Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A New Year's resolution: Down with willpower!

A lot of you out there are going to make resolutions for New Year's Eve. And let me guess: a lot of them are going to involve Calvinistic promises to eat less, exercise more, be nicer to Mom, or work harder at your business. And you are going to fail at all of them.

Here is why I am so sure about that. These resolutions all involve willpower. And you may not realize it, but willpower is often the worst thing you could try to develop in your life. In fact, I would like you to start looking at willpower for what it really is: the enemy of success.

For my first example, let's take something I see every week as a therapist: conquering your fears. If you are afraid of driving on the freeway, you might think that the best thing to do is screw up your courage, get behind the wheel, and point your car resolutely toward the on-ramp. You know, like all those platitudes about "doing the thing you fear."

Wrong-o. What you are actually doing is sensitizing yourself to your fears, and probably making no progress at all - or worse, setting yourself back. Clinically, the most effective way to conquer fears is to change how you think about them, and then take tiny baby steps that desensitize you. Ironically, while having fears is very scary, getting well from them is often painless if it is done correctly.

For example, I once used to be afraid to fly. (Never mind that I am a former engineering supervisor at Boeing Aircraft.) And I had "exposure" out the kazoo, logging over a quarter million air miles during my management career, all the way up to 19-hour flights to Asia. But then one day I had a two-hour telephone counseling session from a pilot-turned-therapist who runs, focusing on how I viewed the experience of flying. I literally hung up the phone from that session and said to myself "Now I'm ready for this." And ever since, for 50,000 air miles and counting, flying has been like stepping on a bus.

Now, let's take dieting. Something I've done often. What happens every time is that I cut back my calorie intake, get on the treadmill three times a week, and lose exactly 10 pounds. And then get stuck. And stay there, seemingly forever. After which I get fed up and go back to my normal eating habits. So this New Year's, I am not "going on a diet." Instead, I am going to talk to a nutritionist and learn how to eat better for the rest of my life.

Moving to more sensitive territory, let's talk about your career. Do you think that working harder is the cure for your job woes? That is how your boss thinks, of course. I've got a much better idea: pick the most fun thing you could possibly be doing and become absolutely incredible at it. When I finally left corporate life to spend every day doing what I love, many years ago, it wasn't just the best emotional move I ever made - it was the best financial one as well.

Finally, since this is a communications skills blog, let's close with my favorite subject: getting along with people. Resolving to be nicer to others never works - you either slip back into your old habits, or you open your mouth and nothing comes out. Most people feel like deer frozen in the headlights in their most difficult situations, until they are taught to say the right things. Then it becomes incredibly easy to be nice to people, resolve conflict, and negotiate what you want.

So, if your business struggles with infighting, difficult customers, employee motivation, high turnover, or any other communications problem, I've got a dandy New Year's resolution for you: go to and see what we can do for you in 2010. And then watch what happens when you replace willpower with a much more potent force: skill power.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The end of the whatchamacallit decade

Next week we reach the end of the decade that never was.

Think about it. Have you ever heard anyone use a term to describe these last ten years? I haven't. Sure, back when we partied like it was 1999, we talked about calling this decade the "aughts." But if I gave you a nickel for every time someone has actually used that phrase, you'd have, well, nothing. Same with the "oh-oh's," but even more so, because that sounds too much like "uh-oh." Or, as the Jetsons' dog Astro would say, "rut-row."

The 2000s don't count, because that is a millennium. We get to use that one for the next thousand years. And while we're at it, we've lost a whole century here as well - history teachers who blandly talk about things like the 1600s will find themselves tongue-tied describing the first hundred years of this new era. And so we disappear into mute silence about a large chunk of our history.

Radio stations were among the first to develop corporate amnesia about this decade, using phrases like "hits of the 80s, 90s, and today." Do you think that ten years from now, they will be talking about hits of the 90s, the aughts, and today? I didn't think so either. And now, all those news shows and countdowns reviewing the last decade are coming up with a novel way to describe it: "the last decade."

Perhaps it's the growing realization that the 90s will soon be 20 years old. That people who were born after Wang Chung broke up have children of their own now. Or worst of all, that the next ten years aren't going to get any better: even if you wanted to talk about "the teens," you can't do that until 2013, and probably don't want to anyway. Whatever it is, our nomenclature for dates has succeeded in creating a massive vacuum in history.

This will all get better in 2020, of course. If we are doing well economically by then we could even make like our great-grandparents and call it the Roaring 20s. After that we'll be OK again for another 80 years or so. In the meantime, we could perhaps make like the Chinese, who simply refer to this as the Year of the Ox (or by number as the year 4705, 4706, or 4645, depending upon which epoch you use). Or better yet, stop trying to fit time and history into neat decade-long boxes. That's what I think we "aught" to do.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

TV or not TV

I never watch television, unless there is a baseball umpire on the screen somewhere. But since my darling wife finds 200 cable channels more entertaining than I do, it is often on in the background at our house. And frankly, there is a lot about it I simply don't understand.

Perhaps those of you who watch television more often than me could help me figure some of these things out. Here goes:

-Why does the Food Network never prepare any, um, food - as in, something you would actually serve your family or friends? Unless, of course, you serve them things like braised eel with garlic aioli on a bed of risotto.

-Where do all these people under 30 come from purchasing houses on the Home and Garden Channel for sums like $852,000? And do they all sell crack for a living? When I was that age I was scraping up a $4,000 down payment on a $78,000 condo.

-How come they call it The History Channel when it is actually filled with people like Gnostic bishops, UFO hunters, and end-of-the-world theorists? Perhaps the idea of calling it "The Kook Channel" didn't pass muster with the ol' marketing department.

-Whose brilliant idea was it to rename the SciFi Channel to SyFy? And why do they call it either of those things, when most of their shows involve teenage girls uttering bloodcurdling screams as they outrun some pustulating monster? I'll bet talent auditions at SyFy are pretty straightforward: "Next? All right, honey, let's hear what your scream sounds like."

-Memo to people like Bill O'Reilly, Chris Matthews, and Glenn Beck: do you folks ever smile? And did your parents teach you not to interrupt your guests in mid-sentence? None of you are getting invited to our house for dinner. (Oh, all right, Keith Olbermann, I'll make an exception for you, because you used to work with my brother at WVBR in college, and he tells me you're actually a nice guy. But smile once in a while as we're passing the potatoes, OK?)

-When newscasters tell us to "stay tuned for this important story" for 40 minutes and counting, do they really think I am going to sit there in slack-jawed suspense? Instead of simply going online and reading the story myself three clicks later?

-I am as much a fan of diversity as anyone, but do we really need five different Nickelodeon channels? Or am I missing something here?

All I can say is that I am looking forward to Spring Training in another three months or so. Then watching television will start making sense to me again.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Our Christmas letter

Dear friends,

Like many people, Colleen and I have fallen into the habit of sending an annual letter every December, rattling off the great things that have happened with us: places we've been, things we've accomplished, and so forth.

But how many of you wake up each morning thinking of other people that way? We don't, and you probably don't either. So this year, we decided to share some of the things that are really important to us. Here are some of our "real" highlights of 2009:

-Colleen and I are both as madly in love with each other as when we first met nearly 37 years ago. In fact, probably more so.

-Colleen is also madly in love with this guy, who is now three years old. And my desire for her to be happy obviously still extends to having live animals in our household.

-Rich wakes up every morning doing work he really enjoys - albeit too much of it sometimes - and is celebrating nearly a dozen years of being self-employed as a writer, author, and public speaker. And most recently a budding psychotherapist, starting in private practice under supervision this past summer and hopefully graduating soon.

-Colleen remains the resident landscaper, photographer, and stained glass artist. And has a truly great novel in the works. One of these days people will discover that she is the real writing talent in the family.

-We don't feel any older or dream any less big, even though we are now 55 and 61 respectively. About the only thing that feels different from our 20s is needing three different pairs of glasses nowadays!

-We cherish our connections with you, our good friends and colleagues. Being in contact with great people every day makes our lives very sweet indeed.

Rich will just brag about one thing, because it meant a lot to him: 2009 was a career year for him as an author and ghostwriter, including a national #1 customer service bestseller and a finalist nomination for a major book award. Details are elsewhere on his blog or Facebook page if you're interested.

So how are you? And what things are important for you at this point in your lives? We'd love to hear from you, and wish you the very happiest holiday season and a blessed 2010.

Love, Rich and Colleen

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Taming your worst clients

Business owners: do you have clients who drive you nuts?

