Is leading by fear a viable strategy?

I have given this topic a lot of thought. In the process of writing this blog, my opinion on the topic has been challenged. Is leading by fear a viable strategy in business? I have read that it depends, and in some situations it can be acceptable. I don’t agree.

We scare you, you buy our product

While leading by fear will net short term results, it is not a good long term play. The problem is that leading by fear is easy, and it works, so leaders with limited time or narrow minds will default to this management style.

We see fear campaigns in a lot of different facets of marketing and advertising. Alarm companies marketing their products do so by showing criminals breaking into your home and potentially harming your family. Pest control companies show spiders and rats in a home and convince you that you need their services. Fear grabs our attention. It taps into the insecurities we have or it can create false insecurities.

Leaders in companies who lead by fear plant insecurities into employees to “motivate” them. Is my job at risk? Am I doing enough? Why is he/she mad at me?

Please don’t yell at your employees

Leading by fear is an antiquated way at managing people and it’s lazy. If you want long lasting results and a solid foundation, lead by empowering your team to be the best version of themselves. Lift up your team and encourage them. Give them the tools and autonomy that they need to succeed. If through this process you find that they are not the best fit for their role or your company, then it’s time for some candor. Use that information to help you hire the right people moving forward.

Who do you think is going to deliver the best results, consistently? An employee who is in constant fear or an employee who feels that you have their best interests at heart? Empower you team to be the best versions of themselves. Challenge them to grow. Show them how much you care and back it up with consistent actions towards that goal and watch your company take off.

Everyone At Your Company Is In Customer Service

Customer Service lives in a specific department at many companies but the truth is that we are all in customer service in one way or another. Whether you have a customer-facing role or not, we are all connected to our customers. Do not fall into a trap that you can behave differently because you are not in a specific customer service role. This assumption will poison a company and negatively impact your bottom line. The following tips are most relevant for employees that have customer-facing roles but they should be exercised across your entire organization and even used internally (just replace “Customer” with “Colleague” where relevant). 

Feedback Is A Gift

Not all customers share feedback. Some will keep this gift to themselves and seek out another suitor who will be a better fit. However, if your customer values your business, they may give you a gift of feedback. Customer feedback is one of the best gifts you can get from a client outside of their money! If you break down what they are sharing, it would sound something like this, Hi Company, I like your business and want to keep spending my money with you. I would like to spend more money with you and if you can make this better, I will continue to support your business. Additionally, if you do it well, I will feel heard, and validated, and valued. Don’t take feedback personally! Strip away the emotions and spot the opportunity. Not all feedback is realistic so you will need to decipher if this gift is a good fit for your business. Either way, show gratitude for the gift you were given and treat it accordingly. Challenge yourself to look for opportunities in feedback as a default.

Most Customers Do Not Care About How Bad Your Day Was

Connecting with your customers is key to an authentic relationship and trust. As you build that relationship, you get comfortable and that comfort can lead to a temptation to dump on your customers with all or some of your problems (work-related or personal). Do yourself and your company a favor and refrain from oversharing or dumping on your customers. Connecting and sharing personal stories (when relevant and timing is right) is a sign of a growing and solid relationship, but make sure to keep it light.  

Avoid Using “I” Statements 

It’s easy to get caught up in “I” statements and let’s be honest, you are valid in stating them. You were the one who did the work. You were the one who followed up with them. You were the one who caught the error that prevented a disaster so you should get the credit right? The same can be said for that Quarterback who scored the winning touchdown. However, they have blockers who helped open a lane for them to get that touchdown. They have coaches who strategize how the team would line up. They have trainers that keep everyone healthy so they can be their best on game day. You get the point. Many people play a part in your company’s success. When you use “I” statements you make your company look small and your clients may interpret you as weak. Try to use more “we” statements and be proud to be part of a team. What if you are the only employee? You can still use “we” statements and be authentic. How? Well, for example, you send out statements to your clients and send them in the mail right? Someone is picking them up and distributing them through a postal system and that is not you. Sure, it’s a stretch, but the fact is that even if you are a one-person show, you are still using many people and services to run your business. 

