Business Relationships: Make or Break With Micro-Responses

Today I’m thinking about micro-responses and how they can make or break your business relationships (and therefore your career).

A Business Relationships Story:

The other day at a store, I said to the clerk, “Hey, I’m hoping you can help me with something.” Before responding to me, she closed her eyes, lowered her head, and let out a quick breath through her nose. Then she looked at me and said, “Sure. How can I help you?” I instantly wished I hadn’t gone into that store. Our business relationship was in bad shape.

Above, I wrote that she closed her eyes, lowered, her head and exhaled “before” she responded to me. That wasn’t really true. That body language was her first response. And it was a foundational moment for our relationship.

We humans are, “meaning making machines,” so of course I interpreted that micro-response in my mind. To me it meant, “I don’t want to help you. Don’t bother me.” That response and the meaning I took from it had a more profound effect on my experience than her spoken response, “Sure. How can I help you.” I believed her non-verbals more than I believed her words.

 

It’s never about the thing. It’s always about the relationship.

 

The store clerk was willing to help me. She did help me. And even so, she tore down the business relationship with her initial micro-response.

A Take Away:

Micro-responses can tear down the relationship, and they can also build it up. How often do you smile at the people you work with when you encounter them? How often do you approach their requests with an attitude of “yes”?

Micro-responses that tear down relationships:

  • Sighs
  • “Oh no”
  • Frowning
  • Head shaking
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Etc.

Micro-responses that build up relationships:

  • Smiles
  • Nodding
  • “Uh-huh”
  • Eye-contact
  • Slightly raised eyebrows
  • Etc.

These micro-responses are pre-conscious and reflect the thoughts you have about the situation (or person) presenting itself. You can’t necessarily control micro-responses in the moment because they come before you know it. You can, however, notice them as they come or afterward, and instruct yourself in how you want to respond for the future.

And if you’ve made a destructive micro-response, you can apologize for the impulsive reaction. An apology, when it’s called for, is a powerful relationship builder.

You can ask those around you to give you feedback specifically about your pre-conscious micro-responses and enlist them in your effort to improve your collaborative ability.

Something to Practice:

You can give yourself instruction and deliberately apply your awareness  in advance of the situations where micro-responses come up.  Some of those may include:

  • When someone makes a request of you
  • When someone comes unannounced to your work space
  • When you encounter someone when walking through the office
  • When someone gives you feedback — corrective or congratulatory
  • When someone asks you for a status report
  • When someone tells you about their personal life, or asks you about yours

Keep track. Prepare to build your business relationships. When you catch yourself tearing down the relationship, make a quick apology and move on.

The greatest benefit of this awareness and discipline… You can change your own attitude through this practice, and improve your own outlook, morale, and value in your organization.

Today I’m thinking about micro-responses and how they can make or break your business relationships (and therefore your career).

A Business Relationships Story:

The other day at a store, I said to the clerk, “Hey, I’m hoping you can help me with something.” Before responding to me, she closed her eyes, lowered her head, and let out a quick breath through her nose. Then she looked at me and said, “Sure. How can I help you?” I instantly wished I hadn’t gone into that store. Our business relationship was in bad shape.

Above, I wrote that she closed her eyes, lowered, her head and exhaled “before” she responded to me. That wasn’t really true. That body language was her first response. And it was a foundational moment for our relationship.

We humans are, “meaning making machines,” so of course I interpreted that micro-response in my mind. To me it meant, “I don’t want to help you. Don’t bother me.” That response and the meaning I took from it had a more profound effect on my experience than her spoken response, “Sure. How can I help you.” I believed her non-verbals more than I believed her words.

 

It’s never about the thing. It’s always about the relationship.

 

The store clerk was willing to help me. She did help me. And even so, she tore down the business relationship with her initial micro-response.

A Take Away:

Micro-responses can tear down the relationship, and they can also build it up. How often do you smile at the people you work with when you encounter them? How often do you approach their requests with an attitude of “yes”?

Micro-responses that tear down relationships:

  • Sighs
  • “Oh no”
  • Frowning
  • Head shaking
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Etc.

Micro-responses that build up relationships:

  • Smiles
  • Nodding
  • “Uh-huh”
  • Eye-contact
  • Slightly raised eyebrows
  • Etc.

These micro-responses are pre-conscious and reflect the thoughts you have about the situation (or person) presenting itself. You can’t necessarily control micro-responses in the moment because they come before you know it. You can, however, notice them as they come or afterward, and instruct yourself in how you want to respond for the future.

And if you’ve made a destructive micro-response, you can apologize for the impulsive reaction. An apology, when it’s called for, is a powerful relationship builder.

You can ask those around you to give you feedback specifically about your pre-conscious micro-responses and enlist them in your effort to improve your collaborative ability.

