Finding the Perfect Words – May 2022

My stepdaughter, Ondine, has been applying for summer jobs, and she asked me recently, “What should I say if the interviewer asks me about my past experience? Or says, ‘Tell me about yourself.’” Her question lies at the heart of all human interaction. It exposes the one concern people have when dealing with others, “What can I do, or say, to be accepted by others?” The need for approval is the basis of almost all human communication. Think about it. When was the last time you had a conversation that did not, in some way, involve influencing someone to agree with you? Or at least gain acceptance? Without some form of common bond, we cannot move on to deeper stages of the relationship.

I told Ondine the same thing I tell clients who carry the perennial stress of searching for the right thing to say. To view the process of influence through one’s choice of words miscontrues the true goal of an influential conversation; to discover a solution that works for all concerned. This is why persuasion is different than influence. Persuasion involves convincing someone to take certain actions, regardless of whether the outcome is good for them. As such, persuasion relies on creafting the message and delivery to trigger reactions in the listener. The risks with persuasion are many—rocky relationships, less forgiveness for mistakes, and lower commitment from others to help you achieve your goals.

With persuasion, saying just the right thing is important, becausee tricking the listener requires precision. Influence fosters a longer-term relationship based on accomplishing shared goals. Influence doesn’t require saying just the right thing. It requires transparency of values. Persuasion not only allows, but encourages, guardedness. A persuader must keep his cards close to his chest and hides his true intentions. The listener cannot know the true goals of a persuader. Influence requires all parties to be open about their intentions. Any hidden agenda will turn positive influence into negative persuasion.

So, I told Ondine, “If you tell the interviewer what you think he or she might want to hear, you are wasting your time and his/hers. The interview is to find out just who your are so the company can find a position best suited for you. Unless you lie or insult someone, there isn’t an answer in the world that is the wrong thing to say. Every response you give simply indicates that you are better suited for one position over another.”

This concept truly defines the difference between persuasion and influence. Persuasion is about goals; influence is about values. When we attempt to persuade, we are trying to satisfy our own goals—to make a sale, meet a quota, or advance an initiative. However, when we influence, we seek to align someone else’s values with our services. Values are more powerful in business, not simply because they are more intrinsic, but because they are more permanent. Goals change over time. Values remain stable throughout our lives. Values are what represent us, goals are the steps we take to express our values. Since strong relationships are based on shared values, influence requires us to focus on who the other person is, not just what they are trying to accomplish in the moment.

This brings us back to saying the right thing. Aside from avoiding insult, saying the right thing is the last thing we should be concerned about. Relationships are built on trust, trust demands honesty, so as long as you speak honestly you are saying the right thing. To be concerned about how others view you may be a natural part of living in a society, but remember that humans evolved living in social groups of only 30-50 people. It is easy for the brain to balance our behavior with others in such a small group. To expect to be accepted and liked by the thousands of people we encounter in the modern world is unrealistic. These wise sages say it better:

Being honest may not get you a lot of friends, but it’ll always get you the right ones.

John Lennon

You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something sometime in your life.

Winston Churchill

If you go around worrying about everything you say, you’ll never say anything.

Lucy van Pelt (from Peanuts)

An expert on influence and an international keynote speaker and trainer since 1989, Stevie Ray helps business leaders influence situations toward positive outcomes. He can be reached at

Influencer, Know Thyself- April 2022

When I was a young man, I had the opportunity to travel to Japan. My martial arts teacher arranged for me to stay with the family of Mr. Maruyama, a respected member of the Japanese martial arts community. It was summer, and the Olympic games were approaching. This being the early ‘80s, the only Asian martial art in the Olympics at the time was Judo. There was talk of allowing the Korean martial art, Tae Kwon Do, as a demonstration event at the 1988 games in Seoul. Many Japanese citizens were upset that karate was not also considered. This became the subject of conversation one night with my host family. It also became a lesson in influence.

