Conscious-Business.org.uk

A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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The Sustainability Opportunity

The horrendous Jimmy Savile story has recently entered a new phase: towards criticism of the institutions – the BBC, the hospitals, the Department of Health – that allowed him to operate with such impunity.

All across those organisations I imagine people are now asking themselves how they let this happen. And I can hear the reply: “it was just how it was back then” or “I didn’t know what I could do” or “I just went along with it because it was the ‘culture’ of the day”.

This issue of conformity has come up before in this blog – reflecting similar examples from different fields: for example, institutional racism. The ability of any organisation – like the police, for example – to confuse itself, to collude amongst its members, to “sleep-walk”.

History provides, of course, many even worse examples of self-delusion amongst groups.

The Solomon Asch studies – video here – are shocking to watch. They demonstrate, to me at least, how powerful these effects are. I am pretty sure that if I was the young man in the second video, I too would have gone along.

I have also often seen this kind of sleep-walking in the businesses where I have worked.

In large and in small businesses alike I have seen management (and the staff) sleep-walk into a worse and worse situation. “Wake-up” I want to shout. Sometimes I do shout that 🙂 Sometimes it works. And sometimes not. The zombies sleep on. Walking over the cliff.

And I also worry that I am doing it right now.

Perhaps twenty years from now someone will finally blow the whistle on the biggest scandals of our generation, in a way that sticks. The things we know, but now ignore, will suddenly rise painfully into consciousness.

How, for example, at the beginning of the 21st century did we collectively dream our way through one of humanity’s greatest disasters – the completely avoidable deaths of millions and millions of people – through the wanton destruction of our environment, and by allowing starvation and curable disease to kill men, women and children at unbelievable rates?

Today, in case you were asleep, 30% of the world’s population don’t have access to essential medicines. 13% of people in the world are undernourished. (Source: Oxfam.)

That day, when we all wake up, I, like all of us, will probably try to justify my behaviour and say “it was just how it was back then” or “I didn’t know what I could do” or “I just went along with it because it was the ‘culture’ of the day”.

There is an argument that this is just part of the human condition. That our failure is inevitable – because we, as humans, are flawed.

But, personally, I think that is only one side of the argument. I do think it is important to accept that we are human and we do make these mistakes. All the time. We are weak.

But it is also, in my view, important to recognise that we are strong and able to do something about all this.

Of course, lots of people are doing things. I really like this recent approach by Oxfam – the doughnut – a simple, graphical model that allows us to contemplate the complexity of a world threatened by multiple environmental disasters and by multiple social and human ills.

I like the model because it is simple. But I also like what it doesn’t show: that as long as businesses operate within the doughnut there is huge scope for innovation and creativity of all kinds. For prosperity and a meeting of needs.

That to me is to the great opportunity presented to business in this sometimes difficult world.


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Beyond ROWE – VOWE?

The term ROWE – meaning Results Only Working Environment – seems to be pretty popular at the moment.

The idea, in case you haven’t come across, it is that employees are paid for results rather than the number of hours worked.

NixonMcInnes, a local company I work with, following in the footsteps of Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia, implemented the idea of what they call “flexible working” many years ago.

Chouinard’s autobiography was entitled “Let My People Go Surfing” – that title should help you understand the philosophy.

Presenteeism: out, out, out.

What I like about ROWE is that it has been linked to employee engagement – employees who work this way seem to want to stay longer and they enjoy their work more.

And if you measure productivity – numbers of orders processed, for example, or even hours paid for by a client (billable hours) – rather than hours in the office you’ll see better results.

But I wonder if there is something better? I am sure the ROWE experts are on top of this, but this is it in my own words:

The number one principle of ROWE is that “people at all levels stop doing any activity that is a waste of their time, the customer’s time, or the company’s money.”

But my question is: how do people know?

How do they know whether what they are doing is a waste of their time, the customer’s time or the company’s time?

In many large organisations when you join you inherit a whole load of ways of doing things (processes). These are based on an even bigger load of assumptions – visible and invisible – about what is important. Many of these assumptions were made in a time where things were different – they come from the past.

So it seems to me it is perfectly possibly that people in a results only work environment will continue to produce results – that is, be more ‘productive’ – but maybe they’ll be producing the wrong results? Results that don’t actually help the company fulfil its ‘Mission’. Results that don’t actually help anyone.

