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When Conversations Are the Key to Success, Why Bother With a Keyboard?

Conversations have always been a key to my career success. Since 1981, I’ve used keyboards to support conversations, often with folks working a long distance from Vancouver. Email and other forms of on-line messaging became a way of conversing with key people who were normally very hard to reach.

It came as a bit of surprise to me this week when a really bright, highly valued, colleague suggested that writing wasn’t very important in sales, and it was becoming less important.

My reliance on my keyboard as part of my conversations hasn’t really changed in 30 years. Letting busy people choose if and when they’d like to re-engage in conversation with me. Proving that I’ve listened to them. Offering my perspectives. Making an honest effort to contribute value to those who I’m conversing with (much as Neil Rackham advocates). Waiting for proof that I’ve succeeded in my efforts via some feedback (like a reply email).

In 1993, I asked a senior executive of a Gas Utility if he could ever foresee their industry using the Internet as part of their business. Not a chance he said. Three years later, he asked for my help in a presentation to the CEO’s of Canada’s gas distribution firms on that very topic. Two years after that, we proudly helped their firm create an on-line conversation with regulators and the public that led to approvals for their firm’s construction of a new natural gas pipeline. This happened despite many underlying route complexities, including environmental and first nations concerns. We used keyboards, for a first time, as part of their conversation.

Throughout all this, the importance of engaging the public and regulators in a dialogue on the merits of the project never changed. What did change was the means to that end. We found a way to improve the odds of success by giving valuable communications added amplitude and speed via clever uses of emerging technologies. Keyboards became a trigger for conversations, not a replacement for them.

The approach worked, in my view, because the fundamental work never changed. It felt familiar to those who were doing it, we’d just instrumented it a little differently. Users gained feedback on how well (or not) they were engaging target audiences in the dialogue we knew had to occur. They got that feedback fast. This required added agility in how we participated in the conversations we’d invited. We needed to respond in a fashion that proved we were actually listening. When we did, it seeded feedback reinforcing that we were on the right track. Success became more predictable.

At the end of the day, everyone involved looked at each other and couldn’t believe what we’d collectively accomplished. We’d triggered more conversations, quickly, with the help of keyboards. We’d triggered more good conversations, quickly, with the help of feedback that let us make mistakes, then discover and fix them fast.

This was 17 years after I’d begun learning how to support conversations with a keyboard. It’s now 12 years later,
and I’m still learning how to do so.

For me, the keyboard’s role in triggering conversations
is still the same.

The screen’s just a little different.

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4 Responses to When Conversations Are the Key to Success, Why Bother With a Keyboard?

  1. Dave Brock's Blog says:

    Provocative piece John, seems appropriate to let my fingers (and keyboard) add some thoughts.

    There seem to be certain trends that would reinforce "writing" as a complementary or replacement to "verbal" conversations. Kids prefer to text than talk on the phone, complex, discussions are held synchonrously and asychronously using all sorts of "keyboard" based tools–blogs, twitter, Facebook, etc.

    These types of conversations are critical. They are both important to monitor and important to participate in. At the same time, one questions the quality of some of these conversatiions–partly due to limitations of 140 and partly due to sloppiness on the part of the communicator.

    On the other hand (you already know I am schizoid), we see other trends regarding keyboard based conversations. Taking away all the spam and clutter, we still find people overwhelmed with email and other forms of keyboard conversations. It may take days to respond to something. We see people filtering things, just in attempts to get conntrol.

    We see more dangerous abuses of keyboard based communication, people saying things they would never say to a person directly because we can "hide" behind the computer, tremendous miscommunications because the written word misses the sublties and underlying contexts of "non verbal" communication—(this is confusing but you know what I mean).

    I can go on, on both sides of this discussion. What's it mean for professional sales, or business in general. The "written word" will always be a significant component of business communications. I think the ability to communicate very complex concepts, to validate agreements, and other area. I think we will see continued increase in very casual and informal written communications, through too many channels. For example, this morning I had a "conversation" that started through LinkedIn, continued through direct email, and finished on Twitter. Trying to maintain the history of that stream is a real challenge.

    The future of keyboard communication is likely to be a natural adjunct to voice conversation, will be conducted concurrently through multiple channels, both within our "control" and outside that.

    Thanks for a post that let my fingers do the talking.

  2. John Cousineau, CEO, innovativeinfo says:

    Dave, thxs for your thoughtful response. My feedback on same:

    There's a real need to sharpen the feedback sales people get on what impacts, if any, their written communications are having. Such feedback, would drive down the risks of dangerous abuses (ie ineffective uses) of keyboard based communications. Sales people, after all, tend to be incredibly goal oriented.

    I agree with you observation that conversations, today, occur in a growing variety of channels. and keeping track of the history of these interactions is a challenge. As more and more of the channels used open up their systems via APIs, it becomes much more possible.

    As sales practices change, there's an amplified need for metrics on the impacts of sales practices on funnel velocity. How else will sales people ever learn whether or not what they're doing is worth doing over and over again.

  3. Paul Castain says:

    Well done John!

    I particularly like your position of this "supporting" conversations.

    At times this can become a bit of an "either or" discussion" when in fact, they can coexist quite nicely.

    Everyone has their preferred mode of communication. For some its face to face, others the phone, email and even text messaging. The key is to communicate via the venue that's best for the other party with one caveat . . . know when its time to move it from the virtual space to real time. More problems get created and complicated because something was read the wrong way.

    Thanks again John!

    Paul Castain

  4. Christian A. Maurer says:

    I guess like with so many things it is a question of balance.

    There are conversations happening over keyboards that never would happen over the phone, because it would be just too difficult to find enough time for both parties to be on the phone at the same time especially if the correspondents live in different time zones.

    There are other conversations, that should never take place over keyboards and where a phone conversation despite all obstacles is the right thing to do.

    The judgment when which channel is appropriate is though an individual one. From a courtesy standpoint, I would suggest that the initiator of the conversation adapts to the preferences of the recipient. This though takes some learning. Getting appropriate feedback can speed up this learning and make conversations more effective.

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