A while back, business growth and customer loyalty expert Carol Roth contributed her unique take on creating a great customer experience, right here on my blog. This week it's my turn to return the favor, on her no-holds-barred business advice blog. Check out my take on taming your worst clients:

Monday, November 09, 2009

Thanks a half a million!

I just went through this year's pile of royalty statements and discovered that I've reached a very cool milestone: lifetime gross sales of my books have now topped half a million dollars and counting.

Most of that sum goes to my great publishers, of course, and gladly so: it is thanks to their investment in me that I have had the opportunity to sell books in large quantities. And my share is divided up over more than 15 years of writing seriously, so financially it's not like I've won the lottery. I still joke to my wife that she had to settle for marrying someone *named* Rich.

But still, how many people do you know whose hobby is turning into a million dollar industry? It got me thinking and reflecting about how far I've come over the years doing something I love.

How did I get there? First, watching other people succeed, and discovering that it was indeed possible for mere mortals to get published. Second, becoming a student of the genres I write in: I always was (and still am) the guy in the bookstore running his fingers along the text of other books, studying their opening hooks, paragraph structure, and core messages. Finally, and most important, I simply wanted it badly enough: even today, when I have a spare moment, the first place it goes when I'm not making eyes at my sweetie is my next book project.

Looking back on all of this, it's very cool selling half a million dollars worth of something I enjoy doing so much. (When you count books I've ghostwritten for other people, it's actually closer to three quarters of a million. But those are their books and their ideas, I was just the wordsmith.) Above all, I hope to have made a difference in the lives and communications skills of all those people curling up with a good Rich Gallagher book. Thanks everyone!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Guest blog: Carol Roth on how Trader Joe's gets customer service right

It is a true privilege to have Carol Roth - a nationally-known business consultant who has helped companies ranging from startups to Fortune 500 literally raise billions of dollars, grow, and get closer to their customers - share her thoughts about customer experience in this guest blog, which sprang from a recent conversation we had about one of our favorite stores. If you haven't seen Carol's razor-sharp wit and cutting edge business startup advice, you are really missing something: visit her online at

If you follow me a bit, you may know that I love food and I love shopping. But when the two are combined into a task called grocery shopping, well frankly, that never really ranked high on my favorites list. That was until I was introduced to Trader Joe’s.

If you don’t have a Trader Joe’s nearby or have never ventured into one, it is a small footprint specialty grocery store. Their products are mostly their own label, sourced throughout the world, from wood-fired frozen pizzas to 73% Belgian dark chocolate nonpareils (they have lots of healthy stuff too, but I prefer the carb and sugar categories). But it is not their yummy offerings or even their natural ingredient focus that sets them apart. It is the customer experience.

While it can be intimidating to go into a different style of grocery store, the Trader Joe’s staff is beyond friendly. I have been to stores in at least five states and have found at every one that the staff says hello and offers help if you look confused or lost. If you need to find a product, they won’t just point somewhere, they will walk you to the actual product. You don’t even have to empty your shopping cart- they do it for you as they scan. The cashiers always seem ecstatic to be there; they are knowledgeable about their products and will comment on their favorite items from your order or make suggestions on other products you might want to try as they bag your selections.

These little gestures all add up to an enjoyable experience for something that, let’s face it, is really just a chore. And Trader Joe’s creates a premium shopping experience without premium prices (their prices are actually very good). I will contrast this with other premium natural grocery stores that have a god-awful customer experience. I won’t name names (*coughWholeFoodscough*), but there is one specialty store that is incredibly expensive, yet its staff always makes you feel as though they are doing you a favor by letting you shop there. This particular store has employees who are more focused on restocking shelves than helping customers. Often, I can’t even get to the shelves because the employees are blocking them (sorry to be in your way, Mr. Stockboy- as a customer, I hope I am not inconveniencing you by trying to purchase groceries) and once, an employee dropped several 16 oz. bottles of Metromint water on my foot because he was more concerned about restocking than letting me through the aisle.

Trader Joe’s proves that any business can make a customer feel special and create a great experience, regardless of industry, focus or price points. As we continue through the most competitive time for business in history, customer service will become even more important as a point of differentiation. Who knew that you could find great lessons in customer service by visiting a grocery store?

Note from Rich: Carol speaks for many of us. My sweetie and I just went to a Trader Joe's in the Philadelphia area, and people couldn't be nicer - from the woman stocking the shelves, who stopped what she was doing to explain the intricacies of the Kalamata olive oil we were buying, to the checkout clerk who cheerily asked about us as we were going through the line.

And sadly, my experiences with Whole Foods could probably fill another blog. Here's one: years ago I used to love their peanut butter (nowadays I'm allergic to peanuts, go figure). And I would visit one store on business trips and find them sold out. So they would tell me to call two days ahead next time. Which I did. Only to discover next time that, oh, now I'm supposed to call *more* than two days ahead. Not that they cared.

So ... what are *you* doing to brand your customer experience, and get everyone on board with delivering it?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

How to be stone cold self-employed, part 3: getting clients

Now we get to the fun part: where do your clients come from? How to get people to pay money for your products or services is easily the most-promised and least-delivered thing in nearly every book on the subject of self-employment.

To me, the best advice on getting clients came someone who wasn't even writing about self-employment: televangelist Robert Schuller. He asked a wealthy potential donor how to raise a million dollars for his ministry and got a one-sentence response: “How do you catch a moose?” He thought about this and realized he needed to be where potential donors were, and think like they think – and by putting that principle into action, he eventually raised his million.

When you are starting a business, the same principle applies: think like a moose. This means answering one simple question: How do your buyers already buy what you are selling?

-If you mow lawns or do landscaping, the point of first contact for most customers may be as simple as the Yellow Pages or the Pennysaver.

-If your employer finds its consultants through professional society contacts, speak and publish within that professional society (and P.S. do a great job!).

-If you last bought a specific product through web searching or direct marketing, there you go.

In short, doing what other people already do to get clients – and doing it better – is good, being “creative” or taking guesses at how to market yourself is usually bad. So before you drop money on a direct mail campaign, or start knocking on doors, or rent an aerial billboard, ask yourself honestly if you know at least two people who have bought your wares that way.

So how do I get my own clients? Glad you asked. When I was in corporate life, nearly every in-house training program was arranged by the human resources department. So, for the training side of my business, I contact HR or training directors in appropriate organizations, and build partnerships with organizations who serve these departments. (For example, I've taught communications skills training for my local community college's business extension for years now, and they farm me out all to organizations all over central New York.) Likewise, I also partner with people who broker content for things like white papers and webinars.

Another thing I do a lot of is speak for free. I call this "wheeling out the dessert cart," because when I show people up close and personal what I have and how good it tastes, they usually want some. When I get up in front of a group, and send them away knowing what to say in their most difficult customer or workplace situations, invariably a few of them go back and say, "we have to get this guy in our organization." So, in a very real sense, one of my best marketing approaches is lots and lots of me.

As for writing, both my own experience and national surveys tell me that word-of-mouth is most common way to get business, so I spread the word far and wide among people in my network about what I do - a network that includes people who hire writers. I also get a substantial amount of business from people who find me on the web, so I make it a point to have easily searched, high-content web sites with my specialties and home town in the HTML tags.

Finally, far and away the most important thing I do to get clients is totally blow people away with service and quality once I get a gig. Good marketing helped me get started, but referrals and repeat business forms the vast majority of why I am usually so busy.

So there you go: I've just told you more in one blog entry than most of the 40 kazillion books on self-employment I've ever read do about finding real clients - think like a moose. Happy hunting!

Monday, October 19, 2009

How to be stone cold self-employed, part 2: getting the money

There is this little speedbump that many budding entrepreneurs back up and drive away from. It is called living from paycheck to paycheck. SCSE’s wouldn’t know what a paycheck is – we live in a world of cash flow, not fixed sums handed to us by others. To leap from the first world to the second, you need to figure out some way to survive for – everyone swallow hard now – six months.

Why six months? Because that’s how long it’s always taken me to get from a standing start to being busy and fully solvent when – listen carefully – I am doing things people like and pay for. Here is why: first, few people accelerate immediately from zero to a full plate of clients the minute they go into business. Second, life is cyclical and so is business. Third, even the most successful self-employed person in the world usually has to work for at least a month, then bill or invoice their customers, and then wait 30 to 60 days to get paid.

Of course, there is an important flip side to this. Many if not most forms of self-employment pay a lot more per hour than your 40-hour-a-week job. So once you get *over* the speedbump and onto the freeway, you can be doing very well indeed. The dirty secret of self-employment is that no one cares if you starve, but no one cares if you make three or four times your normal salary in a month either. I have done both, and the latter happens more often than you think – once you get over the speedbump.

