There will always be, forevermore, for the rest of time, and for all eternity, huge disruptors.
- Your competition comes up with a new product.
- An unexpected and highly aggressive competitor enters your market.
- Regulations change dramatically.
- There’s a major world event, and it impacts everyone’s life and business model.
I think you know what I mean.
In times of turmoil, whether that’s 9/11, a global financial crisis, or the coronavirus pandemic, businesses are trying to think about how they can get back to growth. And leaders are looking for partners who can help them get there.
When disruption pushes the reset button on your relationships with your customers, you may be wondering: What does success look like now? As Marshall Goldsmith said, “What got you here won’t get you there.”
If there’s one thing we’ve learned, dealing with the upheaval of recent world events, it’s that adaptability and agility aren’t just ideas. These concepts are the foundation of any business that’s going to survive and thrive in the midst of disruption.
The companies that cross the chasm and make it into the Age of the Customer are the ones that innovate beyond their circumstances.
What’s the secret for dealing with disruption? Listening more, not less. There are three questions—three Catalyst Questions—that every company can ask customers when they are dealing with disruption:
- How can I help you right now?
- What does success look like for you on the other side of this?
- How can we build your return-to-growth plan together?
These Catalyst Questions are vital during times of disruption. Approaching the conversation with compassion, concern, and commitment can help your customers to see hidden possibilities. When you are in the middle of the tornado, it’s hard to see that you actually might come through this—or just how you might survive. Have you been there?
A very important customer was about to go through a renewal. The con- tract at stake was a large piece of business. Big business means big attention to detail in my world.
So I did what I thought were all the right things. I followed the rules.
I asked questions about any obstacles that might be standing in our way. I discovered that there were lots of legal issues during the last contract negotiation. In fact, my senior VP contact at the customer told me horror stories of an almost-year-long process of back and forth between attorneys.
Well, I wanted to make the process as easy as possible.
I had done my behind-the-scenes work to get my boss’s boss’s boss (that’s not a typo—there were a lot of links in the chain) to commit to a special request. I asked him if he would fly from the New Jersey headquarters to Louisville, Kentucky, and sit in a conference room until the contract was resolved. We thought that this level of commitment would be fantastic, an unprecedented show of support and talent that would resolve any issues in person and in short order. Together, we would deliver the details in a consolidated show of force, in the customer’s office, and would establish our unwavering commitment to resolving any contract issues.
But part of dealing with disruptions is understanding that plans don’t always go as planned.
Encouraged by the response from headquarters, I asked that skip-two- levels VP to fly into Indianapolis, not Louisville. Together, we could take a two-hour drive down I-65 to the customer’s office. We would meet with the customer, delivering the good news of the single resource that would make this big contract a done deal. The senior executive said yes, and it sounded like pure genius to me.
I’m not really a car person, but the blue Lexus rental car that pulled up to my office was a stunner. Long and sleek and loaded with leather, that chariot made a strong impression as I opened the door. I sunk into the passenger seat next to Mike, the aforementioned Senior Executive, and we began our journey. I was feeling a combination of comfort and anxiety. Both feelings stayed with me as we made small talk between the cornfields of Southern Indiana, headed across the Ohio River to the big meeting.
We walked into the comfortable lobby and clicked our way across the shining marble floor to the front desk. I saw the receptionist, but I was picturing victory in my mind. She was a cheerful, thin woman in her mid-forties, with her hair pulled back in a bun. We approached and I let her know who we were there to see. She asked about the purpose of our meeting and we exchanged pleasantries. She dialed the executive office; we took five steps back toward the door and sat down in the waiting area.
A long, three-seat Barcelona sofa was our resting place. Armless, it was a couch that looked better than it felt. In front of us, an elaborate red rug covered a marble floor, marking off a space for visitors to sit. Separating the chairs and sofa, a square glass coffee table hosted an enormous display of white and purple orchids. Behind us, an elaborate cappuccino machine deco- rated a nearby granite countertop.
At this moment in time, as you might guess, I didn’t need any caffeine.
I was doing one last round of meeting prep with the Senior Vice President, running through some Q&A scenarios. He sat facing me on my right, his back to the receptionist. Over his shoulder, I had a clear line of sight to the high desk just a few steps away. I saw that the receptionist was still on the phone. That was curious.
She gently put down the phone and turned to look at us. The smile on her face had been replaced with a straight line. My heartbeat started to increase, and I wasn’t sure why.
My traveling companion, the Senior VP, couldn’t see what I was beginning to suspect.
“Unfortunately,” the receptionist said, “Tim is unavailable. He’s not able to meet with you.”
Now my heart started racing. My breathing got real shallow, real quick. I could feel the blood flush in my ears.
I had confirmed the meeting earlier in the day, via email. We were stand- ing right here. We had just driven two hours. We had what they needed . . . and they were saying no?
How could this be happening?
The receptionist was saying that he was in the building, but he was not going to be able to meet with us today. “You’ll have to come back,” she said with an obligatory smile that vanished in the same moment it had appeared.
No real excuse.
No real explanation. No real luck.
I looked at the Senior VP. I looked at her. I couldn’t even respond. I hung my head in a combination of shame and horror.
I just knew Mike was going to look at me and lose his mind. He did not speak. We walked back to the car in silence. The Lexus that looked like a chariot on the way down started to look like a prison cell. His eyes straight ahead, Mike’s stoic expression told me everything I needed to know—words were unnecessary. I was positive about what was going to happen next.
I was about to get fired.
Mike closed the car door and took a deep breath.
His thick fingers wrapped around the steering wheel for support. Or maybe to contain his rage? He’d played football and was an imposing presence. His broad shoulders borrowed from every inch of the Lexus’s leather seat. He turned to look at me for the first time since we left the receptionist’s desk.
“Are you under the impression I’m going to fire you right now?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied.
I was looking at the blank navigation screen in the center console, not at him. The parking lot was nearly empty. I held a bright blue pen in my hand, as if I were getting ready to open my notebook and write down his response.
“Here’s the thing,” he said, as I found the courage to face him. “This hap- pens to all of us. There are moments when things are unexpected. So here’s what we’re going to do,” he explained as he started the car. “We’re going to go grab some dinner and we’re going to get to know each other a little bit better. This is done, at least for today. We’re going to take a pause. But here we are.” The engine purred to life and he touched a button to put the car in gear. “Let’s figure out how I can help you, right now.”
I breathed a sigh of relief that seemed to last until the third quarter of the following year.
What felt like incredible disruption to me and my career is nothing com- pared to the disruption that your customers feel in times of uncertainty and change. My story pales in comparison, but the disorientation, fear, and confusion are common threads for all of us.
What helped me to keep from going quietly insane was Mike’s simple cure for unexpected circumstances: Compassion.
In times of turmoil, understanding is the antidote.
When you reach out and ask, “How can I help you right now?” that compassion can be met with the depth of response that brings opportunity to uncertainty.
When I went to dinner with my Senior Vice President, he asked me some questions about what things would be like on the other side of that contract negotiation and how he could help bring the resources to bear. I needed to be in that conversation so that we could figure out how to change our situation. At times of deep crisis, your customers need your compassion—and your ability to listen—more than ever. We looked past the pain of our circumstances, and then, only then, were we able to see some alternatives. Together, we began to build a return to growth plan. It was a journey that never could have started without compassion and understanding in a time of crisis.