The Story Economy Blog

The Anti-Automation Conversation

giraffes talkingIn a recent interview with the blog about my career trajectory and advice for English majors (go English majors!), I concluded by saying, Sometimes, I think I owe the success of my career to my ability to have a really good conversation with someone.”

I believe that to be true.

The ability to talk, to hear someone (really hear them), to banter with them, to help them feel comfortable sharing, to not accept their first answer if my instinct says they are holding back . . . this is the public-facing skill set that helps me do the private work of writing.

It’s fair to say that I put a lot of stock in conversations. I email and text a lot (a lot), but ultimately, if you’re working with me, we’re probably going to need to talk. Over coffee if geography allows, but the phone will do.

That goes both ways: if you’re trying to woo me with your service, you’re going to have to talk to me.

Unfortunately, conversations are where businesses often lose people.

You’re thinking: Judi, it sounds like you probably have an example in mind?

Of course I do. A great one!

In fact, my failure to be wooed by a recent conversation can be your learning experience.

(You’re welcome.)

How it Can All Go Wrong in a Conversation

It didn’t start out particularly great, this conversation I want to tell you about. There is so much backstory that isn’t interesting, but it boils down to me searching for a home equity line of credit. Do you know about these things? I don’t know how I’ve gotten this far in life and not understood them, but now, I am all about getting one.

My husband did the rate searching (he loves searching for such things) and we settled on using the (very large) bank that already has our mortgage. The first guy I talked to at said bank was amazing: I hit it off with him and thought, yes, this is absolutely the right place!

However, because of a formality that is too complicated to explain here, he had to pass me off to another division within lending.

Please don’t pass me off, I begged. I like you!

He had to. He lamented it. But it was procedure.

I kept a good thought, and got on the phone with the pass-off guy.

Immediately, it wasn’t right. Even the way he answered the phone, with his full name (in full baritone) and title and announcing that we were on a secured line, made me feel like I was in the wrong place.

It only got worse.

Keep in mind, I was ready to go with this bank. The rate was comparable. The terms were fine.

It fell apart in the conversation.

First, he took 15 minutes to explain what a HELOC was (even though I had already researched it extensively and completely understood it—and told him that).

He audibly winced when I told him I was self-employed. Most people in the biz understand that when you are self-employed, you have to play a game called: How poor I look on paper is a testament to my fantastic tax guy, so let’s get creative.

He was not interested in that game. At all. “It’s going to be an uphill battle,” he said with a sigh.

Wait, what? We’ve had a mortgage with this bank for more than 10 years. We’ve never been late on a payment! Our credit is immaculate! We have no debt! He had done no background research on me or my situation, but he already had me sized up.

Then, we started talking about numbers. “Unless your home appraises for [a certain amount I feared it was NEVER going to appraise for], I can’t do much of anything for you,” he finally said. By “much of anything,” he meant no more than $20,000.

$20,000 isn’t nothing. It isn’t far off from what we need. But in his mind, it wasn’t even worth it.

There was no solution-hunting. It was only numbers and bad news. I’m sure, since we were on a secured line and all, he did everything By The Book.

Generally speaking, I don’t usually love By The Book.

The next day, I sat in tears, trying to fill out the cumbersome application he sent. My husband finally said, “Let’s call Rob.”

Rob is our neighbor. Our boys are good friends. He does HELOCs for a local Fifth Third branch—a bank we have no association with otherwise.

But the minute I got on the phone with him (his cell phone, Saturday at 5:00!), I knew everything was going to be okay. He did long division and multiplication (by hand!) as we talked, throwing out different ideas and solutions. His tone was positive. Problem-solving. Upbeat. No, we’re not deep pockets. He didn’t care.

Yes, I had somewhat of a personal connection with him already, but I had no business relationship at all with him. He could still have been a nice neighbor, but terrible at his job.

Luckily, that wasn’t the case. Within days, he had shepherded us through the process.

These two banks . . . it was pretty much apples to apples. Oh, the rates were fractions of percentages different and they each have their funny little things (annual fees waived for certain amounts, etc). But they were basically the same.

It’s the people who aren’t the same.

The people!

The conversations!

We’re leaving the transaction economy behind. Even the industries and services that once seemed purely transactional, we’re now expecting something from (and sharing loudly on social media when we don’t get it)!

As things become more automated in certain parts of our lives, we crave anti-automation in others. I’m not going to label that as “good” or “bad.”

It just is.

The businesses that will win are the ones who invest in training people on how to have good conversations.

I’m quite certain the success of my own business has less to do with understanding sentence structure and more to do with knowing how to have those conversations. Anti-automation conversations, to be exact.

Anti-automate and go talk to your people!

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