The Lost Art of Conversation (And How To Seduce Your Customers)

The year is 2017. Conversation is dying. Emojis are winning. Is there anything that can be done to save the lost art of conversation?

When I first came to the USA in 1993, my parents brought me to Orlando, Florida. Smiles were ubiquitous, “have a nice days” were delivered every time you left a building and at a time before mobile technology had found its way into our pockets, conversations were deeper. People were curious to know more about each other because there was no other way of acquiring that knowledge. Between 2008 and when I first moved to the US to live in 2012 (I chose Austin, Texas), I realized something: everything had changed. The most obvious changes I noticed were:

1). Everything comes back to Google

People are lazy. They don’t need to use their memory anymore. They simply “Google it”. Even during formal occasions, people will have no problem pulling out their mobile phone and searching for their answer. But here’s where the conversation nose dives. The “Googler” suddenly notices a text, a Facebook alert, a tweet and then comes the inevitable line, “my phone’s going kind of slow. The signal’s kind of weak in here.” Roughly translated: “I was going to search for the answer but got sidetracked by what my “friends” were doing on social media. My digital addiction is comparable with that of a crack addict and I need help.”

Solution: I read recently that the best thing you can do when you meet someone face-to-face for a business meeting (or even coffee with a friend) is to not put your phone on the table. It is a subtle way of telling the person you are with that they have 50% of your attention until the phone pings. Make eye contact, not in a stare out champion/serial killer kind of way but to show you are listening. Make the person opposite you feel like the most important person in the room.

2). Emojis Rule

One of my favorite recent events I attended was Creative Mornings in San Diego. The speaker was Nuvi Mehta – the San Diego Symphony Special Project Director. What he absolutely nailed was the way that our attention span is decreasing at an alarming rate. The evidence: we used to write letters. We used to spend time thinking about what we could conjure up and scribble onto the page. Then along came twitter and suddenly we were forcing ourselves to express ourselves in under 140 characters. When the iPhone introduced emojis, what Mehta and many other people realized was that an emoji actually means very little other than the person using it doesn’t really want a conversation. He drew a parallel between a piece of classical music and a pop song. An orchestral movement is long. It takes time to build, there is a crescendo and your patience is rewarded. Your emotional spectrum is maxed out. With a pop song, like bubblegum, you chew it for a few moments and then discard it. Emojis are the pop songs of our culture. Or are they even less? What interests me personally is the evolution of the human race and how we started out with hieroglyphs. With emojis and digital icons, did we make a full circle?

Solution: Listen to more classical music or jazz. Write more. Listen better. Rely less on emojis (especially in business!).

3). People Stopped Discussing Things In Front Of Them And Now They Just Film It

Open mouth. Pan video camera on phone. Upload to YouTube. Share with your friends. Hope, pray and possibly sell your soul to the devil in return for a viral hit and a few thousand likes. Pow!

Solution:¬†Talk to people around you. Learn about why they are filming things. What makes people tick? Do less on social media so when people see you they don’t already know that you did a “Frank The Tank” midnight streaking run at the weekend.

4). The Customer Is Never Right

When I walk in most coffee shops, the smiles are gone and replaced with baristas who are hungover or on comedowns. The idea of making the customer special has gone. The notion of regulars being remembered and conversation developing at each visit is a distant memory. The lack of customer service has never been more evident than when using airlines. Remember when you were welcomed on board with open arms, smiles and treated like royalty? That time is gone. American airlines especially have become the worst in the world which is why we are frequently seeing passengers being escorted off planes because they did things like speaking the wrong language.

Solution: Incidentally, the above incident happened on a Delta flight in December 2016. I just got back from a trip to New York and flew with them expecting something similarly horrendous. That negative press must have been just the shock they needed because it was one of my best experiences with an American airline in my life. We were greeted by friendly staff on board, their conversation was curious, humorous and not forced. They went above and beyond their expected role and we even got a free upgrade because we had a baby and they wanted us to be comfortable. This is what every airline, barista and anyone in customer service should be doing to seduce the customer.