That six month buffer has an important spiritual quality to it as well. People who need to get paid tomorrow are desperate in ways that harm their business. Instead of focusing on building relationships and pleasing customers, they are always selling, upselling, or trying to collect – and in the process become tiresome caricatures of what they could be. One consultant I knew even showed up at a client’s house unannounced one evening asking to be paid, and the client was NOT impressed. So breathe deeply, smile, relax, and repeat after me: six months.

Now, before you shuffle away with that dejected look on your face – especially if the thought of missing even a single paycheck gives you the yips – let’s do a little brainstorming together on how you might survive for six months. Can you leave your job with a financial package or consulting retainer? Are there things you could *always* do more or less on demand, like temp work? And of course you don’t want to raid your retirement savings or home equity, but would knowing that a small slice of the interest from it could carry part of your budget in an emergency help you get started?

Notice I am not talking about *raising* money. There are two reasons for that. One is that the vast majority of businesses are self-financed. The second and more important reason is, who wants to owe money or equity to people? The more you lean on others for financing, the more your work looks like another job instead of being a SCSE. So if you are planning to start the next Google or open a plant somewhere, respectfully, this probably isn't your article.

In my case, I took my own unique steps to put six months between my job and reaching my goals. The first time I struck out on my own, as my company was about to lay people off, I said “oooh, pick me!” and left with a consulting contract that covered my first year. The second time, I wrote a popular book while I was still working and banked all of the royalties and speaking fees from it – and today, there are few problems in life that I don’t write my way out of. Whatever approach you take, make peace with a six-month buffer, start thinking in terms of long-term cash flow, and welcome to the world of stone-cold self employment!

Next up, in part 3 of this 4-part series, is the fun part: getting clients. Stay tuned!

Friday, October 16, 2009

How to be stone cold self employed, part 1

First, credit where credit is due: this article series was inspired in part by a conversation today with fellow speaker and business coach extraordinaire Carol Roth ( If you find the lure of self-employment interesting, check out her website for some masterful advice delivered with a razor-sharp wit. While I don't coach entrepreneurs, long ago I put down on paper the things that made me successful, and I'd suggest this exercise for everyone - so here is my two cents:

Lots of people run small businesses or work as entrepreneurs: over 12 million of us, according to recent SBA figures. But I belong to a much smaller category, and have for much of the last 15 years: what I call the “stone cold self-employed.”

What defines the SCSE is that their self-employment is not a second income, a paying hobby, or a retirement supplement – it is a full-time career that keeps our households in kitty litter. In other words, we have met the boss and he is us.

Normally we SCSE’s are kind of like a secret fraternity. If you go to a typical small business networking meeting, those few people who seem comfortable in their own skin and aren’t desperately looking for clients – often their first clients – are probably SCSE’s. But for the most part, we tend to fade into the background and go about our business.

Except lately. With the economy the way it is, a lot of my friends and colleagues are now a lot more curious about this SCSE stuff than they used to. And good for them for asking, because I feel successful stone cold self-employment is a lot *more* secure than a single job that could be whacked at any time. So as a public service, I’d like to share what I feel are the four steps to becoming stone cold self-employed.

Step 1, which is today's blog topic, is that we do things that people pay for: I call this the “law of twice.” If you want to be SCSE, do something that you have – personally – seen at least two other people make a full-time living at. So the guy who does the lawns and landscaping for everyone on your block, does a great job, and has a shiny new truck is probably following the law of twice. So are the people who teach training courses, deliver day care, or write press releases. Conversely, the person who wants to start a consulting practice helping companies “empower their vision,” or anything remotely sounding like that, needs to look hard in the mirror and see if at least two other successful people they know personally are staring back.

I chose what I do – freelance writing and corporate training – because every company I have ever worked for has hired consultants to do these things, and I have seen several people make a good living at it. And the specialties I have developed over time within these fields, teaching communications skills and developing book projects for people, are natural outgrowths of these things. Not to mention that I love every minute of doing them.

The law of twice is frankly the single biggest success factor in being self-employed. Nail it and you can often stay out on your own fairly easily and comfortably - particulary if you do a great job and blow your clients away. Ignore it and you are toast. So, want to join that hot new MLM that your neighbor is pestering you about? Or are you gazing at a business opportunity in a magazine advertisement? Or do you want to turn your arcane job into an arcane consulting practice? Fine with me. Just find two real people who have been making a full time living at it for, say, three years, and you have my blessings.

Stay tuned for my next blog on step 2: where does the money come from?

Thursday, October 08, 2009

An attitude of gratitude

This morning, as I was making breakfast, I saw a large, gangly bug flattened at the bottom of the wet sink. It appeared to have drowned, but then I saw a slight movement in one of its legs. I took some paper towels and gently drained the water from around it, dabbed it dry, and then gingerly scooped it up on the counter - and then over the next half hour, I'd gently blow on it to dry it off further. Soon it lifted one leg, than another. Then one wing came free. And finally, it spread both wings and flew!

Right back into the wet sink.

After rescuing it *again* (and this time taking it outside away from temptation), I figured that there must be a blog in this somewhere. And sure enough, there is.

Do you know people who seem to be perpetually looking for a break - but once they get it, they don't appreciate it? For example, I remember a young man in my neighborhood years ago who was desperate for work and money. When I took pity on him and hired him to paint my basement, he never finished and did a half-baked job. Or the older professional who had been laid off for a long time, back when I was in corporate life, and swore up and down he'd appreciate the chance to "start over." As soon as I hired him, he moped around, complained about his long commute, and acted like the job was beneath him. I could go on, but let's just say there have been lots of "wet bugs" in my life.

Which leads me to a subtle but important difference I see in the really successful people I know. They almost never complain.

Do I ever have reason to gripe? Well, perhaps, at least on paper. Sometimes I have clients who demand urgent turnaround on a project, and then take a leisurely two or three months to pay my "net 30" invoice. I've had people promise me lucrative five-figure contracts that have turned into a pumpkin. And like most people, I could easily fill several blogs with all of the bad customer experiences I've had.

So how do I feel about these people? I love 'em all actually. The slow-pay client? Well, I do eventually get paid, and am thankful to have a big project with them. The projects that never show up? The same people have come through for me in the past, and may again in the future. As for the bad customer experiences? Grist for the mill in my writing and training. It's all good as far as I'm concerned.

Even during the worst slow periods in my years of consulting, I'd usually find myself feeling richly blessed to be in good health, wake up next to a beautiful woman every morning, and do what I love. If you asked me how I was doing during those slow times, I would usually respond, "Great!" And I believe, ironically, this is a big part of the reason I am successful.

Sure, once in a great while something bugs me enough that I'll say something. (For example, this recent blog entry about a very hurtful and aggressive fundraising call from my alma mater.) But in general, my "brand" has been all about staying positive and teaching skills, not calling out the sins of others. Now I realize this is a common success trait in lots of people I know, and a principle that goes all the way back to Dale Carnegie if not my Christian faith. So I'd like to thank that bug this morning for reminding me again. I'd say we're even.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Happy Customer Service Week - sort of

This week, Oct. 5-10, is National Customer Service Week, as established by a Presidential proclamation a few years ago. It was created to recognize that "highest quality customer service must be a personal goal of every employee in business and industry" in the United States.

So, as someone who makes a lot of his livelihood doing customer service training, and the author of a national #1 customer service bestseller, you would think I'd be all over this sentiment, right? Well, kinda sorta. I was recently part of an interesting and spirited debate on this point on's Customers 1st group, and if you are a member you can view it here.

You see, I am not just an author/trainer/speaker type. For many years I was a working customer service manager and executive, leading call centers on both coasts to dramatically "turn around" both our own performance and the company's. So I know what kinds of things work at improving customer service. And more important, I know what things don't.

Here is what doesn't work, in my experience: the kinds of slogans and banners you often see during Customer Service Week. I have been at many companies who go this route, only to be met with rolled eyes by front line employees. Not because they have a bad attitude, but because lectures to be "nice" generally last until your next bad hair day, and slogans won't change a corporate culture that preaches service quality once a year and shipping product twice a day.

Now, here is what does work: communications and coaching skills. For example:

-Knowing what to say to defuse an angry person, using the same kinds of techniques that hostage negotiators and psychologists use.
-Learning how simple changes to your words build strong connections with people in the first 30 seconds of a conversation.
-Understanding the mechanics of things like respect, empathy, and acknowledgement so they become second nature, no matter what your personality.
-And most important, learning how to coach people without ever putting them on the defensive.

