Friday, May 30, 2008

The Eyes Have It

To complete my posts on body language I want to touch briefly upon eye cues. Neuro-Linguistic Programming – NLP – is sometimes called “the study of subjective experience.” NLP researchers have gathered extensive observational data relating to “eye accessing cues,” i.e. how eyes move in relation to how we are thinking.

This subject may be a bit of a reach for the Blog’s stated purpose, but in some circumstances it might be extremely valuable as an early warning sign that – as Hamlet so directly put it - something is rotten in the state of Denmark. The accounting profession doesn’t typically need to place the same premium upon detection of the truth as attorneys must when dealing with clients. However, individual accountants and firms can become caught in very messy situations when a client attempts to mislead you as part of their effort to, for example hide assets to avoid support payments or mis-characterize or bury income to reduce or eliminate taxes, etc. So, I decided to include this information because it might save you a huge amount of grief someday.

The bottom line is that in a high percentage of instances eye cues can alert you when someone is actively not telling the truth. Or, to put a finer point on it - when they are lying to your face. If someone is right-handed, they will typically avert their eyes to their right - your left as you look at them - when they are “constructing” an image/scenario in their minds (in other words, making something up). It may only be for a few seconds or considerably longer. (If they are a lefty, the cues are likely to be reversed.)

If you see a repetitive pattern of this behavior, especially in response to your questions about assets, income, etc., it is a good reason to ask more questions and satisfy yourself you are getting accurate information.

The whole idea of eyes providing clues to what a person is thinking initially struck me as a bit of a reach. But, my interest had been piqued and I began some research, even though I kept thinking I should be hearing the theme from The Twilight Zone in the background. After getting a taste of the extensive research that has gone into this subject, I found myself open to the possibility. Still, I wanted to find some real world examples and see if any of this actually worked in the real world.

The first opportunity arrived that very evening at a friend’s house. During dinner I saw their seven year old son sneak a couple handfuls of broccoli into his pocket to avoid having to – Yuck! - eat it. Later, when I was sure no one could overhear us, I sat next to him, leaned over and quietly asked, “Hey Andrew, did I see you slip some broccoli into your pocket at dinner?” Before he said a word, his eyes shot to his right; he paused to collect his thoughts and then said, “No.” Bingo! Textbook! Cook up some brussels sprouts or baked beef heart for your kids tonight and check it out.

If you have an interest in further exploration of this phenomenon, you can Yahoo or Google “NLP + eye cues.”

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Put The Prospect At Ease

In the last post I said that we’d discuss “…what you can do to put your prospect at ease, make them more likely to open up to you and ultimately help nudge them along the path to forming a positive perception of you.“ Body language isn’t used to make people do your bidding (although that thought has a certain charm to it), but instead to help you connect with them.

Where we pick up is when everyone has just sat down. When I discussed a meeting plan in an earlier post I suggested that you – or everyone on your team – lean against the back of their chair unless they were speaking. When you are speaking, I recommended leaning forward a few inches so the prospect(s) will know whom they should pay attention to. There was a second reason I didn’t get into at the time. By leaning back you are signaling the prospect that you are not being pushy; that they are in charge. Remember, the meeting is in their house. As you are sitting back don’t cross your arms. Why? Well, we probably all know the answer to that one. It suggests to the viewer that you are not open; that your mind is made up. It’s a deep hole to crawl out of if the prospect adopts this belief.

You may recall the mirroring and matching behavior I previously discussed. The idea is that you will mirror and match your prospect as the meeting progresses. Done in a reasonably natural manner, it will make the prospect feel you are both on a similar wavelength.

When she leans forward, refers to a piece of paper in front of her, and begins to make a point, you wait until she begins talking and then lean forward – perhaps half as far as she is – and give her your full attention because you want to show that what she says is important and interesting. If she continues to hold a sheet of paper or a pen as she talks, perhaps you can pick up a pen and hold it over a pad of paper as though you might take a note.

