Studying Person-to-Product relationships

What person-product relationships tell us about exceptional leaders and sellers

Donald Norman is a leading authority on the relationships people form with products. He has spent decades pursuing research and insights into product design, finding himself along the way working with many of the world’s greatest design experts, participating on government commissions, and even receiving an audience with Pope John Paul II.

Norman makes two interesting points about person-to-product relationships that intrigue me when applied to person-to-person relationships.

Vision

The first is that merely good products result from a careful process of design, test, revise and retest, but great products, those which ignite emotional relationships beyond their functional benefits, require the vision of designer which cannot be replicated by committees or standardized design processes.

I’m going to stick my neck out a little here and apply this conclusion to person-to-person relationships. I would suggest that no amount of obedience to “best practices”, 360 reviews, satisfaction surveys, or other routine means will transmute a good leader into a great leader or a good seller into a great seller. That level will only be reached by those who communicate an inspiring vision of their leadership or sales persona to the people around them.

This is, of course, a good deal more difficult to do compared to any standardized 360 feedback or customer survey process. The ability to project one’s vision relates to the concepts of emotional intelligence and resonance, and consequently to the need to be self-aware and aware of how others respond to you, then make choices and act correspondingly. It requires periodic soul searching, and for many, a struggle to achieve. You will also need to be fairly stable and consistent in your projection of good vibes, because noticeable lapses into more self-involved ways of communicating will tend to discredit you and your vision.

The point here is that to be a great leader, in addition to self-awareness (including feedback about how you impact others), you have to be an inventor. You must recognize in yourself an inspired potential self which fits both you and your circumstances. You must walk the walk of this self — and use feedback (360 reviews, customer surveys, coaching) to see how it works. Lather, rinse, repeat…. You have a lifetime to push the envelope of your ability to form valuable relationships.

Impact on Decisions

The second of Norman’s points that I want to share is that how people feel about a product impacts how they use the product. If they feel good about the product they are using, they are able to be more creative; if they feel anxious about a product, they tend to be more literal and focused on getting every detail right.

When applied to person-to-person relationships, this suggests that a leader or seller who wants to facilitate creative decisions, which is to say, to help people consider choices not previously made, could choose to develop their likeability (being “a fan” of the people you are working with is one way my clients describe this). Or, where leaders or sellers who want to facilitate literal, coloring-inside-the-lines decisions could choose to promote anxiety (“a little fear” is how another client described this).

Product-person relationships have three levels

In Norman’s sophisticated realm products take on many human characteristics. Norman’s model for relationships between users and products has three basic levels, which I will attempt to apply to leaders and sellers.

First is the level of appearances, sound and feel. This level is a gut level reaction — or absence thereof — that could be strong enough to make a user love or hate a product without knowing how useful it is or how much it costs. (I’d liken this to a person’s charisma or ability to establish rapport — more on this in a later blog entry.)

The second level is functionality, which has to do with how well a product does its job and how easy it is to use. (I’ll suggest that the “usability” equivalent for a leader or seller is the combination of their availability, clarity of communication and understanding, and consistency.)

Third is the level of association or personal identification, which is what the user thinks the product adds to their status or self-image. (I’ve noticed that customers and team members can take pride in — and brag about — the people they are working with, too: testimonials for sellers and “appreciative inquiry” stories for teams come to mind.)

Let’s try this out on a real person. Meet my client “D”, a computer-imaging artist who is both a manager and the lead salesperson for his own small business in Seattle.

Appearance: D is casually hip, exuding confidence without arrogance. He has a firm but not forced handshake, flashes a natural smile, and makes good eye contact. He is an excellent listener and actively shows attention to what others say without taking over before he understands what they want to say.

Functionality (in this case, the “user-friendliness” of a seller): D makes every effort to find out what his clients’ expectations are of him and to let them know what he needs from them in order to complete projects in a timely fashion. As time passes and projects proceed he gently but unequivocally reminds his clients of their joint deadlines and keeps them informed about his progress.

Association: D’s clients are an excellent referral source for him — they are proud to be identified with him and give him their personal recommendation whether or not he asks them to.

I’d say that in addition to the fine quality of the work he produces, D’s customers rave about the quality of attention (respect plus consistency in meeting standards) they get from him.

If these ideas extracted from Donald Norman’s work seemed relevant to your own work, try asking yourself the following questions.

1. How do you rate yourself on the three relationship levels of appearance, functionality, and association — as a leader, as a seller?