Maruyama being loyal to Japan, he felt that his native martial art of karate should be recognized worldwide. He felt that allowing only Tae Kwon Do in the games would give it higher standing, instead of equal footing (no pun intended). I approached the martial arts from my own, singular perspective, so I had a different take on the issue. I said that, for me, the martial arts were not a sport, and should not be treated as such. In my opinion, joining the Olympics would reduce the true nature of martial arts to a simple sport. It was during the debate that my lack of understanding of influence shone through.

Even though Mr. Maruyama and I stood on different sides of the issue, we remained respectful. But we still desperately wanted the other to accept our position. And, as with any issue, the more deeply held the belief, the less likely we are to change our minds. The style of influence I used most closely related to Inspirational Influence, where we connect to shared beliefs and missions. Inspirational influence seeks to connect people through a common purpose. The problem with my approach was, I tried to get Maruyama to accept my purpose as his own.

Maruyama, on the other hand, used Positional Influence. In Japan at the time, status meant everything. When an authority figure spoke, you listened. Maruyama was not only a high-raking figure in the Japanese martial arts community, he was also the head of the household; and this conversation with taking place in front of his wife, son, and daughter. I was not successful in influencing Maruyama to see things my way, but it was not because he was stubborn or unreasonable. It was because I made one of the most common mistakes people make when trying to influence others; projection.

Sigmund Freud first wrote about projection in 1895 (the year my teen-aged stepdaughter thinks I was born). Projection occurs when we take our own feelings—fears, anxieties, motivations, and desires—and place them on someone else. The human brain is kind of self-centered (okay, more than kind of). It thinks that if something is important to its host, it should apply to everyone else. Projection affects influence in that people use whatever methods of influence work on themselves to persuade others. It is easy to see how this mistake can affect leadership, sales, customer service, and team management.

When I used inspirational influence with Maruyama, I thought I was connecting to our shared respect for the martial arts. The more he resisted, the more I couldn’t understand why he didn’t get it. But my constantly referring to mission and purpose ignored the fact that he was relying on his position, his authority. So, the more I spoke of mission and purpose, the more I threatened his authority. Rather than persuading him, I was challenging his commitment. By projecting my point of view onto Maruyama, I doomed the conversation from the start, and probably insulted him in front of his family (lucky I am not a foreign ambassador).

How do you avoid this trap? Whenever you are in a conversation involving influence (which is most of the time), pay attention to the style of influence you use. Is it authority, passion, reason, pressure, pleading? Your style is likely to be consistent over time. Also pay attention to the styles other people use. If you can adjust your style to meet the needs of others, instead of projecting your way of thinking onto them, you will have more success. And, lucky for my relationship with Maruyama, karate was finally accepted into the Olympics.

An expert on influence and a keynote speaker and trainer internationally since 1989, Stevie Ray helps business leaders influence situations toward positive outcomes. He can be reached at

. It is certainly one that all leaders must know how to manage—conformity.

Teams: The Silent Influencer – March 2022

If you read my column last month, I told of serving as jury foreman in a criminal case. Our first vote was an even split, but over two days of debate, people began changing their vote. But why? It was clear that some jurors were swayed by the evidence presented by the group, and truly changed their position, but other appeared to be changing their vote to gain favor from others. And others seemed to get caught up in the identity of being a juror; a this is what juries do mentality. No matter the reason, we all seemed to lose our individual identities in the face of the group dynamic. This is where one of the most important forms of influence appears. It is certainly one that all leaders must know how to manage—conformity.

Whenever I am asked to help leaders learn how to manage teams I ask, “Why do you even have the team get together in the first place?” This always gets a raised eyebrow because, to most people, the answer is obvious, “Because two heads are better than one.” But that is not necessarily the case. When it comes to creative problem solving, individuals working alone can easily produce as many ideas as a group—with less stress. How about the opportunity to bounce ideas off each other? Individuals have as much success reforming and re-framing their own ideas as most groups. The truth is that teams only out-produce individuals if the team is carefully managed, and conformity kept at bay.

