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Handling Tough Talks

Your employees keep coming in late. Your sales rep can't seem to get orders right. Your managed care provider keeps screwing up your reimbursments.

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With additional reporting by DEIRDRE CARROLL | Illustrations by MAR JEFFERSON GO

These days it’s hard to escape Donald Trump. Open a paper, turn on the TV and there the presidential hopeful is. But let’s not forget how he became a household name:

“You’re fired!”

THERE IS SOMETHING “succinct and very beautiful about the words … they’re so definite and final,” he once told Newsweek of the signature line of his former reality TV show, The Apprentice.

He may find those words beautiful, but there are very few others who do. For most of us, those words are almost unutterable, no matter how badly they need to be said.

Much more likely is a rambling speech that starts off something like: “Listen John, I’m not quite sure how to put this to you, but I’m afraid we’re probably going to have to let you go. I hope you can understand. Sales are down, and it, um, doesn’t look good. And then there’s my wife. She said we need our employees to show up on time, be polite to customers, make sales, you know, that sort of thing. As for me, I’d love to give you another chance, but you understand, right? My hands are tied …”

So how’d you do there? Well, you blame-shifted, told about three lies, all whoppers, and were barely coherent to boot. And this is probably after spending weeks or even months, dwelling on the issue and thinking of ways to approach it.

Let’s face it: As a species, most humans are not very good at managing difficult situations. No matter what the situation — dealing with an irate customer, a partner we don’t believe is fairly sharing the load, a longtime supplier who is no longer price-competitive, a repair man who always charges more than his quotation, or even an employee with a body-odor or chronic tardiness problem — most of us will do nearly anything to avoid these little conflicts.

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But in business, such avoidance comes at great cost. It leads to what consultant and author Susan Scott calls a “culture of terminal niceness.” Everybody evades or works around difficult employees, problems don’t get tackled, and mediocrity is tolerated.

There are also personal and psychological costs for managers and staff when issues aren’t addressed effectively or honestly. Trust diminishes and misunderstandings multiply. Festering problems consume huge amounts of emotional energy and sap creativity.

In some cases, when the situation finally becomes unbearable, we do take action. But we invariably go about it the wrong way. We vent, point fingers and lay blame, leaving hurt feelings and the seeds of a new misunderstanding in our wake.

In contrast, when conflicts or difficult conversations are managed well, better decisions are made because goals are clear, teamwork and productivity increases and workplace morale surges. Conflict resolution, done effectively, also helps foster a climate of learning that allows people to learn from their mistakes and encourages managers to provide critical feedback.

But how to do it?

Dr. Tim Ursiny, author of The Coward’s Guide to Conflict, says there are seven ways of dealing with a difficult situation:

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1. AVOID IT.

(Bad, for the reasons stated above.)

2. GIVE IN.

(Bad, because we don’t permit our- selves a chance to properly remedy the problem. We let someone else win the argument and then we feel bitter about it. Sometimes the other per- son knows we’ve surrendered, but most of the time they don’t have a clue and go about their business as always. Grrrr…)

4. BE PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE.

(Like when you huff and puff and scowl when someone uses a mobile phone in a movie theater. This is about as effective as giving in, even if we do make an effort to ensure the person knows our feelings.)

5. COMPROMISE.

(Now we’re getting warmer! But still, compromise suggests that neither party got what they really wanted. After all, the focus of compromise negotiations is what you are pre- pared to give up.)

6. HONOR THE OTHER PERSON.

(Sound sappy? You’re right, and this is a solution best saved for situations involving family and significant others. This is where you make a choice to give up something and enjoy the sacrifice — say, you decide to forego a disputed bit of parking space to help out a neighboring businessman.)

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7. PROBLEM-SOLVE TOGETHER.

(You’ve probably guessed; this is the best way to go.)
Now, suggesting that you “solve the problem” might seem excruciatingly obvious — but what Ursiny, who is an executive coach and psychologist by training, is really advocating is the use of a technique that invites mutual analysis of an issue, takes into account the emotions on both sides, and results in a win-win situation.
Easy to say, but surprisingly hard to achieve. And that’s because most of us are thoroughly inept at doing the basic things required to achieve such a goal, oh like listening properly, understanding the other person’s point of view, and refraining from making critical judgments.

We’re here to help you better navigate your way through difficult conversations, but first we need to address the 800-pound gorilla in the room. And its name is … fear.

Our behavior in times of looming confrontation is invariably driven by fear. Fear of physical harm, fear of rejection, fear of losing a relationship, fear of anger, fear of being seen as selfish, fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of failing, fear of hurting someone, fear of getting what you want, fear of intimacy, fear that people will think less of us.

Sometimes these fears are rational or based on experience. You may have tried confronting someone before and it went badly. Or maybe you worry that talking will only make the situation worse.

And sometimes our fears are irrational. She’ll be crushed and kill herself if I tell her our clients hate her coffee. He will hire a Cessna and drag a 200-foot sky banner over my neighborhood telling everyone what a cheapskate I am if I don’t give him the pay rise.

Or maybe the anxiety wells up because of something that happened way back in your formative past — something at the very core of your identity. You’re afraid what the looming conflict will reveal about you as a person.

One of the things about the problems life throws at us on a daily basis is that we know deep down inside that the best way to deal with them is to put aside our worries and tackle the situation head-on. Don’t believe us? Think about your reaction the first time you saw Nike’s old “Just Do It!” ad campaign. You probably went out and did something … didn’t you? With that campaign, Nike proved that they knew the shadows that lurk deep in our hearts. Everybody wants to act forcefully, without restraint. Few do.

And “just doing it” is still one of the best ways to summon the courage. No, that doesn’t mean that you should simply jump right into your difficult conversation without preparation. But you should commit to doing it as soon as possible, and then start taking the necessary steps to make it happen. Weigh up the pros and cons and focus on the long-term benefits. Recall a case where you confronted a problem and it worked out well. Except for those cases where there is the genuine possibility of a physical harm, tell yourself that the conversation won’t destroy you, that you
can handle it, and most important, that it is the right thing to do. The relief you stand to gain will be permanent — as opposed to the temporary respite avoidance provides.

