"It's not Personal, It's Business"
You've heard it before and you'll hear it again, as a reason to keep any shadow of your personal life, personality, emotions, wants, needs, desires, feelings, and opinions separate from your working life. This phrase is popular and has to be one of the more pervasive myths out there polluting what could otherwise be healthy workplaces.
When you force yourself and your workforce to disavow themselves of all personal feelings and sensibilities, you are stripping from your business the very thing that makes it compelling, and vital to your clients. Your Humanity.
Businesses are not people, but PEOPLE make businesses run.
The Marketer's Perspective
As marketers it is our job to tell stories that are authentic and engaging. We are constantly trying to put ourselves not only in the shoes of our clients so that we can speak on their behalf with a genuine voice, but also to speak with that voice to their clients who are thinking, feeling individuals. This is an inherently personal exercise. You must consider the desires, needs, fears and curiosities not only of your clients, but of their customers. In a way you are being asked to create digital scenarios mirroring real human interactions and in order to do that effectively you must consider the people involved on a personal level. When you reframe your job as a conduit between groups of people with unique thoughts feeling and social cues it's easy to see just how personal business really is.
The Business Owner's Perspective
As a small business owner you are no doubt motivated by a fiscal need to sell your product or services to your clients in a way that is profitable for your business. On the other hand, you've probably observed that your best clients are the ones who trust you and with whom you have forged some sort lasting relationship. Why do you think that is? What makes some clients loyal while others fade away? I would wager that it's because at some point in your business relationship with them, you formed a common bond based on a genuine personal connection.
Thought Exercise: First Come First Serve
Imagine a brick and mortar flower shop. A customer enters in need of a bouquet of flowers. This would seem like an ordinary transaction, however the florist notices a few non-verbal clues that provide context that are critical in steering the entire interaction. First, the customer seems flustered like something is wrong. There are 2 other people who came into the store before this customer, but they are calmly browsing.
What would you do?
A business only approach might guide you to take each customer only in the order in which they entered the store.
A personal approach would tell you to address the customer who is displaying signs of emotional concern and to help to address their needs first.
But what about the other customers? Well firstly, consider that people are intuitive beings. As long as you have already greeted those other customers with a warm hello and they have continued to browse, you are safe to assume they aren't ready for more help just yet. You can also bet on the fact that they took notice when the agitated customer entered the shop.
Attending to someone who has an urgent need will help neutralize the entire environment for everyone, making the shopping experience in your store better. Chances are the customer who is upset merely needs someone to acknowledge their presence, give them space to express what their frustration is, and guidance on how to resolve their issue before they too will find themselves transformed into a calmer, happier customer.
Personalized Business in a Digital World
A digital example: You receive three emails from clients about updates that need to be made to their websites. The first two are fairly standard requests that need to be done in a timely fashion, the third is a also a standard request but the client is noticeably agitated and feels like the request is an emergency. Who do you follow up with right away?
Customer's emotions matter, so you can say "it's not personal, it's business" but that is in fact, bad for business.
Personal Doesn't Mean Unprofessional
Think about some of the best customer service experiences you've ever had. What stands out? Did you feel like someone listened to you? If you were frustrated did you feel like the agent made an effort to understand and empathize with your reaction? I'm guessing the answer is a resounding yes. Still, it is important to have guidelines about what level of personal interaction is appropriate.
Having a personal interaction with a client doesn't mean that it's OK for them or for you to share information or ask questions of a personal nature that make either party uncomfortable.
The agitated customer in the flower shop may say "I'm late for my anniversary lunch with my wife and I need a bouquet of a special type of flower whose name I can't remember"
It would be inappropriate to ask the customer a question like "oh, have you forgotten her anniversary before? Hope it doesn't lead to you sleeping on the couch." Just as it would be inappropriate for the customer to ask for more details from the business representative other than those specifically relating to the product or service.
You should keep your questions business related. You can genuinely express your concern for the client and demonstrate with your actions that you care about their feelings. "I totally understand. Let's help you find something quickly so you can get to lunch as possible. Do you remember the color and shape of the flower?"
Professionalism with Heart
The key to making personal connections not only within your business organization but with your customers is to treat everyone with the empathy that they deserve. You may not always agree with someone's reaction to a particular situation, but you should trust that from their perspective it is genuine and deserves consideration. Sometimes this means demonstrating empathy before you fully understand someone's reaction.
If you are an entrepreneur, solo-preneur, start-up or small family business it is likely that your level of investment in your work is very high, even personal. Author Annie Dillard famously said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” For most of us, that means spending nearly 1/3 of our lives or 90,000 hours at work over the course of our lifetimes. That is a huge personal investment. The financial investments and sacrifices that you make as a business owner are also extremely personal.
It makes sense that we would not want to shut off our personalities in the work place and would crave relationships within our organizations that are more than the transactional goings on of day to day business. If forming these bonds with coworkers helps to improve company culture and productivity it is equally important that company policies thoughtfully consider that company culture in its written policies so they are not in conflict.
It can be confusing for employees if you have established a certain way of working in the office with verbal policies but have written policies that contradict behaviors that have been widely allowed and encouraged in practice.
Major Brands with Thriving Company Cultures
Quality of life in the workplace has become one the best ways that smart brands have found to improve company culture and productivity. How would a company work if every employee had access to comforts and policies that treat them like humans who want to feel comfortable, have fun and be relaxed at work?
The Google offices have become something of an Urban legend when it comes to forward thinking corporations. This model isn't scaleable for small business owners but some of the basic principle's can be. Small Businesses can forge strong company cultures in lots of way. Check out these great example from Extensis.
Of course, it's not a free for all, major brands know that creating flexible and inclusive workplaces also means doing so around a solid set of protocols that make sure that business stays on track. Fortunately, happy employees rarely need strict protocols when they are in a work environment where they feel valued, safe, and trusted.
Some major brands that are doing this really well are, just to name a few:
A recent Glassdoor study found that in order to have a stellar company culture you should have these key indicators:
Scaling your Business on the Right Principles
What ideas are you building your company on? If you are trying to scale your business one of the things that is routinely advised by business consultants is to create a company culture. Office parties and non-work related outings have become fairly common. Why? Because they encourage people to form personal bonds that lead to trust in the workplace.
Now that we find ourselves in the midst of a global health crisis, fostering personal values and genuine interactions from inside and outside your organization are critical to survival. So much so that I am cautiously optimistic that there will be at least some paradigm shifts in corporate culture.