2013 will be a busy year for you and your company. You want to get ahead but don’t have lots of bandwidth for complicated solutions that fix small problems and you have even less of an appetite for solutions that come with a hefty price tag. Does this sound about right?
In my experience, organizations that make the biggest strides forward limit their priorities to a manageable number (three maximum is a good target) and then they focus their efforts relentlessly on seeing those few priorities through. The key to their success is taking a deep dive on the limited few objectives, strategies, and initiatives that will deliver the biggest returns for their business based on the context of where they are trying to go and what they are trying to achieve over the long term.
But, how do you know what your options are and, more importantly, what priorities to invest in? Making these choices can feel very risky so most business leaders hedge their bets and seek to minimize the risk of “picking wrong”.
However, what if there was one “risk free” business priority that, if you focused on it alone in 2013, you’d move your business forward significantly next year – regardless of what your company’s business strategy, goals, and objectives are?
That one risk-free priority that every organization should implement and can benefit from in 2013 is CONVERSATION and, more specifically, building a culture of conversation.
Quite simply, conversation involves engaging employees, customers, and other stakeholders in a process of two-way dialogue, at a personal level, and through a variety of methods, in an environment and culture that values honest input and feedback and enables thoughtful discussions and the exchange of ideas.
Let’s take a closer look at what your focused conversation efforts should involve in 2013.
Conversations with Your Employees
When it comes to talking with employees, many business leaders I know already host discussions and engagement forums with their employees, ranging from planned, invitation-only lunch meetings with the CEO to ad hoc one-on-one discussions between individual employees and executive team members. Typically the objectives of these interactions include making the top executive visible and accessible to employees, communicating the customer and business strategy and key company directions to employees, receiving feedback from employees on product and company performance, and collecting employee opinions regarding opportunities for improvement.
While these conversation vehicles are good, the key is to enable two-way communication, dialogue, and conversations all levels of your organization and capture their content so that everyone can learn and benefit. Having these kinds of conversations inspires levels of commitment and emotional investment from employees that make all the difference to business outcomes and results.
Why is this the case? Because engaging in meaningful and productive conversations with your employees shows them that you care and value what they have to say. In other words, it demonstrates that you are committed to and invested in them. Employees return your investment with investment of their own in the form of caring about, and being committed to, your company and the work they do for your customers. Invested employees are loyal employees. Loyal employees create the conditions needed to develop loyal customers. And loyal customers are the foundation of profitable business growth for your company.
Also, as an added benefit, it turns out that getting everyone in your organization talking together allows you and your employees to share what is, and isn’t, working, learn and innovate collaboratively, and get on the same page moving forward in the same direction together. All this translates into greater organizational efficiencies and exceptional business performance through an accelerated innovation curve, more aligned business decision making, better customer and market intelligence, and increased corporate agility when facing change.
Conversations with Your Customers
Equally important are conversations with customers. Market-leading companies understand the potential and value of having customer conversations on multiple levels. As a result, they don’t leave customer conversations to chance. That is, they plan their approach, including which customer will be contacted when and at what frequency; define the process; distribute accountabilities; invest in and maintain the required infrastructures, tools, and resources; and build employee skills to maximize their organization’s capability and capacity to engage in quality, high-value customer conversations and leverage key learnings. All of this takes active leadership support and engagement, and budget dollar allocations. And while there is always a plan for enabling customer conversations, these companies are also ready for customer interactions to happen spontaneously anywhere, anytime, and at any level of their organization. By equipping all of their employees to be knowledgeable and effective customer ambassadors, market-leading companies build the ability to have and capture customer conversations no matter where, when, and how they take place.
Most successful customer conversation plans include a suite of interaction points and vehicles. Traditional approaches include one-on-one customer interviews, account reviews, and focus group sessions. More recent vehicles include social media platforms to engage in customer conversations before and after interactions. There is no doubt that these vehicles, mechanisms, and opportunities will only expand over time. When designing your customer conversation plan it is important to begin with your intentions and objectives and the unique communication preferences of your customers themselves.
Focus on Creating a Culture of Conversation
While it’s important to engage in employee, customer, and stakeholder conversation activities and interactions, don’t make the mistake of assuming that it’s all about communication venues and tools. It’s important to realize that, without a specific context and the support of the right culture, organizations deploying these tools alone won’t achieve the full benefits of engaging their employees, customers, and other stakeholders in dialogue. What’s really required for success is conversational leadership grounded within a culture of conversation.
The required culture is one that creates an environment that is “safe” and supports open, honest, and productive dialogue. A safe environment is respectful, encouraging, and supportive, and is free of destructive criticism, judgment, bullying, grudges, and repercussions for sharing constructive insights and feedback with others, including direct managers and senior executives.
To build this type of culture, you’ve got to focus on building processes and an environment that supports, encourages, and cultivates conversations that have purpose and create greater understanding and deeper levels of connection. You must commit to setting the stage for dialogue that features the exchange of questions, comments, ideas, insights, and feedback, and inspires knowledge sharing. It is critical to model this behavior at all levels of your organization. In addition, you must enable employees to share ownership in the topic of, and the mechanisms for, conversation. This includes helping them: bring their own ideas to the discussion; participate in creating (and recreating) the content that is being discussed; and, ultimately, become conversation leaders themselves.
When they take place in a culture of conversation that looks like this, conversations and engaging two-way dialogues thrive and produce the best customer and business outcomes and results possible.
To achieve the transformational business results and profitable business growth you’re looking for in 2013 your best bet is to focus on building conversation and, more specifically, a culture of conversation right into your company’s DNA. If you do, I can guarantee that 2013 will be one of your best years yet. You’ll be on the road to having an energized company that attracts customers like a magnet because it delivers the value it promises consistently and reliably.
So here’s to a great 2013 for you and your organization.
I'm looking forward to hearing the story about how your organization’s singular focus on, and investment in, conversation has been rewarded with high levels of employee and customer loyalty and breakthrough business performance and growth!