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Our Crib Sheet for Creating Great Small Talk and and More Questions for May and June

Including how to lay someone off for newbies and positive management of a business experiencing a morale void.

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We need to let a sales associate go but we’ve never laid anyone off before. If we give them a month’s pay, does that mean their base pay, or do we factor in their average commission and share of team bonus as well?

Given no federal or state laws currently require small businesses to offer severance pay (although if you operate in New Jersey, you should check their recently amended laws on advance notice), this is an issue that will be determined by the employment contract and your generosity. Human resources consultant Suzanne Devries says that legally you’re required to give them only the unused vacation, sick and personal days they accrued, although she recommends that you base your decision on how valuable an asset this person has been to your organization, and how long they have been with you. “If it’s a long time and they have been loyal, you should definitely consider a certain amount of days per year. Second, make sure you have documentation that states why you are having layoffs.” She also advises you do an exit interview and have the person sign documentation stating that they understand why “they are part of a force reduction.” An important thing to keep in mind is how other staff will view this. They will want to know that they will be treated fairly even when times are tough.

One of my post-COVID-19 projects is to get better feedback from customers and patients. What are the best questions to ask?

Mark Hughes, author of Buzzmarketing, argues there are only two questions that matter:
1.) “How did you hear about us?” (which tracks word-of-mouth and marketing effectiveness) and 2.) “Would you go out of your way to recommend our product to a friend?” (this measures customer evangelism, or buzz.) Getting answers to both of these questions will show you clearly whether you’re doing things right. “All other questions are meaningless data dung,” he says.

Just before the coronavirus outbreak hit, I took over as a manager of a struggling business. Moaning seems to be part of the culture and morale is even worse now. Any ideas on how to turn it around?

This one starts with you. Lead by example. Bring an upbeat attitude to work every morning and make it clear you expect the same positivity from your charges. In this new era under new management, it’s expected your employees will take responsibility for their own happiness and effectiveness. Sales may be down, and the retail environment is more challenging, but your staff are either part of the solution … or they are part of the problem. For truly disgruntled staff, there’s not much a manager can do except to make it known they are on the wrong bus. (And it’s often a couple of bad seeds that will set the toxic tone for a workplace.) A vision business is no place for people who throw their hands up in the air and declare “This place sucks!” at every setback.

I like to think of myself as an interesting, well-read person but I probably need to up my small talk game. Any suggestions?

We view the ability to build a social bridge out of thin air as a vastly underrated skill, especially for business where that person standing in the trade show line or at the supermarket zucchini bin could become an important contact. The key to good small talk is an appreciation that the banal (i.e., “Sure is hot out there.”) is good. This is a social ritual to break the ice, not a meaningful exchange of personally experienced meteorological data. What matters is the action, not the content. All you want to do is show you’re not an oddball and establish a connection in a non-intimidating way. Stick to well-trodden safe territory — sports, the weather, pop culture, local celebrities — and you can’t go wrong. Just say something! Kio Stark, author of the book When Strangers Meet, advocates the “triangulation” approach to starting conversations. Picture three points: you, the person you’re talking to, and a third thing you can observe together: the weather, the food, or something eye-catching in your host’s home. Once you’ve got a bit of rapport going, try an open-ended question that leads to a deeper conversation. Something else to to consider: 40 percent of Americans describe themselves as “shy.” So keep in mind almost half the people you encounter are scared of conversation. If you smile and say hello, most will be delighted you took the initiative. If they’re from the other half, they’ll happily join you in chit-chat.

Since launching in 2014, INVISION has won 23 international journalism awards for its publication and website. Contact INVISION's editors at [email protected].

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