Any other members of your team stay leaned back against their chairs unless they are literally speaking. Why? Because several of you leaning forward “weigh more” than just her, and she may feel a vibe that suggests a lack of balance or symmetry in the moment.

Now she has made her point or finished her question and leans back. You stay forward where you were and then, after you begin responding, either stay where you are or gradually lean back and continue talking. Do not lean further forward, even though your instinct may compel you to. The reason is that on a gut level she may sense you are “chasing” her. It simply feels awkward when one person is leaning all the way forward and the other is leaned all the way back, and she will sense that awkwardness.

Gestures are easy to mirror and match. Just be natural about it. If the prospect talks with his hands, you should also be somewhat animated with yours, but perhaps half as much. If they smile, you smile. If they become intense and start talking more rapidly, you speed up just a bit so you remain in sync. If they exhibit really high energy, then you do the same, but to a lesser extent.

It is all about making the prospect feel comfortable with you. If they sense coherence in your body language, their comfort level rises, they are more open to what you have to say and at the end of the meeting you will walk out with your message clearly communicated.

Many years ago I worked with a VP of sales who had a bad habit of actually standing up in customer meetings and walking around the room as he spoke. Everyone else would be seated and Ralph would be roaming around; sometimes crossing over behind the customer and forcing them to not only turn around but also to look up at him and he stared down and pontificated. It was truly artless and the customer’s discomfort was obvious. After a few minutes of Ralph’s performance I would routinely see them sneaking glances at each other and exchange one of those, “What the …. is with this guy?” expressions. Ralph never had a clue.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Is It Bad When The Prospect Crosses Their Arms And Looks Out The Window?

Body language is the real deal. Hundreds of studies, research papers, doctoral submissions, etc. have dealt with the subject. Our brain formulates and defines the message we decide to verbally communicate, and as we speak the words our body involuntarily gets into the act and offers its own unique, non-verbal manifestation of what we have chosen to say.

We don’t possess the same level of control over our body language as we do the spoken word. It is, unfortunately, easy for many people to tell you a lie right to your face. But, their body isn’t always so cooperative. This is the basis of the classic lie detector machine, star of many a pivotal moment in crime dramas. Its premise is that a person can’t control their heart rate, respiration and perspiration and that when they tell a lie the internal stress will cause these indicia to spike.

You don’t need to hook your prospect up to a lie detector during the meeting, but if you are aware of body language clues you can both manage and assess how things are going by using some basic nonverbal skills.

Your primary use of body language as a business development tool is for the purpose of putting the prospect at ease and becoming comfortable with you.

By adopting certain proven behaviors, you can influence how you are perceived by those you are meeting with. You can, for example, make it easy for people to feel comfortable, at ease, unpressured, and regard you as pleasant and friendly. All without saying much of anything. This is important because you want them to hear you; to listen to why you should be the one doing their accounting work. You want them to feel comfortable with you, even like you, because people rely upon these feelings when they choose personal service providers. Body language plays an extremely important role in this process, and if you know the basic rules you are way ahead of the game.

It is noteworthy that so-called “natural” business developers/salespeople, no matter the industry they are in or the product or service they offer, almost always exhibit an instinctive understanding of these principles, and so their message tends to be heard more clearly than many of their less perceptive competitors.

If you bring up memories of seeing, for example, a mother and child playing in the park, lovers strolling along a path, or friends hanging out, these behavioral snapshots all share one characteristic: the people involved act similarly. This is because when people are on the same wavelength, they match and mirror each other’s physical behavior. Matching and mirroring happens subconsciously because their bodies reflect the emotional comfort each person feels with the other. Acting similarly is a natural way of enhancing one person’s connection with another. It is mutual affirmation that says, “We are on the same page.” On the flip side, when you enter a restaurant and look around at the other patrons, one glance makes you instantly aware the couple on the far side of the room is disconnected. You can literally see it. You don’t need to hear a word. Just a few seconds observation of their mutual posture, how they are holding their heads, arm and hand gestures and their overall positioning at the table practically shouts that they are experiencing some level of conflict or misunderstanding.