This is my "schtick," and the reason I make a very nice living at it is that it works so well. As in clients writing me back a month later and telling me their customers AND employees are in fact much happier. That's why I'm so passionate about this.

So back to Customer Service Week. Too many companies frankly use it as a week of balloons, sloganeering, and motivational speeches, followed by a return to Business as Usual. But I also see some great organizations using it to celebrate the great people on their front lines, as part of a year-long program of skills and leadership development. Hope your Customer Service Week is a great one!

Friday, September 25, 2009


I just finished another one of those books on how to supercharge your speaking career. And it was just like the last fourteen I've read on the subject: it talks at great length about having a great topic, having a plan, and being a good speaker. But when it gets to the actual part about getting more people to hire you, it dissolves into a coughing fit of pedestrian advice.

Earlier, I listed to a half-hour audioconference from someone who was billed as being the greatest expert ever on becoming an entrepreneur and bestselling author. His secret? Platitudes like having passion, doing your research, and eating your vegetables. Oh, and attending his paid seminar coming up soon.

Likewise, when I became the first person in my family in over a century to start my own business, I read every book I could get my hands on about self-employment. When it came to getting clients, most had one thin chapter full of useless advice (run ads, etc.) that had nothing whatsoever to do with how I really got most of my clients (build relationships, network with people, do a lot of free speaking, etc.).

The common denominator in all of these success-mongers? No facts. No proof. No walking you through exactly how they put 10,000 names on their mailing list, or sold the half million books they claim, or landed paying clients. By delivering platitudes, they feel they have fulfilled their promise to make you happy, rich, or successful. Even if they didn't.

But then there are the good guys. My media coach Wayne Kelly in Canada, for example: a real life radio personality who, for a few hundred bucks or less, teaches you everything you need to know about getting on radio. I listen to myself before and after on the radio, and look at how I pitch myself, and it's one of the best investments I've made. If you're serious about media publicity, visit and check him out. Capt. Tom Bunn, a pilot-turned-therapist who runs, is another one: go through his program and you are, in fact, highly likely to lose your fear of flying. I like to think that I'm one of the good guys too.

So, I think I've finally figured out a way to separate the good guys from the bad ones. Look at what they teach you for free. Did it work? Did it start changing your life? Did it motivate you to dig deeper because of what you've learned, rather than an empty promise that you'll finally learn something when you pay? Wayne Kelly distributes a free 6-part radio publicity course that is surprisingly high-content. Capt. Bunn has excellent free content and a weekly live chat open to anyone. And there is lots of other good stuff out there.

I use a similar approach. My "schtick" is teaching people what to say in difficult situations, and the basics are all out there for free in the form of my articles, webinars, radio interviews, and book samples. Buy one of my books and you will learn these concepts in gory detail, with lots of examples and case studies. Attend one of my seminars, for a little more per person, and I guide you through these skills personally so that they change your life. And so far, after over 10,000 training attendees, everyone seems pretty happy.

So if you, like me, are in the business of helping people succeed, that's my secret to effective success-mongering: excellent free content, combined with a good value proposition for the paid stuff. Best of success!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Why I am not donating to Cornell this year

This afternoon, I received a phone call from my alma mater Cornell University that was a textbook example of how *not* to ask for a donation.

The first part of the call was typical of college fundraising drives: verifying my contact information, asking if I'd been on campus recently (yes, giving a talk at the Engineering School on becoming an author), and checking to see if I wanted to be connected to any resources on campus (no thanks). So far, so good.

Then we got to the fun part. I was asked to donate an amount roughly equivalent to my annual mortgage. Umm, no thanks. Then I told the telemarketer politely how much I did plan to give - a much smaller sum - and she paused, raised her voice, and said, "REALLY?"

No, not really: I hung up at that point. Something I almost never, ever do with people. She then called back to complain that I "misunderstood" her taunting and should still donate, but no apology of course, and I hung up again. Yeesh.

Ironically, I do donate a healthy sum to charity every year for organizations involved in issues like world hunger and mission work. But it frankly isn't Cornell's business why I favor them over an alma mater with a $5.5B endowment at the moment. Giving is a very personal decision for all of us. And no one has permission to hassle me about where these donations go, even if some sales trainer is teaching them to be more "aggressive."

It's not like I don't understand the economics of a university. My late father was president of our hockey rival Clarkson University, and doubled their endowment during his tenure. He worked hard to cultivate a network of supporters, many of whom benefited from a steady stream of Clarkson graduates. But it would be hard to picture him browbeating individual working alumni over the size of their donations. Especially when you never know how the "long tail" of smaller contributors might respond later in life, when they are richer or doing their estate planning.

Meanwhile, there is a communications skills lesson for all of us here: if you think you can shame paying customers into doing your bidding, think again. As for Cornell, my check for them just went to a local mental health agency, and we'll see how it goes next year. If they're a lot nicer to me.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

New customer service book launching today - with lots of free gifts!

I wanted to personally let you know about the launch of a great new book from two friends of mine, and an extra-special offer for people who purchase it TODAY (Wednesday, Sept. 15) on!

My friends, Marilyn Suttle and Lori Jo Vest, have written a remarkable new customer service book, Who’s Your Gladys? How to Turn Even the Most Difficult Customer into Your Biggest Fan. It explores how some of the world's service leaders - companies like Singapore Airlines, Paul Reed Smith Guitars, ClearVision Optical, Sky Lakes Medical Center and The Canfield Company - handle their most demanding customers: the "Gladys's" that all service businesses have.

Purchase it TODAY from Amazon at and get over forty free gifts, including some goodies from me! Marilyn and Lori have put together a package for you loaded with podcasts, articles, e-books and other valuable tools covering customer service, sales, marketing and professional development.

If you like my books, workshops and webinars on handling difficult customer situations, you are going to love this book. Publisher’s Weekly lauds its “substantive, down-to-earth advice that sets this book apart from its competitors.” Buy your copy today at, and watch the book trailer at Thanks and enjoy!

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Your life in 400 words

Over a decade ago when my father passed away, we quickly discovered that trying to summarize a great life in a few paragraphs was a real challenge. What were his job titles? What books did he write, and awards did he win? Above all, what mattered the most to him? It was kind of like arranging a wedding on 24 hours notice.

When he died I promised myself two things. First, that I would never waste another day doing things I didn't enjoy, chasing a retirement that in his case never happened. I've honored that promise ever since. The second promise was that I would maintain a running one-page summary of my own life. My obituary, if you will - but more accurately, a life story that continues to evolve.

The latter promise proved to be almost harder than the first. My dad, like many of his generation, basically had a linear career: from engineer, to engineering professor, to dean, provost, and university president. By comparison, I am a mutt. After a fairly traditional career path as a software engineer and manager, I've been self-employed for much of the last 15 years doing a delicious mix of things I really enjoy: author, ghostwriter, public speaker, trainer, and (as of recently) psychotherapist.

But that led to one small problem. Two, actually. First, if someone I hadn't seen in a while would ask "Hi Rich - what do you do for a living nowadays?", I'd get tongue tied and mutter something about "writer and speaker." Except I'm also leading training courses, running a therapy group, developing a new business fable, editing a monograph series, doing a webinar Tuesday for clients in India, etc. And I didn't want to bore them with the details. The second problem was that if, God forbid, I were ever run over by a beer truck, my survivors would have gotten a splitting headache trying to summarize my life.

But this begs a much larger question. What is the purpose of your life? The North Star that shines as your beacon? The things that I would want people to remember me for if, God willing, I live to be 97 someday? That, in my view, is the real reason to keep a running summary of your life: to know who you are and where you are headed.

Nowadays I have a lot more clarity about who I am. I help people communicate - as a writer, a speaker, and a therapist. Over the years I've been building a national platform teaching people what to say in their most difficult situations. And I've been having more fun than I've had in a long time. If you're curious what my life looks like in 400 words, it's here. So what would your 400 words look like?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Webinar tomorrow - with free gifts for you!


I'll keep this short. You want to succeed by knowing how to communicate better with everyone, particularly in your most difficult situations. And I'm shooting to make my latest book the #1 communications skills book in the country.

Here's how we can help each other. Tomorrow (Wednesday, August 26) marks a key publicity launch for How to Tell Anyone Anything: Breakthrough Techniques for Handling Difficult Conversations at Work, with a global webinar sponsored by Parature Software. Over 1000 people will join in from all over the world. They will get a special offer to buy the book and get a free communications skills library. And so can you!

