Listen up!

Business is the greatest personal development tool that exists.  The moment you take responsibility for your work and for generating and serving clients, you become your own best asset.  That’s why you must invest in yourself.  If you don’t grow, your business won’t grow.  Give that some thought the next time you’re faced with an opportunity that will move you forward and you decide to let it pass because you “can’t afford” it.

To thrive in business you must master many different skills and attitudes, one of which is the ability to relate well with others.  Communication skills are especially important in business development as well, because without knowing what a client is thinking about and what the client’s objectives are, it’s impossible to know whether and how your professional skills can help that client.  Rather than focusing on what you seek to communicate to the client, though, begin by letting the client speak.

Expansive questions allow the client to guide the conversation as she prefers, and asking follow-up questions will draw out the necessary information.  Depending on the context, the following questions serve as good conversation-starting questions:

  • What are your ultimate objectives here?
  • How does this matter fit into the broader business context?
  • What are you most concerned about here?
  • How long has this problem been going on?
  • What do you need from this situation, and what would you like?
  • What are the biggest obstacles you see?
  • How will it impact your life and your business to solve this problem?

Don’t allow yourself to get caught up in asking a “brilliant” question or a question that reveals how much you know.  Aim instead for open-ended questions that focus on the matter at hand and provide space for a client to move into broader business concerns.

Follow-up questions can be as simple as:

  • Tell me more?
  • What else should I know?
  • What’s an example of ___?

Your goal is to get the facts and concerns that the client holds and to draw out as much information as possible.  Simple questions are usually best.

But asking simple, open-ended questions isn’t enough.

It’s human nature, especially when we want to appear knowledgeable, to listen with half-attention while planning the next thing we might say.  Half-listening is almost more dangerous than not asking questions, because if information is conveyed and you ignore it, the client will feel disregarded — poor grounding for any relationship.

Instead, listen deeply to your client.  What is he really saying?  Do his words, tone of voice, and body language match?  If not, what question can you ask to clear up the conflict without putting the client on the defensive?  It’s important too to listen beyond what’s said, to gain an appreciation for what’s unsaid and what context is being shared.

Two exercises to strengthen client communications

 Start by noticing how much you talk in a conversation.  The goal when you talk with a potential client or are deepening your relationship with a current client is to talk for only 20-40% of a conversation.  To draw out your client, ask questions only for the first part of the conversation, until you understand the client’s concerns and goals.

To strengthen your listening skills, insert a few seconds’ pause before you speak.  The pause shows that you are absorbing what’s been said, and it allows you just to listen without needing to plan a response until you’ve heard everything the other person intends to say.

Incidentally, although these skills are critical for client service, you can also use them to strengthen relationships with your colleagues and in your personal life.  Once you start to notice the pattern of conversational give and take, you’ll probably notice how eager many people are to talk rather than to listen.  Notice the effect when you listen deeply and probe gently to find out what really matters to your conversational partner.

Your assignment this week: listen to your clients and potential clients.  Deeply.  If you know listening without interrupting is a challenge for you, you might even train yourself by holding a pen between your lips while you’re on the telephone.  (I wouldn’t recommend this in a face-to-face meeting!)  When you go to remove the pen, be sure it’s time for you to speak.  If not, pat yourself on the back, and keep on listenin’.

You failed? Congratulations!

I don’t encourage failure… Mostly.  It’s helpful to assess and mitigate the risks of failure when you’re stepping out with a new activity.  There’s no glory in the “ready, fire, aim” approach when you have the time and the ability to do some (but not too much) preparatory work that increases the odds of success.

BUT.

If you’re not failing despite doing some prep work, you’re probably not taking big enough steps.  Please, don’t fail because of laziness, intellectual or otherwise.  But recognize that if everything is going so swimmingly that you’re not failing at all, you’re leaving something on the table.

You cannot succeed unless you’re willing to fail.  Be willing to take a risk.  The more you do, the higher the risk of failure – and the higher the chances of success.

This video (which happens to be an advertisement for Nike) brings it all home.  Take 31 seconds to watch.  Yes, now.