The whole point of having a team is to access the individual contributions of each team member. But this outcome is elusive because humans naturally conform to the group. Arthur Jenness is known as the first psychologist to study group conformity. In his now-famous Bean Jar Experiment of 1932, Jenness had subjects guess how many beans were in a jar. Then he asked those same subjects to work in teams and submit their estimates as a group. In every case, if the team’s guess was different than the individual’s estimate, the individual went along with the group. Even if the group’s guess was far different, the individual conformed.

To be fair, there are times when conformity is a good thing. If an individual gains new insights from the group and changes his or her mind as a result—known as internalizationeveryone’s values and goals are aligned, and the group can move forward. However, if someone is only going along to get along—compliance—they do not truly believe in the direction the group is taking, and they will cooperate only as long as the group is around. A third form of conformity is identification, where being a member of a select group (police officers, sales teams, nurses, etc.) demands adopting the group’s behavior. As a leader, it is crucial to know just why team members are conforming.

The decision to conform or stand apart from the group is affected by factors such as cultural norms—Eastern cultures that value the group over the individual see higher rates of conformity, but there are everyday factors that a leader can control. One of those factors is, quite simply, the number of people in the group. Ask one person their opinion, and you will most likely get their true feelings. Add one other person to the mix, and conformity climbs to about 3%. Two additional people cause a 13% rate of conformity, while three to five team members cause conformity to jump to 32%. That means you only have a 2/3 chance of getting someone’s honest input when five others are in the room. No leader should be satisfied with those results.

It is interesting to note that, when a group increases to more than five people, conformity does not increase past 32%. Many psychologists believe this is because larger groups offer anonymity. However, larger groups often stifle individual input simply because there are too many people talking. But that nasty 32% conformity rate means that a tidy little team of five or so people may be inhibiting getting the most from each individual.

Meeting with team members one-on-one is certainly a lot more work, but it is the only way to combat the negative influence of conformity, and get the best out of each team member.

Positive Influence Demands a Flexible Ego – February 2022

Some years ago, I had the honor of serving jury duty. The case was made more difficult because, not only was the defendant charged with assault, but the victim was a vulnerable adult (an elderly man with dementia). When the jury was handed the case to deliberate, I was voted Jury Foreperson. I began the deliberations by asking, “How many of you have seen the movie Twelve Angry Men?” Every hand went up. I said, “Great. Let’s not be like the movie.” I took my role seriously. I knew that it was not my job to influence anyone’s decision, but it was my job to make sure no juror exerted undue influence over anyone else. Throughout the process, I learned an unexpected lesson about influence and leadership; how to be wrong.

When we must influence others, we necessarily adopt the role of a leader. No matter what our position or title, for that brief encounter we are the trail guide. The role of leader often comes with the mistaken notion that the leader must be all-knowing and infallible. I began the deliberations thinking that I must be clear in my own thinking about the case, as well as possessed of more knowledge about the law than my fellow jurors. I quickly discovered that both assumptions were not only false, but they weakened my ability to positively influence the group.

When we took our first vote, it was an even split between guilty and not guilty. But only a few people were set in their opinion. They were open to discussion, and willing to change their vote if a compelling argument was made. These people were not seen as weak or indecisive. On the contrary, they appeared more mature. Through them, I learned that the best kind of influence a leader can exert is the ability to admit uncertainty.

As deliberations continued into the second day, the stress mounted. Everyone knew that, if we made a mistake, we could send an innocent person to prison for twenty years, or set a predator free. I initially thought the jury would look to me, the foreperson, for answers, but they didn’t need answers from me, they just needed momentum. As Confucius once said, It doesn’t matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop. I didn’t need to have the answers, I just needed to facilitate the discovery of the answers. Most often, the best answer came from someone else in the group. I did not need to know the final destination, I just needed to keep the group moving.

I took copious notes throughout the trial, so I thought I had a pretty good handle on the case, but several times during the deliberations when I referred to my notes, other jurors corrected me; showing where I had misunderstood the testimony. This was a hit to my ego. After all, I was the Foreperson. But the jury didn’t care one whit about my being right. They only cared that I made the process comfortable and productive.

