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Listen to your business

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It’s no use knowing your bottom line is suffering if you don’t know what’s at the root of the problem. Steve Thomson says all you need to do is listen to find out what’s going wrong.

Common sense will tell you when your business is experiencing a problem. No matter whether that business is a plumbers’ merchant or a multi-national mega-brand, the signs will be plain to see – usually close to the bottom right of your bank statement!

However, there is a lot of wriggle room between knowing that there is a problem and knowing what the problem is.

There’s even more of a gap between identifying the problem and finding the cause, and it’s this gap that’s most worrying, as without knowing the cause how are you supposed to fix it?

1: Diagnosis

You don’t need to be a doctor to know that treating the symptoms without treating the cause just means that the symptoms will, in all probability, be coming back before too long... and the same is true in business.

Time and again I’ve witnessed businesses thrash around optimistically sticking metaphorical band-aids on bits of the operation without ever getting close to the real underlying cause of the problem. My advice is to do some listening. Maybe ask a few pointed questions. Because virtually every breakdown in a business is in reality a breakdown in communication.

Let’s take something as fundamental as a vehicle fleet that has a higher than expected repair bill associated with it. A real expense that can create very real problems, not just of unnecessary expenditure in terms of parts and labour, but of downtime for the drivers, delays to customers and ultimately a big impact on profit too.

2: Treatment

When looking at treatment, ask yourself: “what do you treat?” Do you consider buying or leasing new vehicles? Sacking the maintenance staff? Bringing in outside logistics? Or do you think about what the underlying problem might be and address that?

Who is monitoring drivers’ performance? Are service intervals too long? Are loads suitable for the vehicles? Are maintenance diagnostics up to date? Are your people using genuine parts or are they cutting corners to meet budget constraints?
"Once you accept that you have a communication issue, you can start to think about how you can not only fix it, but how to create a culture that will safeguard against these issues ever gaining a toehold and become a problem again."
These are all valid questions that need to be asked and answered, but we could, and arguably should, be delving deeper still to find the real underlying cause of the problem.

If the drivers are aware that there are problems with the vehicles and are not reporting it – why not? If the parts are of poor quality, then someone must be aware of this. Who are they telling about their concerns. If the vehicles need to be serviced more often, then why has no-one pressed this case? If there’s not enough money to keep the vehicles on the road is that information being passed up to those who decide on such matters? 

Maybe you don’t have a fleet of vehicles and a board of directors. Maybe you work in a cosy office with two other people, but one of those others takes a lot of time off with petty ailments, putting a burden on you and your colleague.

In either situation you can choose to treat the symptom or you can get to the cause and work on fixing that. I maintain that at the root of virtually every breakdown in the workplace, however that might manifest itself; however large or small; whether it’s a niggle or a catastrophe, there’s a breakdown in communication.

Someone is failing to report something. Someone is dealing with their colleagues in such a way as to cause offence or stress; someone is negotiating badly with suppliers. There might be bullying or a diversity issue that’s not being addressed, and the trickle-down effect is creating or exacerbating a problem. It might be as simple as one department using jargon that another department is misinterpreting. It could be that the manner in which telephones are answered comes across badly to potential customers and may even drive them away.

3: Recovery

Once you accept that if you mine deep enough into a problem you will come to a communication issue, you can start to think about how you can not only fix an existing problem, but also to create a culture within the organisation that will safeguard against many of these issues ever having a chance to gain a toehold and become a problem.

There is a very strong argument in favour of creating or adopting a coaching culture even in small organisations, as coaching has, at its core, the concept of acute listening, and it is only by listening to the organisation and the people within it that you will be able to deflect potential problems before they start to affect the sharp end of the business.
Alternatively, in some situations employing ‘mystery shoppers’ to give you an objective view of aspects of the business might be the way to go.
However you tackle the issue, it’s to be hoped that you will head off trouble before it becomes critical. After all, listening is a lot cheaper than fixing!
  • A coaching culture can be much more than just feel-good, it can be a real driver for trouble-free business
  • Developing listening skills in staff can help avoid expensive issues from arising
  • An objective observer will often see and hear things that someone inside the company might ignore.

Steve Thomson is a professional presenter who turned his hand to training at the request of a client in 1994. While he still takes occasional work as a presenter, his main focus now lies in training and development work in the field of personal and business communication. Follow Steve on Twitter:@thespeakercoach or visit his websites: Profile-Training and Unlimited Potential.

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