To give you that extra edge for your upcoming difficult conversation, we’ve compiled some expert advice from masters of the art of conflict resolution. Using it, you’ll find that disagreement is not only nothing to fear, it can be healthy. You’ll grow from it. Trust us.

But first, let’s examine the nuts and bolts of the conversation you are about to have.

 

PREPARING FOR THE MOMENT OF TRUTH

The first thing to do when preparing for a difficult conversation is to pick the right time and place. It’s pointless to start such a conversation if you don’t have the time to do it properly or are going to be constantly interrupted.

Then, ask yourself some questions:

Why are you having the conversation? What do you hope to accomplish? If you think, “I just want to get something out in the open,” or “We just need to talk,” that’s not good enough. Your purpose is too vague, and vague goals almost always mean disappointing results. Your purpose needs to be forward-looking.

You also need to question your objective. You may think your motives are honorable, like educating an employee. But as soon as you start talking, you notice yourself lapsing into language that is highly critical or condescending. (And believe us, the employee does as well.) This is also a good time to think about how you contributed to the problem.

Work on yourself so that you approach the conversation with a constructive aim and see it as an opportunity to learn about the other person’s point of view. Think “I wonder why he keeps doing that?” instead of “That’s it. I’ve had it with the way he keeps doing that and I’m really going to let him know it!”

Second, investigate what assumptions you are making about this person’s intentions. You may feel intimidated, disrespected, or ignored. But you shouldn’t automatically assume that this was the other person’s intended aim.

Third, start thinking about the other person’s viewpoint. What might they be thinking about this situation? Are they even aware of the problem? If so, how do you think they perceive it? What fears and needs could they have? What solution do you think they would suggest? Stop looking at the other person as an adversary — instead, see them as your partner in solving the problem at hand.

Finally, ask yourself what reaction the other person might have that is most likely to throw you off balance. What if they accuse you of picking on them or acting unprofessionally? Identify which reactions would be the toughest for you to deal with and plan how you might respond if the other person breaks down in tears, gets angry, or withdraws. Don’t just “wing it.” If that’s your approach, you won’t be very effective.

 

GRABBING THE BULL

The best way to start is much the same way you would for a meeting: Set out an agenda. This outlines the problem to be discussed, establishes that you want to hear the other person’s perspective, that you want them to hear yours and that you would like to do some joint problem-solving. Use the opening part of a conversation to be upfront about why you’d like to talk and what your main point is. You’ll engage the interest of the other person and help them understand what follows.
When describing the issue at hand, state it neutrally, the way a mediator might. For example, instead of saying, “I want to know why you insist on making the staff wear these silly Santa hats,” you can begin with, “It’s obvious we both care about the business. And we both want to do what we think is best. But you and I have different approaches to marketing. Let’s see if we can talk about that and find some middle ground.” This approach includes bits and pieces from both sides and seeks to close the gaps between your two perspectives. No one will feel attacked and you’ll be off to a smooth start.

Then, invite the other person to share their side of the story first. Don’t feel compelled to dive in with your perspective. You’ll actually be more persuasive if you let your counterpart get their side out first.

This way, you get to learn what they care about, how they see the problem, and you can respond accordingly. Also, until the other person feels heard, they don’t have the mind-space to hear you. It’s infinitely harder to persuade someone who hasn’t felt heard than someone who has.

Remember too, as Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, says, “to listen to understand and not to reply.”

Often one of the things blocking our pursuit of the truth is that we think we not only understand our own point of view, but we also believe we know for sure what the other person did, said, and thought on the subject. He always does that because he knows it irritates me. She intentionally came in late to make me mad. She knows exactly what is expected of her, but doesn’t want to do it.

The problem is, such tough discussions are not about things that can be shown to be right or wrong, say Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen, authors of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. They involve facts, but they are not at heart about facts. They are about conflicting perceptions, feelings and values. They’re not about what a contract says, they’re about what a contract means. They’re not about which sales technique is most popular; they’re about which sales technique the store should employ. Finally, they’re not about what’s true, they’re about what is important.

If you automatically think you’re right, the conversation becomes one of trying to get the other person to admit he’s wrong. As strategies go, this is a poor one — the other person immediately becomes defensive and closes down.

The mistake of assuming we’re right leads to a second common error: We don’t ask enough questions. Studies have shown that about 90 percent of what is said during a failed conversation is advocacy, and only 10 percent inquiry. That means, the two parties find a lot of different ways to state their own views over and over again. Understanding is never reached. And too often, poor decisions result.

One of the first things you’ve got to do to get through a tough talk is to understand how the two of you see things differently. And doing that requires questions, questions and more questions.

 

YOUR TURN

When you sense that the other person has been able to unlock some of their energy and express the essence of what they want to say on the topic, it’s your turn.

From what they’ve told you it should be clear what they don’t understand about your position. Start by trying to clarify your view without minimizing theirs.

Be quick to identify the problem areas that remain. Be authentic too. There is something in us that responds to people who level with us, who speak from the heart.

Regularly summing up what you’ve said can boost the quality and accuracy of the dialogue — and eliminate many of the problems caused by misunderstandings.

Use words that reflect the other person’s meaning as well — “What you’re saying is that you feel that when I’m busy, I’m prone to treating people like they don’t exist. Am I understanding you right?” This way you demonstrate empathy and also get the chance to confirm that you’ve got it right.

If the conversation becomes heated or adversarial, go back to asking questions. Asking for the other person’s point of view usually neutralizes emotions. The challenge is to reframe the conversation from “whose fault is this” to “where did the misunderstandings occur, and how can we correct them so we can move forward?”

If the other person keeps saying everything is your fault, you can say, “I know I’ve contributed to this problem. Let’s talk about that, and we should also make sure to discuss ways that you’ve contributed to the problem as well.”

Be persistent in your efforts to keep the talk constructive.

 

FIX THE PROBLEM

Once you know what the other person wants and they know clearly what you want, then it’s time to find a solution. There is no guarantee this will be easy but at least both sides now are aware of all the factors in play.