Used competently, body language is a more powerful influence than you might at first realize. For example - If you are in the middle of a misunderstanding or even a more serious clash of wills, can body language skills be used to positively impact the dilemma? The answer is “yes,” and for that reason emergency workers, crisis intervention personnel, police, mental health professionals and others are taught how to utilize body language cues to defuse tense situations.

This is powerful stuff and can greatly impact the probabilities of obtaining the engagement. In the next post we’ll explore exactly what you can do to put your prospect at ease, make them more likely to open up to you and ultimately help nudge them along the path to forming a positive perception of you.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Prospect Hears Much More Than Just Your Words

In the last post I concluded by saying I next wanted to talk about “meeting dynamics, body language, eye contact and seating/positioning.” These are crucial because researchers and psychologists who study these things (typically by observing actual meetings) are unanimous that over half of what you communicate is directly related to non-verbal clues the listener is receiving and processing. Figures range from 60% to 95%(!), but whatever the real number is, it is big enough so that it makes a real difference and must be taken into consideration. OK, you’re thinking that’s kind of interesting, but what do I actually do in the face of this reality?

Let’s assume you are walking into the prospect’s office at the appointed hour. Never, never show up late! It is a blatant sign of disrespect and evidence that the prospect isn’t all that important to you. If you are going to be even a few minutes late, you must call them and give a plausible reason (“There’s a wreck on the bypass … we’ll be there is about 15 minutes.”) We’ll further assume you’ve put a meeting plan together – see my earlier posts – and that if there are more than one of you there is a shared commitment to follow the plan as it relates to who does what, who talks when, etc. You wait for a few minutes and are then directed to the conference room.

The bottom line regarding who sits where involves two major considerations. The first is that you are in their house and you don’t usurp their space and/or authority. This means if circumstances place you in the meeting room first you don’t sit at the head of the table. It is never impolite or a sign of weakness to simply ask, “Where would you like us to sit?” If they want to do some audiovisual or similar, they may want you to cluster at one end, etc. Then, remain standing until invited to sit or, in the alternative, begin sitting down slightly after they do. It’s about making them comfortable with your presence and not giving them a vague feeling things don’t feel right. In short, act like a polite guest.

The second consideration relates to exactly where you or your team sits. It is a sign of respect to walk to the far side of the table, which is generally furthest from the door. If you are making the pitch solo, then you are always safe to sit in the second seat from the end that is closest to the door on the far side of the table. If you are not alone, then arrange you team along the far side, with the meeting leader sitting opposite of where the prospect’s key person sits. You can generally delay things by setting briefcases down, getting papers, etc. to see how the prospect is arranging themselves at the table.

A more minor, but nevertheless important advisement while in their space is to avoid the appearance of disrespect for their possessions. If the meeting was with the management staff of a regional museum, for example, you wouldn’t drape your wet raincoat over the top of a Ming period vase positioned on a lighted pedestal at the end of their boardroom. A more realistic suggestion is to avoid tossing your things on the extra chairs lining the side of the room. Instead, fold your overcoat neatly and then place it on the seat of the chair. Another bad move is to put your briefcase on the (expensive, nicely polished) table in front of you and then periodically sliding it over the table’s finish as you busily snap the cover open and shut, removing and replacing papers as the meeting progresses. No matter how well conceived your meeting plan is, it is probably wasted because the prospect isn’t hearing much of what you are saying. Instead, they are wondering how many scratches you are generating and getting increasingly annoyed that you don’t have the good sense to put your (expletive deleted) briefcase on the floor. Briefcases, purses, satchels and the like always go on the floor, either next to or behind you.

