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Handling a Conservative Business Partner, Setting Achievable Goals and More of Your Questions Answered

Plus, how to get your staff to actually listen more.

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Apart from telling them to talk less, how do I actually get my staff to be become better listeners?

Robin Dreeke, a former head of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Program, says the secret lies in an appreciation that good listening is more than simply shutting up. “Listening is having nothing to say. There’s a difference there. If you just shut up, it means you’re still thinking about what you want to say. You’re just not saying it,” he writes in It’s Not All About Me: The Top Ten Techniques For Building Quick Rapport With Anyone. The reason is that customers can tell you’re not focused on what they are saying. Instead, Dreeke suggests, do this: “[A]s soon as you have that story or thought you want to share, toss it. Consciously tell yourself, ‘I am not going to say it.’ All you should be doing is asking yourself, ‘What idea or thought that they mentioned do I find fascinating and want to explore?’” Get your sales staff or jewelry designers to take such an approach in their interactions with customers, and the results could potentially be revolutionary. No sales pitches. Just responding to what customers are telling them. That’s listening.

Year after year, I’ve carefully plotted SMART goals for my staff, but we never attain them. Any idea what we’re doing wrong?

To the rational mind, it’s hard to argue with the SMART mnemonic — Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely — when it comes to goals. At the heart of it is “achievable,” after all. Except, of course, when it comes to managing humans, it’s best to be wary of anything that gives off the clinical odor of rationality. In the place of SMART goals, we thus propose an experiment for you: This year, try some Vague and Seemingly Irrelevant goals (yep, the sort of targets that can’t even be counted on to form a clever acronym). Clear goals such as “Increase sales by 20 percent” can be motivating, but also set extra hurdles to fail at, which can throw the human mind into a tizzy (like a yellow Post-it sticker on your mirror that says “Don’t eat a cream bun today!”) Vague goals, on the other hand, can be liberating. As for “seemingly irrelevant,” the key word is the first: “seemingly.” This is management at a higher level. Identify the secret drivers to business success, be it the cheery baristas at Starbucks or actions in your store that result in a positive review on social media, and you may actually get the specific financial results you desire. In his book The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman recounts the story of a Formula One pit crew whose members were told that they would no longer be assessed on the basis of speed targets; they would be rated on style instead. Instructed to focus on acting “smoothly,” rather than on beating their current record time, they wound up performing faster. It’s a seductive story. Could you do the same with your staff?

What’s a good rate of growth to aim for?

Some growth is necessary for any business to keep up with competitors, benefit from economies of scale and provide new opportunities for its people, but there are more important things you should probably be focusing on. As Brazilian businessman Ricardo Semler noted in his book Maverick, the only things in the world that grow for the sake of growth are businesses and tumors. “Growth needs to be balanced with margin, operating expenses and inventory levels, otherwise it can result in working harder but having nothing to show for it,” notes David Brown of the Edge Retail Academy. Worry about cash flow, profit, taking care of your staff and customers, and basically just doing a good job. Growth should then take care of itself.

I had an embarrassing encounter with a customer earlier this week, and now I can’t get it out of my mind. It’s tormenting me. Help!

The old-school psychoanalyst would say we need to revisit this in punishing detail (these thoughts of perfection, where do they come from?), but it doesn’t sound like you want to go there. In place of that approach, we recommend substitution (come up with a funny version of the story) or distraction. The latter gets a bad rap, but recent studies have shown it’s actually pretty effective. Want to forget that screw-up at work? Do what Gary Gordon of Samuel Gordon Jewelers used to recommend after a sale went badly and go polish silverware for 30 minutes. Or start plotting a complex dinner tonight. Your brain has trouble focusing on more than one thing at a time, so a new action interferes nicely with recollection. And running the same movie reel over and over in your head really helps no one.

Over the years, INSTORE has won 80 international journalism awards for its publication and website. Contact INSTORE's editors at [email protected].

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