So here’s a simple alternative: VOWE – the value only work environment. The idea is to do only activities that add value to customers, colleagues, or other stakeholders.

This, of course, requires a clear understanding of what value is. That may seem difficult and off-putting.

But I think most people know what value is. They know what they value.

I value peace and quiet. I value the smile on my child’s face, showing me he is happy. I value a clean floor. I value a beautiful object. Or a bit of software that actually works and makes my life easy.

HR and OD people (and some CEOs) sometimes talk about ‘values’ as if they were something special, something that only the enlightened can hold on to.

But to me a ‘value’ is just what I value. I value honesty and openness. Those are my values.

So actually understanding value is easy for each of us – we know what we value. We know it when we see it, when we touch it, when we feel it.

We need to understand that others value things too – and that what you value may be different from what I value. Value is a perception – ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’.

So in a Value Only Work Environment people understand this. And they dedicate their time not just to producing ‘results’ – but to making sure that everything they do gives value to others. Or to themselves.

Apparently when ROWE was introduced into Best Buy some resisters thought it was a wacky new age idea.

So in case anyone thinks VOWE is the same let me cut to the chase: how might you measure success in a business run on VOWE principles?

Simple: you measure profit. But you do need a new definition of profit.

Profit, by my own personal definition, is a measure of the value that your company gives to other people.

Give lots of value to people; and let them reward you with money (yes, money), loyalty and friendship.

Create a culture where employees gain lots of value and let them reward you with loyalty, ideas, and friendship.

I am perhaps being just a little provocative above. But I’d love to know what others think – and in particular, other ideas on what value really is, what profit really is, and whether it is better to work in a ROW, or a VOW environment?

JFPJ4X342354


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Joint responsibility

There’s a lot of talk these days about responsibility in business.

To me, this always boils down to individual responsibility – individuals taking responsibility for their own actions. Without that kind of personal responsibility, any talk of ethics or morality seems, to me, to be less than useful.

But what does personal responsibility actually mean – in practice, in the nitty gritty of working life, in a company, in a business, where we are by definition working with others? Where really we mean joint responsibility, responsibility for the “we”, as well as for ourselves.

I think it boils down to three simple things:

  • Taking responsibility for my contribution – to the project, to the business, whatever.
  • Taking responsibility for the help and support I give to others in my team, in my business, around me. I can make a major difference by helping others succeed in whatever they aim to do.
  • Taking responsibility for making sure that all our aims are reasonably aligned.

It is easy to ignore the last one, and assume it is someone else’s problem – the CEO’s, for example. But if we all individually take on the responsibility for working together well as a group, I think our chances of success are much better.

That’s three areas of responsibility, not one.

If you think you are already great at all three, try this simple test: give yourself a score from 1-10 on how you currently perform in your role, in your organisation.

Be honest. Look for any signs of blaming or undermining – this may, of course, be unconscious too – in each of the three areas.

  • How fully do you take responsibility for your own actions, for gaining the results you wish to achieve?
  • How fully do you support and help others in achieving theirs? Do you really know what their goals and aims are, for example? Do you help, or sometimes, even inadvertently, get in the way?
  • And how well do you ensure that the whole group of which you are part works well? Do you sometimes, again perhaps without meaning to, undermine? Do you know that alignment is missing but fail to do or say anything about it?

Now think about how you would like your scores to be, from now on.


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Hard, Harder, Hardest

Inspired by a good post by Steve Hearsum about Stephen Covey’s recent book, I felt the need to post my own personal comment.

Apparently Covey’s “…most recent book – The 3rd Alternative – is an articulation of how “soft stuff is the new hard stuff”. So says Douglas R. Covant in an introduction to an extract from the book on Strategy & Business:

In my 35-year corporate journey and my 60-year life journey, I have consistently found that the thorniest problems I face each day are soft stuff — problems of intention, understanding, communication, and interpersonal effectiveness — not hard stuff such as return on investment and other quantitative challenges…..The soft stuff will forever be the hard stuff, but leveraging 3rd Alternative thinking can make the soft stuff significantly easier to resolve productively.”

As a long time Covey fan and careful re-reader of his work this doesn’t seem to me to be such a big shift in Covey’s thinking. But I’d join with him in wanting to re-label the “soft” as the hard.

