the lookout for problems, or even opportunities for improvement.  Instead of just one person trying to hold everything together, there’s a team working together towards the finish line.

Twitteriffic

I've mentioned Twitter a few times on this blog as a business communication tool.  In fact, AccuConference is on Twitter as well.  If you haven't read those posts yet, or heard what Twitter is, go check it out.  Feel free, I'll be here when you get back. 

Twitter is more than a fad—or as much a fad as texting or instant messaging—but what makes it exciting is that it is still evolving.  People keep coming up with new ways to use it.  More and more businesses are adopting Twitter into their way of doing things, even as they find other angles for it to improve their company or the way they communicate externally and internally.  It started out as one thing and is now another.  And it will be another a year from now.

In the meantime, it's a good moment to start looking for ways that Twitter can help out your business.  In the article, The Real Reason to Twitter, I found several good tips, but what really caught my eye was several websites with Twitter-programs.  Here are three of them.

Re:Tweetist – When someone "retweets" on Twitter, they are merely copying what someone else wrote and posting it to all of their followers.  The Re-tweetest website allows you to type in a user or link to see how many people have sent that information on to their friends.  Very handy if you are trying to see if what your company has said is being spread around.

Adjix – This at first seemed to be a funny little website.  It allows you to have advertising in your tweets—and you get paid if people click the ads—but you could choose to be ad-free.  I know, what's the point?  Well, with or without ads, you can track who and when and how many times people click on the links in your tweets.  To me, that's vital information for a company embracing Twitter.  That and pay to have your ads join those being shown by adjix.

Finally, there's Co Tweet, a website program that really spoke to me—much like it's spoken to Starbucks, Ford, and Whole Foods Market.  Basically, it's a powerful unified company twitter account.  That means that multiple users can receive, manage, and respond to the tweets sent to the main company account.  It also allows you to assign tweets to individuals and sends an email to let them know.  It constantly searches and sorts what anyone says about you by looking for keywords.  And it even adds initials to outbound messages so people know who in your company responded to them.

Co Tweet is a third-party program that vastly improves Twitter for business and removes a lot of the barriers for adoption.  It's all about communication which Co Tweet does very well; with the customer of course, but just as important, between the people in your company too.

Prepared Spontaneity

There aren't too many things worse than a long, dull, boring lecture or presentation.  Well, maybe it's worse to find yourself in the middle of presenting a boring presentation.  Two things that make a lecture livelier are natural flow or audience interaction and participation.  But how can you avoid a "canned" speech without making sure you are still informative and convey your message?

Lisa Braithwaite asks this very same question in her blog entry, "Can you be prepared and still be spontaneous?"  Well, can you?  Yes you can and here's how:

Do a Basic Outline – As soon as you can, sketch out your main points and supporting ideas.  Add enough information to this outline to be coherent, but not so much it becomes a speech.  Then leave it alone for a few days – or weeks if you have the time – occasionally returning to go over what you've written.  This cements your main points and concepts in your mind so that you won't have to refer to an outline or written speech during the presentation.  You'll sound as natural and confident as if you knew the subject by heart.  Guess what?  By then you will.

Research the Audience You want to know what your audience knows about your subject material so you can fill in the gaps.  Going over things they already know, or starting in the middle of a subject they have no clue about are two great ways to lose your audience fast.

Have Additions – While you are periodically going through your outline and notes, start looking for places where stories, props, examples, and audience participation could go.  Pencil in reminders where you can augment your presentation with these extras.  As you become familiar with the natural flow, you'll know exactly where to slow the pace with a story, or emphasize a point with an example.

Practice for Time – Now when you talk through your presentation – including additions and places for audience questions and such – time yourself.  However, don't have the clock staring you down.  Start a stopwatch and practice in another room.  Naturally and without pressure go through your speech.  It may be over or under your time limit, but at least it won't sound canned.  Tailor your outline and notes accordingly to end on time.

Be Prepared – After all of your hard work, when you show up you should only need a page or two of your outline, complete with reminders of good places for your additions and any other important information you need to convey.  The outline is sparse and the notes absent because all of that information is in you.  Start talking and let your presentation flow out.

Your audience will appreciate your hard work.

eLunch Meeting

The business lunch meeting is a long-standing tradition.  It's not about the food though.  It's about forming a bond, a relationship.  It's about discussing what you can do for them, or what they can do for you, and all in an informal atmosphere. 

It never occurred to me to replace such an obvious face-to-face aspect of business with a virtual analog, but then I read a blog post by John Jantsch in DuctTapeMarketing.  According to John, with a little bit of prior planning you can turn lunch into eLunch.

