Communicating well

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Getting The Edge In Professional Selling
Terence A. Hockenhull

I’M GOING to get of the topic of sales slightly this week by talking about communication, both verbal and written. What has prompted me to write this article are my dealings with one of my less-than-stellar employees who, despite being a well-educated and seemingly well-motivated individual, fails consistently to provide accurate, timely, and comprehensible information.

I’ve actually spent hours trying to figure out whether his lack of communication skills relates to his difficulty in communicating in English. However, this is certainly not the case. He speaks in sentences that are grammatically correct; they just don’t make sense.

Let me give an example of the frustrations of dealing with this guy. I happened to ask him if a purchase order received by my sales team had been booked on last week’s or this week’s sales figures.

“Sir, we received the PO (purchase order) on Friday.”

“Yes”, I replied, “But was it booked in last week’s sales figures or this week’s?”

“Actually sir, I believe the proposal came in on Friday morning!”

“So, it was booked last week?”

“No, sir”.

“So, this week then?”

“No, sir, we received the PO last week!”

Actually, I think in his own mind, he is quite clear about the information he wants to convey. However, he leaves half of the conversation in his head, and the other half comes out of his mouth. Consequently, as the recipient of the information, one has to try to fill in the blanks — a seemingly impossible task!

He is by no means the only (or indeed the worst) communicator. But, it is a matter of concern to me that this is a guy who makes his living in sales. One has to wonder how customers feel when they ask a seeming simple question and cannot get a straight answer. Is he trying to hide information? Is he being obtuse?

I’ve always though the simplest way of communicating well is to take a few seconds to think about what you would like to hear. I ask myself these simple questions:

• If I was the customer, what would really excite me about the product?

• What would be important for me to know?

• What would I like to hear?

Looking at a conversation from a customer’s perspective ensures that you relay the right information. It also allows you to formulate your conversation around questions that will similarly realize important information for you.

The Philippines has never been a country where significant amounts of time are spent on written communications. Nonetheless, being a competent business writer will pay dividends. It will allow you to convey ideas, concepts, plans, suggestions, and directions in a format that is readily recoverable.

“Did I tell my customer that our purchase terms are 30% down with 15 days to pay?” The verbal conversation may be easily forgotten; the letter, proposal, or e-mail can easily be found and reviewed.

Just like verbal communication skills, there are a few things one should strive to achieve in written communication. The truth is that much business correspondence remains unread because it is poorly written and badly structured. Reports and proposals are often written without regard for the impression they give or the impact they make.

I might have been writing for BusinessWorld and other publications for many years; nonetheless, I would not claim to be a highly skilled or articulate writer. I try where possible to follow the same rules in writing as I do in speech — in other words, asking what readers would like to know: What information do they want, in what form, and with how much detail?

I enjoy reading well-crafted prose; I get irritated when I find grammatical and spelling mistakes in correspondence. For heaven’s sake, our computers do most of the hard work or weeding out blunders in punctuation and spelling. It should only take a single read-through of a document (from the eye of a reader) to find the few typos that may have slipped past the spell-checker!

Buzzwords, acronyms, and abbreviations are only acceptable to a point. If I never see “win-win”, “synergy” and Blue Ocean Strategy again, it will be too soon!

Similarly, long words and elaborate phrases are a turn-off! Clear and concise prose gets a message across. There is no need for complex sentences, obscure vocabulary, and convoluted sentence construction.

Document formatting can make a significant visual impact. Where possible, a simple font should be used (you won’t go far wrong with Times New Roman or Arial), and paragraphs — whether indented or otherwise — should have a minimum of half a line space between them.

Larger companies have a corporate standardizations manual for a very good reason. It helps present a consistent brand and image.

A well-written document is a business tool influencing decisions, winning new business, and building a solid brand and reputation. Take a bit of time to plan and double-check your work. The impression you leave, whether verbally or in writing, may make a difference between winning or losing business.

Terence A. Hockenhull is a long-term resident of the Philippines. He is an accomplished sales consultant who currently holds an executive sales position with an Italian geotechnical company.