Simplicity

In today’s business world there is a constant drumbeat for clear communications. And without a doubt, we’ll find a lack of clear communication at the root of many of the issues that we have with each other. OK, I get it. We need to communicate more clearly. But here’s something you won’t hear as often. There is also a need to simplify our communications. Sometimes we may think we are communicating clearly when in fact the message we are conveying is so convoluted and complicated that our audience gets lost.

I’m involved with a venture capital business that screens large numbers of start-up companies in the biotech space as we look for potential investments. One company in particular stands out from the rest – not because of the product it was developing, but because its pitch was so impossible to understand. We have some technical people on our board as well as advisors with whom we work, and no one understood what the pitch was all about. This company used highly technical terminology and language that no one ever hears in day-to-day conversation. I suppose that it’s possible that the product could have been an amazing breakthrough in its field. But we’ll never know because we declined to invest for the simple reason that we couldn’t understand the pitch. Here’s an excerpt from the pitch summary.

(XYZ) technology allows RNA to be manufactured using well proven large scale fermentation processes. Prior to (XYZ) manufacturing innovations these large scale fermentation processes were not viable because of the ubiquitous and unavoidable presence of RNAses (enzymes that break down RNA) in the fermentation process environment. (XYZ) technology sequesters, inside a protein capsid, the RNA as it is produced thus protecting it from RNAse degradation. This protein capsid protects the RNA allowing subsequent isolation and purification. There is also a high level of interest in using the protein encapsidated RNA as a delivery mechanism.

The preceding is an extreme illustration of overly-complicated communications. But there are countless examples that occur daily to a lesser degree. I moderate panel discussions at several apartment industry conferences each year. We talk about a number of aspects of the business including debt, equity, construction and operations. Often we have audience members who are new to the industry. While the subject matter can be complex at times, the bigger problem is all of the acronyms that are the plague on our house.

It doesn’t matter whether the communication is written or verbal, we must redouble our efforts to simplify, simplify, simplify. When we write like we speak, we tend to accomplish this objective. And if we think before we speak, it’s likely our communication will be understood. Guarding against ego-creep is also in our best interest. We’ve all seen the pontificators who like to show everyone how smart they are by spouting a bunch of intellectual-sounding mumbo jumbo. Staying humble and being respectful of the audience’s desire to understand what we are communicating should be our guiding principle.

A man or woman of few(er) words conquers rambling purveyors of verbosity every time. Striving for clarity and simplicity in our communications will ensure that we are persuasive and convincing.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

einstein lecture

A Warm Blanket

I was waiting for a flight and a lady came to the ticket counter from an adjoining gate and asked the attendant if an announcement could be made about the status of the flight from that gate. Apparently it was past the departure time; the monitor revealed nothing, and there was no airline person at the gate. A few minutes later an announcement about the delay was made, but not after several moments of irritation on the part of the passengers waiting for that flight.

Why is it that so many companies communicate so poorly with their customers – especially when things aren’t going quite right? Common sense tells us that communications should be amplified in such instances. And yet it seems that there is a bit of a “run and hide” mentality when the train runs off the tracks. Airlines may be the worst where this is concerned – we all have more airline stories than we can remember. But this malady is shared across the business spectrum. While visiting a resort community in California, I walked past a grocery store that had a sign on the door at midday saying, “Closed – Computers Down.” Customers were trying to open the locked door and shook their heads after reading the sign. What a missed opportunity!

There are a couple of reasons why this happens, neither of which are good. The first is a cultural issue. If a company adopts the philosophy that the customer comes first, then its response to anything going awry impacting the customer will be immediate, complete and ongoing communications. Anything less is contrary to a customer-first culture. We entrepreneurs must decide if we are going to embrace such a culture and if so, determine the steps that we are going to take to ensure that come hell or high water the customer will always be wrapped in a warm blanket. Which brings us to the second reason why many companies fail at communicating effectively when things go wrong.