When influencing others, we typically have an end result in mind. This makes it nearly impossible to admit when we are wrong. Admitting that we are wrong risks not getting the result we wanted. I was lucky in that I did not have a personal stake in whether the verdict was guilty or innocent. If I did, I would have been a poor leader and an ineffective influencer. The inability to admit failure or error is tied to what psychologists call psychological rigidity. The thought of being wrong is so damaging to some people’s sense of self that defense mechanisms kick in and their brains actually create alternate storylines to erase their mistake. “I know I said the event was on Thursday, and it was on Wednesday, but someone must have changed the schedule at the last minute.” Some people mistake this type of stubbornness for strength of will, but being psychologically fragile is the opposite of strength.

It is impossible to be both psychologically fragile and a good influencer at the same time. If you find yourself unable to admit fault or error, it is time to examine your sense of self, and learn that strength can sometimes come from the admission of failure.

The Golden Rule of Influence – January 2022

To influence someone, you must first be clear about their motives; what drives them to act a certain way or prefer one thing over another. We can’t move forward with relationships until we assign motives for people’s actions. The same action can be seen as criminal or saintly, depending upon the reason behind the action. However, since we rarely have the chance to ask a person their intent, we must assign motives to others. Psychologists called this Attribution. Sadly, attribution is a flawed process. Humans are lousy at reading other people accurately.

There are two main attributes we assign to actions. Actions are either a product of circumstance, or of character. Which attribute you use to explain the actions of others will paint markedly different pictures of them, and affect how you choose to interact with them. Circumstances include resources (Does the person have access to other options? If so, could they afford them?), obstacles (Is there a reasonable barrier to taking action?), information (Were they given information that affected their decision?), and time (Do they even have the time to do what I am asking them to do? Are there other tasks that take priority?). When we consider the circumstances another person faces, we are using Situational Attribution.

Assigning motives based on character is a whole other ball game. Is the person smart enough to do things the way I think should be done? (Note: information and intelligence are two different motives.) Do they care enough? (A moral judgement.) Are they honest? Are they trustworthy? Assigning motives based on character is called Dispositional Attribution. When we assign others’ motives incorrectly, it is called an Attribution Error. And humans err so often when reading others that psychologists refer to it as Fundamental Attribution Error. Now, one might think that, since reading others wrong is so common, that it can’t be that harmful, but there is a reason we should all examine our own behavior in this regard. It has to do with the difference between the motives we assign ourselves and those we assign to others.

When subjects were asked to explain why they did certain things, people always talked about the circumstances that led to their decision. The reason for their actions always came down to time, resources, or some other outside force beyond their control. When people explained their own actions, the picture they painted made it seem like they not only made the best choice, but that they really had no other options. People almost always assign themselves Situational Attributes. Circumstances beyond our control are wonderful because circumstances take the responsibility for our actions off our own shoulders.

But what happens when people are asked to expain the actions of others? That is when the coin is flipped. When assigning motives to others, people default to character. “He did it because he is dishonest.” “She did it because she was afraid.” “They did it because they lack moral rectitude.” The actions of others were assigned Dispositional Attributes. And here is the kicker. During experiments, subjects would perform the exact same action as someone else, but assign situational attributes to themselves while assigning dispositional attributes to others. In short, we believe that our own actions are the reasonable outcome of the circumstances in which we live, but others’ actions are the product of bad choices, poor character, or lack of intelligence. It is certainly reasonable for us to view our own actions through the lens of circumstance. We certainly don’t expect people to explain their actions with, “I did it because I’m a loser!” But assuming others’ motives to be the result of character instead of circumstance is unfair, inaccurate, and unproductive.

The impact Fundamental Attribution Error has on our ability to influence others is significant. You cannot guide a conversation to a positive end if you misconstrue someone’s motives. If you mis-assign motives, you will appeal to factors that do not motivate the listener, or break the vital connection needed to have a positive impact. And, assuming the worst in others is a terrible way to build a relationship.

The Golden Rule states that we should treat others as we would have them treat us. The Golden Rule of Influence states that we should give others the same benefit of the doubt, and the same reasonable motives, that we give ourselves.

