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August 20, 2014
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November 17, 2010

Are You in the Business of Mudslinging? Five Tips for Not Running Your Company Like a Political Campaign

In business, as in politics, negativity and putdowns don't work in the long term. Maribeth Kuzmeski says business owners sometimes (inadvertently) make the "mudslinging" mistake — and she explains how to break this bad habit.

In the spotlight this week: Maribeth Kuzmeski, MBA, author and founder of Red Zone Marketing, LLC

The midterm election results are in, and the people have spoken: When it comes to winning votes, mudslinging works. Despite the constant barrage of negative ads and the regular use of schoolyard insults, many mudslinging candidates came out on top. But according to Maribeth Kuzmeski, while the midterms showed that going negative can sway voters and get you the job, it is no way to build long-lasting relationships with those you serve—and that's just as true of customers as it is of constituents.

"As I watched the midterm campaigns unfold, I was reminded how easily businesspeople slip into mudslinging, often without realizing it," says Kuzmeski, author of The Connectors: How the World's Most Successful Businesspeople Build Relationships and Win Clients for Life (Wiley) and the new book ...And the Clients Went Wild! How Savvy Professionals Win All the Business They Want (Wiley). Kuzmeski says when mudslinging politicians actually get into office, they have no trust built up with anyone—even those who voted for them. What's more, voters perceive that the solutions they want implemented get lost in all the negativity. The same principles apply to business.

"One second they're talking up their business, and the next they're bashing their competition," she adds. "Unfortunately, in the process, they end up ruining their own credibility, harming their relationships with clients, and taking the spotlight off why they were hired in the first place."

"Especially in these skeptical times, you must build trust and integrity with your customers and let them know you have their best interests at heart," says Kuzmeski. "You need to maintain a laser focus on solutions. That is, after all, what clients want from you. And it's the key to faster closes, smoother client and customer interactions, and lots of long-term business."

Kuzmeski provides her advice on how to do what negative politicians can't — form long-lasting relationships:

Don't junk talk. In this year's midterm elections, candidates referred to each other as liars, cheats, hucksters, mob bankers, crotch-kickers, adulterers, and more. For business owners and salespeople, insults should be off limits—always! "Customers won't feel comfortable doing business with someone who uses insults," says Kuzmeski. "For one, they might wonder what you are going to say about them behind their backs. Remember, you have only a limited amount of time to win over and impress your customers. Make it a policy at your business—for both you and your employees—to never waste that time by using it to junk talk your competition.

"Instead use the time you have with your customers to create a memorable experience that leaves them saying, 'Wow, that was great!'" she advises. "For example, I have one client who is very health conscious. He wants everyone around him to live healthier, more active lives. So he incorporates healthy food, videos, books, posters, and seminars into his unrelated business offerings. He's providing an experience—a total healthy life plan that focuses on his clients' overall well-being and connecting with people on a different level."

Focus on the business at hand. Despite the fact that there are plenty of problems to deal with in the country today—unemployment, the slow economy, the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, to name a few—during their midterm campaigns, many candidates focused on each other's personal lives and events that happened a long time ago. Such tactics leave a bad taste in the mouths of voters, who perceive that mudslinging candidates simply don't care about the changes they were elected to effect. Clients may well feel the same way about mudslinging businesspeople.

"Remember, your customers care only about what's happening right now," asserts Kuzmeski. "If you are talking about your own problems, they'll think you don't know what they are going through. Sure, make your business personal, but in the sense that you tell your customers how your product or service will personally affect them and improve their lives. When it's obvious you've thought a lot about the problems affecting their businesses, it shows them you identify with them, understand how they feel, and appreciate the situation they're in. And that's the kind of person they want to do business with."

Focus on your customers, not your competition. During election season, we saw numerous candidates lose focus on their voters and instead direct their communication at each other. And business owners often do the same, especially during tough economic times. That's a mistake says Kuzmeski.

"With a slow economy, you might be tempted to focus on everything your competition does wrong in an effort to convince customers and potential customers that you are the best person to do business with," she says. "But the reality is the most successful business owners don't spend all their time talking about what their competition does wrong. Instead, they focus on how their own products and services can benefit their customers. That's what your customers really care about. Make very clear what you can do for them, and they will keep coming back."

Listen...curiously listen. Politicians often say they hear their constituents' wants and needs, but it quickly becomes clear they don't. If they did, they wouldn't spend so much time trying to do each other in rather than focusing on what the American people need from their elected officials. The lesson for business owners is this: If you can learn to really listen to your customers, you'll have a leg up on your competition.

So, what does it mean to really listen? Kuzmeski offers several suggestions:

  • In addition to hearing what someone else has said, actively try to understand his or her words in your own way and ensure that you understand what he or she means. Ask questions to confirm that any assumptions you've made are true.
  • Make sure the speaker has your full attention. Watch for non-verbal cues, stay focused, and don't interrupt.
  • Show that you're listening. Let your face display a range of emotions that reflect that you're paying attention, and acknowledge what the speaker is saying every so often with an "uh-huh" or a "sure."
  • Most importantly, remember that you're there for the speaker, not the other way around. Your job isn't to jump to conclusions or one-up the other person with a story of your own!

"Because so few people truly practice the art of listening, it's the most effective way to make lasting connections with others," confirms Kuzmeski. "Being a good listener sets you apart! It makes you very likeable because others will feel comfortable and valuable when they're with you. Cultivating this skill will bring you satisfied customers, content employees, and trusting supervisors. Guaranteed."

Be authentic. People who are authentic, genuine, and real are usually at ease because they're not trying to cover up anything. In turn, being at ease puts others at ease. Authenticity is giving others the idea that what you see is what you get. Real people are easy to be around because you feel safe knowing that you can trust what they say. Authenticity can be a huge issue for candidates who are often trying to appeal to voters who are nothing like them. Usually they are called out on it. If you aren't authentic in business, your customers—as voters often do with candidates—will see right through you. They won't trust you, and in turn, they won't want to do business with you.

"In sales, less of the memorized pitch and more of the informal conversational approach is exceptionally more successful," says Kuzmeski. "Wouldn't you want to buy from someone you could really believe was giving you things as they truly are? No pretense, no fluffing up the facts — true authenticity."

"In politics and especially in business, success comes when you are able to form strong connections with customers that turn into long-term, productive relationships," says Kuzmeski. "Those relationships are built on trust and integrity, not negativity. To get ahead in today's economy, put negativity aside. Stop worrying about what your competition is saying and doing. Focus on your customers' needs, be truly authentic, and show them that you really care about them. When you do, you will form great relationships based on support, respect, and trust."

Maribeth Kuzmeski, MBA, is the author of five books and the founder of Red Zone Marketing, LLC, which consults with businesses from entrepreneurial firms to Fortune 500 corporations on strategic marketing planning and business growth. Maribeth has personally consulted with some of the world's most successful CEOs, entrepreneurs, and professionals. An internationally recognized speaker, she shares the tactics that businesspeople use today to create more sustainable business relationships, sales, and marketing successes. She is an international keynote speaker and regularly speaks to audiences on topics relating to business development, marketing, and sales strategies.

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