Buy my new book Wednesday on, and I'll send you back a FREE library including several full-length books, as well excerpts from my latest communications skills bestsellers. All downloadable and available instantly. Just e-mail the receipt to

How to Tell Anyone Anything is my most critically acclaimed project to date, and has been featured in the NY Post, BusinessWeek Online,, AOL Business, the Toronto Globe and Mail, the syndicated Career Clinic (R) radio show, and even the front page of MSN. It has already been a top career skills book on, and last week it was one of the top 250 books (period!) in Canada. Because it really teaches you what to say in your most difficult situations at work - quickly, painlessly, and based on the latest principles of psychology.

So buy the book Wednesday. Or join us online at 2 PM US Eastern for the free webinar, Thanks!

Friday, August 07, 2009

Thoughts on the Pittsburgh shooting tragedy

Like everyone, I was shocked to read this week that a gunman opened fire at a health club in suburban Bridgeville, PA, killing three people and wounding many others before committing suicide. Perhaps even a little more so because I used to live in Bridgeville, and if there was ever a real-life version of Beaver Cleaver's neighborhood, this was it.

Before he committed his act, this seemingly intelligent, educated, and gainfully employed person left behind a blog about how rejected he felt by women - no girlfriend since 1984, and no intimate relationships for 19 years. As he put it, "Women just don't like me. There are 30 million desirable women in the US (my estimate) and I cannot find one. Not one of them finds me attractive." And yet his neighbors describe him as an anti-social loner who revealed little about himself.

Which got me to thinking how many people I've known personally who fit that description. Alone well into middle age, but not by choice. No meaningful relationships. Not happy with life. And perhaps more than a little mad at the world about their lot. Most of them would never hurt a flea, much less pick up a gun. But all of them are suffering. And there are lots of them out there.

Yet none of these people realize that they are the jailers of their own prison. I often refer to them as "seagulls" because they swoop in, dump all over my wife and I with their complaints and problems, and then fly off without so much as a word about us. They never ask how we are, rarely if ever share interesting observations about the world around them, and can't bring themselves to listen to us without immediately turning the conversation back onto themselves. And yet they universally blame their situation on bad luck, fate, or society itself - never the person in the mirror.

What is perhaps most sad is that, like the perpetrator of this shooting, these people are otherwise pretty intelligent. Often they have advanced degrees or good jobs. But they still come home alone every night, lack intimacy and meaningful friendships, and can't for the life of themselves figure out why. And it's not just a matter of the breaks in their lives. On their very best days they probably still won't be able to connect with people, while the ones who care will still be reaching out on their worst days.

Many people are going to dismiss this shooter as an isolated nutcase with a personality disorder. And they may have a point: most of us don't react to our problems by gunning down innocent people. But there is also a social lesson here.

We, as a society, don't value how to communicate authentically with other people. We don't teach it in schools. We don't measure or coach people's ability to do it. We don't reach out to our friends about it. And most of us can go through an entire career without having it evaluated as part of our performance: in fact, our bosses are often as likely as any of us to lack compassion, interest, or the ability to connect with people. But these are all procedural skills, in my view, not just good attitudes - things our parents, educators, and leaders should be worrying about every bit as much as our grades or productivity.

My heart and my prayers go out to the victims of this terrible tragedy. As we grieve their loss and honor their memory, I hope some of us can start envisioning a society where we start learning and cherishing the simple art of talking to one another. If we did, we might start creating meaning and intimacy in a lot of people's lives - and perhaps in some cases even prevent a tragedy.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Read all about it

One of my favorite pastimes lately has been giving free communications skills and career advice for the nation's press and airwaves, as the buzz continues to grow about my new book How to Tell Anyone Anything. Here is a summary of some recent articles and upcoming webinars. Dig in and enjoy!

Pest Control: We Poll Experts on How To Handle Oversharers, Boorish Bosses and Other Workplace Irritants, by Brian Moore
Very funny article in one of NYC's largest tabloids, also published nationally here on BusinessWeek's Business Exchange - I'm on a panel with two other authors and a very irreverant comedian about how to handle boorish co-workers.

How to De-Fang a Toxic Boss, by yours truly
Article published on, AOL Business and MSN on taming a difficult boss.

Q&A: Working Class, by Leslie Whitaker
Interview with me about how to handle an employee who is rude to customers.

Tooling Up: Four Must-Haves for Convincing Communication, by David G. Jensen
Great article from Science, the nation's leading science magazine, on communications skills for your technical career.

Four Techniques To Better Communication: Learning from How to Tell Anyone Anything, by David G. Jensen
Good career advice from my favorite book.

How to Tell Anyone Anything (Book Review) - CareerFocus Cafe

P.S. Not to forget my friends north of the border, a feature in Canada's national paper The Globe and Mail is also coming soon - I'll update the link when it's out.

Free upcoming webinars:
How to Tell Anyone Anything: Coaching Your Service Team to Success
Wednesday, August 26, 2009, 2:00pm EDT

The Power of 30 Seconds: Best Practices for Exceptional Support
An on-demand webinar that I did live for Citrix GoToAssist in April, on how to create a great impression in the first 30 seconds of a customer transaction.

Note to my friends in Australia/NZ, India, and south Asia: I'll be doing live sessions of this webinar in your neighborhoods on August 11. Here is the link to sign up: see you then!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Do or diet

After three of the Busiest Months of My Life, I finally looked down from my desk - and saw that I've grown a lot smarter and a bit wider than when I started. So today, I went to the bookstore at the mall and checked out some diet books. And I have some advice for all of their authors. Here goes:

1) I have a life. All of your recipes are for things like Moroccan Strawberry Chicken Drizzle, with 43 ingredients, and two hours of preparation time. I am glad that you all have time to make dishes like this for each of your meals. Unfortunately, I don't.

2) I also have food allergies. Soy and nuts, among other things. And those 43 ingredients I mentioned? Seems like I'm usually allergic to two of them. Go look up "food allergy" in the dictionary, check out the most common ones (mine are pretty common), and think of us once in a while, OK?

3) Make nice with each other. It seems like every diet book spends at least two chapters explaining why every other diet book's approach will make my hair fall out, my muscle mass go down, my social life disappear, and my weight eventually come zooming back. Here is what I've learned so far from each of you:

-Cut out carbohydrates
-Don't cut out carbohydrates
-Don't eat more than 1200 calories a day
-Don't eat less than 1600 calories a day
-Drink milk
-Don't drink milk
-Limit all of your fats
-Have lots of monounsaturated fats

Meanwhile, you all want me to spend between 15 and 25 dollars for books where, apparently, only one of you is correct and the rest of you are bald-faced liars. Could you folks all lock yourselves in a room somewhere and go fight it out, and then let me know who won?

And ironically, I am exactly the kind of customer these diet books want. I am motivated to lose weight. I am willing to go hungry for a while if I know what I'm doing. And I'm happy to plunk down money for books or even coaching, once I know whom to believe. But for now, I feel like trying to lose weight from a diet book is a little like trying develop good mental health by watching Dr. Phil. Who, oh yeah, also wrote a diet book. So I'm back to the drawing board for now, if not the bookstore. Wish me well.

Friday, June 12, 2009

My sexy interview

I just posted something on Facebook that had some of my friends scratching their heads - and was one of the most enjoyable interviews I've done in a long time.

This afternoon I had an hour-long interview with noted Canadian sex educator Kim Switnicki, one of the regulars on Vancouver's Breakfast TV, about how to use good communications skills in the bedroom. It was a wide-ranging (and PG-rated) discussion about how to discuss your preferences, your turn-ons and turn-offs, and how to get your partner to open up to you, which will be used as part of one of her upcoming educational programs. Kim and I met earlier this year taking media training together on our respective new books, and she is an incredibly knowledgeable and articulate interviewer.

The head-scratching part came from people who know me solely from my customer service training, which in turn is one of the joys of being a "mutt." In reality, much of my training nowadays is about communications skills in general, and talking about sexuality and communications isn't as strange for me as you might think - I am now also a practicing family therapist who works with couples and families, and was in fact trained in sex therapy as part of my MFT graduate work.

Which brings us to today's interview. The thing I find fascinating as a therapist is that intimate communication skills share a great deal in common with those in the workplace - and these, in turn, often borrow from techniques that people like hostage negotiators, crisis counselors, and psychologists use in their own specific situations. Some key points we covered:

-Acknowledgement is like sex. Most people think they already know how to do it, but few know how to do it well. Most of us simply talk past each other, instead of using techniques like observation ("I can see you don't like that"), validation ("lots of people feel that way"), or identification ("I could imagine feeling the same way"). Acknowledging and validating your partner makes it safe to talk about things, and in my view is a big part of the "electricity" people feel when they really connect with each other.