Remember to keep asking questions. Ask your colleague what they think would work. Whatever they say, find something that you agree with and build on that.

Often such discussions get caught on the question of what’s fair. But, remember, fair is a subjective matter. What is a fair salary when the economy is doing badly? What is a reasonable vacation policy when the company is under-staffed? Your opinion and that of your counterpart are almost certain to differ. Of course, this scenario is specific to employee conflict, but the underlying principles remain the same.

The best, most straightforward way to approach any issue is to put on the table what both sides want and then brainstorm to see what is doable. In this instance, maybe a higher rate of commission based on achieving a new sales target would better reflect the economic conditions and the employee’s performance.

BREAKING BAD HABITS

Start by knowing why your brain acts the way it does.

They often don’t seem it, but almost all conversations are incredibly complex.

“Lovely day outside,” the cashier says as she rings up your toothpaste.

Was that sarcasm, you wonder. Why was she smiling at the cereal I was holding? Maybe she was flirting?

And that’s an easy conver- sation. difficult ones are so much more complex.

In their book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen theorize that each difficult conversation is really three simultaneous communica- tions.

There’s the standard “what happened” conversation, with the two sides’ competing ver-sions of the “facts” and their significance.

Second, there’s the “feelings” conversation, with unacknowledged emotions running amok.

And there’s the “identity” conversation, which affects our sense of self in the world.

The question of how to deal with feelings in the workplace is complicated. Some conversations are at heart about feelings, and the only way to communicate efficiently is to acknowledge them. If you don’t raise feelings of fair treatment, for example, morale drops, and more “positive” feelings, like passion and respect, fade away. This is significant. Studies suggest that almost 50 percent of people who leave jobs quit because they feel underappreciated.

The other thing about feelings is that no matter how hard you try to suppress them they will be heard, either in your tone or body language or some other way.

Obviously, you can’t spend time processing everyone’s feelings. But be aware the “check your feelings at the door” ethos can be harmful.

“Identity” conversations are hard because they pose a threat to how we see ourselves. One mistake many make when they feel their identity is being impugned is to take the criticism as absolute. But criticism is not all or nothing. A manager who makes a mistake is not a bad manager. The store owner who says “no” to a day off is not an evil slave driver. Becoming familiar with the identity issues that are important to you allows you to look out for defensive reactions.

The psychology of tough talks is that they tend to expose us for what we are: complex beings riddled with competing emotions and conflicting needs.

It is because we lead our lives according to “Big Assumptions,” say Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, psychologists and the authors of How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation.

“Big Assumptions” are ideas we accept as truths. They once may have been true, but now it is no longer necessarily the case. Nevertheless, these assumptions are difficult to change because they’ve been reinforced so many times.

The authors suggest the answer lies in reflection and experimentation. Once you become aware of these patterns, try to transform using a three-step approach.

First, be on the lookout for when a Big Assumption is guiding your actions. Secondly, explore its validity, and finally, test it. Refuse a small request and see what happens. Then try a bigger one.

 

PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE

A successful outcome will depend on two things: how you act — centered, curious, persistent — and what you say. Don’t expect to handle every difficult conversation with ease and poise. At the beginning, you may be tongue-tied, scared and inarticulate. That’s OK. Your goal is not eloquence. It is openness and honesty. As with any other skill, you will get better with practice. Keep in mind that failure is the best teacher.

It is also worth noting that there are times you should walk away from a difficult conversation. There isn’t enough time to confront your partner, boss, staff or clients every time they annoy you.

But if walking away ends up being your response most of the time, you’re on the wrong track. Your feelings will fester. And in the long run, if you don’t raise important issues and have those difficult conversations, you will damage the relationship you were hoping to protect.

 

TOUGH TALK TIPS

Here are some more tips and a few conversation starters to help you:

Don’t aim for perfection. Difficult conversations are tough for a reason. Aim for gradual improvement each time.

You don’t win a difficult conversation. Your goal is not to get the other person to capitu- late and admit that you were right all along. It’s to express your feelings, allow the other person to express theirs and hopefully reach an understanding you both can live with.

Need to deliver bad news or fire someone? There are no magic words that will somehow make it less upsetting. The best you can do is be honest, to the point, and sympathetic. You can’t take responsibility for the other person’s feelings. If your accountant is inept and messed up your books, you need to let him go. His feelings are immaterial to the outcome. It is only the facts relating to his poor performance that matter. The success of a conversation should not be judged by whether someone gets upset or not. (And don’t try to trick the person into accepting blame first.)

Don’t waste time and energy defending the weak parts of your argument. In any tough conversation, no one is 100 percent right or wrong. Each side has weaknesses, and it is wise to acknowledge the problems. Take responsibility for your share and focus on a solution.

Controlling your emotions is crucial to avoiding a destructive argument. You need to look forward — not try to defend a position or win an argument. If a conversation is getting heated, use silence to slow it down, says Scott.

Stay with the issue; straying will always sabotage your mission. You’ve had a great year and you would like to discuss bonus levels with your sales manager. But he notes how two years ago, he didn’t get a bonus when (he believes) one was promised and doesn’t feel he can trust you in this discussion. Suddenly you find yourself debating your role in the conversation. In such situations, refocus on the future.

Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements when discussing your thoughts and feelings. “I” clarifies for the other person what you think and feel while “you” can make them feel criticized. “I” reduces defensiveness and fosters communication. Good “I” statement: “I feel uncomfortable when you interrupt me during meetings. I feel it shows a lack of respect.” Bad “you” statement: “You always interrupt me during meetings. You have no respect for me!”

Say “and,” not “but.” The word “but” has the power to erase everything good said before it. For example, “Joe, I really liked the way you closed that sale, but next time don’t spend so much time talking about how bad insurance reimbursements are.” Far better to say, “Joe, I really liked the way you closed that sale and I think it would be better if you didn’t mention our issues with the patient’s insurance provider.” This is something improvisational actors are taught. The basic premise is not to reject what is proposed and focus instead on elaboration, to create new ideas and move forward.

