How do you lead a meaningful, joyful conversation with a client?
How do you find the right things to speak about, so that a voluntary conversation feels like a win-win?
If you are speaking with customers of all sorts, then this article is for you. (And this article is available in German, too.)
Why are conversations so important?
Our team’s business is to have conversations with professors and teaching staff in universities and schools across Europe, helping them to use MATLAB & Simulink in their education. Our aim is to “accelerate the pace of engineering and science” starting with freshman students, up to postdocs.
Compared to other roles at MathWorks, the role is a bit special. We do not sell anything. We are not even part of the sales organization. We talk about ideas. We evangelize. When we come in, the users usually have bought already. Most universities we deal with have a so called campus license, allowing every faculty, every researcher and every student to use MATLAB & Simulink.
We do not persuade, because you cannot persuade someone who is happy using something else. Well, you can, but not with honesty.
We help universities and schools who have decided to emphasize computational thinking for learning and teaching, and that is done to large extent by speaking with individuals.
What shall I talk about?
When I have someone new starting in my team, they sometimes ask “what shall I talk about?”
Well, the truth is, you shall not simply talk. After all, what is talking? Bombarding the other person with pitches, use cases, features?
How would that help the other person achieve their goals?
Be helpful to the other person. Be so helpful that they want to have you working with them regularly. The next question I then get is: “How can I be helpful to somebody outside my area of expertise, e.g. me being an engineer and the professor being in social sciences?”
Well, if you do not know that much about their subject, what if you asked them what matters in their field?
Once they realize that I place tremendous value on asking questions, the obvious next question is: “What shall I ask?”
Ask, not talk
Be it with researchers or teachers, first thing you can do is to find an answer to the question:
What are they really doing? Tweet this
While that may be fairly easy to find out, the next thing to gather is how they do that. The how often is more interesting than the what. The subject of the course may be standard. After all, a mechanics introduction mostly contains comparable contents in all universities in the world. But how do they teach it?
Once you get clarity about the how, the next important thing to find out is the why. Why do they teach their course in the way they do?
What is their model of a student? What is their view on students in general, and their students in particular? What image do they have of young people in that cultural context?
What does drive that picture the world the teacher has? How was her own education, and what did she appreciate about it and what would she have wished to be different?
How does her research fold into her teaching? What is the special thing about her research topic, and what is her vision?
That sounds like an exhaustive set of questions, doesn’t it?
If you were to follow a script here, especially with lengthy answers and check questions from your conversation partner you could easily fall off the track, can’t you?
And won’t the teacher feel quizzed after a certain number of questions?
Fortunately, there is a substitute to the long question script as easy as powerful:
Always Be Curious
The solution is as simple as profound:
Always be curious. Tweet this
It is as simple as this.
Always be curious.
Once you are able to put your mind into the always be curious mindset, everything else falls into place. Being sincerely curious, you will never run out of questions, and the other person will never feel quizzed.
Rarely any human being wants to resist curiosity from another human being, and certainly not in the own fields of expertise.
Curiosity is my main driver in my various roles I’ve held and am holding at MathWorks as well as previous companies.
I truly want to know what’s going on, and why. This has always me to contribute value over and over again.
When I talk with somebody from industry, I am so curious about their products, processes, and circumstances. There are so many things out there I do not know, that I cannot know. It is amazing to get to know a bit more of the world and how engineers work on shaping it.
Same story in universities.
Every time I think I have seen most syllabusses of courses, I encounter a new way of looking at a subject. Every time I encounter a department that sounds unfamiliar yet not exciting, by diving into it with curiosity I learn a whole new world of fascinating challenges and solutions.
Every week there is something new to encounter.
The more I encounter the more aware I become of what I do not know.
Being helpful by being curious
So is being curious just inbound? Isn’t it just me learning something? How can that be of value to the other person?
Being helpful works in the same way.
After more than eight years helping customers with MATLAB & Simulink, I do have a fairly good insight into specific benefits of the tools and how to leverage them. Of course, also here I learn something new every week and can stay curious.
But curiosity is what allows me to introduce users to methods covered by the tools they might not know yet.
Say a professor is dealing with C code integration, has he ever tried out the legacy code tool? If the professor has started using Simulink prior 2006 then chances are he is using an older, more complicated workflow.
How does the researcher use the MATLAB editor? Ever noticed the green and orange marks in the scroll bar, highlighting potential code improvements for clarity and performance? Ever used the profiler to find performance potential?
How did they lay out the workflow as they use it? Have they ever deliberately considered alternatives?
What would they wish as improvement in MATLAB & Simulink? Chances are the improvement a user is wishing for is already in the product, but she may have not noticed it yet or still be using an older release.
For sure I often use the same questions. In fact, I even have written them down several times. But questions I use in one scenario may completely differ from what I ask and tell in another scenario.
There is no script.
There just is curiosity.
It is what I call the Always Be Curious Mindset.
It is the ABC Mindset.
How do you relate to the ABC mindset?
Let me and other readers know by leaving a comment.
*Photo: [Joachim Schlosser, showing my daughter in her curiosity state](http://www.joachimschlosser.de), License [Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike]https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/*