A company may have every intention of effectively communicating with its customers through thick and thin. But unless there is a clearly defined strategy that translates into actionable steps for every member of the team, there’s no way that successful implementation can happen. Take the airlines for instance. I have trouble believing that they don’t have great customer service as an intention. However, there’s no other explanation than there’s a disconnect somewhere between their strategy and putting it into practice.

In our respective organizations, we can make certain that our strategy and implementation are seamless through simulation. This involves identifying every possible mishap that could occur, causing issues for our customers. Next we can create a step-by-step process for dealing with these problems while maintaining a constant focus on how we smooth the way for our customers. It will require a combination of urgency, honesty, straightforwardness, empathy, clarity and frequency. In other words, we’re going to quickly tell our customers what has happened in clear and concise terms. We aren’t going to lie – if the airplane is broken, we’ll tell them that the airplane is broken and not make up some other excuse. We will apologize for any inconvenience and take the necessary steps to make things as painless for the customer as possible – even if it costs us some money. And we will continue to communicate early and often until the situation is resolved. Every member of our team will know exactly how they are supposed to make this happen and we will practice, practice and practice some more.

If we truly care about our customers, our bottom line will be the better for it. Thus, we should do everything in our power to make sure that the customer has a positive experience even when we have trouble delivering our products or services.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

electric blanket

Hello, Hello?

Question: I’m having trouble getting someone to answer my business e-mails. I’ve thought about sending a text message but wonder if it’s appropriate. Should I do this?

Answer: I would do something else first. Pick up the phone and call the person. I’ve written about this subject before but I believe the message is worth repeating. For some reason we aren’t calling each other as much anymore. This trend is especially prevalent with the millennial generation.

So what is happening to some of the basic forms of communications these days? I still receive a letter occasionally – usually in the form of a PDF document sent to me electronically. Ninety-nine percent of the snail mail I receive is junk that gets tossed. We send massive numbers of e-mails. Text messages are as commonplace as waking up in the morning. We Tweet and we re-Tweet. We send private messages via Facebook and can e-mail through LinkedIn. In other words, it’s easier for us to be in touch 24/7 than ever before. But are we truly in “touch?”

My phone hardly rings anymore. In the mid-80s my company had two full-time receptionists who processed thousands of calls each day. They wrote message slips that we used for returning our calls. Voicemail was not yet fully developed. Today some companies don’t even have a live person answer the phone. An automated attendant handles the function in a very sterile and antiseptic manner. We tried that for a while and realized how much we didn’t like it. Now a live person answers our phone.

I’ve become a champion of Alexander Graham Bell’s invention. It’s not that I have a problem with e-mail or text messages, but I miss the human-to-human personal interaction. All of the modern electronic methods of communications are one-dimensional and lack the ability to convey true feelings. Oh, and what we say (or don’t say) in an e-mail or a text can easily be misconstrued.

Not only have I become a champion of the phone, I’m also a big fan of videoconferencing. When you and I talk, or better yet, when we see each other and talk, the dynamic changes considerably. We can hear voice inflection and read facial expressions and body language. I constantly hear people complain about their e-mails being ignored. We’re at the point where ignoring e-mails may even be excusable when the guilty party throws up his/her hands and says, “I’m sorry. I get 200 e-mails a day and can’t possibly keep up!” Maybe we can all relate. There’s something different about the phone however. Perhaps the etiquette standards are higher. Of course there are people who blow off phone calls too, but I find the percentage to be lower than those ignoring e-mails.

We can improve our chances of building lasting relationships and communicating more effectively when we make that simple phone call. Give me a call sometime. I’d love to chat.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

phone talk

Learner’s Permit

Question: I am making a major presentation soon. Any tips on how to ensure that I connect with each audience member?

Answer: We’ve all heard about the three distinct learning styles. Auditory learners need to hear things; visual learners need to see things, and kinesthetic learners need to touch things. A presentation that successfully incorporates all three learning styles will be the most effective in communicating the presenter’s information. There are conflicting schools of thought about this however.