An expert on influence and a keynote speaker and trainer internationally since 1989, Stevie Ray helps business leaders influence situations toward positive outcomes. He can be reached at

Leading the Return to Work – November 2021

The pandemic has created more introspection among business leaders than any other event in recent history. The early months of shut-downs and reorganization caused leaders to question just about every old-school belief in how business is done. Months later, the question was, “When will we get back to normal?” Then, when Open sign was finally re-lit, no one seemed to want to work anyone. Soon, arm-chair psychologists had theories as to why Americans didn’t seem to want to work anymore. But it didn’t take long for those theories to take a beating.

The easiest culprit was extended federal benefits. I mean, who would want to go back to a 9-5 when they are getting hundreds of dollars a week from Uncle Sam for doing nothing? Surely, once those benefits stopped, job applications would start flooding in. Except, when the benefits ceased, workers did not return. Another reason was lingering fear of COVID in an in-person workplace. Only time, and the eventual fading of COVID, will tell if that assumption holds water.

Another hot topic kicked around when people talk about the worker shortage is the question of wages. According to some, people are tired of being paid a barely-living wage just so some investor can walk away with the profit. The assumption has always been that, when unemployment dries up, employees will return. I mean, some money is still better than no money at all. Right? It turns out, no.

Those of us who study influence and human behavior are constantly reminded that money, while certainly important, holds less sway than many other factors when people are weighing important decisions. Look at the ways companies try to woo new hires:

            Huge banners listing fantastic starting wages. Ask restaurant servers across the country who are quitting en mass just how much money matters when they are being told by customers to lower their mask and smile before getting a tip. (This is happening a lot. If you do this, please stop.)

            Signs at the front door that state Join a (winning) (fun) (happy) team. The sign is meaningless when you walk through the store and see staff that is anything but happy, fun, or winning.

            Posters by the check-out counter that list the discount employees get by working there. Are you really advertising that you want people to work there so they can spend the money they earn at the very place they work? And who buys so much stuff from one place that working there is a smart financial decision?

I am going to go out on a limb and claim that these ideas are the result of different generations not talking to each other. Business leaders are still comprised of Baby Boomers, Gen X-ers, and the oldest Gen Y. These folks are tying to influence the mindset of young Gen Y and Gen Z. (If you are hiring Generation Alpha, born after 2011, we need to talk about child labor laws.) If there is one constant in the universe, it is that older folks are much better at talking than listening. So, an older business leader thinks “We’ll promise great pay and a great place to work. Isn’t that what everyone wants?” But that leader is using logic borne from a different generation. These tactics are the product of talking to a new generation without listening to them.

One sure outcome of the pandemic is that it has forced people of widely differing views to acknowledge that other viewpoints cannot simply be brushed aside, ignored, or dis-respected. This trend should extend to how business leaders communicate with staff. Of course, people will return to work. Savings accounts and government support don’t last forever, but with birth rates the lowest they have been in over 40 years, and immigration’s unsure future, smart leaders must act to change their workplace culture now.

The first step is to find a new way to communicate with staff. Younger employees are not blank slates. Each generation has unique experiences that shape a particular world view. If you want to lead a workplace that attracts the best, do more listening than talking. And resist the temptation to compare the needs and desires of your generation to those whom you are trying to hire. To attract people, don’t pitch…listen.

Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

Sometimes Survival is Enough – October 2021

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was talking to a Jackson, a manager at a manufacturing facility. He had just received senior leadership’s expectations for his department for 2022. Company ownership expected a steady increase in output, quarter-by-quarter for the entire year. Jackson looked at me and said, “Are they crazy? We are so short-staffed that I can hardly keep two shifts running as it is. The way things are with the labor shortage, I will be lucky if I can even get back to pre-pandemic levels next year, let alone see any growth.” When I asked him if he voiced his concerns to his superiors he said, “I would, if I ever saw them outside of the quarterly huddles. Whenever I mention a problem—a labor shortage, supply chain issue, or shipping delays—all I hear is ‘You have to work smarter, not harder.’” Jackson finished by saying the phrase that strikes fear in every employer’s heart, “I’m sick of this sh*t. First chance I get, I’m out of here.”