5). Social Media Means We Know Too Much

As a kid, I was always taught by my teachers and parents to read the newspaper. For most people, social media has replaced the newspaper. Everyone knows everything and they know it the second it happens. I was talking to a barista in New York last week and they mentioned a movie that had won an Oscar. It was Moonlight (or should that have been La La Land?!).
I played dumb and said I hadn’t heard of the movie. They were shocked and asked me why I hadn’t watched The Oscars ceremony and seen the most epic of Oscar fails? I said I was tied up and this was the catalyst for a great conversation which slalomed through different eras of film-making and ended talking about a startup company. These are the kind of conversations I need.

Solution: If you are a conversationalist, always try and find a way to trigger the other person to talk. Whether it is being controversial, insightful or knowledgable, your goal is to learn.

6). No-one Talks To Their Neighbors

The American Dream was devised to encourage Americans to work too much, earn a lot, spend a lot and have a big house and yard for your family. What this has done has created a sense of isolation amongst the population. The “Jones Theory” and reality TV means people are always comparing ¬†themselves to each other before trying to beat each other. Communities are dissolving and support systems are also disappearing.

Solution: Make an effort to say hi to people when you pass them in the street or at the park. Learn about your neighbors and go to markets to meet the vendors and people who have created local businesses. My next business aims to focus on experiences, community and conversation and is less about material things. Qwerky Coliving will be a coliving community for people who want to change the world. The goal is to bring people together who have things in common with the hope that amazing relationships can be formed.

What are you doing to rekindle the lost art of conversation? Looking forward to your replies in the comments.

Build Bridges Not Walls: How Cross Border Initiatives Can Make America Great Again

My two biggest passions in life are entrepreneurship and traveling. One of the reasons I chose to move to San Diego instead of San Francisco or Los Angeles was the proximity of Mexico. I see San Diego, Tijuana and the Baja California region one day being a super economy. The ability to travel, learn about another culture, do international business and practice your Spanish within 30 minutes from San Diego is something that most San Diegans ignore because of the stigma created by the US media. Very few people have this luxury on their doorstep.

In recent news, the US President and Republican party have laid down plans for a wall to be built between the US and Mexico. I’m not a politician so it would be futile to debate this stance. However, as an entrepreneur, I feel it is now my duty (and the duty of every entrepreneur in San Diego and California) to look at how we can build bridges not walls between the US and Mexico. The US sets the example for the rest of the world. The way it encourages an entrepreneurial ecosystem is far more progressive than most countries. So with Tijuana so close, here are a few ideas of how we can collaborate:

1). Launch projects like the Dos Puertas International Trade and Innovation Center 

The project is spearheaded by Carl Nettleton and his plan is to create a place where, for the first time, the border can be seen as a place to come together rather than an obstacle to cross. When I first heard about this, it was described to me as a building that had a virtual borderline running through the middle of it. Mexicans and Americans could effectively be collaborating freely and working on big ideas.

2). Stage more events like Tijuana Innovodora

Tijuana Innovodora Creativa 2016 brought elected officials from both sides of the border to Tijuana’s World Trade Center. They celebrated Tijuana’s potential and the broader cross border region.The eight day event brought creatives, startups and food trucks together for a cultural melting pot. Mayor of San Diego Kevin Faulconer is one of many prominent officials that is championing Tijuana and has even looked at teaming up with Tijuana¬†to make it a bi-national event with San Diego.

3). Introduce More Foreign Exchange Programs

When I attended the Mind Hub Demo Day at the San Diego Downtown Library, I was blown away. Here was a Tijuana company bringing the startups it was incubating to a foreign country, getting them up on stage to pitch (in English not their native Spanish) and then getting useful feedback from startup people. It made me think, why aren’t there more programs for US startups to go to Tijuana, learn Spanish and then pitch in Tijuana? What an incredible experience and a way to truly broaden your mind.

4). Create More Micro Entrepreneurial Ecosystems

When I visited Estación Federal in December 2016 for a posada (a fiesta loosely based on a traditional Christmas celebration), I saw something really interesting. Imagine a vibrant neighborhood that had been reduced to the size of a block. Now imagine a mini co-working space, restaurant, coffee shop and galleries then throw a communal area in the middle and you have this creative space. This model needs to be adopted in San Diego to create micro hubs for entrepreneurs to thrive.