Similarly, avoid negatives and absolutes as they shut down communication. Example: Negative: “Why can’t you …” Positive: “What if we …” Absolute: “We must do it this way.” Non-absolute: “Here’s a good idea to consider…”

Avoid judgmental words like “bad,” “ugly,” “wrong,” and any that imply fault like “unprofessional” and “inappropriate,” Ursiny recommends.

The same goes for you. Many misunderstandings arise from faulty assumptions. So when in doubt, say what you mean. Hinting isn’t good enough. Don’t rely on subtext.

Remember that acknowledging the other person’s feelings is not the same thing as agreeing with them. Saying “I can understand this is really important to you” indicates an effort to support the other person, but doesn’t mean you’re going to go along with the decision.

In cases where you find yourself poles apart, use the “100+1 approach.” Find the one percent of the other person’s position you can agree on and endorse it 100 percent. That suggests that you are committed to finding middle ground.

Research shows that we spend a lot less time talking to people close to us than we imagine. These same studies also show that many of our more challenging dialogues could be avoided by staying in more regular contact.

Blaming the other person for not understanding you — or for you not understanding them — is pointless. Be willing to recognize when you don’t understand or need to know more. If you don’t have a clear understanding of what the other person is saying, keep trying until you do. It could be that their thoughts are unclear. Encourage them to be specific.

What if it’s someone you’re going to have to work with again — for instance, a high-performing sales associate who is suddenly suffering a five-alarm case of body odor? Same deal. Take him aside and let him know his new antiperspirant isn’t quite up to the task. Of course, he’ll be embarrassed but eventually he will thank you. Knowing that you can’t control the reaction of the other person in a conversation can be liberating, say Stone, Patton and Heen.

The best decisions are the ones that people reach themselves. So be lean on the advice, but generous with help and support.

Don’t just listen to the words, listen to the “music” as well, including body language and voice quality. Also, look for clues in what is not being said. Ask yourself and the other person, “What is it they really want, really mean?”

Being genuine is at the heart of all worthwhile communication. Don’t be afraid to share your feelings. Author Scott recalls a conversation with a friend who said: “I notice I’m becoming defensive, and I think it’s because your voice got louder and sounded angry. I just want to talk about this. I’m not trying to persuade you in either direction.” The acknowledgment helped the two to re-center, she says.

Not sure how to open the conversation? Consider some of these lines:

  • “I need your help with something. Can we talk about it?”
  • “I think we have different views about [insert topic]. I’d like to hear your thinking on this.” “I have something I’d like to discuss with you that I think will help us work together more effectively.”
  • “I’d like to talk about the recent changes to our compensation structure with you, but first I’d like to get your point of view.”
  • “I’d like to see if we might reach a better understanding about our store’s dress code. I really want to hear your feelings about this and share my perspective as well.”

Final tip. Realize difficult conversations are part of life. They aren’t going away, but they can become easier, less anxiety-causing and more constructive if you work on it.

STORIES FROM THE OPTICAL FRONT LINES

DAVID W., DALLAS, TX:
One of the tough discussions we had with an employee was about getting involved with our patients in personal matters — selling/buying cars, planning play dates, making social plans, etc. She did not understand why it was inappropriate and was indignant at first, but we explained that if anything “went wrong” in her personal relationship/dealings with the patient, then it might negatively affect the doctor/patient relationship and possibly our bottom line. She eventually understood, and we now have a “WWDD” (What Would Doctor Do) policy.

STEVE N., WESTLAKE, OH:
Our tough talks are most often with a ven- dor. We took on a lot when we opened, including frame lines, labs, etc. Sometimes you nd a line or company simply doesn’t t your vision and you have
to say goodbye. The toughest part of all is that you truly build great personal relationships with people. So business decisions are made but in the end you can feel like you hurt someone’s feel- ings. Nonetheless… we must do what is right for our shop.

KEVIN B., KALAMAZOO, MI:
I called a doctor out on his chronic tardiness starting the day. He asked if I always saw my doctor on time. I told him this wasn’t my doctor’s of ce, it is our patient’s doctor’s of ce, and we see our patients on time. He was never late again. People are unreasonable only because no one has ever told them they are being unreasonable.

RICK R., GIRARD, PA:
When I was the manager of a large retail chain store, a married-with-children associate and a lab tech had an affair. None of our business until it started to affect work. It was interrupting our customer flow as well as causing other associates to complain. The lab tech was an exemplary, invaluable associate. We carefully explained the facts that were affecting his performance, careful not to mention the relationship, although he had to know that was part of his problem. I didn’t think it went very well. I honestly thought
we would lose him. We were lucky. The retail associate had been making the rounds and the problem corrected itself.

SELINA M., EDMOND, OK:
I fired an employee. I sugarcoated why and said that she would be a better off elsewhere. I needed to be more honest that she couldn’t do the job and show her all the times that we tried to train her to, because she sued me for age discrimination. Being honest and direct could have avoided this. I now follow this guideline, “To be kind is to be clear, and to be clear is to be kind.

SIOBHAN B., NEW LONDON, CT:
Telling a potential vendor you aren’t interested in their product is always tough. I recently had someone come in and while showing me trays asked me if I wanted to start writing up my order. I was so shocked that I said what I always want and never do: that I was allowing them to show me their product but I never said I would be taking it on.

KRISTY S., REYNOLDSBURG, OH:
Had several talks with a new optician. She was sloppy and kept dropping the ball. She was a hard worker, but made mistakes that added up. We decided that she would work closer with me. We worked like that for five weeks. Now, she is a great optician with a huge following!

ANGIE P., JOHNSON CITY, TN:
I had a frame rep that was very disrespectful to my optician. I called and spoke to her personally. She was not remorseful, so I dropped the line. I was professional and gave her the opportunity to make things right. Since I felt that I handled myself well, I did not regret phasing out the line.

BRENDA S., BUCHANAN, MI:
We had a patient that was very rude to the staff every time he came in and no one wanted to assist him. I addressed his attitude, asking if we had done anything to anger him or if there was a way we could serve him better because we wanted his experience to be great with us. He apologized to all of the staff, has remained a patient, and has developed a great relationship with all of them.

