Originally published November 2, 2011
A client my firm dropped some months ago came after me to re-enlist our consulting services. They didn’t agree with our reasons for shedding them from our client roster. Ours was a shattered relationship of broken promises, missed deadlines, unfulfilled commitments, ruthless accusations, and irrational justifications. (Not on the firm’s part; we were working with them to avoid those very issues with their clients!) While our firm cited those and other reasons for walking away from this client, one reason stood out so clearly, it resonated through both their company and ours – poor communication. As a leader, including in business, the ability to read, write, speak, and listen effectively makes the difference between divinely succeeding and miserably failing – with clients, with suppliers, with employees, and with each other!
I firmly believe that communication is the core factor of every success or failure. For me, there is no other skill or trait that more clearly marks an individual or entity. If ever you’ve dealt with a company with poor internal or external communication, you KNOW it. And you probably hate it. When you happen upon one that handles communication superbly, you KNOW that, too. And there’s a good chance you throw a better part of your business that way.
As an entrepreneur, little else will come between you and a client the way poor communication, miscommunication, missed communication, or lack of communication does. On this skill alone rest many of the other factors that make or break every relationship – personal, professional, social, familiar, political, and so on. Thus, it is worth the time, money, energy, focus, and effort to hone your abilities in this skill area.
In the example I mentioned in the intro, I sat with this client, a three-partner startup, just to go into the value and importance of communication in the beginning stages – and throughout the operation – of their new venture. Here was their accusation: “Well, you’re always so hard to get hold of!”
This they said about someone with eight e-mail accounts that he checks frequently on one of three phones that are always turned on and on his person. Even when I miss calls, I text immediately to explain, or I call back at the next convenient hour. I even leave voice mail messages (something most people hate doing) that I learned our clients NEVER bothered to check. And longer, more detailed updates go out by e-mail, with a heads-up text message to each partner.
Is that enough? Is that all there is to communicating? Just sending messages and leaving messages and e-mailing information? Surely not! There is a degree of reading and listening, a matter of connecting with and understanding people at a very deep level. In other words, a savvy business owner is an adept communicator, one that does as much to take information in as she does to push it out to others.
Some of the things business leaders can do to improve their communication skills are widely shared among all professions, while others are more specialized, depending on the particular industry in question. What are some examples I’ve used to stay in touch with people to ensure a free flow of ideas and information, while strengthening our relationships?
Always enter a meeting with an agenda, a focus, a defined purpose. Too many people ask to “meet up” or to “connect” without fully understanding what that means, particularly what it means to busy professionals running their own businesses. Make it a point to start and end meetings on time, discussing only those action items that need be covered for that meeting. After the meeting, key items addressed and any action items need be recapped and e-mailed to attending parties and whoever else is affected by the information. (To help you determine whom to include in that follow-up, ask yourself the question, “Who else needs to know this?”)
Stay on message and stick to key points, avoiding conversations that drift onto wild, irrelevant tangents, or down rabbit holes. Keep business conversations on point and in clear focus of what needs to come out of that dialogue. Establish follow-up intervals if action items come out of those conversations. And then follow up!
Learn and practice active listening. This is an area of communication that not many people explore. It could be due to misguided belief that communication is a telling channel only. No! There is a great deal of skill involved in learning how to receive information. For instance, during meetings or other business communiqués, do you find yourself the recipient of unnecessary information, gossip, hearsay, propaganda? While these may have their place in idle banter, water cooler convos, and casual chats, there is no room for them in business talks, where they only muddle the meaning that wants to come across. Learn to listen for these errant side tracks and avoid them religiously.
Know when to take notes. Well, this is a biased one in that I’m a copious note-taker and I gravitate toward other note-takers. Taking notes, by the way, does not make you any better a communicator than anyone else. In fact, taking notes can distract you from important things being discussed since the hand cannot keep up with the speed at which you process thoughts and information. Sometimes active listening prevails over taking notes, and only you can determine which situations warrant notes.
I take notes to remind myself of key points to be addressed or already addressed. I also like to jot names, numbers, contact information, decisions, deadlines, and other bits and pieces that together tie up a project or task. Again, my notes are really for me; they remind me of things I need to remember in order to function after the dialogue is over. (Is it ever really over, though?)
The only real points I want this post to emphasize is one abbreviated method for determining what information you need to do what you do and what information you should pass along to help others do what they need do. When receiving information, challenge yourself, “Do I really need to know this? What of this do I really need to know?” When sharing information, ask yourself, “Who else needs to know this? How much of this do they really need to know?”
Don’t stop there, though. Test your communication skills. Go online and research what kinds of tools and resources are available to business entrepreneurs to assess and improve their communication acumen. As I am passionate about communication, specifically how to navigate sometimes tricky conversations, I read and practice methods used by professionals in modern business settings where things get done and relationships get strong.
Assess your own communication skills. On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being dismal and 10 being inferior to none, rate yourself. Share your thoughts, ideas, tips, tricks, experiences, funny anecdotes, insights, and helpful resources. Encourage others to do the same in comments! Thanks for reading. See you in a few days for a briefing on interpersonal skills.