Don’t Bring Problems To Your Customers, Bring Solutions

Anyone can bring a problem to you but really what value is that to your customer? If you want to be valued, bring them a solution! Customers support your company because you solve a problem for them. So when you bring them a problem, they will question why they are doing business with you. Sometimes problems are inevitable and maybe it requires action on their side to solve the problem. In that case, you should bring the problem to their attention but only bring it with proposed solutions based on assumptions on their side (eg, if you are unable to push a site update live due to needing login credentials, then you will come to them with the problem and the proposed solution). And guess what? Your solution does not have to be right, but it is proactive and it shows them that you are thinking proactively in their best interest. They may take your starter idea and expand on it (Can you say collaboration?). This is also a great mindset for employees to learn when bringing proposed solutions to managers (vs just bringing them a problem). 

No Need To Let Your Customers Know How Hard You Worked For Them 

We all like a pat on the back but customers do not need to be burdened with having to provide you with accolades for work that you are doing for them, that they are paying you for. When a customer continues to use your business, that is the best accolade you can get!

Be An Active Listener

Customers are a wealth of information and will tell you everything you need to know. If you fail to listen, you will be missing out on vital information that would catapult you over competitors. What is active listening? In a nutshell, it is listening to understand. Most of us (including myself) have learned to listen to respond. We are formulating a response in our minds while the other person is talking. Some of us are so anxious to say what’s on our mind that we start verbalizing our thoughts while the other person is speaking (aka interrupting). When we are doing that, we are not able to listen and we are missing out on an opportunity to gain insights. Be forewarned, when you become an active listener, you are going to start asking better questions. Then your customer is going to start feeling heard, and you are going to start reaping the rewards of this newfound skill. 

Ask Better Questions, Get Better Answers

Every second you have your customer’s attention is an opportunity to understand them better and make your company more attractive to them. Don’t squander this opportunity by dominating the conversation with chit chat. Ask great questions to get the best information. Great questions spawn from actively listening to your customers and genuinely trying to understand their business and their problems (aka opportunities).

Don’t Take Things Personally

Customers do not know how great of a person you are. They don’t know that you volunteer your time at church, nor do they know the intricacies of your life. So when they come to you frustrated, and vent to you, don’t take it personally. Remove the emotions from their conversation and challenge yourself to get the root of the problem so you can solve it!

There Is No Victory In Proving Your Customers Wrong, Ever 

This one can be hard to teach because it may not make sense, especially if your customer is at fault. It may feel good telling your customer that “X” was their fault or they dropped the ball, etc. You may be 100% right that they were wrong, but I guarantee you, your customer will walk away not feeling great, and proving them wrong will not win future business. You may win the immediate victory of feeling vindicated by being right but you will lose the endgame and eventually the customer. Think about it, how often have you walked away from a situation where someone proved you wrong feeling fantastic? So how to respond if it is obvious that they were at fault? With humility of course! Share a story of this happening to you, or something like, “This happens a lot. One solution we found was…..” (borrowing from bringing a solution to the problem party!). 

Respect Your Customers Time

Time is our most precious gift. We can never buy more and once it’s gone, it’s gone. When your customer gives you the gift of their time, don’t waste it. Plan to optimize your time with them. 

Everyone in your organization is in the Customer Service business and it should be at the forefront of everything you do. Customers are the lifeline of every business. Without them, you don’t survive. Use the above tips (no matter your role) to maximize opportunities with your customers. Once the above values are cemented in your being, you will start to view your business with a whole new set of goggles and the opportunities will soon follow.

