Wednesday, May 19, 2010

R.E.S.P.E.C.T...what it means to me

R.E.S.P.E.C.T…what it means to me

To paraphrase Aretha, my team has a very particular meaning for the word respect. Several meanings in fact.

First, “respect” (in our business) means seeking first to understand, before seeking to be understood.

Often, that simply means listening. It also means asking questions, before jumping in with solutions.

It’s not something that came naturally to me when I started as a consultant in 2003. In fact, I was pretty confident that whatever the problem was, I had a solution, and sometimes before my client had finished their sentence. Funnily enough, seven years later, with way more consulting experience I am often less sure of the communication solution. Ad I spend way less time talking.

My listening skills, however, have improved remarkably with practice.

And thus the solutions I recommend are enriched by a far deeper understanding of what’s really going on for our clients’ businesses – whether that be with respect to their clients, colleagues, investors, media or industry gatekeepers.

In practice as communication consultants that means seeking to understand not only our clients but also our clients’ audiences. And we encourage our clients to also think deeply about what exactly is going in for those audiences before any of us start trying to talk to them.  We talk about “getting inside their skin”.

Data helps but personal experience is essential.

The most sophisticated market research is no match for a frank conversation about what really matters to individual clients.

I’ve recently had some experiences with consultants that caused me to reflect on the whole notion of listening. These consultants have plenty of things to tell me. Some of the wisdom they offer is confronting, some exciting, and almost all they have to say is useful.

But whether or not I use what they have to say has everything to do with whether I feel listened to or not.

In one case, I felt listened to… right up until the point a young guy who hasn’t run his own business or been a communication consultant started to tell me (with absolute certainty) how I should spend my time, and what BlueChip Communication should be doing about strategy, pricing and a few other bits and pieces.

In another case, I’ve had some very constructive conversations with a wiser and more experienced consultant. That person took the time to do their research, get to know more than the superficial facts, and only then engage in a conversation…or at least that’s what it felt like even though it was advice. I felt listened to.

 Which brings me back to respect. 

If, as consultants, we listen well enough, we should be able to pick up the verbal and non-verbal cues from clients. It’s not our job to tell clients what they want to hear. But it is our job to find a way to tell them what (in our best judgment) we think they need to hear.

So in seeking first to understand (to listen well) we can then be of most use to our valued clients.

It’s basic but even the big firms don’t necessarily have it right.

With that, I’m off to continue practicing my listening skills.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Breakfast with the Prime Minister today

Squeezed tightly between two clients I listened intently to Kevin Rudd talk this morning.

I say "squeezed tightly" because the sold-out event drew the financial services industry in force to the Shangri-La ballroom in Sydney to hear Chris Bowen, Minister for Financial Services, Craig Dunne, AMP CEO, John Brogden IFSA CEO and the Prime Minster.

Chris Bowen told a great story about a Prime Minister who began a national savings system yet left the office before he could complete the vision. He went on, of course, to say that last weekend another Labor Prime Minster finished the job by announcing the phase in of a 12% Superannuation Guarantee Charge.

The Prime Minster positioned super as a buffer that helped Australia avoid the worst of the global economic slowdown, and as one of our greatest national strengths - contributing both to the nation's economy and the security of Australian families.

Certainly there wasn't a lot of talk about banks today - as the PM went on to say super gave depth to domestic investment markets, diversification in the financial system and provided a source of capital for business.

What he didn't say was that all the talk about retail term deposits being granted concessional tax status, of say 15%, came to nothing. There was a firm view, pre-Henry announcement, that we would see a product created that enjoyed the same tax benefits as super and also provided a ready pool of onshore bank funding.

The Prime Minster also talked about Australia in 2009 and painted a picture of a nation that, in 2009, remained an attractive source of capital globally, with a strong financial sector making up the single largest sector of our economy.

Australians' expertise in funds management, risk analysis and financial markets, he argued, should encourage us to take what we have learned here and apply it in the region to make Australia (and Sydney) a regional hub for financial markets.

Continuing challenges for super? Adequacy, fairness and efficiency.

So what of the future for super? 

Many in the industry have called for regulatory certainty around super in order to give investors full confidence in the system - and the impetus to invest more with certainty.

Short term, it sounds as though the Government plan is to let the dust will settle.

I'm sure I heard an assurance there would be no more changes to super in next week's Federal Budget.

Longer term the promise is for "a fair system" that is "simpler and more efficient".

And I'll still be interested to see if that much-written about long term deposit product appears on Tuesday night in the Treasurer's speech.