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!