Three cultural changes that can change your company (or your life)

Cultural changs

Last year was a breakthrough year for me in many ways. After years of working at Slovenian companies with primarily Slovenian clients, I found myself in an international working environment. In addition to getting the hang of new business area—presales consulting, which is a part of a broader customer support team—I was most interested in how I would adapt to the new culture.

I noticed the greatest changes in my behavior, which resulted from the company’s orientation and culture on the one hand, and American culture on the other. The more I think about these new practices, the more I think that they could have already been useful to me before, in my role as an account manager and consultant.

What are the three cultural changes that affected me the most?

I stopped apologizing.

For late responses to messages. For overlooking errors. For asking my coworkers questions because I thought I was bothering them.

Many people unconsciously apologize, and research shows that women are especially prone to this. Certainly, some situations require honest apologies, but not all situations deserve an apology.

For example, if we’re running late, instead of “Sorry I’m late,” it’s better to use “Thanks for waiting for me.”Even though it’s only a small change in wording, it changes the situation from one of guilt (on our part) to gratitude (a warm feeling toward those waiting); from negative to positive.

Now let’s try transferring this to other situations. If someone has waited a long time for an e-mail from us, we can start out with “Thanks for your patience” instead of the traditional “I’m sorry that I’m only answering now.” If someone finds a mistake in our work, we can thank him by saying “Oh, thanks for spotting that—you saved me!” instead of the remorseful “I’m sorry for overlooking that.”

The phrase “I’m sorry” has become so automatic that it hardly has any weight anymore. That’s why we should use it sparingly and save it for when we really mean it.

Try a different strategy and only apologize when it’s really necessary or makes sense to do so. You can report in the comments below this post on how you feel after following this advice for one month. 😉

Assume less, ask more.

In the past I always had the feeling that I had to answer every question someone posed me right away. Sometimes I may not have even understood the question very well, but I still tried to answer it so that I wouldn’t appear stupid or ignorant—like someone who can’t be trusted and isn’t well trained for the job.

I learned that posing (additional) questions has quite a few advantages: it reduces communication noise and prevents misunderstandings, doubt, mistrust, and conflicts in relationships. Not just relationships, but also in the workplace.

An assumption is an opinion that we form of a given situation, issue, or individual. Assumptions are based on our prior experiences; when someone poses us a question, we unconsciously project our past experiences. This means that we often miscalculate and conclude something based only on our assumptions, which unavoidably leads to some kind of emotional drama.

When a client says that they’ve come to us because they’d like to “improve reporting within the company,” I first ask them what “improve” means to them. My interpretation of “improvement” may be different from theirs. With only one question I’ve saved the client five minutes of an irrelevant monologue on the best possible visualizations in the world, which are—how appropriate!—offered by our product. That’s my perspective on improving reports.

This often happens in sales and business in general, where salespeople think they know exactly what a customer needs. Sometimes they do, but sometimes they don’t.

Questions help reveal the crux of the problem. My work requires talks with qualified leads. I remember that on my first calls with clients, I spoke most of the time, introducing the product to them—instead of focusing on THEM. If I start presenting the product right away and listing everything I can offer them, I give the impression that I want to come across as interesting—but in reality I should show interest in THEM. I have to shift the attention from ME to the CLIENT.

The more questions I ask them, the more likely it is that the solution I offer will be warmly accepted. The client will have the feeling that they have been heard and that I understand their problem. Also, they are willing to accept my solution only if I really understand their problem.

The bottom line is that assumptions create misunderstandings. Questions create clarity. Don’t assume you know the answer; instead, ask questions long enough to be sure of the answer.

I say “no” more often.

My area of work used to be different, but I definitely always tried to accommodate the client (if at all possible). But if we say “yes” to everyone, then we’re not creating any value and we lose focus.

I quickly fall into the trap of a big client who is completely interested in buying a product—if we also implement another desired feature. What’s the problem with this? This feature is not among the planned product upgrades, and upgrading it would also change the direction we want to go.

Instead of promises we can’t keep, my job is first to figure out why the client needs this feature at all. Once I understand the need, I might be able to offer alternative solutions. If I can’t, I must come to terms with “no.

In this case the most sensible answer would be: “I understand why you want that feature, but we’re not planning for it in the future. We’re focusing on X and that feature would move us in the wrong direction. If that’s a really important feature for you, perhaps we aren’t the best suited to your needs.”

Why else is it important to say no? Because it’s not good to make promises we can’t keep, to set up the wrong expectations, or agree to terms that really don’t suit us. It can’t bring relief and improve the customer experience once they’re working with us. Saying no also means that we’re at the helm; we know where we’re going, and a light breeze (or momentary customer inspiration) doesn’t lull us to another shore, where we may have a nice time anyway, but then we suddenly find out we’re not where we should have been originally.

With all of this in mind, I’m thinking about a holistic customer experience (CX). CRM systems, marketing automation tools, and all modern marketing technologies strive to record all points of contact with users and reduce friction, but we often forget one simple principle. If customer success is a company priority, then all departments in the company need to be aware of this, not just the department that has the most contact with the customer: the customer support department.

For example: if the customer support department has a specific target regarding the customer dropout rate, then sales should also address this. If sales promises unattainable goals or sells to the wrong customers, the customer support department or the key account manager will find it difficult to work a miracle.

If we want the goal to be achievable, all departments in the company must act as one: internalize the same beliefs and live the same values and culture.