Everyone has their own theories as to why the current economic recovery is accompanied by a near-catastrophic labor shortage. Those surveyed report avoiding the workforce because of unemployment benefits, stimulus payments, or fear of COVID-19. It is easy to close our eyes and hope that employment applications will start rolling in as soon as unemployment benefits cease or the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror, but many experts warn that we may not see pre-pandemic labor levels for a long time.

As accurate as surveys try to be about why people avoid the workforce, the truth is that the real answer is too complicated to capture in a three-question survey. The core of the problem is the issue that should concern business leaders most, is chronic stress. Acute stress is situational. Something unpleasant happens, we get upset, and then we get over it. Chronic stress wears at your staff day after day. If there is no light at the end of the tunnel, employees will eventually look for a different tunnel. They may claim all manner of reasons for staying away from work, but at the end of the day, the reason doesn’t matter, they’re gone. You don’t cure chronic stress by heaping unattainable goals on top of employees that are already stretched too thin. Imagine a ship springing a leak at sea. No sane captain would yell at the crew that is bailing water that they also have to make it to port on schedule.

Years ago, I had the opportunity to hear the founder of a national electronics chain speak at a business conference. He shared his Ten Rules of Success. None of his rules were particularly surprising, Focus on your strengths, Ignore the nay-sayers, and the like. But Rule Seven surprised me, Sometimes Survival is Enough. He said, “My company has weathered a lot of storms over the years—recessions, new competitors, and unpredictable consumers. Sometimes, you have to count just keeping the doors open as success. Expecting continued growth every single year is not only illogical, it drives your best team members away. Too many people at the top forget that the dividends they enjoy are built on the backs of the front-line staff.”

Battling chronic stress calls for setting reasonable goals, not ever-increasing challenges. Employees stay in jobs where they can do their best work every day, not where they are constantly reminded that they aren’t measuring up. It might sound simplistic, but the most successful organizations are ones that find ways to celebrate daily wins. No one ever tires of hearing that they did something right. But the recognition needs to be authentic. If we have seen too much of one thing during this crisis, it is the disingenuous you are all heros message, followed by now here is more work to do. During times of chronic stress, leadership also needs to be more visible to employees than ever. E-mail or text messages of encouragement can never measure up to face-to-face contact.

An all-hands-on-deck approach to crisis management does work. People gain focus during a disaster, but only in the short-term. After a while, focus is replaced by fatigue. And if their efforts don’t seem to be appreciated in a meaninful way, and goals are kept reasonable, employees will jump ship, leaving the captain to bail out the ship alone.

Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

Religion: The Unspoken Word in Business – March 2021

Much of the recent research into how healthy workplaces operate reveal that when employees feel respected for who they are as human beings—not just positions within the company—they are more productive and stay with their employer longer—often turning down better opportunities. Some have mistakenly attributed this shift in workplace expectations to Generations X and Z, with their focus on social conscience, equality, and inclusion, but the truth is, every human being, regardless of age, performs better when their personal values are respected. The reason is simple, people don’t choose their work based solely on the work itself. They choose a career because it supports their values. People need a reason to get up every morning and go to work, and that reason is rarely because they want to complete a work-related task.

Given this fact, it is not only unfortunate that many business leaders know too little about the lives of their staff, it is counterproductive. Working groups that are more familiar with other team member’s personal lives display higher levels of trust, resolve work issues more quickly, and produce more ideas than teams who simply work together. Recently, I was working with a company to establish more deep-seated relationships when one employee said, “The managers at our company are so afraid of employees getting into arguments that we are not allowed to discuss politics, religion, sexual orientation, or any controversial social issues.” When I asked why, they said that arguments had broken out in the past, so the managers decided it would be easiest to just keep workplace conversations focused only on work, going to far as to discipline employees for discussing issues not approved of in the employee manual.