TED M., TIFTON, GA:
I’ve had so many difficult conversations with our team over the years. I’ve not always been good at it. I came to the realization after listening to an episode of the Dave Ramsey Entreleadership podcast, that by not confronting the issue there would still be tension. By acknowledging the issue (and the tension) at least everyone knows where everyone stands. So, I have been embracing the 800-pound gorilla. The main issue is communication. I know that gets a lot of lip service, but if you are committed to truly communicating it means having those difficult conversations.

RICHARD E., ENGLEWOOD, FL:
I once kept a lab tech around for a long time thinking I had to have him due to our high volume. My instincts kept telling me he was a problem. He was very confrontational. One day in my absence, an associate asked him how long a single vision job would be, and it set him off. He threw trays and yelled while customers and staff watched. I had to terminate him. My lesson was to follow my instincts and document any issues with staff no matter how uncomfortable you feel.

 

 

 

 

 

Chris Burslem is the Group Managing Editor of SmartWork Media.

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Cover Stories

How Eyecare Businesses Can Win the Hearts and Minds of Their Customers

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Loyal customers — not the ones who choose you because you’re the closest optical, or in the building they work in; we mean the ones who cross town to see you, the ones who are genuinely loyal — bring immense benefits. To name just a few, they reduce the cost of every sale, they tolerate price increases and the odd gaffe by a new employee, and perhaps most importantly in the eyecare business: they generate referrals. But how do you win these mythical creatures over? We asked ECPs about some of the more creative ideas they’ve come up with for winning the undying love of their customers.

COMMUNITY VIBE

The business district in Decatur, GA, holds an annual wine crawl through about 30 businesses, and Decatur Eye Care wasn’t about to let their customers miss out. Held in early March, all the businesses open their doors on the weekends, and put out appetizers and quality wines. “It’s a great way to introduce new people to your business and meet current patients in a more relaxed environment,” shared owner, Tom Brillante, OD. Similarly, Avenue Vision in Golden, CO, decided that instead of the traditional frame show, they’d collaborate with area artists and craft breweries. According to Becky Furuta, the result is “an event with a local vibe and a lot of cross-marketing. It’s an easy way to tap into other parts of the community with whom you don’t normally do business, and to bring a local focus to the business.” Who wouldn’t be back?

COLD, HARD CREDIT

Of course, nothing inspires loyalty quite like a reward in the hand. Far be it from us to encourage the pursuit of instant gratification, but an analysis of 20 brands by digital agency Hawkeye found that the most popular loyalty programs have one thing in common: “customer experience [i.e., the reward] is delivered close to the actual purchase.” That’s what Ames Eye Care in Ames, IA, discovered when they started their referral program, which according to Susan Ames has brought them many new patients. “When a patient refers a new patient and that patient has their exam, both patients can choose either a $50.00 credit in office toward glasses or contacts, or they can receive a $25.00 Amazon gift card,” says Ames.

APP AND AWAY

Precision Vision’s Loyalty App.

One of the more interesting trends among ECPs who are serious about locking in customer loyalty is developing a reward program app. Buena Vista Optical in Chicago, IL, asks patients to sign up with their phone number. Every dollar invested in their vision, and every patient referred gets them points they can cash in for their next eyewear purchase. “We have already used it for two-and-a-half years and we feel this app has definitely kept our patients loyal,” says co-owner Diana Canto-Sims.

Precision Vision Edmond in Edmond, OK, has an app with a loyalty program that’s still in its infancy, but owner Selina McGee, OD, is confident it will become a key channel for making meaningful connections with patients and customers. “One aspect that I’m really excited about are the loyalty points that can be tracked with it,” says McGee. “We can reward our patients for investing in their health and education, as well as save them a few dollars along the way.”

Having your own app can allow you to get really creative with marketing: the goal is to get people to register. (Domino’s famously awards pizza points to anyone who uploads a picture of themselves eating pizza—even if it’s a competitor’s. Of course, you have to register to upload.) According to The Manifest tech blog, nearly half of small businesses it surveyed spent less than $25,000 on theirs. There are various ways to go about it: DIY app builders, hiring outside developers and relying on tech savvy staff are the most common options.

SOMETHING TO LOOK FORWARD TO

ECPs who believe “discount” is a dirty word, look away now. But while you’re doing that, those flex dollars will be flowing somewhere else. Just ask Robert McBeath, retail operations manager at Edina Eye in Edina, MN, which runs half off all in-stock frames December through January. McBeath has been doing year-end frame sales for a long time, turning those inventory dollars into cash the practice can distribute, rather than pay taxes on. “We stop buying frames in October and run the sale as an inventory reduction sale with reduced prices only on in-stock merchandise. That saves the ‘see-a-different color’ dilemma. We put up posters in the office, add the promotion to the website, push it on Facebook and sometimes an e-blast,” he says. The Dec. 1-Jan. 31 timeframe catches year-end and New Year flexible spending money. Patients have come to expect it and many contribute to their FSA knowing that if they over-contribute they can always use the money for eyewear. “I have a few that routinely come in at the end of the year to use up their flexible spending. It does keep patients coming back,” McBeath confirms.

Edina Eye’s clients aren’t the only ones waiting for the year-end season. Mark Perry, OD, co-owner of Vision Health Institute in Orlando, FL, reports that their end-of-year frame sale —50 percent off, held on a Friday and Saturday — has been going strong for 10 years now “and it gets larger every year.”

YOUR VERY OWN RABBIT HOLE

At Vision Solutions in Lamar, MO, they call it “top-of-mind awareness.” All their marketing, according to Bryan Hartgrave, is coordinated to optimize this awareness of the practice, and targeted specifically to people living in the communities it serves. One of the best ways it’s found to do this is to implement a social media blitz several times a year, and they’ve also worked on geo-targeting their offices on search engines. “We maintain a daily social media presence with a balance of fun and educational content highlighting different themes throughout the year,” says Hartgrave. They do a frame show twice a year, and social media is a significant part of promoting it and other events and initiatives.