2. Is your business personality encouraging creative decisions (comfort), or color-inside-the-boxes decisions (anxiety)?

3. Do you have a handle on your own “resonance” — do you have a vision of yourself backed up by facts, and do you communicate it successfully?

Motivate by connecting choices to results

“Coaching for consequences” connects decision makers’ results to their choices

An increasingly popular leadership and sales style is the coaching (or facilitative) style. Among the advantages of this style are that it encourages people to explore their own motives, make choices and take action. A key component of this style involves pointing out the likely consequences of actions, or what I call “coaching for consequences.” I have two stories for you to illustrate this concept. (Each paraphrases an actual situation I’ve encountered.)

First example: after talking with me over a period of weeks about ways to wake up the internal motivation in his employees, one of my clients, “G”, recently had the following exchange with one of the managers working for him, “M”.

G: You know M, I’ve noticed that fairly regularly you get to work about 10 to 15 minutes after we open. Am I pretty close?

M: Yes, I’ve been late a lot lately. I really don’t know why; I wish I could do something about it.

G: I’ve also noticed that you seem stressed when you start late, and the stress can last for a long time. What have you noticed?

M: I really hate being late. It always takes me hours to get back to where I want to be and feel like I’m caught up.

G: As your manager, I need to tell you that I’m concerned about the example you are setting for the people working under you. I’m also concerned that your stress might be affecting them and bringing down their performance. What do you think about this?

M: I agree with you. My being late is definitely not good for them.

G: Here’s what I’m wondering. What would happen if you did whatever you had to do to get in a little early every day instead getting in late? How would this make you feel in terms of your stress level, and how would this affect your people?

M: You know, I’d probably feel a lot better and my work would go better and I’d be a more effective manager, too.

G: What are you going to do?

M: I’m going to figure out how to get in early from now on. Thanks — I think I know what to do now.

Guess what happened? The short answer is: it worked. This guy started coming in early and was able to keep it up because he quickly became accustomed to the consequences he experienced, including relief from stress.

Second example: this week I met with a potential client who told me he wants to stop procrastinating in answering his email. We talked about the amount of money and the stress he thought it was costing him. Then I said: “A few minutes ago, you thanked me for answering on Saturday night the e-mail you sent Friday afternoon. When you sent it I was out of the office and couldn’t reply right away. I replied as soon as possible because I thought you might appreciate it. So: how did it feel when you received it?” My client admitted that it had felt really good to get that response, and he recognized an opportunity. He resolved to start giving that emotional satisfaction to his customers. When squarely presented with consequences — feeling bad and losing money by procrastinating, taking pride in delivering satisfaction to people who matter — choosing appropriate action seemed much easier.

The role of the consequences coach in both of these examples was to help point out both the positive and negative consequences that flow from a particular course of action.

Please notice that in neither example did the coach (including the boss, contrary to popular stereotype) add the consequence of getting mad at and/or intimidating the person who was having trouble getting their job done! In fact, psychologist H. Stephen Glenn has pointed out that getting angry at someone for making the “wrong” decision shifts focus away from making a good choice based on consequences and makes the decision about the other person’s aggressiveness. Think for a moment about dealing with somebody who is really angry. Their anger may change or even dominate the decision made in the short run, but little learning is done or ongoing behavior change accomplished by the decision maker. In fact, when the anger or the angry person is no longer part of the picture our decision maker will probably have just as much difficulty making a good choice as before.

In a broader perspective, although decision by intimidation can bring about a short term decision we want someone to make, it doesn’t contribute to the development of either high delegation leader-team relationships or high trust seller-buyer relationships.

Designing Consequences. Glenn identifies “natural consequences” as those things which inevitably result from the actions we take. “What goes up must come down” comes to mind, or maybe “we’re going nowhere with no gas in our tank.” Glenn also encourages leaders to create “logical consequences” which motivate decision makers without punishing them (where getting mad and yelling would be considered a form of punishment). In line with Glenn’s thinking, consequences that are created to facilitate good decision making should be 1) PROPORTIONATE – not excessive or trivial considering the circumstances, 2) OBJECTIVE – not motivated by anger or retribution, and 3) CONNECTED – causally linked to the action being discussed.

For example, a logical consequence for someone who fails to keep reimbursement records might be to expect them to pay undocumented expenses out of their own pocket. This consequence is proportionate in a pound for pound sense; objective because anger or a desire to punish don’t enter into it; and connected because it arises only when records aren’t kept for the expenses in question.

