I recently interviewed Cory Garrison of R.E.L. for my Listen Well series.
Cory comes to listening from a sales and relationships perspective, and he and his company, as Doug predicted, had some interesting perspectives and methods that you might enjoy.
You can read what follows, or you can listen online.
Brett: Hi Cory.
Cory: Hi, how are ya?
Brett: I'm here today to talk to you about listening. I was handed off to you and I heard that you have a unique perspective on the whole thing.
Cory: Okay... well, I hope so!
Brett: Well, you know... so in your job, and you work for REL-
Brett: R.E.L. - right - okay. By the way, is that owners' initials?
Cory: It actually is. Rod, Eric, and Larry are the original founders of the company.
Brett: You are...
Cory: My title is Client Development Consultant.
Brett: And your job is to go get new business.
Cory: In a nutshell, yeah. It's to build awareness about who we are and what we do and to drive new business through the door, and also to manage that business once a new client has started working with us.
Brett: Sure. And you guys have a blog too, right?
Cory: Yes, we do.
Brett: But it's more of a company blog, not just an individual blog.
Cory: It is a company blog.
Brett: Because I've noticed that all of you will contribute articles to that. So did that start with you or did that start before you?
Cory: You know, it actually started before me. The blog did itself. Mark True, who is our Brand Warrior, had his own blog, and it was called "A Little Bit of Mark," I believe is what it was called at the time. That's over a year ago now, and he was primarily - he did all the writing on that. But it was all tied to what we do, which is help clients tell their story. We're storytellers. About seven, eight, nine months ago, we actually turned it into a company blog, the title of which is "Stories by R.E.L." Again, because the idea is to help clients tell their stories.
Brett: Sure. That's great, then if you guys are storytellers, then I'm assuming that before you can tell the story you have to hear the story.
Brett: How do you do that?
Cory: Well, it starts - every client starts with what we call the Brand Discernment process. We use that word "discernment" a lot. And I think the word, discernment, that word in itself, I think, lends itself - I don't know how to describe this - but it sort of lends itself to - what you're talking about - about listening. We have to allow - we have to give our clients an opportunity to tell their story. We have to listen to very specific details about their story and ask very important questions. We ask hard, difficult questions. We have to make our clients really think about what they're telling us. The idea, ultimately, is to create a story, but it's to help tell their story in a way that is what we call D.I.R.T.Y.
D.I.R.T.Y. is an acronym for Different, Inviting, Relevant, Truthful, and Yours - they have to own it. They have to believe in it. And that takes a lot of listening, a lot of deep listening, a lot of thinking, and a lot of difficult asking of questions.
Brett: So do you ever have clients come to you who are reluctant?
Cory: Yes. Most of the time.
Brett: How do you deal with that?
Cory: Once our clients begin the process, usually they come to us for one very specific reason and it's because there's pain. They're stuck - in one way or another. Whether it be through they're just not driving enough revenue into their organization, which is typically - I would say that's probably the most common problem. They're having growing pains. They're having a lot of turnover issues. Whatever it may be, it's usually an organization that is stuck and they're having trouble moving forward. When you start asking question about who they are and what makes them different, inviting, relevant, most of those companies have a really tough time answering that question.
Brett: Is that because they're too close to it to see it? Or...
Cory: That's a pretty good analysis. I think so, because we argue that there is something about every organization, just like every person - every human being - there's something that is different and inviting about them. Maybe they're afraid to express it. Maybe they haven't taken the time to figure out what that is. It could be a number of different things. Maybe they started in doing business in a way that was different, inviting, and relevant, but through growth and through not staying on task - you know, it's very easy to start in one direction and follow opportunities - becoming opportunistic in the way you do business. And pretty soon, you're doing things you don't know how to do, you don't want to be doing, and maybe it's not really your bread and butter, and you find your organization in an entirely different place than where you started.
Brett: You know, that's an interesting concept - the idea that opportunities could be misleading, away from your true calling.
Brett: That's absolutely true though.
Cory: It's true. And what happens is that you're having a bad month, or you don't really have anything on the docket, and an opportunity is standing in front of you, and there's money involved.
Brett: Right. And we can keep the business afloat this way.
Cory: That's right. If we just do this, and then we'll get back on track.
Brett: ...and then that leads to...
