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In negotiations, go eye-to-eye

How do you get to win-win? By exchanging offers and requests, and indulging in give and take – maybe upfront simultaneously, or maybe over time – now us, then you. Each side is prepared to be “generous” to the other, to make “sacrifices” for the greater longer-term mutual good.

Ethical, responsible vendors look beyond simply maximising short-term revenue. They equally expect to deliver on customer satisfaction, for it is this that leads to repeat business and referrals.

Just like purchasers who look to the future go beyond merely trying to slash the price at which they buy and to extend their credit terms. They know the suppliers too must cover their costs and make a living, so as to be there for them tomorrow.

In leading up to the negotiation the vendor should adopt the mindset of an adviser to the buyer, helping them make the business case for their solution. Yes, solution (not just the product and its features), with its cost-benefit analysis to show it makes sense.

This requires gaining a good understanding of the needs of the buyer – bearing in mind that what they think they want does not necessarily align with your perception of their need. Reaching alignment here in itself can become an important aspect of negotiation.

Are prospects too focused on short-term cost-minimisation? If so how do you move them to look at the broader context of value-for-money? This kind of negotiating is particularly important for suppliers who don’t expect to be the cheapest but to offer the best product/solution with a good return on having invested in it.

This requires preparing a document that goes way beyond a statement of product features and price (a “quotation”) to showing a full understanding of the need and how it is being met, maybe with alternatives and recommendations (a “proposal”).

With capital goods, where installation, maintenance and other ongoing services are provided, one of the biggest challenges is avoiding the blame game when problems arise, which all too often they do.

This requires investing time up front to agree on a code of conduct should such issues emerge. The objective is to keep calm and be solution-oriented, accepting that no one is perfect. That’s negotiating and building robust win-win relationships at the outset.

When I launched my early career as a key account manager of large IT clients, I was much younger than those with whom I was interacting on the customer side.

The challenge for me was to hold my own despite the great age difference, and I found that due to my understanding of the essence of the business case for our solutions I was confident enough to engage with such people as adult to adult, as equals. I respected them, and they respected me; we listened to one another and co-created the way ahead.

There are plenty of confident young people, and not least here in Kenya. Equally though, I have found many who feel intimidated by elders, not least in our society where the older you are the more respect you expect, and that your way will prevail.

(Now well into my third age I push back whenever I feel I am being offered excessive respect purely as a result of being a mzee… or, for that matter, a mzungu.)

So when it comes to negotiating, at whatever age – or whichever gender, it is vital to overcome feeling inhibited merely because of being younger or being a woman. No, enjoy interacting with prospects and clients eye-to-eye. Yes, enjoy.

Chat about other things; laugh together; commiserate. Treat them as partners, where both you and they will do well from the relationship and where you look forward to interacting. That’s how your first contract with such a customer will be far from your last.

Are you generating good customer experiences?

In a recent article about that wonderful book Influencers, I mentioned an example of influencing that reminded me of my hospital experience earlier this year.

A large medical centre’s service quality scores had been steadily decreasing, I wrote, as patients and their families felt they weren’t being treated with care, dignity or respect. So a team was formed to locate those among them who scored highly, to see how they behaved in ways that resonated with their customers.

The good behaviours the team found among the high scorers were: smiling; making eye contact; identifying yourself; letting people know what you are doing and why; and ending every interaction by asking “Is there anything else that you need?”

A strategy to influence the behaviour of the other staff was initiated, resulting in the centre’s scores rising significantly.

Splendid. And yet I now have an update on this, emerging from a conversation I had with the CEO of Gertrude’s Children’s Hospital, Robert Nyarango, who introduced me to the book If Disney Ran Your Hospital: 9½ Things You Would Do Differently, by Fred Lee, a former hospital executive.

On Googling the book, I came across a link to a TED talk on the subject by Mr Lee, one of the most engaging speakers I’ve encountered in a long time.

In the talk, he refers to the exact list of five positive behaviours displayed by the best carers as quoted in the book I’d read… insisting this is far from sufficient to generate the kind of “customer experience” that is possible – and that is offered by organisations like Disney at their Disneyworld sites. (No wonder they call those who visit them “guests” rather than “customers”.)

So what should carers do more than smile, make eye contact and so forth? Mr Lee takes the deliberately mild example of a nurse taking blood for testing, where the patient still may feel unduly anxious about the prospective pain and the complications that may arise.

Where there’s anxiety, he explains, the blood pressure rises and so the pain threshold falls.

We hear from Mr Lee about a study that related the lower pain levels felt by patients whose blood was taken by nurses who received only compliments from patients: the positive consequences of feeling psychologically comfortable with the person inserting the needle.