Say it out loud to make better choices

Articulating what’s on everyone’s mind improves everybody’s choices

To be articulate is to be clear. And by clear I mean that you understand what you are saying, the person you are communicating with understands what you are saying, and the understanding you have and the understanding they have match pretty closely. (By way of contrast, one of the reasons why computers need their own languages to operate is because most of what human beings say in ordinary language isn’t particularly clear — it can’t be taken literally.)

Articulating what we are thinking, observing, feeling, and requesting from someone can be more difficult, frustrating, and irritating than we would like.

Effective leaders, sellers, and negotiators go one step further: they are not only skilled at articulating their own thoughts, they are skilled at articulating what others are trying to say, whether or not what they are saying is particularly clear to begin with. Being able to accurately and helpfully articulate what someone else is putting forward not only helps you understand them and gives them the feeling that you understand them (with the respect that entails), it actually helps them understand themselves.

Very often — or so those skilled at articulation say — people change their minds after hearing themselves say out loud what they are trying to say. It helps them become clear about their own observations, perceptions, feelings and wants. Which is why it behooves someone who strives to be a good leader, seller, or negotiator to focus both on clarity in what they say and on clarifying what others say to them.

For further reading: Vancouver B.C. consultant and professor Gervase Bushe’s book entitled “Clear Leadership” may be a challenge for the average business reader because of its detailed references to psychological theory, but its explanation of the whys and hows of articulate communication is unmatched.

How leaders and sellers facilitate decisions

Ask for permission, listen, and hold off on disagreement to facilitate decisions

Here’s a simple rule of thumb for effective communication: in any important conversation (and every business conversation) ask yourself: who is this about? Another way to put it is: who has to make a choice here? When you want to lead, sell something, or reach agreement with someone, someone besides yourself has choices to make. It’s going to be “about them” at least half of the time. You can’t control their decision — if you did it would be coercion, not leadership, sales, or negotiation — but you can facilitate by asking for permission, listening more than you talk, and showing respect even when you hear what you don’t want to hear. The following example of poor communication style, and the advice I gave the communicator, applies equally to leaders, sellers, and negotiators.

This afternoon an unsolicited caller offered me something I don’t want at this moment, a web site development, hosting, and marketing package.

I waited patiently through his intro — after all, it’s my business to listen without feeling threatened by or taking personally what people say and how they say it. When he finally paused, which he had to do because he wanted to confirm my postal address, I said: “you know, there is a lot of information that is important to you for me to hear. And I appreciate that. But what you haven’t done yet is ask whether I want to have this conversation with you.”

After a short silence he thanked me in a lower tone for paying him the respect of telling him this. And after I confirmed that I really didn’t need his services without denying the value of his services to others, he asked me to help him improve his delivery style. We wound up talking for around ten minutes. I’m glad it was on his bill because I’m guessing the call was coming from India.

The number one thing I recommend to you, I told him, is to listen to the people you are trying to communicate with. Give them opportunities to tell you what they want, they’ll be happier, feel respected, and trust you more.

The number two thing, I said, is not to be afraid of people saying “no.” Expect it will happen on occasion, for a variety of reasons, most of them beyond your control, and accept it gracefully when it does. If you are afraid of what they may say, they will hear in your voice that something is wrong. It will also negatively affect your judgment when choosing how to speak to them. The key here is to listen with an open mind to what makes their answer “no,” then you can move forward together if there is still common ground between you.

The number three thing, I said, is to ask for permission to go on soon after you initiate the conversation. (This is number three only because it combines the first and second things.)

He told me that this advice was worth more than a “yes” to his offer. And at the end of our conversation he asked if he could call back again some time — to talk more about his communication style. I agreed. And just in case you were thinking of thanking me for supporting his intentions to become a better listener before calling you: you’re welcome. Furthermore I encourage you to occasionally accept responsibility for giving telephone callers constructive feedback about their calling style.

Homework for the week: ask yourself what would happen if you applied the same assumptions you make about the people you’re doing well communicating with to the people you’re not doing so well with? For example, what if you spoke to the people you work with and your customers in the same way, with the same amount of emphasis on respect and candor? Liking or not liking someone really has very little to do with it — you choose your approach towards each person. (If you do this, write to tell me your results — it will help you remember what you discovered and I’ll enjoy the feedback.)