It was, of course, a simple fix. But the result was low morale and a life-less work environment. The company also had a higher-than-average turn-over rate. When I asked the employee what was most important in her life, she said, “My faith. I am a very religious person.” When I asked if she ever spoke about her religion at work, the entire group became visibly uncomfortable. Here was the most important facet of this woman’s life, and she had to check it at the door every morning. Faith, spirituality, religion, or personal moral codes are easily the important driving force in human life. Rarely does someone engage in an act of any kind without thinking about the right or wrong behind it. Faith and religion are certainly not the basis for most businesses, but to ignore its impact on your workforce is to turn a blind eye to a major driver of human behavior.

According to the Pew Research Center 46.6% of Americans consider themselves Protestant Christians, 20.8% are Catholics, with smaller percentages of other Christian denominations. America is also home to Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Sikhs, Shinto, Jains, Indigenous, Atheists, Agnostics, and those who have spiritual beliefs, but are unaffiliated with any organized religion. Even though some people wear their faith on their sleeve, while others keep it to themselves, not to acknowledge that these beliefs affect working relationships, decision-making, and ethics is a mistake.

Many business leaders avoid discussing religion in the workplace because they fear offending those of different beliefs, but that is a narrow view of the place faith holds in people’s lives. Some people are afraid of asking about the Bat Mitzvah of a fellow employee’s daughter because there might be an Atheist present. Do you really think the Atheist is unaware of the existence of Judaism? People are not insulted by the fact that people hold differing beliefs, they simply want their own beliefs respected. Yes, there are religious beliefs that stand in direct opposition of other religions. And sometimes discord has led to distrust, or even violence. But those instances represent a minority. The majority of people are capable of accepting diverse views on faith. Silence is far more damaging than respectful disagreement.

The challenge for business leaders is how to foster a workplace where employees’ faith, or non-faith, can be welcomed and supported. As with all things, a good leader sets the tone. Asking others about their beliefs, sharing your own viewpoint, and honoring others’ beliefs sends a message that open conversation is not only safe at work, but an important part of having people work side-by-side every day.

Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

Want Loyalty? Educate the Customer – February 2021

I have been a loyal customer of a few businesses over the years, and it is not because they charge less for their products or services, or because they do a better job than the competition. It is because they make me smarter. I contacted one recently, a heating contractor, about a furnace in one of my properties. The property is over twenty years old, and any furnace that is over two decades old is on its last legs. How do I know this? Because I Googled it. When I searched the internet, the first page stated an average of 16-20 years. And, like 92% of users of the internet, I didn’t look past the first page. Why bother? Everyone knows that the top of the first page is the most accurate. Except it is not. In fact, even the most trusted sources of information on the internet can be highly flawed. And the average user does not often know the difference. That is where you and your staff come in.

Research has shown that customers remain loyal to companies that are considered a trusted source of information. Researchers have confirmed that being considered an expert in your field within your marketplace is one of the best tools of marketing. But the key word is known. The customer doesn’t really care how much you know, they care about how much your knowledge can serve them. You cannot keep your knowledge to yourself.

Take the furnace company I referenced earlier. When I called about my elderly furnace, they could have just set up an appointment to sell me a new one, but I would have eventually discovered their trickery. Not only would they have lost me as a customer, but they would have lost everyone I could reach on social media and beyond (I have been known to hire a skywriter to voice my displeasure). Instead, the rep said, “I know the internet says your furnace might die, but I have seen furnaces that were 25 years old and still cooking. No need to panic. I have you in the system, so when the unit does go out, we can get you a new one in no time.” My trust in the company grew because, not only did they help me avoid spending money, but they gave me information which made me a smarter customer. Now, there is no way I will go to any other company.

I spoke to another company about a new oven my wife and I just bought (yeah, it’s been a year of failing appliances). When I spoke to the rep, I told her that the temperature in the oven was uneven. It would start out higher than the thermostat setting, and then drop lower. She was a pleasant rep, but she made two errors. First, she said I needed to leave the thermometer in the oven for about 30 minutes because it can take a while for the read to be correct. Second, should the temperature still be off, she kindly offered to e-mail me instructions on how to recalibrate the temperature settings.

