Are Client Relationships Built by Smooth Talkers?

Yesterday I had a brief conversation at my coffee shop with a guy in his late thirties, an architect at a leading Twin Cities firm that competes with my client firm. Eventually he got around to asking what I did for a living. I told him I was a management consultant, emphasized  my expertise in performance improvement, and added that I was working on two large client relationship projects, one with an architectural firm. He immediately started talking about the fact that some people are more natural conversationalists than others, and client relationships needed outgoing talkers. He wanted to know what I could do to help those “talkers” improve.

What crossed my mind was that old saw about not knowing what you don’t know, which perfectly fit his remarks.  So I said something about the cutting-edge language skills needed for the complexities of today’s marketplace.  Since his mental model about communication skills focused on “natural communicators” and what I call “gab,” I chose not to go there. That conversation would challenge his perspective on a number of fronts.  Furthermore, research on confirmation or “my side”  bias   indicates that we human-beings have a tough time hearing and believing evidence that runs counter to our beliefs. The new communication technologies don’t lend themselves to a single interaction, anyway.  

But that conversation got me thinking. The fact is that after the first three or four minutes into a conversation, being warm (see my post on interpersonal warmth), friendly, outgoing and with a gift of gab, is of no more interpersonal use than being cool, aloof, laid back and, well . . . boring. Why is that? Today’s marketplace demands people who can persuade others to adapt to constant change.  Not an easy trick. Interpersonal success in today’s organization demands competencies that are beyond the ordinary education of most any college grad. It’s a rare undergrad or MBA program that offers the skills and tools for understanding and analyzing the conversational systems used and needed in organizations.

A number of recent studies show that language skills are essentially power skills. They hold the key to political influence and control in organizations, even at the lowest levels. The ability to question, persuade, inspire, and assure both within and outside the organization becomes even more central to career success in the 21st century. These are not “natural” skills. Indeed, on numerous occasions senior execs have asked far simpler questions such as how to “say that,” how to “ask that,” and how to “present my idea” in such a way as to up the ante on buy-in. But far more complex language competencies are necessary for managing differences, building and accessing networks, negotiating resources, coaching or building strategic client relations.

Proof of the need for new communication competencies shows up all the time.  In the last two days, three different friends reported organizational errors based on the simplest communication skill:  checking out the terminology the other person is using.  That reminds me of a story:

Three people were at work on a construction site.  All were doing the same job, but when each was asked what his job was, the answers varied.  “Breaking rocks,’ replied the first.  ‘Earning a living,’ answered the second.  ‘Helping to build a cathedral,’ said the third.

Understanding how language works and using those new technologies is a basic requirement for career success.


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