5). Consider Mexico For Manufacturing 

You may be used to seeing “Made In China” on most products you find in US retailers but¬†“Hecho En Mexico” (made in Mexico) is on the rise. Factories in Mexico are competing with Chinese factories and causing them to close. The other benefit of partnering with a Mexican factory is that you are on the same time zone, can drive to it to oversee production and have similar labor costs as you would in China. Your product can also be shipped and arrive much faster. If you also have a factory in the US, you can invite Mexican employees to the US to learn from the American employees and vice versa.

6). Launch Cross Border Investment Funds 

Why focus where everyone else is looking (Silicon Valley) when you can invest in Tijuana startups? If you back Silicon Valley startups, the high cost of living up there, high cost of team members  and operating costs will mean your investment will need to be much higher and will not go far. Plus, competition for equity will be sky high. With an exchange rate of $1 to 20 pesos, investing in Tijuana means your dollar is stretched so much further. If you can then help them launch their products in the US market, your return would be good.

What are your thoughts on these concepts? 

mr happy smile mr men beach

How To Keep Your Customers Satisfied

When I used to live in England, Americans were hailed as the ambassadors of customer service. “The customer is always right.” Well, that is what I remembered.
I visited the US for the first time when I was 13 years old and I can remember feeling like royalty. Well, I don’t know what changed but having noticed a trend online and having lived in Austin for 3 years, I can say that the standard seems to be slipping. So what is customer service? Well, I define it as any interaction with your customers. If like me, you are selling a product to your user base, there will be a moment when a connection is made between you as the seller and the customer as the buyer. These are the most common ways I have seen:

1). They contact you through your email form on your website or over the phone. This is usually a quick question regarding your product or the typical turnaround time. This is the pre-purchase stage and even though you know that they are showing buying signals, your positive response can secure a sale.

2). They contact you asking for an update. The order has been shipped out but they don’t know where the email is that you sent them with the tracking number. This is the hand-holding stage where you want to reassure your customers that everything is under control and the product will be with them shortly.

3). They reach out with a complaint about the product. It was either broken in transit or wasn’t what they were expecting. This is the post-purchase stage and you have to make the call whether to offer a full refund, replace the product or hold your ground. It is crucial that you have terms and conditions in place on your site before you begin selling any products so your customers know exactly what your policy is.

Here are couple of examples of bad customer service I have experienced recently (the names have been removed to protect the innocent and I will add a suggested improved approach):

1). Problem company: one of the world’s biggest coffee brands – the location I was in was freezing and I asked one of the baristas if he could turn the heat up. His response:¬†“We don’t control the temperature. It is controlled by management.” Incidentally, the same company makes you go back and wait in line if you forget to order a cup of water because “they have their system”.
Solution: He could have empathized and said “I know how you feel” and then told me he was going to try to turn it up. If he had then told me he couldn’t I would have appreciated his efforts. The coffee chain should definitely allow the interior temperature to be adjustable especially with the revenue they are generating from a single cup of coffee. If you are a global brand with massive profits, people expect more from you. That’s just how it is. Deal with it.

2). Problem company: A new Indian restaurant that had opened in Austin – I waited with my wife and two friends for over 2 hours for a table. At first they told me about an hour and then it just kept going. We never got a table and walked.
Solution: They should have offered us a round of drinks when we went of the hour mark. I had to use my best British accent and push hard to get them to see sense. They should have told me early on that they were short of wait staff and the weather had meant more people were eating inside rather than out. I found this out after the 2nd hour had passed. Not cool amigos.

I think the moral of this post is that in today’s America and indeed the world, to stand out from your competitors, you’ve got to go the extra mile. Take a leaf out of Zappos book and offer a full refund on products any time within a¬†year.
I’d love to hear about your customer service experiences from the business side and see what measures¬†you are taking¬†to improve it.¬†Also, if you are a¬†customer and were either shocked or amazed by a company, I would love to hear about that as well. Tweet me @davidjlowe and use #dloweplaybook or leave comments after this blog post.

Like the Simon & Garfunkel song goes, “Just trying to keep my customers satisfied…satisfied.”

[Image: Happyologist]