By nature and by nurture, we’ve been trained to avoid taking risks.  Sure, it’s safer to do only what you know will work (even though sometimes you’ll be wrong about that, too, especially where people are concerned) but you’ll also miss a lot of opportunity.

An example for your consideration.  Referrals and introductions often come by email – “Bob, meet Susan, I think she may be able to help with your blah blah blah question.”  If you’re Susan, an email is the safe response to that introduction.  But a telephone call is often a more engaging and helpful response.  There’s risk involved: what if Bob doesn’t want the introduction or the help?  What if Bob is too busy and a call is an interruption?  That’s a risk I’d suggest you take almost every single time.  Sometimes you’ll fail, but (if you handle the calls well) the successes will outweigh the failures.

So, this week, ask yourself where you’re stopping yourself because you might fail even if you prepare as well as you can.  Specifically with business development and client service, what might you do differently if you were willing to fail?

Don’t aim to fail.  Do take some risks and accept that you may fail before you succeed. 

How to Reach a Leadership Position… Quickly!

Working on a professional association committee or project is a good way to get leadership experience quickly. The reason is simple: because of the number and variety of professional associations (such as the ABA and local bar associations, the International Coach Federation, Professional Photographers of America, Licensing Executives Society, etc.) and the number and variety of sections and committees within each, leadership opportunities are numerous.

Why should you consider involvement in a professional association?

  1. To grow your professional network. Having a broad group of colleagues will prove useful over the span of your career in ways you probably can’t even imagine right now. Networks are useful if you need to refer a client to someone in whom you have confidence, if you’re visiting another part of the country (or world) and need business resources, if you’re looking for a new position, on and on and on.
  2. To contribute to the profession. The work produced by each group will vary, but you may have an opportunity to contribute to a report studying the challenges faced by women attorneys of color, the latest revision to substantive or procedural rules of your profession, or to track legislation that effects your clients. You can use your skills and develop them further through this work.
  3. To advance your business development goals. If your practice is supported by referrals from colleagues, professional associations can create the opportunity for you to become known by your potential referral sources.  (But note: if referrals from colleagues are uncommon in your field, don’t hide out in a safe professional group and pretend you’re going to get new business there.)
  4. Because it’s fun. When you find a group that’s a good fit for you, networking and conferences become a time to reconnect with friends and accomplish something of professional benefit. That’s a good deal!

So, how do you get started?

  1. Identify the groups that might be a good fit for you based on your goals and interests. Do you want to be involved with a local group or a national group? (If you’re looking to create a referral network, this is probably the #1 question you’ll need to answer.)
  2. Next, identify a subgroup of that organization that you find interesting. Look through the sections, committees and subcommittees, or the list of projects that the group maintains. Your goal is to identify a small working group that will be a good fit for your skills, your interest, and your goals — in that order.
  3. Working groups almost always need help. Perhaps you’re already a passive member of a group, receiving information and maybe attending CE programs. To reap the benefit of membership, you must be active. Decide how much time you have available and what kind of assistance you’d like to offer. You may be able to get a feel for current projects from the group’s website.
  4. Contact the leader of the subgroup you’d like to join and volunteer. For all but the most prestigious groups, I can almost guarantee that a committee chair’s favorite words to hear are, “I’d like to help!” Find out how you can make a contribution. Look for something fairly short-term, so you aren’t boxed in and you can prove yourself quickly.  And, of course, do a great job.
  5. Attend the business meetings of your selected group. Most professional organizations meet at least annually, and those who attend are the leaders. If you want to become a leader, meet them. Learn more about the group’s activity, who’s involved, what its history is, and how things operate. Ask about the leadership track — how might you become a committee leader, a Section leader, or an association leader? Contribute to the conversation and volunteer where appropriate. Show your interest and your ability.
  6. Once you’ve taken on a few projects and done well, you will start to advance. Depending on the group, you can probably expect to become a subcommittee vice chair (or some equivalent title) within a couple of years, and sometimes much faster. Should you choose to advance in leadership, you’ll know much more about how to do so in your selected group; if not, you can probably continue at your current level of involvement and accrue additional benefits.