There are those who have a real disdain for “Death by PowerPoint.” I used to be one such dissident. However my thinking has changed as I’ve made countless presentations over the years. The problem with PowerPoint is that too many presenters try to cram too many words onto a slide and then proceed to read the text word-for-word. My PowerPoint utilization is to incorporate photos, graphs, charts or even a single word or number. Then I use the slides as talking points. Which would be a more interest slide in your opinion?

Version 1 – Without any sort of subsidy the monthly rent for an apartment unit would need to be $1,200.

Version 2 – $1,200

Version 2 works better for me. The visual learner sees a number that is the central them for the point I’m trying to make. The auditory learner then hears my explanation of the $1,200. And I might even mock up a rent check in the amount of $1,200 that I pass around the table for the kinesthetic learners who might be present.

Reaching kinesthetic learners is the hardest of the three styles. We have to be careful not to create something to hand out that is too cheesy or gimmicky – the rent check idea is certainly on the borderline in this respect. It’s also a challenge to determine who in the room fits in each learning style category. And even if you asked the question directly, many people wouldn’t even know without further explanation. There’s also little doubt that you would be viewed as a bit eccentric! Statistically the population roughly breaks down to 29% visual, 34% auditory and 37% kinesthetic. Obviously a balanced presentation approach is warranted.

As entrepreneurs we are regularly called upon to present ideas and information. Utilizing auditory, visual and kinesthetic techniques will help stack the deck in favor of effective communications.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Public-Speaking

Why Do They Quit?

Question: In this day and age of heightened customer service awareness, why are there still businesses that deliver such a lousy customer experience?

Answer: You are so right about this observation. For a number of years we’ve seen a barrage of books and articles about how companies are more focused on delivering top quality customer service. But for some reason, on a regular basis there’s still a disconnect between the theory and the practice.

For more than 20 years my wife and I went to the same dentist – every six months like we’re supposed to do. During my final encounter with this dentist I asked him to do some minor cosmetic work on my front teeth and inquired as to the cost. He quoted an amount; we scheduled an appointment, and the work was performed. When I received the bill I was in for a shock. It was double what he had told me. Because he is so hard to reach in person during the day, I sent him an e-mail explaining the situation. His response was, “What I quoted was for one tooth.” Now I don’t know about you, but I liken this to having the brake pads replaced on your car and the mechanic gives you a quote for one brake pad. I told the dentist how disappointed I was that he had not made his pricing clearer. He responded that in the future, each patient would receive such a quote in writing to eliminate any confusion. What he failed to do however, was apologize to me and knock some amount (any amount would have been fine) off my bill. As a result, he lost two patients forever. How simple it would have been to show a bit more consideration by simply acknowledging the mistake and making a minor financial adjustment.

Here’s another 20+ year story. A certain pool company has received thousands of dollars from me over that timeframe through opening and closing our swimming pool as well as replacing the liner two or three times and servicing our hot tub. This year the pool was opened on schedule. Normally the cover is removed, chemicals dumped in the water, the pump and filter are started and the crew comes back a few days later to vacuum and finish the clean-up. We’ve had a wet spring and as a result the company fell behind on its schedule and never came back to finish the job. Of course they weren’t hesitant to send me a bill which I quickly paid. I placed several phone calls during which I was told they’d “take care of it.” An e-mail went unanswered. Finally a month later I hired someone else to finish the job and sent a letter to the owner of the pool company terminating their services. Ironically, the same day the opening was finally finished, the pool crew showed up only to realize their job had been completed by another party. To this day I haven’t heard a peep out of the owner of the pool company. And of course he wasn’t honorable enough to refund a portion of what I had paid.

It is important to remember that when serving others the key to keeping a customer happy is honesty and communications. We humans will tolerate an awful lot as long as we feel that we are being treated fairly and have expectations communicated to us in a clear and timely manner. Lack of these elements shows disrespect and is the main reason we quit companies that serve us. Yes, we want performance and quality products. But the way we are treated is equally important if not more so.

There’s a very simple yet powerful adage to remember that will ensure that we will keep our customers happy. It goes like this. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

customer-service

30,000 Feet

Question: Sometimes I tend to get caught up in the details and miss the big picture. What should I do to develop my abilities to have a broader focus?