To distract from patients’ anxiety, carers make small talk, like asking if they live nearby, or getting them to talk about their family. Then, they mention how expert and experienced they are, displaying a reassuring combination of competence and confidence – this with a light touch.

Mr Lee quotes that famous line from W. Edwards Deming, about only managing what you measure, but he adds the far lesser-known additional thought from Deming that being satisfied cannot be measured or scripted, as it only comes from the heart – like wanting to deal with the person again.

The approach to patients by the former hospital executive was transformed by reading the 1999 bestseller The Experience Economy by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, who described this new way of thinking about connecting with customers and securing their loyalty through offering positive experiences beyond good service.

As I have been doing from time to time since my release from hospital earlier this year, I will again relate to my own customer experience while a patient. The gentleman taking my blood each day was a very jovial fellow, and of course, I wouldn’t have minded were it not that his visits were at 5 am.

He would enter my room with a loud greeting and switch on the light, shocking me into premature wakefulness. I would dread that daily pre-dawn knock on my door by the man I came to call my Dracula, and his high-energy entrances made me feel so uncomfortable that after a few days I requested him to tone down his whole performance, which happily he did.

Here I have been describing how to generate the best possible customer experiences in stressful hospital environments. But as you have been reading I hope you have extrapolated to your own situations.

You have your customer experiences, both positive and negative. But how do the customers of your organisation experience their interactions with your staff?

Do your people know how to put your customers at ease and make them feel good about having interacted with them? Can they hardly wait to deal with them again?

The great and the dreadful of customer engagement

I have written before about the extremes of customer service, stimulated by either positive or negative experiences I have encountered. In Kenya, by and large we do better than many other countries on this front, accepting that as everywhere there’s a whole spectrum from the outstanding to the awful. (Let’s not even mention elements like the police “service”.) So many Kenyans who deal with customers are knowledgeable, friendly and responsive, and we must never take them for granted.

I have recently been exposed to examples at both ends of the spectrum, and so I have been reflecting again on what the good guys and the bad guys each have in common. Let me start with the good guys, and first with those at my new regular hangout, the Pallet Café on James Gichuru Road. I referred to it in passing a few weeks ago in my article on the launch of the Management Consultants Association of Kenya (it was my first time to be there), mentioning that all the very helpful waiters are deaf.

Founder-owner-manager Feisal Hussein is the inspiring leader of the Pallet team, interacting as easily with his staff as with his clients. He is our host, our friend, always delighted to see us, never taking us for granted, and so we just keep wanting to come back. His mission to employ and empower deaf people and the delicious food they serve us make each visit special.

My next example of excellence in customer engagement is Seema Rupani Shah, an audiologist and hearing aid consultant whom I have been visiting. Her concern for my wellbeing, for having me get the very best possible solution to my beginnings of a hearing challenge, was overwhelming. She just couldn’t do enough to make me feel comfortable, to help me understand every step she was taking, to encourage me to get in touch any time I needed further assistance, to deliver optimal value for money.

Let me now tell you about some less than good guys. About the hotel where although the staff were quite friendly their service was unduly slow, and too often they simply forgot what they had agreed to do. The manager was present… and yet not fully so, and certainly not to the extent of relating to his customers and, it seemed, neither to his staff, who appeared to be left to their own devices, finding their own level. An unnecessarily inadequate one.

Finally, last week I was really let down by the garage that had hitherto been taking excellent care of my car. What happened was that the manager-owner was called away by other matters and those he left behind to manage the business proved quite unable to do so. The operation was utterly reliant on the standards and attitudes of the leader, and as soon as his back was turned everything collapsed – both on the technical front and in lacking any kind of competent communication.

Fortunately the boss eventually re-emerged and immediately sorted everything out, crying on my shoulder about how he had found it impossible to nurture responsible attitudes in his people. He’s at his wit’s end, wondering if he can keep his business going.

So what conclusions can we draw from these four cases? Good leadership is vital, as is good followership. The waiters at Pallet Café perform in ways that allow Feisal Hussein to feel proud of them. But the car technicians filled their well-meaning boss with shame. Seema Rupani Shah shows us that to delight our customers, technical skills, however advanced, must be complemented by non-technical ones of knowing how to communicate, to engage, and to do so with clarity and care, with cheerfulness and poise. Then, being friendly is good, but in the absence of delivering service it isn’t good enough.

We are all customers ourselves, and we all accumulate both uplifting and deeply frustrating experiences as we interact with those who provide us with products and services. So let us think more deeply about how we and our people perform with those who are our customers.

Let us be more thoughtful in emulating the role models we admire, and in learning about how not to behave from those who disappoint us.