I recently received a complaint from a potential customer. He was an attendee at one of my seminars who had indicated on the post-program evaluation that he was interested in hiring me to work with his company. When Shelli, my market representative, followed up with him, he told her that although he had requested that she call him, he now would not hire me if I were the last consultant on earth.
Given the excellent marks he’d put on the evaluation, and his request to be called with more information, Shelli was confused. She asked him what had happened. He said that after my presentation, he turned in his evaluation and then came to the product table where he purchased my book and asked me to sign it. He said that in my conversation with him while signing the book, I was rude and unfriendly. He claimed that I didn’t establish eye contact with him and that I acted like I just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. Consequently, although he said that enjoyed the presentation, and thought his people would benefit from what I had to offer, he wasn’t about to hire someone who didn’t “walk the talk.”
When Shelli reported this to me, I was shocked. Acting that way is just not like me. I pride myself on being a “nice guy” who’s interested in almost everyone I meet. I am normally courteous to a fault, and I would never be intentionally rude. In fact, my wife accuses me of being a SNAG (Sensitive New Age Guy.) I hope I’m not that smarmy, but I do consider it good manners to make every person I come in contact with feel important – especially a potential customer who’s gone out of his way to buy my book!
So I called him.
He was only too happy to tell me how he felt, repeating what Shelli had said, only more emphatically. I apologized, and said that I couldn’t understand why he’d gotten that impression of me except that my left knee, which was injured playing high school football back in prehistoric times and now gives me problems, was acting up on the day of the seminar. In fact, after standing on it for the entire four hours of the program, I was in a lot of pain – so, I confessed to him that I probably did cut our conversation short – but that was no excuse for me to be rude, and I certainly didn’t mean to offend him.
He seemed somewhat mollified by my explanation, but was not as warm and friendly as I’d hoped he would be. I doubt that he will ever hire me to work with his people, no matter how much he liked my presentation – and I can’t blame him.
It was a lesson for me about the powerful effect non-verbal communication has on relationships. It has caused me to think about all my interactions, not only with customers, but with associates with whom I do business, employees who work for me, family members whom I love, friends and incidental acquaintances as well.
I have to admit that the fellow’s perception of my non-verbal language were accurate. I was in pain, and in my heart, I just wanted to get back to my room and get off my leg. But did I want to communicate that to him? Definitely not!
I realize now that I should have either done a better job of ignoring my pain, or I should have been straight with him, told him that my knee was hurting and would he mind if I sat down while we talked. That way, I could have given him the full attention he deserved and I could have been more honest in my communications.
But, alas, I took the coward’s way out. I gave him a perfunctory listen without really listening, and then left. And now I’m paying the price of losing a potential customer, and of getting a bad reputation because I’m sure he’s told others about the consultant who doesn’t practice what he preaches – Ouch!
It’s made me wonder how many times I have inadvertently conveyed a message of non-caring when conversing with a customer, a colleague, a subordinate, a friend, or a loved one. How many times have I taken a phone call while having a face-to-face discussion with an employee? How often have I scanned my e-mails while talking to vendor on the phone? How frequently do I not focus on what my wife is saying to me because I’ve got something else on my mind? How often has such non-attention to the other person sent a message to them saying “you’re not important?” And how often have they seen through the ruse like the customer at the seminar did, but lacked the guts to say something to me about it?
Communication researcher Evelyn Sieburg1 calls this the sending of “disconfirming messages.” Disconfirming messages push people away. They devalue the worth of the other person, even when you didn’t mean for that to happen. Disconfirming messages include:
Non-responsiveness If you’ve ever left a phone message, e-mailed someone, or sent a text message and received no reply, you’ve been given a non-responsive, disconfirming message. In other words, you tried to connect with the person and you got a clear message in return saying that the person did not want to communicate with you.
Of course, it’s possible that the person never got the message, the e-mail or text disappeared into cyberspace, or the person didn’t realize you wanted a return answer. You may make several more attempts but still receive no response. At that point, you usually assume that the person does not want to talk to you. You may feel devalued and even insulted. This is why so many aspiring salespeople fail at cold calling. Unless you have a thick hide, non-responses can hurt.