Video Call Body Language

Seven months ago, most of us were thrust into a new way of conducting business. With new methods of conducting business comes many opportunities. We have all seen the Zoom video call bloopers online where someone thinks their camera is off, but it isn’t. Perhaps a child roams into the picture, and a bevy of other mishaps that have found their way into many compilations online. Some of these mistakes are mortifying to say the least but they are also humanizing, and can be used as ice breakers.

One mistake that I consistently see, that is completely preventable, is body language. Like many of you, video meetings are a normal part of my day. I have calls with colleagues, and also clients, and I have noticed a consistent opportunity when it comes to body language and video calls. Just because you are on a video call versus an in-person meeting, does not mean that normal business rules go out the window! Your body language matters. You would never look at your phone while you were in an in-person meeting, so why is it different for an online video call? Don’t think that you can check your emails real quick or see who that Slack notification is from without your meeting attendees noticing.

The temptation to look at your phone or email inbox is great while on a video call. This is especially true if you are attending an online call as a fly on the wall (meaning you do not have a speaking role, you are there to take notes and observe). Even though you do not have a role in the meeting, you still need to show engagement. A big sigh, slouching in your chair, head tilted to the side, these are all indicators that you have left the building and the very last thing you want to do is be on that video call. Is that really the message you want to send to your clients and colleagues?

Sit up straight, shoulders back, chin up, smile, nod. Your body language speaks volumes about you.

How do I communicate this to a colleague or direct report? Good question. An authentic way to bring this up would be to use yourself as an example. Explain how you became aware of this opportunity. Another way is to record your next video call and share it with the relevant people. I recently did this for myself (hence, this post) and discovered not only that my body language left a lot to be desired, but I also said “Ummm” way too many times.

Be aware of your body language. Make sure that your body language is matching the same message that you/your colleagues are attempting to communicate in your meetings.

What Your Customers Are Really Trying To Tell You

Every email you receive from your customers is a gift and it should be treated as such. They don’t have to contact you. The fact that they are taking time out of their day (time that they will never get back) to tell you how your product can be better is a gift in itself. Your responses should have a consistent tone of appreciation of this gift. In a perfect world, all of the requests from our customers would be clear, to the point, and free of emotions. Unfortunately we are not in a perfect world so it is important for your employees understand how to decode what a customer is really trying to tell you. This type of thinking needs to come from the top down in order for it to be adopted by the entire team and it has to be repeated often until it becomes part of your culture.

Customer emails include tons of fluff, emotions, and can be a bit wordy. Because of this your team can easily get distracted and lose touch and the opportunity that sits in front of them. It is important to consistently train your team to understand why a customer is contacting you. Here are a few examples that may help:

“I want to give you my money, but I don’t understand how. Can you please help me?”

It is a pretty bold statement and you may never see it verbatim but that is what most of your customers are trying to tell you when they contact you. If a request like this is not obvious, it is helpful to put yourself in the author’s shoe as they were writing it and ask yourself what they were trying to achieve when writing their email. Not everyone gets to the point and you may have to sort through a long email to get the gist of it but the main takeaway is that your customers are trying to give you money but are not sure how to do that. If you respond with this grateful tone, your customer will feel validated in giving you that money.

“I love your products but they would work so much better for me if you added “X” feature.”

This one is tricky because you can get trapped in a rabbit hole if you are not careful. That being said, if you trained your customer service team to handle these requests properly, and had them current on the company sprints and company direction, you can free up random requests in your JIRA queue and get some real gems from the people who are paying to use your product. It can be a slippery slope to deflect requests that will not serve your company short or long term because you don’t want to hurt anyones feelings and you want to avoid discouraging feedback. So how to navigate this? Be honest. Candor can go a long way with your customers (and employees). “Thanks Joe Blow for bringing that up. Our Product Team has had that feature on the road map since last June but scrapped it in favor of “X” feature which accomplishes “Y” and also “Z.” A clever and honest response may take a bit more time than a regular macro but it pales in comparison to tying up your JIRA queue with another request that will die a slow death. Be honest and tactful with your customers, they will respect you for it.