It is an unfortunate twist of fate I think that we call the “soft” stuff that because it is anything but.

ROI and other quantitative things are hard too, of course. If you think anything else you are kidding yourself.

But I’d go even further. There’s one bit of the so-called soft stuff that is even harder.

That is understanding that our own development is the real key to growth.

Not the ‘soft skills’ required to get other people to do things (which is, sadly, how many managers understand ‘soft skills’). But our own self-understanding and awareness.

So, how about a complete re-categorisation of all things to do with (conscious) business:

* hard – ROI and other quantitative things
* harder – ‘people skills’
* hardest – one’s own personal development and a relationship of growth with oneself


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Institutional corruption?

Remember institutional racism?  This term was coined in the 1960s in the US and widely adopted in the UK in the 1970s to describe a situation where an entire organisation, rather than just one or two individuals within it, collectively fail a particular group of people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. In the UK the term was used to describe the police after a number of high-profile events such those at the Brixton riots, Broadwater Farm and so on.

The idea is that, at least to some extent, the inappropriate behaviours and attitudes of individuals are so widely adopted within the group that they become social norms. Because they are so prevalent, no one questions them. Of if they do question them, their questions fall on deaf ears.

I guess it’s another example of group conformity in action.

Sometimes I wonder whether some organisations today suffer a form of institutional corruption. We all know the extreme examples: Enron, BCCI, Satyam, and so on. Companies where, ultimately, criminal behavior crashed the companies to the ground.

But isn’t corruption sometimes more subtle, and more pervasive?

A while ago, and this is going to begin to sound like an episode from Money Box, my insurance company sent me a renewal notice for my household insurance. Something made me check – and I discovered that they had increased the premium by 30% compared to last year.

When I called them, as soon as they heard the problem was “price”, they put me on to their “loyalty team”. When the salesman (sorry “loyalty consultant”) heard the price he quickly recomputed it and said they could offer the same service for a 0% increase instead.

Now my guess is that probably quite a few customers can’t be bothered to check what last year’s premium was and just renew automatically. Personally, I think that is pretty dubious behaviour for a business. Imagine how I might feel if I went into a shop and they tried to short-change me by 30%?

Wouldn’t I right to be aggrieved? Might it even be fraudulent or criminal?

When I enter into a relationship with a company I expect to be dealt with honestly – I want to trust that company and have them reward my trust. Would the shopkeeper who short-changed me by 30% retain my trust?

So going back to the idea of institutionalised behaviour, is it possible, then, that an entire company can be institutionally corrupt?

Is it possible that the salesman thinks of his role as an upstanding member of the “loyalty” team – when actually he’s in the “covering up our corruption” team?

That his managers and others in the company think that this kind of behaviour is so normal that it’s “commercial best practice”?

Is it possible that even the senior management and the CEO are so institutionally blind that they believe it right and proper to accept favourable compensation packages even while their employees are behaving in ways that are dubious or verge on the criminal?

Could this institutional corruption extend beyond the company to the whole industry? To other companies? To its regulators? To the media? Sometimes there’s not a critical voice to be heard, anywhere, of what some might think are corrupt practices – “this is just the way it is in this industry, it is just the norm”.

When the UK police were accused of institutional racism I can still remember the confused, questioning voices from their representatives: “You can’t be talking about us? We’re not racist”. It took a long, long time to really sink in.

The irony, is, of course, that as with the police force, or any other organisation, the public recognise this institutional racism, or corruption, or whatever it is, much sooner than those inside the organisation.

It feels wrong. But often the fact that everyone else is telling you its right makes it harder to put a name to it. It requires bravery to stand up and make that kind of statement.

Consciousness, even?

But businesses that are institutionally corrupt will lose customer loyalty in the long-run. My insurance company has already lost mine.


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Self-management?

The company famous for getting rid of management (“First, Let’s Fire All the Managers“) Morning Star has a great set of principles on the Self-Management Institute wiki:

The Morning Star Colleague Principles

1. Mission

2. Individual Goals and Teamwork

3. Personal Responsibility and Initiative

4. Tolerance

5. Direct Communication and Resolution of Conflicts

6. Caring and Sharing

7. Do What is Right. Live, speak and endeavor to find the truth.

Self-responsibility is key to business success I think, but, for me, the last is the best. Live, speak and try to find the truth.