Everyone is seated appropriately. The foundation for effective meeting dynamics is in place. The prospect is interested in hearing what you have to say. You, or your team, can now dazzle them with your incredible preparation, vast knowledge of all things accounting and friendly persona. In the next post we’ll visit body language and eye cues and after that get into the meeting itself.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Establish rapport, then talk business

I’ve stressed in my recent posts about the necessity during business development meetings to put the focus virtually entirely upon the prospect. Why have I made such a big deal about this? Because optimal clients (for your specific practice) are relatively rare and when an opportunity arises to catch one it can’t be wasted. I have seen several examples of firms losing these opportunities to their competition.

Anticipating a tough fight, my client brought me in to help. We did our due diligence and developed a meeting plan. Then, when the chips were down the client veered away from the plan and shot themselves in the foot. Hopefully, reading last week’s horror story etched the fallacy of this in your mind.

OK, enough said about that. Let’s assume we’ve begun the meeting and you’re focusing all your attention on the prospect. What do you actually say? What questions should you ask?

I hope I can convince you of the value to first make some personal comments and get a feel for the prospect. “I read on your web site that you were previously in the plastics business. Was that here in Gotham City?” “That’s quite a collection of trophies. Are you the champion water skier?” “I’m pretty sure we have a mutual friend. Don’t you periodically play golf with Jim Becker? Yes, he’s a member in our Harley Owner’s Group.”

These questions accomplish two purposes. The first is that you reveal your human side and thereby appear friendly and affable. (Face it – there are prejudices out there. Many people think accountants are reclusive, introverted number crunchers, lawyers aggressive jerks, etc. These reputations are wholly undeserved, of course! Well, maybe those other guys fit the cliché, but certainly you and I don’t.) People strongly desire to do business with people they like, or at least feel comfortable being with. The second is to let the prospect know you are interested in them beyond just getting the engagement. By expressing a desire to know more about them personally, you flatter them, make them feel important and give them an opportunity to talk about themselves.

Sometimes the prospect may not want to extend this “get-to-know-each-other” phase beyond a few minutes. They may be anxious, pressed for time, or just want to get right down to business. You’ll have to honor this, of course, but always try to begin with an effort to establish a comfortable foundation for the relationship. I can tell you with certainty that your odds of obtaining the engagement are greatly enhanced if you can establish a personal connection with the prospect. Naturally, that includes the owner(s), but also key members of the team. Psychologists call it rapport. Study after study has shown buyers do not purchase personal services until they feel comfortable on a gut level, so address this right away. If you only have a few minutes, do the best you can. The only rule is that it will be to your benefit to ensure it happens.

Establishing rapport is so important that if, for example, my client discovers at the last minute they may be severely pressed for time to make their case, I will immediately advise them to try and reset the meeting or try to get the prospect to break the meeting into two components, with the agreement they’ll hit the first part today and the second at a follow up meeting.

If that happens, devote the first half to establishing rapport, asking questions and gathering data. Nothing else. Don’t propose solutions, explore objections, discuss pricing or try to get any kind of a commitment. Then, when you see them the second time you can knock their socks off because you’ve had at least a day to prepare.

Next time I want to talk about meeting dynamics, body language, eye contact and seating/positioning. These are important because if you do them incorrectly, it can literally impair how clearly the prospect hears your message. Thereafter, we’ll rejoin the meeting at completion of the introductory phase and pick things back up where you begin exploring the prospect’s financial and tax issues. In that posting, we’ll talk about some things you can do to stack the deck in your favor and thereby gain a meaningful edge on your competition.

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Meeting Went Very, Very, Wrong

In the last couple of excerpts I’ve talked about how marketing and business development meetings must be focused upon determining and discussing the client’s needs. This should be self-evident, but in practice things often don’t work out that way. Because it is so obvious, clients will literally tell me I don’t need to even mention it. But I persist, because I have seen these meetings go sour too many times. They patiently listen, as I first explain the why, and then how this can be accomplished.

So, in the real world, how does it go once the actors are in their positions and the curtain opens? Act One usually begins OK; everyone more or less sticks to the playbook. That’s a good thing. To win the engagement, the team should exercise self-discipline and make sure they stick to the plan. Frequently, however, they stray. To illustrate my point, I am going to reveal an actual example – with names changed for obvious reasons - of how bad it can get without a real meeting plan, an agreed upon team leader and a solid, shared commitment to follow the plan.