After more research, I discovered that all ovens, even new ones, fluctuate during the first half hour of heating because they are adjusting to heating elements turning on and off. After 30 minutes, the temperature in the oven evens out. Had she told me that, she would have had a much calmer customer, and one that would trust her more in the future. She gave me one bit of information, but didn’t fully educate me on the issue.

The second error came when she offered to e-mail me instructions on recalibrating the oven. I said, “No thanks. I am sure there is a YouTube video that shows how to do it.” She agreed, and that was that. She should have said, “You are probably right, but let me send you the e-mail anyway. You never know if the information you are getting is correct, and I want to save you the time of searching for it.” The truth is, my YouTube search turned up no results.

In every contact, make sure that your company is the source of information for your customer. Information makes for a happy customer, and a loyal one.

Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

The Mortgage, the Noodles, and the Airline – December 2020

“I am so sorry. We have been experiencing an extremely high volume of business.” Those were the first words I heard from a mortgage company I am using to refinance properties that I own. I had contacted them in early October, seeking to take advantage of dropping interest rates. It was now December, with no closing in sight. This meant I would pay another month of the original mortgage, costing me a lot of money. I sent an email to my broker, detailing how much capital their mistake had cost me. He kicked the matter up to his boss, who assigned someone else to resolve the issue. This person apologized, offered an excuse for the delay, and promised to finish the refinance quickly. After another missed deadline, I contacted my original broker again. This time I said that, since their company caused the delay, they should discount their fee to accommodate for my loss. He agreed. I am still waiting for a closing date.

Jump now to a take-out noodle restaurant. My wife and I ordered online for pick-up at the store. When we get home, my wife’s dish was not what she ordered. She called the restaurant, and the young man said, “Oh yeah. Sorry, we’ve been really busy. Your order is right here if you want to come and pick it up.” She drove back to the restaurant, where they handed her the correct order. Nothing else.

What do a mortgage company, a noodle shop, and most businesses, have in common? A keen focus on attracting new customers, and a poor job of keeping them. Millions of dollars are wasted on advertising to get customers in the door because front-line staff are not trained in how to keep them.

When Gordon Bethune took over Continental Airlines in the early ‘90s, the company was the worst in the airline industry. Two trips to bankruptcy court, a revolving door of CEOs, lagging sales, and appalling passenger satisfaction ratings meant he was in for a long, hard job getting the company back on track (yes, I used a train metaphor for an airline). Within one year, the company was not only profitable, but rated as the top in the airline industry.

Bethune made some smart business decisions, such as cancelling unprofitable routes, but the change he made that caused the greatest impact (and got the greatest push-back from his peers), was to trust the front-line staff to handle customer service issues, and to give them the power to do whatever it took to please the customer. If a passenger had a bad experience, whoever had contact with that person—flight attendant, gate attendant, ticket clerk—not only had permission to make things right, but they also had the tools to do so—whether it was an upgrade to first class, a free meal, or free airline miles. Other business leaders told Bethune that front-line staff could not be trusted to handle delicate customer service issues, and “they would give away the farm.” To the contrary, staff at Continental respected the need for the company to make a profit. In fact, they discovered that most upset passengers were satisfied with a free ice cream cone from the food court. Just like a free rice-cereal treat from the noodle ship would have been enough for my wife. Tiny costs can reap huge payoffs.

When I speak with front-line staff at workshops or conferences about customer service issues they say, “It’s not our fault,” and “What are we supposed to do about it?” These attitudes point to a failing of training, as well as management. The fix involves simple rules.

            Rule 1: Whoever deals with a customer must be empowered to fix the problem.

            Rule 2: Never give the customer a reason or excuse for your failure.

            Rule 3: Never let a mistake go by without offering something to make up for it. Create a list of possible amends for staff to refer to when needed.

            Rule 4: If the customer must tell you how to make things right, you have failed at your job, and you should not expect to see that customer again.

Trust your front-line staff to solve customer problems. Otherwise, you will spend a lot more money to find new patrons.

Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

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