What's Your Story?

Biz Narrative Blog by Ruth Halpern

Observations and anecdotes about business narrative in the corporate world.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Strategy for Hard Times: Improve the Assets You Already Have

What should we do when the news turns scary and all economic signs seem to point downward?

I was talking recently with Dick Frankel, my friend, attorney, and entrepreneurial mentor, who commented that, in his experience, when the economic news is bad, companies cut the two things they can least afford to lose: training and marketing.

When times are hard, what we should be doing is maintenance: polishing and improving what we've already got, so that its value really shines. If you own a house, take care of that termite work you've been putting off. If it's a car, check the tires and make sure it's running as fuel-efficiently as possible.

Your organization's most valuable asset is its people. Enrich them by training them to use their technology as effectively as possible, polishing their customer service skills, and helping them manage the inevitable stresses of their jobs.

For technology, rather than installing a whole new suite of software, focus on the features of the existing programs that could help expand your client base. Client Relationship Management software, or CRM, is a great example of this. If your firm has been using its CRM as a glorified rolodex, this could be the time to expand and improve the quality of the data you store in it. By enriching the data with areas of expertise, languages spoken, and a history of past work for a given client, you make it possible to identify new business opportunities that might otherwise be missed. Of course, once the data is there, you also need to train people to turn to the CRM for answers, and ensure that they know how to produce the information they need.

Providing on-going training for your personnel saves costs by increasing retention and job satisfaction. You also keep your customers happy, which is ultimately the most important way to improve your bottom line.

When times are hard, it's true that customers watch their spending more carefully, but they still need products and services. Use tailored marketing to tell your story to existing and potential clients: Make sure that everyone knows that what you're offering is the best of its kind. Halpern & Associates works with professionals, staff, and management, to help everyone in the firm tell their best stories.

When times are hard, we're all tempted to tighten our belts and lock our wallets. But the truth is, we can't afford to skimp on maintenance in times like these. Now more than ever, it's vital to invest in the assets you already have.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Choosing the Right Medium for the Message

As an early-adopter techno-geek, I was thrilled to receive an Amazon Kindle for my birthday. For those of you who haven't yet fondled a Kindle, it's a portable book-reading device, about the size of a trade paperback, that lets you download and store about 20 books at a time. You can also annotate and search all of your books and comments, which provides access to the text in ways that printed books can't offer.

I was thrilled to be able to bring lots of books along with me on my travels, and luxuriated in reading by the light of the airplane. However, I soon discovered that I had trouble staying engaged with longer novels in this limited, bland format. I missed the look of different fonts for different stories; resting my eyes between the text and the margins, and beyond; the sound of the pages as I turned them; the shift in weight as I passed the halfway point of the story. In other words, the Kindle "book" existed in its own strange sort of techno-vaccuum, devoid of all the sensory elements that I enjoyed so much, and that gave me a sense of being in dialog with a writer, without ever fully realizing it.

The same thing has happened to us as we've moved from in-person, to telephone, to electronic communication: We've lost many of the body language, vocal intonation, and nonverbal cues that added richness, meaning, and nuance to our communications. The message is there, but the medium of email has stripped away some of the most important parts.

Recently, I read an article asserting that, in moving from telephone to email communication, we've moved to a measurably inferior technology for one of the first times in history. (Though Socrates himself feared that carving symbols onto stone would prove measurably inferior to passing knowledge along orally--that the invention of written language would make people lazy and weaken their intellects and their memories.) In any case, I had to put down my magazine to ponder this criticism of one of our newest methods of communication. (Don't get me started on texting and twittering--I'll save those for another installment.)

For years now I've accepted--even embraced--the supposed benefits of email: precision; a chance to edit and review before sending (spell check!); a written record of an exchange; and the independence of the two correspondents. Email, I believed, is the perfect medium: I can write to you at midnight, and you can reply at 10 AM--the conversation unfolds at our mutual convenience.

But of course, all that supposed convenience comes at a cost: Misunderstandings about tone and intent, inadvertently hurt feelings, the inefficiency of exchanging 10 emails when a single phone call would get the job done. When I'm absolutely honest, I have to say that email has not improved business communication--but it certainly has increased the quantity.

After test-driving a few different kinds of books on my Kindle, I've discovered that it works best for short, humorous essays, and light reading with lots of breaks between sections. For longer stories, ones I want to savor written by authors I want to know well, I'm sticking with the old printing press.

This discovery reminds me that we also need to choose the medium for our own messages very deliberately: Email is great for short, factual exchanges, and informal notes. Telephone calls or in-person meetings work better for occasions where the information is more complicated, there's significant emotional content, or where the real goal is to establish and deepen a relationship, not just share a quick laugh.

Thanks to the Kindle, for all that it is and all that it is not, and for reminding us that we still have to choose the right medium for each of our messages--and for our audience.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

We Are What We Wear

When I first developed my "Dress to Impress--What [Not] to Wear" workshop, I was secretly a little embarrassed. Wasn't this subject kind of trivial? How much does appearance really matter in the business world? Shouldn't professionals be more concerned with what they say and how they act than how they look?

But the sad fact is, as Malcolm Gladwell demonstrated so persuasively in Blink, we all have only about 5 seconds to make a first impression, so we need to make sure it's the right one. As the fashion pendulum swings back to the conservative end of the spectrum, it becomes especially important--and tricky--to make sure that our clothing sends the right message: You want to convey that you're thoughtful, aware of tradition, and yet capable of independent and innovative thinking. In addition, you want to show that you understand what "business casual" is--and isn't--that you're sensitive to the culture of your organization, and that you clearly belong there.

This was brought home to me by a partner at a recent "Dress to Impress for Attorneys" workshop that I taught. She described meeting with a client in her office, and wanting to introduce the client to a young associate whose abilities she thought were relevant. However, when she peeked around the associate's office door and saw what the associate was wearing, she changed her mind. She couldn't possibly introduce her client to someone who was dressed so inappropriately.

So, how much does it matter what you wear? It could be the difference between making a deal and never even entering the negotiations.