Coming full circle, Diana Canto-Sims at Buena Vista Optical mentions that she’s had good results with Facebook Live, which they do twice a month. She says the practice gets quite a bit of traction with more than 7,000 impressions per video and over 1,000 people reached. “We love this because it is free and 100 percent organic. Some of our videos get up to 40 shares. As a result of our Facebook Lives we usually get two or three bookings per video, not to mention more followers, likes and engagements,” she says. “Our Facebook page has over 4,000 followers. People feel they already know our staff before they come in because they have seen them on Facebook Live and we are very relatable.”

REWARD VIPs

Let’s face it: All customers are not created equal. The truth is, it pays to identify your best customers and do something special for them. Central Texas Eye Center in San Marcos, TX, have moved away from traditional trunk shows to focus on VIP private events every few months. “Our really good customers absolutely love that we close the store for them and make things personal,” says Leah Johnson. Once a VIP show is scheduled, invitations are emailed to all of CTEC’s clients. “The invitations clearly say ‘VIP event; you’re invited! Appointments are required to attend.’ If someone is interested in one-on-one attention, in a party like setting, they will respond and schedule their event appointment. These types of guests really appreciate that we close the doors to the public for the show,” says Johnson.

CTEC experiences better sales at VIP events over trunk shows, because people are committed to purchasing instead of being there to look.
“We weren’t afraid of losing money by closing the doors, and found out these are really profitable events,” she says.

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Get Your Mojo Back

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Burnout. According to retail consultant Vince Rath, it starts “when we experience the world in a way that doesn’t align with our expectations,” leaving us feeling that we’ve lost control of our lives.

Whatever the factors involved in your particular case of burnout — and it affects everyone sooner or later — the basic solution will always lie in making some kind of conscious change. And even if you’re still loving every day at work, don’t wait till you’re tapped out; implement one or all of these fixes now, whether it’s to recharge your mojo, or to just keep things copacetic…

HELP OTHERS

Researchers call it the “helper’s high.” Donating your time or volunteering can release dopamine, the feel-good chemical that causes the sensation you get when you eat chocolate. According to Psychology Today, “Brain scans show a surge of dopamine when we give or volunteer our time.” Annette Prevaux-Matejko of The Visionary in Allen Park, MI, makes time to “donate services and materials to someone who is down on their luck. Making a real difference in someone’s life makes me feel better about everything.”

CHANGE IT UP IN THE OFFICE

Melody Wilding, a performance coach and human behavior professor at CUNY Hunter College in New York, identifies “under-challenge burnout” as one of the three main types (the others being “overload burnout” and “neglect burnout”). What does Jeff Grosekemper at Casa De Oro Eyecare in Spring Valley, CA, do to ward off boredom or crankiness when it threatens? “I switch jobs with my co-worker. Right now I’m pre-testing and she is selling.” Caitlin Wicka at San Juan Eye Center in Montrose, CO, tried a different approach.

“Getting more involved with training and with patient interactions helps with burnout,” she says. “Seeing the positive feedback on social media really helps me.” If you’re an administrator, ask your boss if there’s a task you can be assigned occasionally out front. Nikki Griffin, owner of EyeStyles Boutique in Oakdale, MN, gets back out on the sales floor to “do my thing. I get all my energy from fitting an amazing pair of eyewear and lifestyle dispensing. The administration side of owning is a soul suck.”

Son Nguyen, OD, recalls a radical change in the optical that shook things up at Bakersfield

Eye Care Optometric Center in Bakersfield, CA: “Adding mostly independent frame brands to our practice. Our opticians were skeptical at first about eliminating some of the biggest name brands in our business, but, as a result, we’ve been told it has made them fall in love with their jobs all over again.” Mark Perry, OD, of Vision Health Institute in Orlando, FL, finds renewal by trying “to focus on some new and different aspect of optometry.” This has included accepting externs from two different optometry schools into his clinic.

CHANGE IT UP OUTSIDE THE OFFICE

Paula Hornbeck at Eye Candy & Eye Candy Kids in Delafield, WI sums up her revitalization strategy in one word: “Silmo!” Similarly, William Chancellor of Eye Can See Eyewear in McDonough, GA, tells us that, “Trade shows rejuvenate me. Attending Vision Expo West was a big exciting show that made the heart fonder!” Learning something new is another popular way for ECPs to find their second wind. Christine Howard at Attleboro Vision Care in Attleboro, MA, says, “Networking and attending conferences always ‘refills my cup’ when I’m feeling drained.” Sometimes, just nosing around another optical will do the trick. BJ Chambers at Carrera Optical, in McQueeney, TX, will occasionally visit a competitor, “and then I feel better about myself.”

GET CREATIVE

Burnout isn’t always a function of too much work. Repetitive or unstimulating work can land you in the same psychological territory as doing too much — feeling numb. “I’ve found coming up with a new project or marketing campaign to be rejuvenating,” shares Carissa Dunphy at Duvall Advanced Family Eyecare in Duvall, WA. “It brings the excitement [back] into what we are working on and it’s great for workplace morale.”

GET IN SHAPE

Jeff Migdow, MD, an integrative physician in Lenox, MA, told the Everyday Health blog in a recent posting that even a few minutes of physical movement serves as a powerful stress reducer, forcing us to breathe deeper and helping us “feel more like ourselves.” You don’t have to wait for the weekend or even until you get home: “Burnout is usually a sign that your work and your life outside the office are no longer in balance,” says Becky Furuta of Avenue Vision in Golden, CO. “I have always made sure to plan an hour in the middle of every workday to go for a run or a ride. I come back happier, more productive, and feeling good about where I am.” Robert M Easton, Jr, OD, in Oakland Park, FL is surely the gold standard bearer among ECPs in this category: “I do kickboxing, bodyworks, walk on the beach and weight lifting to lift the stress,” he tells us.

DECOMPRESS

We think of electronic devices as stress inducers, but your phone just might be your ticket to peace of mind. “I meditate and practice mindfulness daily, sometimes at work, using the Calm iPhone app,” says Vlad Cordero at Focus Eye Care in Hackensack, NJ. Sometimes burnout can edge into something more serious. A 2015 University of California study suggests that nearly half of all people who start a company say they have struggled with some form of mental illness. Don’t be afraid to get outside help. Tom Brillante, OD, of Decatur Eye Care in Decatur, GA, champions his “Regular visits to my therapist. Can’t recommend it highly enough.”

