“Soft Skills” My Eye!

Yesterday at lunch I picked up the newspaper and read “Dear Abby.”  I like advice columns because I teach communication skills, and it often seems to me that the questions submitted are less about the right answer and more about how to communicate it with others. Yesterday’s column contained the following gem.

A guy writes to complain that he lent money to some relatives a few years ago and they have not paid him back. What cheeses him off is that they are now on Facebook talking about their vacations and purchases, and he wants Abby to tell him what to do.  To my absolute astonishment, she advises the guy to respond on Facebook with some comment like, “I’m glad you’re able to take trips and buy things even though you haven’t paid back the money you owe me.”

Has she gone off the deep end? What on earth would you expect to achieve with a response like that?  You could make enemies.  You could make a fool of yourself. And most of all, you can now forget about being repaid.

Life is full of bad communication skills isn’t it?  You check into a hotel and the light is blinking on your phone.  So you set down all your stuff and go see what the message is.  It’s the front desk telling you how happy they are to have you as a guest and that if you need anything, just call.  Gee, thanks.  What a great use of my time.

I can think of dozens more of these.  Even when I bring my own bags into the supermarket the clerk will ask if I want my milk in a bag, as though I might want to carry more items.

Marketing departments will often design front-line campaigns, and send to their field offices a “Campaign in a Box,” a kit containing all the point of sale displays, product knowledge FAQs, and directions on “What to Tell the Customer.”  I often wonder why they don’t include “What to Ask the Customer” instead.  We tell customers enough stuff. Why not give them some useful questions to build interest and help the customer see what he can gain?  When questions are included, they are often useless qualifying questions, such as “Ask the customer if he uses the internet,” or “learn if the customer has over $50,000 in investable assets.”

Now how did I get off on this rant today?  It’s because the communication skills in which we must be competent to sell, persuade, negotiate, coach, get promoted, stay married, raise kids, whatever, are often called “The Soft Skills.”  And yet they are not soft skills at all.  They are incredibly hard to master, involving years of experience, training and practice.  The very top people in every walk of life are usually great communicators, and they got that way by focusing on the best ways to express simple concepts.

Every training program I’ve ever developed contains the requisite communication skills to achieve the learning objectives, and believe me, the learners work very hard practicing to get them right. I doubt anyone would call those portions of the training soft work.

No matter what content you have in any training for change, sooner or later someone has to speak with a colleague, boss, subordinate, prospect or customer, and the skills to do it well are difficult to master.

So there are two lessons for today.  First, great communication is hard work, not soft.  And second, if someone owes you money, don’t complain about it on Facebook.

Think Like Your Customer!

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About Gregory LaMothe
I teach people how to sell things. I own the company ActionSystems. Visit my website at www.actionsystemstraining.com.

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