In a face-to-face conversation, non-responsiveness is manifested by lack of eye contact, inappropriate body language, and not asking questions or responding appropriately. It translates into “go away, you’re not important, I have better things to do with my time than engage with you.” I think my responses to the potential customer at the seminar fall into this category.
Interruption This behavior is not only rude, but it sends a message that says, “I know better than you, so listen up and hear the truth-which is that you are too stupid to figure out the truth yourself.”
That may not have been the message you intended to send. If you are used to moving fast, talking faster, and making even quicker decisions, you may fall into the trap of interrupting people without realizing it simply because they talk or think more slowly than you do. Consequently, when you act on your own impatience, you may be inadvertently sending a message that the person you interrupted thinks is, “I don’t want to hear what you’re saying, so shut up.”
Patronization Let’s assume that Laura, an internal auditor, makes an appointment with Bob to discuss her concerns about an accounting practice occurring in their company. He responds with, “Laura, don’t worry your pretty little head about it. There are extenuating circumstances that you need not worry about. But I truly appreciate your bringing this to my attention, and I’ll look into it. By the way, you do great work. Keep it up; I know you will go far here.”
Take a moment now to calm that gagging reflex. In addition to being sexist, the message Bob sent to Laura was that she didn’t have the intelligence or perspective to understand what she had seen. Unless Laura is not very bright, she’s likely to interpret his real message as, “Mind your own business if you know what’s good for you.” Disconnected Responses This is when someone responds to you with statements that are totally unrelated to the topic at hand. The disconnected response sends a subtle signal that the topic raised should not be brought up again.
Rick: “Rachel, I’ve got some concerns about the truth in lending statements that we’re using. They don’t really reflect the terms of the loans we are now making.
Rachel: “Hey, those last customers who were in here were something, weren’t they? I’ve never seen such bad credit. And they think they can buy a house with no down payment. Give me a break.”
Ambiguity When the responder sends more than one meaning with her response, it confuses the issue and sends a message that this issue may not be all that important. In the example above, an ambiguous response from Rachel might be:
“Yea, we’ll have to get around to looking into that one of these days.”
This can be confusing for Rick. Is Rachel saying that she will look into it because it’s important? Or, by using the phrases, “get around to” and “one of these days,” is she saying, “It’s no big deal, but I might get around to checking on it?” Or is she saying, “Drop it. It’s not worth fooling with?” This confusion can lead Rick to wonder if it’s worth bringing things like this to Rachel’s attention.
One-Upmanship Have you ever been in a social situation where the topic of vacations came up with someone you just met? You’re in the middle of telling him about your trip to Florida when he interrupts to tell you about his vacation to Aruba – making sure you understand that his trip was more exotic, more exciting, more expensive, more adventuresome, and all around better than yours? He never says so, but the message is clear: “I’m not interested in your piddling little experience, but you should be interested in mine because I am far more interesting than you.” Talk about a put-down.
Pretty soon, you just don’t care so you ease your way out of the conversation and move on. Of course, in a social situation like that, the only casualty was the potential relationship you might have developed.
In a business setting, the cost can be much higher. The most common example of one-upmanship is the boss who responds to your concerns with stories about how much worse things were in “the good old days.” You quickly get the picture that you are being discounted and pretty soon, you just don’t want to tell her anything that will put her into that mode. It wastes your time and you don’t like the feeling you get when you talk to her. She may not have killed the messenger in this case, but she’s slapped you around with a strong enough discounting message that you don’t want to come back.2
The bottom line on all this is that no-one, not customers, not colleagues, not employees, not family members, not casual acquaintances likes to be disconfirmed. When they are, there is usually a price to pay. I paid mine with that potential customer at my seminar.
1 Evelyn Sieburg, “Interpersonal Confirmation: A Paradigm for Conceptualization and Measurement,” San Diego, United States International University (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 098 634), 1975.
2 The descriptions of Evelyn Sieburg’s disconfirming messages are excerpted from Larry Johnson and Bob Phillips’s book, “Absolute Honesty: Building A Corporate Culture That Values Straight Talk And Rewards Integrity,” AMACOM Books, New York, NY, 2003.