Gandhi’s autobiography is subtitled “The Story of My Experiments with Truth” and tells exactly how that great man went about the task.

You can join the Self-Management Institute here, and get access to the wiki, and loads more content. It is a fascinating idea, and I’d recommend it.


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Why Consciousness

People sometimes ask me why am I involved with Conscious Business?

I have been involved in business for over 30 years. During that time I have worked with some marvellous people, and in some marvellous groups and companies. And we’ve done some great things.

So the business bit is easy – business is, in my view, simply the best and most powerful way to get good things done.

But why ‘conscious’?

I’ve often noticed that the things that seemed to work really well in those successful groups weren’t the stuff of conventional business or management. It was as if I was operating in a parallel world – that, to me, seemed very different from the conventional one outside.

About 10 years ago I moved to Brighton and helped create the MDhub, a collaboration of local MDs. Working with this group I realised that a lot of them wanted to do things in more innovative, more collaborative, more successful ways, but that they too could only find the one business and management book – the conventional one.

So I started working with some of them to do things in slightly different ways from how they are usually done. Business, but different.

Digging this up is a bit like archaelogy. It is only through uncovering artefacts I can date certain of these activities and things that I started to do differently.

For example, I know it was it 1987 that I learnt some of my first lessons about self-responsibility at work. On my first day of work in my new job at DEC, I was left to my own devices. On the next day too. And the next. It took a while for me to realise that I was meant to figure out what I was meant to do – for myself. Without instruction.

I know that it was during 1997 that I started doing stand-up meetings with teams, because I know that is the year that BBC News Online launched. And I remember the first large team meetings – held in an abandoned studio that had no chairs. Hence it was a “Stand-Up”.

I know it was in early 2007 that I started measuring happiness in my favourite organisation – my family. I got the idea from Paddi Lund – an Australian dentist – and my wife, kids and I measured our happiness daily for some months. I know because I still have the spreadsheets.

Having prototyped (!) the approach the only sensible thing to do was to start trying it out with the businesses I worked with.

The financial crash of 2008 certainly isn’t too far back to remember. The crash accelerated the number of MDs, and people from other fields, calling out for different, more effective ways to do business and management. The trend was already clear by then, and it wasn’t just financial. Bigger social trends such as the feminisation of the workplace were already well underway.

So working with my partners we’ve continued to develop and deliver new and different ways of doing business.

But why consciousness? Looking back the key to change in all the outfits I have worked in has always been a change in the level of consciousness, first with individuals, and then with the group.

By a change in level I don’t meant anything esoteric. Or spiritual.

I mean something quite simple to understand. But hard to achieve in practice. I mean a change in my assumptions, a shift of paradigm.

I don’t know how many levels there are.

But I do know that my experiences of 1987, 1997, and 2007 were all about increasing my consciousness and those of others.

In 1987 I learned first-hand that business worked better when I and others chose what to do.

In 1997, standing up, I and others learned that meetings weren’t the be-all and end-all of getting things done.

And in 2007 I realised that measuring happiness every day – paying attention to it – actually seemed to change my level of happiness.

There are many ways to ‘do’ change in organisations. Change is often approached like a technical problem, as if a company was a machine that could be prodded and pushed into action. Much is ‘technological’, believing that new technologies will somehow drive changes in behaviour.  Some change is ‘structural’ – change what is connected to what and things will get better.

In my view all of these work to some extent. But the thing that makes most sense to me is increasing consciousness. To me changing, and developing and growing, in fact, maturing, seems to me to be the only thing that really changes things sustainably and reliably.

I am not saying it is easy. It has taken me these three decades to make even a few real steps forward. And I often step backwards too.

But, personally, I find the process of growing my consciousness terrifying and fascinating in turns, and ultimately deeply rewarding. We get better things done, and it is more enjoyable.

That is why I choose to work in Conscious Business.


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Systems Thinking and Conscious Business

Today one of my sons told me he had been trying out the text-to-speech option on the Kindle. He thought it funny it couldn’t speak properly – all it does is read the words with no intonation or sense of meaning.