-Sensitive subjects - especially in the bedroom - are best attacked with a pencil and paper, to workshop a neutral opening, good questions, good acknowledgements - and above all, a neutral, factual discussion of what you want.

-When you feel your partner is ignoring your needs and wants, check your own language. Confrontational words almost never work, no matter how softly or politely you utter them, and it's hard to negotiate changes without drawing out the interests of both parties.

Some of the specific examples we discussed went beyond the usual business blog fare - for example, one of them gave a new meaning to the phrase "I'm tied up at the moment" - but I was struck by how universal good communications skills are in all walks of life, and how they can bring you love and intimacy as well as success. And as someone who has been madly in love with the same person for 36 years and counting, I can certainly vouch for them personally.

To learn more about Kim's books, products, and coaching services, visit her website at - she really is incredible at what she does. And it was a real honor to be a small part of one of her upcoming programs.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Live from the General Mills Parkway

In all my travels, I had somehow never made it to Minneapolis before. This month, I ended up visiting twice in the last two weeks, training at two great companies there.

So one night, I was driving around this beautiful city on my way back from dinner, and found myself on the General Mills Parkway. Since public highways are rarely named after companies, my first fleeting thought was how ironic it was that a war hero had the same name as a big cereal company - and then, a few minutes later, that thought was disabused as I drove past the General Mills headquarters building.

This got me thinking. For years I've stared at the phrase "General Mills, Minneapolis, MN" on the back of my box of Cheerios and if I've thought anything about it, it was just a passing nod to another faceless corporation I purchase products from. But now I'm looking out my windshield at an actual building in suburban Golden Valley where lots of real people come to work every morning - not just Betty Crocker - and it's a change in perspective.

This same change in perspective can help your communications skills, particularly when you are a customer. When we are unhappy about something, we tend to approach it with a mindset of dumping on a faceless corporation. And somehow, if we push hard enough, that faceless corporation will somehow react to us.

In reality, the person on the other end is, well, a person. Someone who drove in to work this morning on the General Mills Parkway after eating his Cheerios and sending his kids off to school. And if we address this person as a person, with respect and dignity, we are much more likely to get what we want. So next time you deal with a company, pretend they are your neighbor down the street and see what happens.

* * *

P.S. I was pleased to see this weekend that What to Say to a Porcupine was still a top 10 business humor book on Amazon, more than a year after its release, and its corresponding Kindle edition was ranked #6 in customer service. And my new book How to Tell Anyone Anything is now showing up in bookstores nationwide and starting to climb the charts as well. Thanks everyone!

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Just released: How to Tell Anyone Anything

When your last book was a national #1 customer service and business humor bestseller, and a finalist for 2008 Business Book of the Year, what do you do for an encore?

How about a groundbreaking new book that teaches you how to confidently say anything at work? How to Tell Anyone Anything: Breakthrough Techniques for Handling Difficult Conversations at Work has just been released by leading business publisher AMACOM and goes on sale on today - and I have a special free offer with lots of goodies for everyone who wants to order it this week!

Using the latest principles from strength-based psychology, this new book teaches you the same techniques top coaches, crisis negotiators, and psychologists use to deal with situations like these:

• How do you get your boss to stop yelling at everyone?
• How do you tell an employee that he needs to shower more often?
• How do you tell your co-worker that you would like more help from him or her?
• How do you let someone know their performance is putting their career at risk?
• How do you motivate people to strive for excellence?

In these situations and more, I take you by the hand and lead you through a step-by-step process that replaces the knot in the pit of your stomach with confidence - by teaching you how to structure a painless conversation that never puts people on the defensive, even with your toughest issues, and gets results!

Originally piloted with one of the nation's leading social service agencies, the techniques in this book have now been taught to over a thousand people from coast to coast, to rave reviews. As one person said in their evaluation, "there is now hope for humanity after all!" And consistently, over and over, people describe the results of this approach as game-changing.

So now for the freebies! Click here to order the book on this week, e-mail your receipt to, and get a free downloadable customer service library including several full-length books as well as a free sample from my #1 customer service book What to Say to a Porcupine. And here's to a new, confident you at work who can truly tell anyone anything!

P.S. Want to nibble a nosh for free? Visit and sign up for a free two-chapter sample!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Live from Parafest

Today I am writing from Las Vegas, where the great folks at Parature Software invited me to kick off day 2 of their Parafest ’09 conference with a workshop on what to say to my favorite prickly mammal. It was a fun talk with a very engaged audience, whose ranks included some of the best minds in the customer support profession.

This conference was interesting for me beyond the speaking gig, because as many of you know I am a veteran of managing call centers and implementing CRM myself. So it was refreshing to see how far things have come in my old profession in ten years: today’s customer support environment is more automated, integrated, and global than ever. We are now in a world where agents can handle over 20 chat sessions simultaneously, agents pop up automatically when you are filling out a form, and your support center can be integrated with Twitter – or even, in one case, a virtual world.

Once in a while I can read people’s minds, and I can read some of yours right now: you are thinking that in many cases service is worse than ever today. But not at this conference. I was very impressed with the fresh ideas I heard from Parature’s customers, and – given the long faces I remember from many CRM users years ago – what a bond there is between “Paraturians” and their customers. And Parafest’s choice of speakers - service culture legend Tony Hsieh of, motivational speaker Shep Hyken, and even little old me – underscores their focus on how service starts with great customer experiences.

I was also very heartened to see a company draw record crowds to a live event, particularly one that started not that many years ago as a bright idea among Cornell graduate students in my home town of Ithaca, NY. And particularly at a time when the Las Vegas economy could use more successful events like this. Well done, Parature, and thank you.

* * *

Speaking of speaking, I am proud to share that I have been just been accepted as a member of the National Speakers Association, which is the fraternity for professional speakers.

Joining NSA requires that you do lots of speaking engagements and/or make lots of dedicated speaking revenue, and I‘ve done plenty of both this past year thanks to a growing national platform as a communications skills author. So look for the NSA logo on my website soon – an honor that I consider as the beginning, not the endpoint, of my journey as a professional speaker.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The best ten bucks you'll ever spend

Some of you know that one of my favorite musicians was (and still is) the late Hiram Bullock, an electrifying jazz guitarist who passed away last year. I was hooked ever since his heyday in the late 1980s, and owned everything he ever put out - my tribute to him is here. Many of you haven't heard of him, but you have probably heard him, through his session work with artists like Billy Joel, James Taylor, Steely Dan, and many others.

Late last year 40 of the top musicians in jazz held a tribute concert in New York for Hiram, faithfully playing 30 songs of his best music - names like Bill Evans, John Tropea, Letterman show bandleader Paul Shaffer, former Tower of Power lead singer Tom Bowes, and many others.

Organizer and legendary bass player Will Lee and Hiram's longtime partner Jennifer Armstrong originally put together a 2-DVD set of the show as a "thank you" for the musicians who took part. Now they are offering this to the community for the ridiculously low price of $10 plus shipping, as a non-profit gesture to all his fans.

It's great music - often played with the same studio musicians who recorded originally with Hiram - together with interviews from the people who knew him best as well as a slideshow. (The latter is a small claim to fame for me, as the picture they show of him at the 2002 Rochester Jazz Festival was taken by yours truly.) Order it today while it lasts at

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bad bosses

I just got through reading another one of those "bad bosses" articles that seem to crop up regularly - and the nearly 60 comments that followed, most with horror stories of their own bosses.

So let me ask you a rhetorical question: where do all these bad bosses come from? Is there a subculture of mean people that wakes up every morning dreaming of ways to make people feel stupid?

Here is my own view: I think it's a little like drivers and pedestrians. When you are behind the wheel of your car, you get frustrated by all these slow, careless pedestrians that dither in front of your car while you are driving. And then you step out of your car, and get frustrated by all the thoughtless drivers who don't slow down and whiz by two feet from you. And then you step back in your car and the pedestrians suddenly get stupider again.

Over my own three-decade-plus career, I have had just about every shade of boss imaginable. More important, for much of this career I have been both an employee and a boss at the same time. If I could sum up many of those years into one neat package, the same driver-pedestrian dynamic applies. Bosses often frustrate employees and employees often frustrate bosses.

But here is what is even more important. Most of the time I respected my bosses, and was respected in turn by my employees. Was I lucky? Perhaps so, reading some of these horror stories. But I also think that how you communicate has a lot to do with how these relationships turn out.

