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Mimicking Your Clients Could Lead to More Sales

We discuss this pitch strategy in this month’s “Ask Big Picture.”




Any tips on how to get better at small talk?

We view the ability to build a social bridge out of thin air as a vastly underrated skill, especially in business where that person standing in the tradeshow line or at the zucchini display at the supermarket could become an important contact. The key to good small talk is an appreciation that banal (i.e, “Sure is hot out there.”) is good. This is a social ritual to break the ice, not a meaningful exchange of personally experienced meteorological data. What matters is the action, not the content. All you want to do is show you’re not an oddball and establish a connection in a non-intimidating way. Stick to well-trodden safe territory – sports, the weather, pop culture, local celebrities – and you can’t go wrong. Just say something! Kio Stark, author of the book When Strangers Meet, advocates the “triangulation” approach to starting conversations. Picture three points: You, the person you’re talking to, and a third thing you can observe together: The weather, the food, or some eye-catching artwork in your host’s home. Once you’ve got a bit of rapport going, you can try those open-ended questions that lead to a deeper conversation. Four more tips to consider:

  1. Forty percent of Americans describe themselves as “shy.” So, keep in mind almost half the people you encounter fear conversation. If you smile and say hello, most will be delighted you took the initiative. If they’re from the other half, they’ll happily join you in chit-chat.
  2. Practice when it doesn’t matter, in the post office queue or on the sidelines of your daughter’s soccer match.
  3. Keep an eye out for weird news – Florida Man stories are always good value – as opposed to anything polarizing like politics.
  4. Assume people are pleased to see you. It’s harder said than done, but the world will take you at your own estimation. Approach people as though you believe you’re worth talking to. People will respond to your warmth and positivity.

How can we breathe some fresh air into our business? I’m feeling we need to shake things up.

Every good idea requires not only a fresh (and often random) catalyst, but also a new way of looking at things. In the words of the design consultant Tom Kelley, you want to achieve “the sense of seeing something for the first time, even if you have actually witnessed it many times before.” That explains the success of asking new employees (about a month after they’ve been added to payroll) what changes they would make to the way your store is managed. Constraints, such as radically slashing a budget for a certain department, are another well-proven way of generating new ideas and inspiring creativity. Reconsidering an issue in a different physical context seems to help (yep, there’s something to be said for train carriages and mountaintops), as does picking some specific type of person – a doctor, an astronaut, or a historical figure – and imagining what they’d do in your situation. The key is to shift perspective as randomly as possible. Humans have a deeply wired preference to stay on the well-trodden path. But it’s a place you’re unlikely to find those serendipitous collisions that are at the root of nearly all fresh and good ideas.

Should I encourage my sales staff to use mimicry to build rapport with customers? It seems a bit too obvious and manipulative.

If you’re worried about getting caught, you should take comfort in studies that show most people are actually really bad at noticing it. In his book Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World, Alex Pentland cites research showing subjects identified mirroring of their words and body movements only about 10 percent of the time and mostly only when it was a really unusual gesture. The students also liked the mimicking agent more than a neutral one, and rated him or her as being friendlier as well as more interesting, honest, and persuasive. Just adding mimicry, the research found, made a sales pitch 20 percent more effective. As for being manipulative, mirroring is, but no more than any other social skill employed in the sales process. We humans like people who are like us, and whether it’s social background or word choice, emphasizing this similarity improves social relations. Besides, if your salespeople are paying such close attention to everything a customer is saying, they may just discover exactly what it is that customer is after and provide excellent service, which can’t be a bad thing.


How do I train my customers to work better with my team?

Here’s what Ward Stewart, senior sales and operations executive at StickerYou says: “It’s not only your staff who needs training. Your customers need training, as well. It’s essential that your staff can work with customers to inform and train them in the best ways to use your company to maximize the dollars they spend with you. This can be anything from consulting on what size files print best to educating them on timelines, refund policies, and more.

For us, educating customers on issues with bad files, refund revenue, etc., helped improve internal programs, such as OnHolds and refunds, and resulted in improved wait times as staff were much more quickly able to handle customer complaints.

Make your customers accountable for what they send to you. Send files they need to fix back with an explanation and instructions on how to do it properly. Have your well-trained staff walk them through the process. The more you can teach your customers about best practices with your company, the fewer repeat mistakes you’ll encounter when they submit orders or engage with your brand, and the more efficient processes across the board will become.

Year after year, I set carefully plotted SMART goals for my staff, but we never attain them. Any idea what we’re doing wrong?

To the rational mind, it’s hard to argue with the SMART mnemonic – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely – when it comes to goals. Except, of course, when it comes to managing humans, it’s best to be wary of anything that gives off the clinical odor of rationality. In the place of SMART goals, we thus propose an experiment for you: This year, try some Vague and Seemingly Irrelevant goals (yep, the sort of targets that can’t even be counted on to form a clever acronym). Clear goals such as “increase sales by 20 percent” can be motivating, but also set extra hurdles to fail at, which can throw the human mind into a tizzy (like a yellow Post-It sticker on your mirror that says, “Don’t eat a donut today!”). Vague goals, on the other hand, can be liberating.

As for “seemingly irrelevant,” the key word is the first: “seemingly.” This is management at a higher level. Identify the secret drivers to business success, be it the cheery baristas at Starbucks or the actions in your store that result in a positive review on social media, and you may get the specific financial results you desire. In his book The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman tells the story of a Formula One pit crew whose members were told that they would no longer be assessed based on speed targets; they would be rated on style instead. Instructed to focus on acting “smoothly,” rather than on beating their current record time, they wound up performing faster. It’s a seductive story. Could you do the same with your staff?

I got really angry at a customer the other day and left a pretty rude message on their voicemail. So, OK, I’ve lost that client. But how can I keep this from happening again?

If you feel that anger management is an issue that’s affecting many parts of your life, go see a mental health professional. However, if you’re like the rest of us, and anger is more a cause for periodic embarrassment or regret, we fully recommend business author Tony Schwartz’s Golden Rule of Triggers, which is “Whatever you feel compelled to do, don’t.” Instead, he says, take a deep breath, and “feel your feet” – a distraction tactic that allows you to pull your head out of the red mist. You can no doubt remember occasions when you’ve told yourself (or others) to “take a deep breath” or to “count to 10” before exploding in rage. What Schwartz’s rule removes, though, is the need to reflect on whether we’re in such a situation. Instead, it recommends interpreting any sign of compulsive behavior as an indication that the action is probably imprudent. Rather than battling compulsion, his rule co-opts it as a warning system.




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