Monday, December 22, 2014

Beware of Instant Affinity

Most people learn early in their lives that, in general, the things that are the hardest to obtain also hold the most value.  Why are rocks so cheap while diamonds are so expensive?

I remember a story that I heard as a child - maybe it was an anecdote.  In it, a man was describing his efforts to get rid of an old, but serviceable clothes dryer.  He had set it out in his front yard with a sign that said, "Clothes Dryer, old but still in great shape.  Free to the first taker."  After several days there were no takers.  The man thought about the situation for a while and wrote up a new sign to replace the one he had first put on the dryer.  In less than an hour he had three people come by to try and get the machine, of which he was quickly rid.  Can you guess what the new sign said?  He had changed the wording from the first pass to say, "Clothes Dryer, old but still in great shape.  Only $75!"  It wasn't until he described it as having value that others were able to see the same thing.

Many of us are leaders who also have the requisite power and authority over large IT and departmental budgets.  Consequently, each of us attracts the attention of vendors, partners, and salespeople who want our business.  Although not unique to just the United States, many of us see a behavior from these individuals that is aimed towards getting us to quickly commit to some type of sales transaction or relationship.  So what is this behavior to which I refer?  Before naming it, let me describe several ways it manifests.

Situation One:  You receive a phone call from someone who wants to do business with you.  Within three minutes of the call the person is discussing sports, family, politics, or some other very informal topic with you.  And it's not just the topics, but the tone that the person uses is the same or very similar to what you'd expect from a close friend.  They act like they've known you for years and if they're very good, you feel a sense of comfort with the person that would otherwise seem out of place with a stranger.

Situation Two:  You receive a written communication, usually an email, from someone in a sales or relationship building role.  If possible, they've shortened your name and/or personalized it.  If you are a "Robert", you become "Bob".  If you're an Annabelle you might be referred to as "Anna" or "Belle".  The communication reads like a letter from one friend to another.  There isn't really an introduction per se, just something that gets to the point in an informal way with an implicit expectation that you will respond.

Situation Three:  Imagine the first two scenarios, only this time it's in person.

What I've been describing is Instant Affinity.  There are many reasons to beware of instant affinity with anyone.  If your life has taken you to different places around the world, you will know that most cultures outside of the United States do not facilitate or promote this concept.  I have many stories about the ritualistic formalities that I have observed in Asia, Africa, Latin, America, and some places in Europe.  In order to spare you all of them I'll just cover my experience in Japan.

In the 1990s I was spearheading the efforts of a U.S.-based company to open up operations and sales in and around Tokyo.  The goal was to establish a complete office set-up and be conducting business in less than six months.  From a technical perspective, we got everything in place before the deadline.  However, after a year of operating the company was forced to close the offices and leave Japan.  You might ask "why?" or what happened.  The answer is simple - in Japan people will not do business with others unless they know them in some personal and intimate way.  It doesn't matter if you have the best product(s) in the world.  If you have not taken time to build relationships with your customers and sometimes even your suppliers, good luck with your efforts in that region.  Just showing up and doing business with the belief that "Instant Affinity" will carry you through is a risky proposition indeed.

As a leader, relationships are important to your success.  In fact, this is so much so that I can easily say that any leader without strong relationships with others is just passing through the role - not there to stay.  While I am not advocating that you can or should only do business with those that you know well, I am strongly suggesting that you look to form deep, long-lasting relationships with your key partners.  It is these connections that will help you through the hard times as well as the good.

Why did the tea ceremony develop in Asia?  Why did the handshake originate in Ancient Greece?  Why do Latin Americans kiss your cheek when meeting in person?  Why is business so personal in the Middle East?

Over time, most human civilizations have developed ways to prohibit "Instant Affinity".  Beware relationships that are granted or received too easily...

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