My client had an appointment to pitch the firm’s services to a growing manufacturer of fiberglass lawn and garden furniture. Their revenue was approx. $6MM with better than average P & L, a good cash position and low debt. They were a highly desirable account to capture within my client’s relatively small market. We were about 30 minutes into the meeting when Ed, the owner, mentioned in passing he probably needed to cut down the square footage dedicated to raw material storage because they were getting more into Just In Time purchasing. He brought this up as part of a larger discussion about cost containment and the impact of excessive production square footage was having upon margins. Ed then mentioned offhand he’d recently broached the subject to his management team and they’d agreed it was worth exploring a future move to a more optimal facility.

At this moment in the proceedings my team spontaneously decided to create their version of Alice In Wonderland: Tom, who focused his practice on corporate clients and had a special interest in tax-free exchanges, processed Ed’s comments in his own unique way. Sensing a potential real estate transaction and an opportunity to demonstrate his knowledge, he jumped in and began to expound upon the glories of tax-free exchanges. The tax advantages, what “like-kind” meant, the mechanics, the exclusions, examples of how it had worked with other clients (Big, Important Clients, mind you!). He waxed eloquently ad nauseum, dazzling us all with his grasp of a process that had no relevance to why the prospect was interviewing my client.

One and then two minutes passed without letup. I’m could feel myself dying; life forces inexorably being sucked into the black hole that Tom was creating. Time slowed down; each tick of the wall clock became a death knell for my team’s chances of obtaining the engagement. Like a slowly unfolding horror movie the prospect’s body language initially evidenced confusion, then boredom and finally started to morph into impatience. I knew from experience that exasperation, or even anger, was just around the corner.

The Managing Partner was too far away to kick. I couldn’t even get his eye. The entire team was oblivious to the opportunity spiraling away as Tom basked in his moment in the sun, trumpeting his reputation as The Man for tax-free exchanges in the entire area. I could practically hear their thoughts: “Let’s see those slackers over at Dinkum, Doofus and Sloth top this!”

To ensure destruction was complete and no wrong path untraveled, some of Tom’s partners-in-crime needed their share of the glory, so they chimed in with their own irrelevant comments (“As you can see Ed, Tom’s knowledge is extensive and is representative of the skill and experience we bring to the table. Why, back in 1999 I remember the time Tom … blah, blah, blah, and the tax court agreed with him … blah, blah, blah.”).

By this time Ed was sending out vibes like a treed cougar surrounded by a pack of baying hounds. He finally pushed his chair back, looked at his watch and said he had to get to another meeting.

None of my team had a clue about what had just transpired. As we walked out of the building, the consensus was that it was unfortunate we didn’t have time to cover all the issues, but hey, we showed them our stuff. It went well, they crowed. I’m sure we’ll get the engagement. Let’s celebrate! We kicked butt. If they don’t choose us, they probably don’t deserve us. Laughter, smiles and high fives.

We piled into Dan’s SUV. Heading out of the parking lot, I asked Terry, the firm’s managing partner - who was a pilot - if he’d ever fallen out of the sky from three miles up, one wing gone, engines on fire and no parachute. “Of course not,” he replied. “Well, you have now,” I said.

Predictably, another firm got the engagement.

My recent excerpts have touched upon this subject from a number of different directions. It is always about the prospective client; their priorities, concerns, fears, desires, needs and wants. You typically only have an hour or so to do this better than your competition. Then your job becomes straightforward: you wrap up the meeting by proposing only the necessary solution(s) and asking for the business (we’ll get into this much more deeply in later excerpts). That’s it in a nutshell. No more. No less. Later, once you have a history with the client and the relationship has deepened, opportunities will appear to challenge your creativity – and maybe even give rise to the suitability of a tax-free exchange.