“I like your product, but it just doesn’t work for me”

These can be one of the most difficult emails to handle for your customer service team. Most people who work in customer support are empathetic and their DNA wants them to solve every problem and they feel an emptiness when they are not able to help. The truth is that your product is not going to work for everyone. When your customers come to this realization, they are frustrated, stressed and sad because they initially thought they found a solution but for whatever reason your product is not it. Chances are these requests will be “spicy” and likely will have a negative tone. Once you have come to the conclusion that your product is not the right fit for them you need to help them so they do not feel like they wasted their time. Your goal should be to leave your product/company with a good taste in their mouth. While your product may have not worked for them, it will work for someone they know and your handling of this exit will increase your chances at acquiring a customer or two from their departure. How to accomplish this? One way would be to understand what they were trying to accomplish with your product and where your product fell short. Then you can make suggestions on other products that may be a better fit. Again, this can be a slippery slope so you need to put on your kid gloves and make sure your communication comes across in a genuine way. For example, “Thanks for giving us a try, we really appreciate your time invested. While our platform may not be the best solution for you, have you considered “X” product? They have “X” feature which checks all of the boxes you are after and if you sign up at this link you will get a free trial. If you do deicide to give that a try, let us know if it is a viable option so we can continue to refer others (or not). If you happen to know of anyone else who may be a good fit for our platform we sincerely appreciate your referral.”

Treat your customers requests for what they are, a gift. They are trying to make you better. Listen to them. Decode what they are really trying to tell you and give them what they want so you can get what you want.

Active Listening, The Most Underrated Skill

Rarely will you ever see “Active Listening” as a requirement on a job post. It is assumed that you will listen as we all do. The challenge is that most people listen with the sole intent to reply. So what is the difference? In simple terms, Active Listening is listening with the intent to understand vs listening with the intent to reply.

I recently shared this with my son. We were having a conversation and I could see that he was innately listening with the intent to reply, as his father has done so most of his life. I shared with him the difference between the both and it was like a lightbulb went off. The very next time we were talking he reminded me about active listening and I could not have been more proud of him for even understanding the concept (and the importance), and adopting it so soon!

There are several blogs out there with keen insight to active listening. For example, here is a helpful blog that lists the visual cues of an active listener. While all valid, it is pretty simple to spot someone who is actively listening by actively listening to them!

When you actively listen in business, you are freeing up your mind to understand your customer. You are taking off your manager hat and you are listening to your employees to thoroughly understand their position. When someone feels heard, they feel valued. A valued customer or employee is less apt to seek out another suitor. People who feel heard will tell you everything you need to know. Extra credit tip: This works amazing on significant others too!

Using Negativity To Empower You

Turn a negative into a positive!

Finding negativity in your everyday life is easy to do.  One does not have to look far.  We all have friends and acquaintances who offer the negativity “gift” on a daily basis. What you do with this gift is what counts.  You can choose to accept the gift and re-gift it to others in the same wrapping paper (probably the most innate action), or you can choose to accept the gift and change the wrapping paper before you re-gift it, and/or keep the gift for yourself.

Negativity is an opportunity. When you are faced with negativity from another person or a situation, it is completely within your control how to accept it or not accept it. Some may challenge you to not accept the gift at all, and that is a fine action. However, why let that gift go to waste? Why not accept that gift and create an opportunity?

If someone tells me with negative tones that I dance like a robot, I would probably laugh first. Then I would thank them for their astute observation. Then I would take their gift and do two things. The next time I was dancing I would make sure to rock the robot like no one has ever rocked it before. Then I would make it a point to compliment my dance partner on her great moves or offer that same compliment to another on the dance floor. The recipient feels good, the sender feels good, and I am also rocking the robot. Can you say win-win?

Don’t let negativity dictate your energy. Use negativity to empower your actions and choose happiness.