Billy Isgett at Eyecare of Florence in Florence, SC, shared what works for him: “Prayer.”

AND IF THOSE DON’T WORK…

Jen Heller reminds of us another sure-fire way to get your mojo going: “I read INVISION! It gets me excited about frames, fashion, new developments.” Sorry, we had to. But okay, she has more: “I’m also rejuvenated by just sitting and entering claims payment, or reconciling the books. Somehow looking at all the details of everything we do calms me down when I’m stressed, and reminds me that we’re superstars on a daily basis.”

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21 Tips for Motivating Your Team

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Behavioral researcher and author Alfie Kohn likes to tell a joke that many small business owners can no doubt relate to:

An elderly man who lives near a school is regularly harassed by a group of students. So, one day he approaches them with a deal: He’ll give each one a dollar if they’ll all return the next day and yell insults at him at a pre-ordained time. They do so eagerly and receive the money as promised. But the old man also tells them he will only be able to pay them 25 cents the next time. More or less still happy to be paid, the children are there again the next afternoon to taunt him, whereupon the old man explains that, henceforth, the daily reward for hurling abuse at him will be one cent. “A penny?” The kids are highly offended. For such a pathetic amount of money it’s not worth the effort. Forget it, they say, and never bother him again.

Like all good jokes, there’s more than a little truth in Kohn’s tale. Humans just don’t behave in seemingly rational ways, never more so than when it comes to money and the energy they are willing to exchange for it. Rewards work in some cases, but in others, they seem to not only deter quality work but bring out people’s worst sides.

The things that we humans tend to pursue with the most care and deepest motivation — like preparing dinner for a family reunion, coaching a Little League team, building a treehouse or running a marathon — are things that are challenging and complex and sometimes even painful. This suggests the things that motivate us — and which sustain peak performance — are things like a sense of achievement, progress, the welfare of others, what other people think of us — the intrinsic stuff. It also implies sustained performance is a result of people acting because they choose to — not because they feel they have to.

The final thing to appreciate about motivation is that it flows and morphs. Sometimes a surprise slice of free pizza will get the best out of an employee. Other times it is a heartfelt one-on-one talk. To unlock every employee’s fullest potential, you will have to experiment — every day and every week. In the following pages, we present a few ideas to help you on your way in this most vital and often mystifying field.

TWEEK TWEEK

1 Success in guiding employee behavior happens in the thousands of daily interactions and decisions between you and your staff. “Great managing is about release, not transformation,” says Marcus Buckingham, an author, talent expert and founder of The Marcus Buckingham Company, a strengths-based management organization. “It’s about constantly tweaking your environment so that the unique contribution, the unique needs, and the unique style of each employee can be given free rein. Your success as a manager will depend almost entirely on your ability to do this.”

KNOW THE RIGHT TRIGGERS

2 “As a rule, money tends to be a poor motivator. You have to look deeper if you want to understand what motivates people. Leadership is not about imposing your will on others, it has more to do with understanding people,” says Dr. Steve Vargo, a business consultant with IDOC and author of Eye on Leadership, An Optometrist’s Game Plan For Creating A Motivated and Empowered Team. Buckingham concurs: “A manager’s most precious resource is time, and managers know that the most effective way to invest their time is to identify exactly how each employee is different and then to figure out how best to incorporate those enduring idiosyncrasies and how to translate them into outstanding performance.”

FOCUS ON SMALL WINS

3 The psychology of motivation has moved away from the big goal approach in recent years and much more toward the idea of small wins. Indeed, Teresa Amabile’s research at Harvard has found that the most motivating thing is “any” progress in meaningful work. Says Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at the Fuqua School of Business: “The question for your staff should be, ‘Can I do one small thing to get better today?’ And the answer to that question is always, ‘Yeah, I’m sure I can.’”

HIT RECORD

4 Logging certain aspects of your life can be a surprisingly powerful practice — not because there’s much value in the record you create, but because the very act of recording exerts an interesting psychological effect. Get staff to spend a couple of days recording their time use in detail, productivity experts advise, and they’re likely to find themselves using it more efficiently. The first observation is likely the discovery that they are frittering away many hours.

DITCH DEBBIE DOWNER

5 The Protestant work ethic basically equates labor with discomfort and looks darkly at levity in the workplace. But there is little in the way of science to support it as an approach to doing good work. Indeed, berating oneself for not working harder runs contrary to establishing a mood that gets things done. A fun environment, on the other hand, promotes innovation, healthy risk-taking, good morale and improved social connections.

LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE


6 Promote positivity, says Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, explaining that an optimistic mindset boosts intelligence, creativity and energy levels. “In fact, we’ve found that every single business outcome improves. Your brain at positive is 31 percent more productive than your brain at negative, neutral or stressed, and 37 percent better at sales,” he says on his widely-viewed TED talk. Much of the reason has to do with a better ability to deal with challenges and setbacks. But just how to do it? Achor recommends meditation, gratitude lists, more exercise and acts of kindness like sending a 2-minute “thank you” email every morning.

GIVE THEM A MAP

7 In 1965, Howard Leventhal, a psychologist at Yale, wanted to see if he could scare students into getting a tetanus vaccination (still rare then) with a presentation of lurid images of patients struck by the disease. The students were duly alarmed — but not enough to get vaccinated. Leventhal found there was one intervention that made a difference, prompting 28 percent of students to get a shot, compared with 3 percent of the others. It was a campus map, showing how to get to the clinic and the hours it was open. Subsequent research has underlined the remarkable power of such step-by-step plans. Got something you want your staff to do? Give them a figurative baby-step map to get it done.

STRUCTURE MATTERS

8 In Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations, Dan Ariely cites the case of different European countries’ success in getting their citizens to sign up to be organ donors on their drivers’ licenses. The disparity is huge and much of it comes down to a simple tweak in form design. In countries where people have to actively opt out, the willingness to donate is much higher. “It’s not because it’s easy. It’s not because it’s trivial. It’s not because we don’t care. It’s the opposite,” Ariely says of the study’s findings. “And because we have no idea what to do (in such a case), we just pick whatever it was that was chosen for us.” Design a work place where the default option is work, and people will be productive.