Something to Practice:

You can give yourself instruction and deliberately apply your awareness  in advance of the situations where micro-responses come up.  Some of those may include:

  • When someone makes a request of you
  • When someone comes unannounced to your work space
  • When you encounter someone when walking through the office
  • When someone gives you feedback — corrective or congratulatory
  • When someone asks you for a status report
  • When someone tells you about their personal life, or asks you about yours

Keep track. Prepare to build your business relationships. When you catch yourself tearing down the relationship, make a quick apology and move on.

The greatest benefit of this awareness and discipline… You can change your own attitude through this practice, and improve your own outlook, morale, and value in your organization.


Set Expectations Like an Improviser

Are you in sales? Do you have a boss or have people working for you? Got people working with you? Do you work with people? 

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, there are people who expect things from you.

The question is, are their expectations consistent with the reality you are prepared to deliver? Will you meet their expectations, or will you disappoint?

Half the answer lies in what you deliver. The other half lies in what they expect.

THE INCOMPLETE SET

Last month, I placed an order with a marketing company. They told me, “Your marketing product will go live in no more than 30 days. Maybe sooner.”

That’s expectation setting. They gave me an expectation about timeline.

They also told me that I’d have a “success manager” assigned to me and my marketing efforts, and that I’d hear from that manager to get my input along the way.

They gave me specific time when I should expect completion, but no specifics about when I’d hear from the “success manager.” Because they left a gap in setting expectations for me, I filled the gap with my own expectations about what the interim timeline would look like. Because I set my own expectations about their service, they set us both up for confusion, disappointment, and anxiety.

Indeed, two weeks later, when I hadn’t heard from anyone, I touched base with the sales rep who brought me on board to ask how things were progressing. “The holidays have created a backlog. I’m sure you’re still on target. You’ll hear from someone soon.”

Cool. Reassuring. A little bit.

When I called again a week after that, I heard, “There’s a bit of a backlog because of the holidays, but I’m sure your release will happen on time.”

Less reassuring. Kind of vague.

When I heard from his colleague that same day, “I received your search landing page today, and you’ll see it for review in about an hour,” that truly reassured me.

Why?

THE COMFORT OF SPECIFICITY

Was it the tangible progress that reassured me? Because someone had seen actual work done on my project…?

Well, that was part of it.

A bigger part of it, however, is that the info they gave me was specific. It was not a general assurance like, “I’m sure you’re still on target.” Or, “You’ll hear from someone soon.”

I heard instead, “I’m currently looking at this specific aspect of our deliverables to you.” She said, “You’ll see it in one hour.”

It was nice that I’d see it so quickly. But, “tomorrow morning by 10AM,” would have been almost as good. It’s the level of specificity that gave me something to hold on to. My worries are gone. And I know when I should start worrying. I can directly compare the reality on the ground with the expectation they set for me.

IMPROV’S LESSON FOR SETTING EXPECTATIONS

What I’d like to impart to you is a bit of wisdom I learned by training as an improviser…

The more specific you are with others in your life — those who work with you, live with you, depend on you, employ you, work for you, buy from you, sell to you… whatever — the more specific you are with others, the more comfortable they will be.

And guess what, the less likely they are to irritate you as well. I think I got under my vendor’s skin a bit, by writing a few times to ask about the status of my order.

What would have saved me the worry that my order would be late? What would have saved my vendor the irritation of my, “Are we there yet?”

One thing would have saved us both the stress — practicing the improviser’s tool, “Be Specific.” Had they been specific, not only about the deadline for the finished product, but about the timeline of every deliverable along the way, I’d have rested comfortably and left them to do their work.

BE SPECIFIC

So, dear reader, the next time you find yourself in a situation where someone else is looking to you for answers about what to expect:

  • When will you…?
  • What will X look like?
  • How will costs be calculated?
  • What do you like about…?
  • What are the metrics for success?
  • Where can I find X?
  • How can I attain X results?

Be as specific as you possibly can.

Expectations are like bowling. When you’ve got a seven-ten split, you can’t expect to knock down both pins by simply rolling the ball down the alley “that way.” You’ve got to hit the seven pin just so, in order to send it spinning into the ten. That’s a specific task.

So is communication. You’ll be rewarded for your specificity.


Ditch This Destructive Sales Approach Today

Most of the sales people I work with have the best interests of their clients at heart. They’re looking to make deals that’ll be great for all parties involved. But that’s not universal. I’m glad to say that the attitude I’m about to tell you about is rare and getting rarer. But it’s still out there, and it should be eradicated.

This attitude is bad. It’s bad for your relationships. It’s bad for your image. It’s bad for your business. It’s bad for your sales. In fact, I recently met a salesman who offered me an incredible deal on something I’ve been interested in for a long time. And, rather than give him the sale, I’d prefer to go without. By revealing this common sales approach, he lost a slam-dunk sale and a potentially powerful referrer.

