Demand explanations that make sense to you.

Let us forget technology for a moment. Instead, let's consider good-ol' conversation. We don't talk enough among ourselves, least not about the right stuff.

Consider:

  • A full two days after Ford announced the Firestone breakup with its dealers — and after the news had hit the general media — the dealership general manager's memo detailing the news and the dealership's response to it hit the staff's desks. The tardy news was too late to help the staff respond proactively to the initial rush of customer inquiries.

  • The IT manager talks about web portals and mother boards as the dealer stares blankly, struggling to comprehend what it means in terms of growing the parts business or consolidating unlike systems at four other stores.

  • The dealer returns from a convention and instructs the IT manager — or whomever is responsible for rebooting the PC, un-jamming the fax machine or occasionally updating the Web site — to launch an e-business initiative without taking time to discuss concept, goals, objectives or budget.

Do we truly understand what dealer service providers tell us about their products? The product or service benefits sound wonderful, but are they real — and are they now? How concrete and specific are the explanations?

Why don't we ask better questions? More pointed, probing questions that might help us cut through misper-ceptions and half-truths to get the answers we seek?

Demand explanations that make sense to you, even if you have to ask your question a half dozen times.

Ask:

  • What specifically does the product or service do? How would it work in your specific environment?

  • Is the explanation clear and plausible to you?

  • Despite the sizzle, might some more mundane — and practical or understood — product or solution accomplish the same goals?

  • Will your staff accept the new ideas and use them? What is the cost in training to familiarize staff with the new solution? Who's selling and servicing vehicles or handling the paperwork in the meantime?

  • Does the benefit outweigh the cost in money, the loss of other business opportunities the money could be used for instead, the time, disruption to processes and your peace of mind?

A friend, an IT consultant, says businesses often launch IT projects without conducting a needs and cost analysis beforehand. This faulty or missing communication among the IT staff itself — and particularly among the users of the new solutions or processes — often means software is installed by individuals who shouldn't be doing so and who as a result create costly conflicts with existing programs, databases and network architectures.

Perhaps we all need to remind ourselves now and again the advice public speakers so often practice (or should): Tell them what you're going to tell them; tell them; and, tell them again what you just told them.

We need to work on our listening too. The classic Greek word lambano means to take hold of a thing in order to use it. That's how we need to listen — to hear and then use or apply what we hear. That we so seldom seem to do that is probably our fault as listeners. But we can also blame the intensity of end-of-month activity, noise in the service department, information overload, speaker mistrust, or a headache.

Again, here's the point: As long as we fail to talk to one another and fail to understand what the other means in what they say, we'll remain frustrated. We'll never utilize — or even know about — the full functionality of the solutions we've already bought. We'll never have the information we might want and need to do our jobs better. So we stumble through.

What can we do?

  • Talk: Stop by the desks of your people, and take 90 seconds to explain the key news of the day and how it might influence their interaction with customers. Be specific and detailed, providing complete information. In absence of the truth, most people fill in the blanks of a story with the worst possible scenarios.

  • Listen: Stop what you're doing — or make time later when you will have the time — to really hear what the other person is saying or asking. Practice active listening, paraphrasing back to the speaker how you understand what they said; do this and you'll stop misunderstandings before they can take flight and create problems.

  • Probe: Ask what, who, when, where, why and how to get better answers every time. Don't accept vague responses; only concrete, specific communication has value.

  • Write: Put the important news on paper, in concise bullet-pointed highlights. Or, take the time to hand write an explanation or instructions and address it to the individual whose attention you need to get most. Writing, though difficult for many, helps you define and focus thoughts. When your thoughts are clear to you, then you can present them to others so they know what you mean and what you expect of them.

  • Share: Have you read an article on building customer trust or responding to customer e-mail leads? Photocopy the article and share it with the staff. Don't just post memos and bulletins in the lunch room and expect everyone to read it. By all means post it there, but also put a copy on every employee's desk.

Finally, we need to think, and perhaps this should be at the top of our list. Ask yourself, ask your staff, and ask your suppliers this when they present information or a proposal: What's in it for me? Every listener filters what is said to them through an internal dialogue always asking, ‘What's in it for me?”

Remember, tell them what you're going to tell them; tell them; and, tell them again what you just told them — but think first of what will most interest your listener or reader and structure your communication delivery that answers this key question, “What's in it for me?”


Jim Leman writes about the automotive retail industry from his home base in Grayslake, IL. He publishes a newsletter for 1946-1949 Plymouth owners.