HARNESS TECHNOLOGY

9 There’s no shortage of apps to help your staff boost their productivity and stay motivated. One of our favorites is stickK (stickk.com), a free goal-setting platform created by behavioral economists at Yale University. Make a resolution and then if you don’t follow through, a pre-agreed amount of money will be sent to an organization you really detest. You then decide what’s worse, getting to work on time 20 times in a month or handing your cash over to Bernie or Donald or whoever else gets your hackles up. Another, HassleMe.co.uk, will remind you by email about anything you want, but does so at unpredictable intervals so that your brain can’t easily adapt to ignoring the prodding.

FLATTER PEOPLE

10 One of the most predictable and poignant (or pathetic, depending on your viewpoint) things about humans is our need to bathe in the warm glow of a compliment. Our brains light up even when we know the flattery is insincere. Think then of the power of a sincere compliment. Be on the lookout for chances to praise your team members.

GO EASY ON MEETINGS

11 For the most part, people want to work; they gripe when things like meetings stop them from doing so. Indeed, a 2006 study showed there’s only one group of people who say meetings enhance their wellbeing — those who also score low on “accomplishment striving.” In other words, people who enjoy meetings are those who don’t like getting things done. The key question for distinguishing a worthwhile meeting from a worthless one seems to be this: is it a “status-report” meeting so employees can tell each other things? If so, handle it with email or paper. That leaves much fewer “good” meetings, whose value lies in the meeting of minds, for example, a well-run brainstorming session.

PLAY PAVLOV

12 One of the reasons slot machines are so addictive is the unique power of “intermittent variable rewards.” As Pavlov showed with his dog, random rewards are more motivating than predictable ones. Make a bonus guaranteed, and it loses its power to motivate. Give employees a perk out of the blue, such as free lunch instead.

WHO MOVED MY CHEESY QUOTE?

13 The power of words tends to be fleeting, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to harness their uplifting power. Whether it’s on the notice board, a store Pinterest page, or the fridge door, look for places to adhere words of wisdom. Update regularly.

ACKNOWLEDGE PEOPLE

14 “Acknowledgment is a kind of human magic,” Ariely says. Indeed, some neuroscientists go as far as to say we need attention almost as desperately as we need food and warmth. Studies suggest that almost 50 percent of people who leave jobs quit because they feel underappreciated. Therefore, simply acknowledging a team member’s contribution can go a long way in making them feel appreciated and motivated.

TOSS BAD APPLES

15 Recent research says there’s something behind the bad apples theory: If a toxic worker sat next to a nontoxic worker, the toxic worker’s influence won out, with proximity increasing the probability that one of them would be terminated by 27 percent. Firing someone is, of course, a last resort measure. But if you have provided training, counseling and patience and the person evidently does not have the inclination to be there, it’s time for you to go your separate ways. And there’s also the sobering impact it has on other staff; firing the least productive employee serves to show staff that their jobs are not sacred.

MIND YOUR Ps AND Qs

16 In her book, The Gratitude Diaries, Janice Kaplan cites a recent survey of American workers:

81 percent of respondents said that they’d be willing to work harder for an appreciative boss.

70 percent said they’d feel better about themselves and their efforts if their boss thanked them more regularly.

And yet, gratitude at the workplace appears to be a pretty rare thing, with just 10 percent of the survey respondents saying they were regularly thanked. Want a more motivated staff? Be more generous with the thank-yous.

CLARITY OF EXPECTATIONS

17 Define excellence vividly and quantitatively. “Paint a picture for your most talented employees of what excellence looks like. Keep everyone pushing and pushing toward the right-hand edge of the bell curve,” says Buckingham.

FOSTER TEAM SPIRIT

18 Kind words and deeds count when it comes to motivating colleagues. According to research by Dan Ariely, complimentary remarks and pizza outpaced cash bonuses as ways to encourage workers to put forth more effort and show greater productivity. The results mirrored previous research by the London School of Economics and Political Science showing that people will work harder if they believe their work is appreciated.

MEET ONE-ON-ONE

19 Don’t assume employees know that you think they’re doing well or poorly. You have to tell them. According to Gallup research, employees whose managers hold regular meetings with them are almost three times as likely to be engaged as employees whose managers do not. “To get the best coaching outcomes, always have your 1-on-1’s on your employee’s turf not yours. In your office the truth hides,” says Buckingham, who recommends you spend at least 10 minutes with each employee each week, asking them just two questions: What are your priorities? How can I help?”

INVEST IN YOUR BEST

20 Spend the most time with your best people. Talent is the multiplier, says Buckingham. The more energy and attention you invest in it, the greater the yield. In one example from First, Break All the Rules, they studied great employees in data entry roles. Initially, they found that top performers were 50 percent better than average. However, after investing in them, they were nearly 10X better than average. “Ever get bogged down trying to squeeze passable work out of a bad employee? How did it feel?” he asks.

Spend the most time with your best people. Talent is the multiplier, says Buckingham. The more energy and attention you invest in it, the greater the yield. In one example from First, Break All the Rules, they studied great employees in data entry roles. Initially, they found that top performers were 50 percent better than average. However, after investing in them, they were nearly 10X better than average. “Ever get bogged down trying to squeeze passable work out of a bad employee? How did it feel?” he asks.

SHORTEN YOUR YEAR

21 Consultants Brian Moran and Michael Lennington aren’t big believers in the value of a year, at least when it comes to setting goals. A year’s too big to get your head around, they argue in their book The 12-Week Year, and there’s too much unpredictability involved in planning for 10 or 11 months in the future. Besides, it’s awful for motivation: the New Year surge of enthusiasm fades rapidly, while the feeling of racing to the finish line — that extra burst psychologists call the “goal looms larger effect” — doesn’t kick in until autumn. In its place, they advocate dividing your year into quarters, and to think of each 12 weeks as a stand-alone “year” — a stretch long enough to make significant progress on a few fronts, yet short enough to stay focused.

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