I'm going to have to disagree a little with John Jantsch.  Don't get me wrong, I like the idea.  It's clever but… impractical.  Have you ever combined eating and video conferencing before?  I remember a video conference from last year.  It was informal, among friends, and happened to take place during lunch time.  It wasn't a pretty sight.

We did get some good laughs out of it though.

The idea behind an eLunch is to capture the informality, the "getting to know you" part of a lunch.  You don't need food for that, not these days anyway.  John suggested using social networks to research a clients favorite food to have it delivered to an eLunch, but that very research is a form of "getting to know you."

People share a lot of personal information on sites like LinkedIn, Twitter, and Face Book.  Not so much that they get in trouble, perhaps just as much—or a little more—than they would during a lunch.  By following someone's updates on social media, and commenting and messaging through same, you develop an informality and closeness that has a chance to be deeper than anything achieved over hot wings.

Having eLunch is a neat idea, but it's a bit of a gimmick.  To truly reach a bond that will rival one gained over lunch, it's probably better to get to know someone over time through social networking to effectively improve relationships for video conferencing.

But if you're still interested in having an eLunch with a client, like John, I would recommend pizza.  Though when you order the pizza, have them put exactly half in the box to be delivered to the client.  Then make sure you have half a pizza in camera view when they open up their box. Voila, you're sharing a pizza!

Communicating Effectively While On A Conference Call

What kind of communication style do you think you use? A common collection of four communication styles includes assertive, passive, passive-aggressive, and aggressive. Any of those seem familiar to you?

1. Passive communication style. This communication style seeks to avoid confrontation at all costs. They don't talk much, rarely ask questions, and don't do much at all. They seek to not rock the boat ever. Passives know it's safer not to react and that it's better to disappear than to stand up and be noticed.

2. Aggressive communication style. Aggressive communication always involves manipulation. Aggressive people attempt to make people do what they want by pretending to be hurt (imposing guilt) or by using anger to intimidate and control others. We seek to get our needs met immediately. Aggressive behavior is appropriate for sports or war, but it will never work in any kind of healthy relationship. However, the most aggressive sports rely on relationship building and rational coaching strategies. And wouldn't war be avoided if agressives sought to negotiate or assert themselves rather than control others.

3. Passive-aggressive communication style. A combination of both above styles, passive-aggressives do two things at once. They avoid direct confrontation, but attempt to gain some semblance of control through guilt or manipulation tactics. Any thoughts about making that certain someone who needs to be "taken down a notch or two" suffer, and you've stepped right into the emotional and reactive world of the passive-aggressive. This style of communication often leads to over-dramatized office politics and hurtful rumors.

4. Assertive communication style. The most effective and healthiest form of communication is the assertive style. It's how we naturally express ourselves when our self-esteem is intact, giving us the confidence to communicate without games and guilt.

When we are being assertive, we work to create quality and satisfying relationships and solutions. We communicate our needs clearly and without hesitation. While we care about the relationship and seek to find a solution, we know our limits and refuse to be pushed beyond them. The assertive communication style is the least utilized for the majority of people.

Which one are you? Anything you see to work on? Do your passive tendencies reflect badly on your conference call? Are you too aggressive? Do you over-dramatize office politics? Do you stand up for your boundaries?

Backstage Pass

I love smart, funny commercials.  They are the highlight of the superbowl each year, and can make me pause from fast forwarding my DVR (Digital Video Recording) when watching an episode of "How I Met Your Mother."  I especially like the unexpectedly funny ones like this commercial.

Hilarious, isn't it?  I think it's the Scottish accent that really gets me.  I randomly came across this particular commercial while reading a post on Seth's blog about making commercials for the web.  Now, it's an informative and insightful post, but that's not what caught my attention.

Seth's link sent me to YouTube to view the commercial and after it had played-and I had stopped laughing-I saw a "related" video about the making of the commercial so I watched it too.  I also watched some amateur parody videos based on the commercial as well.  I ended up spending an unexpected ten minutes with Castrol-the company that made the ad-and its new catch-phrase.

The point I'm trying to make is that Castrol spent a lot of money to tell me about a specific product for thirty seconds, and did a very good job at that.  But it was the cheap, behind-the-scenes footage that let me see more than just their message and got me to stick around for a lot longer.

This got me thinking.  We all love a concert with its lights and effects, but it's so much more cool if you get to go backstage… however dark and dingy it is.  If customers enjoy your products, could you build stronger connections with them if you brought them into your business and its culture?

Repeat business is vital.  Brand loyalty is important.  Word of mouth is the fuel for both.  For all three, what makes them possible is allowing customers become a part of something-your company-by gaining access-buying your products.

What are some good ideas for creating relationships with customers?  How have you let them "backstage"?  Leave a comment and tells us about it.