This led to a discussion of the difference between a series of words and a sentence. The computer can read each word individually but has no sense of the bigger thing – the sentence. Nor of the next bigger thing, the paragraph. Nor the next – the chapter, or indeed of the whole book.

It is very clear that a book is much more than all the words in it added together.

Take a piece of paper and draw 5 boxes. Arrange them in the rough shape of a circle. You can see the boxes. You can also see the circle. But where exactly is the circle? It doesn’t really exist in one sense – there are no lines on the paper which make up a circle. The circle only exists as an emergent property of the individual boxes arranged in a particular way.

2 + 2 = 5. Or in this case, 1 + 1 + 1+ 1 + 1 = 6.

These examples illustrate something that is central to thinking about business in a “systems” way.

This has little to do with IT systems, by the way; nor systems in the sense of processes that are used to deal with issues methodically or “systematically”. We’re using a different meaning of the word – this is systemic not systematic thinking.

These examples illustrate that businesses are complex systems. They are made up of “just” the individuals that work in them, but they are also much more than that. They are all the relationships between the people as well. And the relationships externally too.

And they are even more than that. They are wholes, and also part of a bigger whole. They’re integrated and connected into that bigger whole in ways that may even be difficult for us to comprehend.

This may all sound rather ethereal.

But it has some very practical implications.

For example, when trying to improve profitability in a company managers are often tempted to play around with metrics or KPIs. Adjust a few simple things like how hard people work, and surely profitability will increase?

I’m afraid it just isn’t so. A business is a complex system, and playing with one low level metric is just as likely to make things worse as it is to make things better.

Much better to think systemically. I have blogged before about Donella Meadows and her (fairly) famous list of the best points to intervene in a complex system. Be it a business or any other system.

According to Meadows, the least powerful are the ones we most often think of, presumably because they are easy to grasp and grapple with: constants, parameters, and numbers. Often we rearrange these “deck chairs” while the ship is sinking.

Transparency – who sees which information – comes in at number six from the top.  Transparency is a core part of developing a conscious business. It does work to radically change behaviour – and is certainly much more powerful than changing low level metrics themselves.

But the really powerful levers (in Meadows’ view, and mine) are:

  • The goal(s) of the system.
  • The mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises.
  • The power to transcend paradigms.

Consider that a business that chases short-term profitability has a different goal from one that is interested in profitability over the long-term.

Asking questions like “what is a business for?”, or “what does competition actually mean?” is the kind of activity that can lead to a shift of paradigm or mindset.

And realising that how we see things changes everything is the ultimate lever. That, of course, is what consciousness is all about.

PS To get started in systems thinking I’d really recommend the late Dana Meadows book Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Or try the Systems Thinking wiki. Or more recently I really enjoyed The Gardens of Democracy if you want to explore how (eco) systems thinking relates to areas beyond business.


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Solving ourselves

I read a great blog post recently by Tony Schwartz of the Energy Project about giving and receiving feedback.

He uses the term ‘deconstructive’ – a term I have also seen used in the book ‘Seven Languages for Transformation‘ by Harvard Professors Kegan and Lahey to describe both feedback and conflict.

The idea is much older than that, of course, and runs as a theme through much work on dialogue – including that by Bill Isaacs (Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together – one of my favourite books), who refers back to David Bohm. It is also central to the ideas of Chris Argyris and many others. In fact, I am pretty sure the idea can be traced back and back, probably to ancient thought including Taoism and beyond.

So what does it mean? Putting it into a modern context, the starting point for me is how we perceive ourselves and our relationships.

If we see ourselves as unitary figures, each with our own problems and failures, and if we adopt a critical mindset, then deconstructive criticism doesn’t make much sense. Surely our aim is to point out the failings of others and fix their problems? To be constructive – in other words to help and support them as they “grow”.

Extend that a little, and add in a little sympathy for the human condition, or perhaps guilt at our own imperfection, and the idea is now that we need to find our own flaws and figure out how to eradicate them.

But take a different perspective. Start with the idea that everything is how it should be. That people as individuals and the relationships they inhabit are fine, just fine. In fact, they are perfect – in the sense that they are in balance, in a perfect homeostasis – like everything in nature.

Take a different perspective – that we are not unitary figures, but that we are all connected, that we are part of complex systems, in fact, part of a single complex system. Unboundaried parts involved in a complex interplay, perhaps one that cannot even be understood by us – not simply cogs in some giant machine.