The Setup

Last week at an event, I met two guys in sales. I learned from talking with them that they both sell group entertainment packages, each for a different company. Mark (names changed to protect the innocent) sells short, local cruises. He talked about the relationships he had with clients and prospects and about the experiences groups have when working with his company. He showed genuine interest in the work I do, and saw value in it for himself and his team. I’ll refer him business whenever I can.

John (names changed to protect the guilty) sells a thrilling, unique, and amazing ride-like experience to groups. I’ve known about the existence of his product for some time, and I have always thought, “I’m gonna do that. That looks fun!” At the end of our ten minute conversation, John failed to make one of the world’s easiest sales. He offered me the opportunity to do something I very much want to do. He offered it for free. A free thrilling, unique, amazing ride-like experience I’ve wanted to try, offered for free, and I will not accept his offer. I probably will never refer any business to him either.

Why?

At the beginning of our conversation, John told Mark and me the secret to sales. “The secret to sales,” he said, “is to make people feel obligated to you.” That’s the sales approach I’ve been talking about. I wondered immediately if he really meant that, and my improv training kicked in.

My job in improv is to make my partner look good. John was my partner in improv. I thought that statement didn’t make him look too hot, so I offered him an easy-shift alternative. “Yeah,” I said, almost as though I agreed with him. “Gratitude works for me. Express gratitude. Treat people in ways I’d be grateful to be treated. Offer whatever support I can. People respond well.”

“Gratitude, yeah,” replied John. “I guess it’s good to feel gratitude. Obligation, though. That’s the stuff. People feel like they owe you something, so they buy what you’re selling. Works no matter what.”

Ten minutes later, John gave Mark and me his card and offered both of us a free ride, “any time.” I want the ride. But I do not want a relationship where the currency is obligation. John had already pulled back the curtain to show the inner workings of his offer. It’s a spider web. He gives a free ride. He expects I’ll feel obligated to him for giving me something of value for free. And then, out of a sense of IOU, I’ll buy a group experience, and/or, I’ll refer others to him so he can sell them a group experience.

The thing is, I value relationships above all other resources in business and beyond. I’ll never send John business because I won’t deliberately expose anyone I care about to his spider web of expected obligation.

Relationships Matter

Obligation lives right next to resentment. When we feel obligated, that often leads us to feeling resentful of the obligation. “Crap. I’ve got to go do this thing for this person. I wish I didn’t have to.” By contrast, when we’re motivated by gratitude, the story we tell ourselves is different. “I’d like to go do this thing for this person. I’ll feel good to give back to someone who’s given to me.”

If I give to another with no expectations of obligation, then we are equals throughout the transaction, from beginning to end. The transaction is complete immediately after I’ve given. But the transaction stretches on with barbed hooks when I have an expectation of obligation. The transaction is only half complete after I’ve given, even if there’s no cash fee for my service. I’m left in a perpetual state of waiting, of incompleteness until you return the favor. I’ll exact my fee one day. And I’ll resent you if the return doesn’t come within my arbitrarily sensed frame of “right timing.”

Drop This Sales Approach

When I began this article, I expected my guidance would be, “Drop this “obligation” approach to selling. I realize now, as I close, that it’s bigger than that. The expectation of obligation is a symptom of a much bigger disease. The disease is viewing business and sales as a zero sum game. In a zero sum game, there is often seen to be a winner and a loser, but that’s not the only way of creating a zero-sum.

Here’s another zero-sum approach. If I give you something, then I am in the negative and you are in the positive. The world is out of balance until you right the imbalance by giving back to me. You owe me. If you owe me, I resent you. Every time.

A Giving Alternative

If I give to you with no expectation from you, we’re both increased. You’ve gotten my gift. I’ve got the reward of having made a difference in your day or in your life. And I’ve built good will in my community. On last week’s episode of our podcast, Mighty Good Work, guest Chris Free said that if you treat people in your community well, “they’ll call you when they need help. And sometimes… they pay you for that help.”

When you pour generosity into your community without specific expectation, then you find yourself in a community of gratitude and generosity. And, you’ve given people a sample of the value you have to give. It comes back.

In the world we now live in, of white papers and free webinars, and free-mium SaaS products, maybe this isn’t news. But not everyone is here yet in the win-win world we occupy. Sales isn’t zero sum. Win-win isn’t everyone sacrificing equally. The best business transactions elevate everyone’s position.We can both have the better end of the deal.

Be Equal

If John, with a genuine smile, had offered me a free ride, I would have taken it in a twinkling. And I’d have been grateful. He’d have lost nothing (one ride doesn’t cost much for them to provide). I would have gained a thrilling experience. He’d have the pleasure of giving. I’d have the pleasure of feeling grateful. And he’d have the added benefit that I’d be looking for opportunities to refer business to him. I’m a connector.

As it stands, I won’t refer him business, even though he’s made that same offer. His sales approach is toxic. And I won’t poison my relationships.

John’s not a bad guy. He just hasn’t learned to be equal. Business, sales, exists as an opportunity to increase everyone’s position all at once.