Answer: Life in general and entrepreneurship specifically, is a mixture of strategy and tactics. It is very easy to fall into a routine of dealing with tactics on a daily basis and letting someone else worry about strategy. After all, this subject is a bit fuzzy anyway. The work has to get done and if the details aren’t tended to, then everything falls apart – right?

Actually the reason many people are extremely tactical is because the overall strategy has never been adequately explained to them. Let me give you an example that borders on the absurd, but will illustrate the point well. Let’s say that you are blindfolded and led into the cockpit of an airplane. The blindfold is removed and you are told that your job is to fly the plane. Let’s also assume that you actually know how to fly the plane. Great. Now what? No other instructions are given. Are you supposed to fly the plane to another destination? If so where? Will there be passengers on the plane or are you flying cargo? Maybe this is just a test flight. Are you starting to get the picture? You know how to fly the airplane – that is to say, that you understand the tactics. But you have no idea what the end result is supposed to be – that is to say, the strategy. By now it’s pretty obvious that the “What” is the strategy, and the “How” are the tactics.

Stop and think about you daily routine. Do you understand the strategies to which your tactical efforts are aimed? If you are a leader, how well do you explain the strategies to those you are expecting to implement tactics to deliver said strategies? This may sound like a very simple premise but it’s one of the biggest areas of miscommunication in our lives today. As a result, many people toil in frustration, feeling like one more cog in a wheel that is going nowhere.

Starting today, resolve to understand the strategic aspects of what you are doing. Make certain that you communicate the strategies to everyone involved if you are the leader. If the strategy is to deliver better customer service than any of your competitors, make sure that you clearly articulate this and make everyone aware of the metrics to be used for accountability. If your team understands the strategy, it can develop the tactics that will lead to success. But if the strategy is unclear and poorly communicated, don’t be surprised if you don’t have the buy-in of the team members.

Each of us wants to feel as though what we are contributing matters. Only when the strategy is clear to all do the tactics matter. And then our sense of self-worth can be fulfilled.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

cockpit_B777

The Ear and the Brain

Question: I’m struggling to communicate with a co-worker. How do I get him to listen to me?

Answer: This question sure hits home. The mind of an entrepreneur is racing at 100 miles per hour. We juggle balls of all shapes and sizes. Frequently we are on the move at warp speed. People think we listen . . . and WE think we listen. But sometimes there are complicating factors.

If I say “hello” to you, usually you will say “hello” back to me. Does that mean that I listened to you? Maybe. But it’s for certain that I heard you. Listening is more complicated than the simple act of hearing. Let’s assume that you come into my office and tell me that there’s an issue with a particular client. You describe a course of action that you want me to approve to resolve this issue. I nod. I may murmur, “uh-huh.” And you leave believing that you have my consent. A week later you tell me that the matter was taken care of although there was some fallout with the client. I give you a blank stare at which point you say, “I told you about this last week!” You get another blank stare from me at which point I might suggest how you could have resolved the issue without the fallout. In the end you are irritated because of this outcome. What happened here?

This is a real life classic example of hearing and not listening. Members of my team who read this are nodding their heads so hard right now that they’re going to get whiplash. When you came into my office I had just finished a phone conversation and was still processing the gist of it. A thought also popped into my head about a related matter, and I needed to leave for a lunch meeting. I certainly heard you but didn’t have the presence of mind to slow down and listen to what you were saying.

There are several solutions. The easiest is to make certain that I am in a listening mode. Ask me if now is a good time to chat. I may ask if we could do it later and set an appointment with you. Or, if I have time, I’ll talk then. After you are finished telling me what you have to say, ask me for specific feedback – pros and cons or other thoughts I might have. Once a course of action is determined, ask me to summarize what I understand is going to happen. This can be done by you simply saying, “I want to make sure I do this the way we have agreed. Would you mind summarizing what you understand that I am to do?”

We all know that clear communications is paramount to success. It’s critical that we make certain that the people with whom we are communicating are truly listening to us and not just hearing what we say. Ultimately it’s our responsibility to make this happen.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

ears