I recently had a very inspiring conversation with a seasoned small business owner who relies on some business skills that are not as well employed in the business world as they should be. We spoke about the value of having a good conversation with clients. We both reflected on the apparent diminishing art of conversation these days; almost a lost art. These days the rapid rise of technology is having a significant impact on the technical service offerings of small businesses and creating a new client service paradigm. To survive in this new environment, small business owners need to improve their soft skills or risk being replaced by ever evolving artificial intelligence-based (AI) systems.
In my humble opinion, personal relationships with clients will always succeed any AI fostered “relationships”. Traditionally, entrepreneurs and small business owners have relied on their hard skills such as product knowledge, educational proficiencies and technical skills to serve their clients while employing basic soft skills. But now, AI-based systems appear to be reducing the technical value of what a business owner has to offer his or her client.
Thus, learning how to engage and add value through soft skills is a small entrepreneur’s top-line of defence against AI cannibalization of his or her value. In other words, building a personal relationship. So, what exactly are soft skills, and how can you utilize them successfully?
Soft skills are social skills that are intangible but nevertheless integral in dealing with family, friends, co-workers, business partners, strangers and, of course, clients effectively. Furthermore, they reflect your ability to empathize, listen and, ultimately, earn your clients’ trust and respect.
“Take advantage of every opportunity to practice your communication skills so that when important occasions arise, you will have the gift, the style, the sharpness, the clarity, and the emotions to affect other people.” Jim Rohn
Although being technically competent is a given, the soft skills you demonstrate will be crucial for building a trusting and enduring relationship with your clients. Moreover, soft skills are more intuitive as well as based on social norms and accepted social practices. We all posses some basic soft skills, but only by utilizing certain techniques can we improve and expand these skills.
Soft skills can be categorized as follows:
• Clear presentation
Client and co-worker interaction skills
• Attitude awareness
• Conflict handling
• Diversity tolerance
• Willingness to help
• Taking and understanding direction
• Time management
• Stress management
Let’s focus on the following communication skills to demonstrate how you can improve your client engagement process:
“A lot of people relate leadership to formalities. They believe that leadership is about being professional and strong and always right and being a booming voice. I just don't buy that. I think that leadership is a soft skill; it's a people skill.” Jason Fried
The value of listening in a client conversation
The client should do the majority of the talking while you listen, so that you could understand his or her situation and formulate the best strategy for the client. How can you maximize your listening skills? Try these techniques:
• Stop talking
• Face the speaker
• Maintain eye contact
• Listen attentively
• Show patience
• Pause before replying
• Question for clarification
• Paraphrase what was said back to your client
Provide clients with summary and reflective statements
Summary statements are a by-product of effective listening. They should be injected periodically into the conversation to summarize what you heard your client say, such as, “So, what you’re saying is that travel will rank as your highest priority during the installation.”
Reflective statements are like summary statements. They involve paraphrasing what you heard your client say and reflecting it back. They’re important because they’re a strong indicator that you’re listening to your client, and he or she is the sole focus of your attention. A good example of this is saying something like: “When you manage your own business, you are frustrated because of the volume of information that you have to juggle.”
“Certain people are just saying, 'Look, I'm a businessperson and I have to run a business effectively and I want people who are going to do the job, who have the training and the education and the personality traits - the soft skills.” William Julius Wilson
Ask effective questions
Asking the right type of question at the right time is a skill that you must master to elicit the vital information needed to construct a comprehensive plan for your client effectively. This process involves two types of questions.
Open-ended questions are used to obtain information on how a client feels, or his or her opinion or knowledge on a given topic. This type of question encourages the client to provide a substantial answer vs a simple yes or no. Furthermore, it transfers control of the conversation to the client; is a less threatening way to gather information; and helps develop trust with your client. An example of this type of question is, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
Closed-ended questions are meant to obtain a quick, fixed response, such as a simple “yes” or “no,” to confirm information that has been gathered from previously asked open-ended questions for certainty. An example of a closed-ended question is, “Is it important for you to source start-up capital for your venture?”
Although the use of these soft skill techniques may seem to be common sense, many business owners don’t employ them when engaging with clients and rely on their technical skills instead. As the differentiation factors for client retention switches to soft skills from technical skills, because of the AI revolution, you need to excel in soft skills to build trusting and emotional relationships with your clients and for Keeping Life Current.
Steve is the SBCN Community Mentor and can be reached at Steve@NorthernRiverFinancial.ca