Then what deconstructive means is to try to understand our own role in that system. To understand how what we say and do, and even what we think and feel, joins together with what others say and do, and think and feel, to create a particular result.

Deconstruction is about stepping away from blame, stepping away from a position of superiority, or, equally, of inferiority. Away from a position of condescension, or of false innocence. Of stepping away from knowing.

I am probably misinterpreting it but doesn’t the Bible say that knowledge is the root of all evil? I know for sure that my own tendency to think I know the answers is the biggest block to my understanding. It is only when I start to suspend my certainty in my own knowledge and beliefs that some sense may start to creep in.

As Tony Schwartz, and Kegan and Lahey, and all the others point out, giving feedback to others from a position of knowledge is fundamentally flawed.

What works better is to examine our own role in the systems we inhabit. How is what we are doing, thinking, feeling affecting the results we get?

This is how problems can be helpful – not because we can identify them, solve them, eradicate them. But because problems teach us something about how we are. I can learn how superior I can be. And that might just help me start the process of starting to solve myself.


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Selling with congruence

As I start to write this I wonder if I am simply recycling old material. After all I have written about the conscious business approach to setting up new business relationships before and before that.

But I recently came across an old article by Neil Rackham, of SPIN fame, called Avoiding the Traps in Selling Profesional Services (available here or email me if you can’t find it). Neil talks about the need for people selling professional services to be competent, concerned and full of candour.

Is selling professional services the same as selling generally? I think so: as we move towards a meaning-based economy, where more and more traditional, and tangible, products are commoditised, then each day service becomes more and more the only true differentiator.

Professional services involve helping the client understand their needs, as well as meet them. Again, in a meaning-based economy, helping someone understand their needs is increasingly a key part of any service.

So lessons that apply to selling professional services increasingly apply to selling anything.

And what are those lessons? For me, good selling is fundamentally about creating better relationships. Long-lasting, meaningful relationships.

To do that the first step is to get away from some of our own assumptions about the buyer-seller relationship.

For example, I think many business relationships start off on the wrong footing because there is a perceived imbalance of power.

It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that a corporate buyer has all the power. They may believe this, but do they really?

Think about it.

They can say yes, or no, to your offer.

But so can you, to their terms.

Perhaps you think you need them; but do you really? And do they also need you?

They can hurt you or help you – damage or build your reputation. But can they really? Or is it just that you imagine they can?

My experience is that the powerful corporate executive isn’t really as powerful as they may pretend.

They can strut. Show off their toys. They can shout and storm. But at the end of the day they’re simply an employee. They don’t own anything. Instead, sometimes their lives are owned by the corporation.

To achieve anything they need the buy-in of their colleagues, their bossess, their shareholders.

Often they need to follow a process. Simply to arrange a cup of tea or buy a paper-clip.

So, first, can you reset your perception of the relationship?

I like to assume that the person I am dealing with is simply another human being. Just like me, trying to make their way in the world. Living within the constraints of their world, and trying make things better, for themselves, and for others.

In other words, I’d rather approach this person with unconditional respect. Whatever their initial behaviour.

Working inside a corporate organisation is difficult.

It is frustrating: it isn’t easy to get things done.

It is scary: there’s a lot of pressure – and a lot of misused power.

So approaching this person with empathy – putting oneself in their shoes – can be a real help. We all know what frustration is like. And fear. Empathy is about seeing the world from their eyes, walking in their shoes. Experiencing that frustration and fear and seeing the world through that lens.

In selling, as Neil Rackham points out, candour is also essential.  In conscious business we might use a different word: congruence.

In selling, as in all relationships I value, I must be honest. If I don’t know something, or if can’t do something I must tell the client. Congruence helps build relationships – not least because we all detect its opposite: inauthenticity.

Being honest and open is also essential so that my company can be held to account for delivering the service I am selling. When I am selling I am responsible for helping the client gain the value they need from me. If I set things up wrongly at the beginning, I will surely jeopardise later success. Theirs and mine.

I also need to tell clients what I think and how I feel about our relationship, especially about this power imbalance if it exists. That last may be very hard. Certainly, it may not be something we are used to doing.

By I think it is the secret to successful selling – to creating that real, long-lasting relationship.