The six subtle signals that could be damaging your business

William Buist, CEO of Abelard and Founder of xTEN Club believes we need to pay careful attention to the subtle signals as they are often more powerful than the overt ones.

How do you avoid sending the wrong signals? William Buist has some advice:

1. It’s not about you.

If you spend too much time telling and not enough asking, then the subtle message is that the buyer is a sales target. At a recent restaurant launch the owner talked about the brilliant things that had been done, and that one group of people had made it harder and needed to do better. The good news motivated, but the subtle message, sucking energy from the room, was ‘we bear grudges’.

Advice: always stay focussed on others. Keep your disappointments in private.

2. It doesn’t matter if you are right

Doing the right thing is assumed – we always should, but putting attention on having done the right thing may give the subtle message that it is special. Have you only done the right thing ‘this time’, but normally you don’t.

Advice: Help people to see that you always do the right thing by your actions, not your words.

3. Outcomes matter, inputs don’t

In business we care far more about whether the job is done well, than whether there was a challenge on the way. Customers aren’t going to buy it because they are sympathetic about the problems you had. So focus on the outcomes, not the journey. Tell people what they want and need to know – i.e. the job has been done and it has been done well.

Advice: Quality matters and so does the perception of quality.

4. You can’t control the choices others make, only influence them.

The subtle signals in phrases like ‘I think you should’ and ‘What you need to do now’ highlight your desire to make choices for others, for the right reasons perhaps, but in the wrong way. Customers like to make their own choices. So facilitate these choices by asking questions to help them make their own decision – and support the choices they do make.

Advice: Influence comes more from supporting small choices, not defining large ones.

5. People don’t know what to ask

Most conversational questioning simply isn’t deeply considered, the questions come off the cuff, but an off the cuff reply can send a damaging subtle message. For example, “How many employees do you have?” assumes a business model that relies on internally resourced work, but perhaps you use efficient outsourcing arrangements. If so, then the subtle message in a reply of, say, ‘four’ is that you’re a very small business. Is that really representative?

Advice: Be alert to the underlying question and give a considered response that answers that question.

6. Assumptions are inevitable

As humans we have to make assumptions all the time, usually based on some internal ‘model’ of how the world works. A statement that means one thing in our model of the world, may mean something very different in the other person’s world. Therefore checking what assumptions have been made is always worthwhile. Do this by asking clarifying questions.

Advice: Check understanding. Often.

When you align the subtle signals to the overt ones you’ll be seen as consistent, congruent and always on message, and that’s something the truly great businesses do brilliantly. And that’s what makes them great.