You see, most of these "bad bosses" articles recommend self-defense and subterfuge, with advice ranging from staying under the radar to complaining to the boss's superiors. And since every action usually has an equal and opposite reaction, these approaches are often about as effective as stepping on the boss's foot. Taking it a step further, it was telling that the vast majority of people posting comments had quit, been fired, or worked in a state of ceaseless warfare.

There is only one effective way to *really* deal with bad bosses, and it feels about as natural as drinking pickle juice. First, you have to acknowledge their agenda. Whether they are insecure, demanding, have a short temper, or are pickier than thou, you have to acknowledge what they want and need. Second, you have validate what they say every time they open their mouth. Listen carefully: I did NOT say agree with or kiss up to them. I mean let them know that you understand how they see the world. Finally, tell them what you want in a way that benefits both of you. Compare these two approaches:

Not so good:
Peter Picky: This report is missing a comma! I keep telling you that I want perfect English on these reports!
You: Look, it isn't physically possible to have no typos on a 100 page report. You are always getting in my face!

Will Mr. Picky apologize profusely and be more accommodating forthwith? I didn't think so. So now try it my way:

Peter Picky: This report is missing a comma! I keep telling you that I want perfect English on these reports!
You: I respect that you have high standards for what goes out under our name. I'd like to learn what went wrong here.
Peter Picky: We *always* use the serial comma here - this line should read, "Lawrence Welk said, 'And a one, and a two, and a three."
You: That makes sense. And I certainly want to be a team with you on these reports. I also don't want to live in fear of constant criticism, because if anything that makes me even more mistake-prone. What could we do to work together better from here?

Wasn't that easy? You're right, it wasn't. You are probably biting your lip so hard there are teeth marks in it. But if you get in the habit of validating every single thing your boss says while sticking up for yourself, I am betting you will get a lot more of what you want and a lot more respect.

Don't just take my word for it. Baseball manager Joe Torre, a perennial champion who lasted more than a decade working for George Steinbrenner, an owner who previously went through managers like Henry VIII went through wives, wrote about a similar dynamic in his book Ground Rules for Winners. And I take the mechanics of difficult conversations like these and practically beat them to death with a stick in my new book How to Tell Anyone Anything: Breakthrough Techniques for Handling Difficult Conversations at Work, now available for pre-order. Try taking a fresh look at how you talk with tough bosses, and see what happens!

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The secret life of excuses

As I write this I am sitting in first class on a United Airlines 777, on my way back from training over 350 great people at Cal State Fresno (with deep appreciation to my brother John, an alpha frequent flyer, for the upgrade). So I'm having a rare chance to stretch out, literally and figuratively, with my thoughts for a couple of hours.

So where are these thoughts taking me? Right now, to an interesting exchange with some of CSF's key service leaders, a very talented group, during this morning's coaching skills program. Among other things, I had a role-playing simulation where one person who chronically comes in late to work holds forth with every excuse in the book, while the (poor) other person is asked to do nothing but acknowledge and validate what the other person is saying.

The late person, ably played by CSF's associate director of financial aid, weighed in with a truly world-class litany of excuses while the other person gamely acknowledged everything he said. ("You're right, children sometimes do take a long time to get ready to leave." "I hate it too when I get caught in traffic and then get a flat tire.") Then the first person closed in for the kill by saying, "And worst of all, my boss is always getting on my case about how often I'm coming in late. I don't see why it is such a big deal." Finally caught off guard, the other person could not bring herself to acknowledge this directly - which is exactly what I wanted to show people as a teaching moment.

You see, I will validate people all day if I need to - even when they make statements like this one. My response would have been something to the effect of, "No one likes to feel they are constantly being criticized." I would have taken direct aim at the other person's concern - which, by the way, I violently disagree with - and hit it right between the eyes. This person would see that I knew exactly how he felt, and that it was safe to talk about it.

This exchange stirred up some great questions from the audience. For most people, talking like this to someone who comes in late - or is rude to customers - or makes a pain in the anatomy of themselves - feels like drinking poison. To the uninitiated, it feels like you are being a buddy with someone who is behaving badly and accommodating them. But you aren't. Instead, you are gaining power in a situation where most people have very little power.

The reason lies in how we process language. Each of us has an instinctive friend-versus-foe reflex that is an instinctive survival trait. So when you criticize people who do bad things, you almost always get an equal and opposite reaction. But when you acknowledge and validate them every time they open their mouths, they process this language on the "friend" side of their brain and can't argue with you. Which completely takes the wind out of their sails when you finally set expectations with them. Compare these two exchanges:

Most people's approach:
Larry Latecomer: Wow, the traffic was so bad today, there was no way I could make it in on time.
You: That isn't good enough. You are expected to be here on time each day.
Larry Latecomer: Look, you have no idea what it's like to commute from where I live in East Timbuktu. Or be a single parent and get three kids off to school. Or have a sick dog. Or ...

My approach:
Larry Latecomer: Wow, the traffic was so bad today, there was no way I could make it in on time.
Me: That sounds terrible. Traffic is often hard to predict, especially with a long commute.
Larry Latecomer: Sounds like you've been there before.
Me: I have. And I respect how hard it is in situations like this. Meanwhile, here's what were dealing with: most people come in late, on average, once a month. You come in late roughly three times a week. And I can't have different standards for people, or it would impact morale. Where can we go from here?

Which of these two people are more likely to get Larry to actually change his behavior, instead of just getting defensive or "yessing" you with no performance change? I'll betcha that I do. All you have to do is change how you respond in a way that, for most people, feels about as natural as hanging by your thumbs. But once you see how well it works, you'll never, ever go back to the old way.

I didn't just make this approach up. It's based on concepts of strength-based psychology that are sweeping the way we communicate, all the way from psychotherapy to major league coaching. If this example whets your appetite to learn more, check out my new book How to Tell Anyone Anything: Breakthrough Techniques for Handling Difficult Conversations at Work, available for pre-order now at all major online retailers. Meanwhile, I'm about to land - talk again soon!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Dealing with Pinocchio

Last month I did a session of my How to Tell Anyone Anything program for a great group of people on the East Coast. Later, over lunch, one of my hosts posed a fascinating question to me: what do you say to an employee who isn’t doing his job well, and then lies about it when you try to discuss it?

I responded without hesitation with an answer that made everyone choke on their tuna sandwiches: validate the liar. People immediately had stunned looks on their faces as they turned to me and asked, “Really?”

Yes, really. But I'm not asking what you think. I am not suggesting that you agree with people who lie. Nor am I asking you to imply that lying is OK. I am just asking you to dispense with trying to "catch" the other person, at least at first, and validate (e.g. acknowledge) how they are saying they see an issue.

Just answer the following question, and then you tell me: Imagine the last time you told a white lie. What would have gotten a better outcome from you: someone catching you in this lie and making you squirm, or being a little more gentle and focusing on the real issue? I thought so. And guess what, the same thing is true with the people you deal with.

You see, one of the fundamental principles I teach in How to Tell Anyone Anything is that you can never successfully criticize anyone. The minute you start putting someone on the defensive or calling them out, you’re toast. That’s why my book focuses on starting in a safe place, asking questions, validating the other person, and then discussing even very tough situations factually instead of emotionally. It feels like sucking on a lemon for most people at first, but once people see in live role-playing how incredibly well it gets people to buy in and change their behavior, they’re hooked.

But even so, the idea of validating a liar seems a little wild to most people. So let's walk through a couple of scenarios:

Scenario 1:
Peter Pinocchio: I haven’t been able to get work done because my co-workers keep asking me to help them. (Note that his nose is growing longer.)
Supervisor: That isn’t true. I see you talking about sports all day with people, while everyone else is trying to get their work done.

Scenario 2:
Peter Pinocchio: I haven’t been able to get work done because my co-workers keep asking me to help them.
Supervisor: So you feel that you are getting interrupted a lot, and it’s keeping you from getting your work done. Given how important this project is, what can we do to make it easier for you to finish it?

Which of these two scenarios is more likely to help Peter meet his deadlines and build a productive working relationship with you? And which one is more likely to lead to sullen compliance, bitterness, and more excuses? Ring-a-ding-ding.

Now, are there times you really shouldn’t validate a lie? Sure. When they are big, fat lies that cross important boundaries , or when chronic lying is the issue itself. When someone lies about how much money is in the company account, for example, you have my blessings to dispense with strength-based communication, if not call the police. But for everyday white lies and performance issues, trust me on this one - you ultimately need to use lots of empathy and validation if you ever want anything to really change.

