How CX leaders can overcome the current challenges to become better communicators


Some key learnings from Socrates, Netflix and tabloid journalists.

26th Jun 2020

Throughout the coronavirus crisis, I have written about the importance of customer experience leaders and managers having a  firm grasp on the 5 C's of leadership, in order to be able to steer through these difficult times.  

Communication is the vital fourth 'C' of this framework and is the focus of this article. But as a refresher, the 5 C's in their entirity are:

  1. Understanding the Challenge each of your team members face.
  2. Having Compassion in how you interact with them.
  3. Providing Clarity as to what matters most and now.
  4. Ensuring regular and effective Communication to the whole team.
  5. Create the environment for increased Collaboration.

There is a big risk that most leaders and managers feel they know enough about communication already. Most management training will include communication as a key module, as will training for specialist areas like customer experience.

Here we run the risk of familiarity breeding contempt. As well as that risk, of being unaware of our own blind spots, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our context. Communicating effectively always includes knowing your audience and being aware of the context within which you operate. Styles that may have worked previously, may not work now.

Building on the foundation of your comms training

That said, the principles of traditional ‘comms training’ still apply. Confusingly these also tend to be summarised through lists with letter C. Depending on the comms training you received, you may be familiar with a different number of Cs, but many will include these seven:

  • Complete
  • Concise
  • Considerate
  • Concrete
  • Clear
  • Courteous
  • Correct

Your communications as a leader should still aim to tick off that checklist. However, in our changed context of distributed home workers, I recommend going further. My experience of managing remote teams across the UK and India has taught me the value of four approaches:

  1. Master video meetings and their technology
  2. Use effective storytelling and questioning techniques
  3. Establish a rhythm of regular catch-ups
  4. Have both social and difficult conversations

Let’s explore how each of those tips for better communication can help your team.

Mastering Zoom

The rise in popularity of Zoom video meeting software has been well-trailed. You can’t watch the TV for long these days without seeing anyone from the Queen to members of the public connecting using Zoom.

However, before assuming this is the tool for these times, it is worth recognising that there are alternatives.

I encourage CX leaders to increase their knowledge of the range of alternatives available. Without claiming to have as exhaustive or up-to-date view of the market as Gartner or Forrester, here are other solutions I have seen:

  • Microsoft Teams (good for file and app sharing, weaker on video meeting options)
  • Cisco Webex (proven solution, reliable but lacks features like breakout rooms or polling)
  • Google Meet (easy integration with G Suite, but limited video meeting functionality)
  • GoTo Meeting (now looking dated and pricey compared to today’s free options)
  • Skype for Business (the reduced functionality option for those without MS Teams)
  • Adobe Connect (Pricey but part of the slick end of the market for organising events)
  • Collaborate Ultra (integrated with Blackboard for academia, but limited functionality)
  • JoinMe (like GoTo Meeting, now looking dated but reliable)

I recommend that CX leaders pounce on opportunities to become familiar with a range of tools. Once you have identified the tools that you will use most, invest time in mastering their features. Even the most intuitive tool benefits from you understanding how you could use it better. Fortunately, there is a wealth of free tutorials out there, so add this to your CPD activity.

A couple of blogs on Customer Insight Leader blog, emphasise the importance of using video for your meetings and the benefit of investing in improved technology. The first of those points is about establishing a more human interaction with the other person. The second is the degree to which your conversation can be improved by better lighting, microphone and webcam. This is surely the new ‘smart dressed’ for the virtual office. Perception counts.

Learning from the tabloids

Beyond the media used, the message matters when it comes to communicating. Concentration spans are famously reducing all the time. People are also used to being distracted when using digital devices. So, leaders need to work on their communication being both engaging and relevant.

One approach to this is to learn from successful newspaper stories. Even beyond the “exclusive scoop”, love them or loathe, tabloid journalists know how to structure a story. A glance at any copy of The Mirror will reveal a consistent approach to grabbing attention. Short eye-catching headlines (normally controversial, funny or trying to be both). Below this the first sentence summarising the key message to takeaway. The first paragraph summarises the entire article. From then on, short words, sentences and paragraphs are used to tell the story - with plenty of white space.

If you do need to communicate some key messages to your team using slides or documents, I recommend trying the tabloid approach to summarising your message.

Learning from Netflix 

Perhaps more relevant today, let’s consider the communication style of Netflix. What makes for a successful drama on Netflix, or a TV show that will tempt viewers into binge watching? There are a number of elements, but four of them strike me as relevant to storytelling:

  1. Follow a proven narrative structure;
  2. Include characters your audience will care about;
  3. Be brief (keep a good pace);
  4. Be easy to follow and visually attractive.

Following the last three is a matter of focus on the impact on real people, being more concise and visually-aware. For the first point, I recommend the work of author Stephen Denning. His books, including The Leader’s guide to Storytelling can help you master narrative templates that help.

With regards to questioning skills, your goal here should be to get beneath the superficial or polite. It is terribly British for us to focus on small talk (i.e. the weather) and not speak up to express our real needs. So, don’t fall for hearing your team are “fine” - dig deeper into your conversations to source the truth.

Questioning like an old Greek

A great tool to use here is Socratic Questioning - an approach to enquiry taught by Socrates (that ancient Greek who proved so popular they poisoned him). Despite his fall from grace, Socrates' ideas have gone on to form the basis of our legal system and much else, and applying his approach to enquiry can help you frame questions that will improve your communication:

  • Concept clarification questions (are you using any jargon or ambiguous terms)?
  • Probing assumptions (do your requests include implicit assumptions)?
  • Probing rationale (is there evidence to back up your assumptions)?
  • Have you considered other viewpoints? Could others help you see a different perspective?
  • What do you intend to do? Always check what actions are planned (if any)?

Establish a rhythm of regular catch-ups

If your team are not hearing from you regularly, then doubts and even fears or mistrust will creep in to fill the void. Don’t keep them in the dark. It is better to be regularly kept updated with what is still not clear (what you do not know), than to remain silent.

But regularly scheduled catch-ups with each team member (the infamous ‘one to one’s) should be mainly about you listening. Where there is knowledge or guidance to impart, this is also often best done through asking questions.

As a leadership coach myself, one of the most encouraging developments in recent years has been leadership as coaching. Leaders seeing the need to develop their ability to coach their teams. No longer relying on command and control, nor even just ‘passing on their knowledge’ but using open questions to help others find the answers.

Development of each team member’s ability to find their own answers to issues is a key skill. One that matters even more in a remote working scenario where autonomy and empowerment are needed to operate effectively. One of the best guides to how to coach your team in this way is The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay-Stanier.

In that bestseller, Michael shares a number of simple questions that will help leaders learn to have coaching conversations. Some great examples include:

  • The kickstarter question: “What’s on your mind?”
  • The AWE question: “And what else?”
  • The focus question: “What’s the real challenge here?”
  • The strategic question: “If you are saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?”

Simple but so effective once mastered, as other coaches will confirm.

If in doubt, communicate again

There is an old maxim, you need to tell tell people something up to 20 times before they truly hear you. It actually comes from British businessman Thomas Smith in his 1885 classic Successful Advertising”.

Whilst I’m not recommending that level of pure repetition, please don’t expect to just need to say something once or twice. When your team have so much turmoil and stress in their life, it will be even more difficult for them to hear you. The same will be true of your ability to really hear what they are saying.

So, if you have sought to communicate some important messages, or support your team more, if in doubt then communicate more not less. It could help to ask unprompted questions more. What do your team understand as the current priorities? What do they recommend you do?

Ask incisive questions, then listen to your team. That may well help you more than any leadership book.

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