Meanwhile, do you feel stuck dealing with employees who won’t cooperate and won’t be honest with you? Get in touch with me at gallagher -at- and let’s talk. I can help you – and that’s no lie.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Can't get enough of me?

Here are some new resources on communicating with customers and each other from yours truly - all of which are high-content, and some of which are free!

Porcupine now available as an e-book. My #1 customer service bestseller What to Say to a Porcupine is now available as an e-book from Click here to order.

Free webcast on prickly customers. An archived version of my What to Say to a Porcupine webcast for Parature Software is now online. Registration is required, but it's worth it - this is as close as you'll come to a free workshop on dealing with prickly customers, and the live versions of this event drew nearly 2,000 registered attendees! Go to, click on my smiling face, and sign up to listen.

Free coaching white paper. Best Practices for Coaching Your Support Team to Handle Anything is a new, complimentary white paper I developed for Here as well, registration is required but well worth it: and its sister site are, in my view, the best portals of free information on customer support out there. Click here to get your free copy.

Pre-order my new book. My new book How to Tell Anyone Anything: Breakthrough Techniques for Handling Difficult Conversations at Work is now available for pre-order at - click here to order. Coming soon in late May from AMACOM Books.

How to Tell Anyone Anything: the audiocourse. Finally, can't wait to read How to Tell Anyone Anything? The highlights of its companion training program - currently my most popular workshop - is now available as a CEU audiocourse, including an online workbook and test questions, from Briefings Publishing Group. Here's the link:

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Seeing people clearly

It happens to the best of us, especially at my age: every couple years or so, those darn road signs get blurrier and I need to go get a new pair of glasses.

This time, I decided to try my first pair of no-line bifocals, thinking they would make it easier for me sitting in front of my omnipresent word processor. In reality, the opposite is true: they give me tunnel vision, and I am constantly moving my head around chasing a small spot of clarity around the screen. So it’s probably back to regular bifocals for me.

Meanwhile, a busy optical store is a fascinating place to watch human nature and communication take place. Many people, when they try a new pair of glasses on for the first time, find it disorienting and complain about it. And the optical staff, being human beings, often react the same way our caveman ancestors did when confronted with a hungry saber-toothed tiger: they get defensive and start countering the customer’s arguments.

But when I go out of my way to be polite and upbeat about problems like my new bifocals, I notice an interesting dynamic: because I don’t challenge people, they go out of their way to validate my point of view and be helpful. They say things like “I can see why you react this way to them. Let me show you why this might be happening” instead of the usual “Well, you probably need to do X” response people give under pressure.

So here is my suggestion for you folks out there: next time you have a customer problem, be as charming and cheerful about it as you can. Even if you’ve been overcharged $70 or are returning a defective computer. And then see what happens. I bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Kick it up a notch

I have been training groups for many years now, but each and every one teaches me something new - and what I learned from my most recent group was truly magical.

I was teaching a very engaged group of employees at a state university how to communicate with customers last week, and was talking about what I call the three "octane levels" of acknowledgement:

1) The first is observation, where you simply observe the other person's feelings: for example, "I can tell by your tone of voice you are pretty upset about this."

2) The second is validation, where you make it clear the other person's feelings are valid: for example, "No one likes to pay an extra fee for this."

3) The third and highest level is identification, where you personally identify with the person's agenda: for example, "I would be upset if this happened to me too."

The higher the octane level, the better the other person feels. You can't always use the highest octane level, of course: for example, when someone says, "I was so mad I smashed my fist against the wall," you can't respond with, "I often feel like smashing my fist too." But you can always say things like, "This situation obviously bothered you a great deal. Tell me about it." When you choose the right octane level, you start connecting with people with people instead of arguing with them.

So here is where the magic came in. Normally I ask people for an example of this, I get one, and we move on. This time, the audience was so engaged, people were building on each other's examples and making it better and better - as TV chef Emeril might say, they were kicking it up a notch.

I had thrown out a scenario for them where someone was trying to transfer their credits from an unaccredited Bible school to this fully-accredited university. Normally, of course, most people would respond, "I'm sorry sir, we can't do that." So first, someone raises his hand and gives a pleasant but mild acknowledgement like "I can see this issue is important to you." Next another person raises her hand and says, "You put in a lot of hard work to earn these credits."

Before long, people were really getting in the spirit of this and saying things like, "You clearly worked hard and learned a lot of new things. Now let's explore some options for turning that good work into an accredited degree at our school, such as testing and prior learning assessment." And you could feel the tension drain out of the room with a situation these people often struggled with in real life.

So the lesson for you - and me - is to take your own most difficult customer situations, get your team thinking about good acknowledgements for them, and start workshopping them as a group until they are polished and perfected - and then teach everyone to use them. And watch everything change about your customer relationships.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

We're #1 and celebrating! (And you get the presents)

Who is more popular than Ken Blanchard and Dilbert? At the moment, yours truly. Following a very successful webcast for my friends at Parature Software yesterday, there has been a run on people purchasing my latest book What to Say to a Porcupine, and as of yesterday afternoon it ranked as the #1 customer service book AND the #1 business humor book in the United States on

To celebrate, I am going to make the same offer to my faithful blog readers that we made for people attending the Parature webcast: purchase your own copy on, forward a copy of your Amazon receipt to, and we will send you a free companion mini-course by return e-mail.

This complimentary mini-course will help you use Porcupine as a creative training tool, and includes a free sample fable, student and leader guides, a team exercise, and a PowerPoint presentation. And it will help turn your next team meeting into the most fun you have ever had learning world-class customer skills!

Thanks everyone for making this fable collection the top customer service book in the nation - and stay tuned for more great things in 2009!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The new book: a sneak peek

AMACOM Books has just released its spring/summer 2009 catalogue, including my next literary blockbuster How to Tell Anyone Anything - so now you can finally get a sneak peek at the cover, shown here. (I think they did a great job, as always!)

The book has a scheduled release date of June 2009. Can't wait to learn its secrets? Its companion training program has been in release for over a year and has become my most popular live workshop - visit my training website at Point of Contact Group for more details.

Meanwhile, stay tuned to for more information on a fresh, new approach to handling your most difficult interactions at work. Here is the catalog copy, courtesy of AMACOM:

How to Tell Anyone Anything: Breakthrough Techniques for Handling Difficult Conversations at Work by Richard S. Gallagher

No one likes to be criticized. But when feedback is necessary—whether it’s with a boss, someone we manage, or another co-worker—it takes great communication skills to successfully get the message across with feelings and relationships intact.

Drawing from the latest in psychology on how best to connect with others, How to Tell Anyone Anything steers readers away from the common mistake of focusing on what’s wrong, and shows them instead how to provide clear, constructive, positive messages that create real behavior and performance change. Complete with illuminating examples and a unique step-by-step process, the book gives readers powerful insight into how we all react naturally to criticism—and how to transform interactions that might become verbal tugs-of-war into collaborative, problem-solving sessions.

RICHARD S. GALLAGHER (Ithaca, NY) is a popular corporate trainer and public speaker who specializes in the mechanics of workplace culture and communication. He is the author of several books including Great Customer Connections (978-0-8144-7308-5) and What to Say to a Porcupine (978-0-8144-1055-4).

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A rare political blog entry

You’ve probably noticed that I never make political comments on this blog. There is a good reason for this. I respect everyone’s views of the world, and personally consider myself to be apolitical. To paraphrase my old high school classmate and social commentator Stephen Carter, my own views on specific issues are diverse enough that no political party would probably want me.

That said, this week we are not only about to inaugurate our first African-American President of the United States, but the first President since John F. Kennedy who stands out as a great communicator: someone who seems to have the knack of speaking to our interests, acknowledging diverse points of view, and connecting us with our nobler instincts, particularly in a very challenging economic time.

The ability for the words we use to get people to believe in something larger than ourselves is truly magical: I’ve seen it happen in the workplace, as a counselor in training, and now on a much larger scale as we welcome a new leader. And while it has been fascinating to watch this Presidential campaign unfold over the last year, it has been even more fascinating to deconstruct the way Barack Obama speaks to people.

At a more societal level, we have perhaps seen the country finally make a right turn away from an era where fear and negative campaigning determine the outcome of an election, from either party. Hopefully we are starting to learn that the partisans of either stripe that you hear on talk shows and cable news channels are never going to solve our problems, because it is hard to fix anything when you marginalize 49% of the people you are speaking to. Let’s hope for a new era of consensus building, and perhaps on a more personal level, a fresh look at how we speak to each other. Good luck and Godspeed, President Obama.