Cory: We know this isn't who we are or what we do. We challenge our clients, once they really understand what it is that makes their brand D.I.R.T.Y., to use that to make their decisions. When you have an opportunity like that in front of you, [they can ask], "Does it match up with our brand? Is it who we are?" You can use that for new business. You can use that when you're talking about hiring new employees. I think it's a big big part of your brand. I was in recruiting for many years, and I can't tell you how many companies are just desperate to fill seats, but they don't really take the time to make sure that somebody really matches, not just a skillset, but from a personality set - "Is this a really good fit for us?"
Brett: Because every business is just the sum of its employees, ultimately.
Cory: It really is. Ultimately, it is.
Brett: If you bring in a bunch of people who are not a fit for your company's culture or mission-
Cory: -oh yeah. And not even a bunch. It can happen with one person.
Brett: That's true.
Cory: If you have a small organization and you bring in the wrong individual, it can really cloud the water. If you understand who you are as an organization, what your DNA is, and the kind of people that make up that organization, then you can make certain decisions from a recruiting standpoint that will help attract the same kind of people. But if you're just opening the door and saying, "Hey - we need to fill some seats," well, you could get lucky, and fill those seats with people that fit, but the odds aren't very good and that's what creates turnover and turnover's very expensive. And that leads you down a whole different road of problems and issues.
Brett: Sure. You know, I'm thinking about this opportunities leading people astray from their mission... I think that's personally true too, not just corporately true.
Cory: No question about it. It's sort of, in some sense maybe, a new way of looking at things. I think that there was a time where really it was about just going and doing a good job and getting your paycheck. But now people, it seems to me, oftentimes need to be more connected to the kind of work they do. And some sort of passion, and I think that's okay.
Brett: Yeah, I think people want meaningful work that will stretch them in the direction that they want to go.
Cory: Sure, and I think people ignore their passion a lot. It's very easy to do. You gotta pay your bills, but you don't... or you think that something is too far out of reach. And I think an organization could think that way too.
Brett: So we talked about whether or not sometimes your clients might be reluctant. Or maybe they might be ignorant really of where some of these things are. So how do you pull that out of them?
Cory: The Brand Discernment process that I talked about is led by Mark True, our Brand Warrior. Mark has an uncanny ability to listen to what people are saying. And he has a way to decipher the truthfulness in that. You know, we take these organizations through your typical SWOT analysis. We actually start with the aspiration. "Where do you wanna be? Where do you wanna be when you grow up?" And then we go back to the beginning. Tell us about your history, what's worked, what hasn't worked, what are your strengths, what are your weaknesses. Take everybody through a SWOT analysis and we just compile all of that information then. Once it's all done, it can take a full day, sometimes it can take a couple of days to get through this process. And then we begin to break that down. We put it in a document format. And what happens then is we begin to see some of the patterns and some of the things that, some of the decisions they've made, but typically what you really get out of that is their story. Okay, who are these guys and what makes them good at what they do. And we begin to see things that make them different, that make them inviting, and that make them relevant. And once we've done that, we can decipher where they need to focus their attention, depending on what they really want to aspire to. Once we've done that, we begin to design strategies that are gonna help them get there. See, usually, people start with the tactic. "We need people to know who we are, so let's advertise." And they go spend a bunch of money advertising. That's not necessarily - it may be a good decision and it may not. At that point, really, you're guessing. What we identify from that Brand Discernment process are their critical issues. These are two, three, or four things that are really prohibiting you from moving forward. This is why you're stuck - 1, 2, 3, 4 - these are your critical issues. We take those critical issues, and we build strategies around those critical issues - strategies to address the critical issues. From those strategies come certain tactics. And now we're down to the tactical level, which is maybe there's gonna be some money put into advertising. But again - we're not guessing about that. We've figured out that we need to reach an audience, but it's become very purposeful. We're not guessing.
Brett: So you started out as a video company, but you also do business consulting.
Cory: The way we've described it sometimes is that we look a little bit like an advertising agency, a little bit like a therapist's office. You know, all kind of mixed into one. Necessity is the mother of invention, right?
Cory: They just got tired of being order takers, and being, you know, video and web producers. They had the video production going and there was some opportunity to add some web development, so they did. There was some opportunity to add some graphic design, so they did. Again, they were growing in a very opportunistic way - the way most companies do, without any real plan. And I think that really they just got tired of taking the orders - and I think that they felt like they were doing a lot of this work without any kind of knowledge about what it was going to do for the client. Okay, we're gonna make a lot of money off of it, but what does this do for them? How do you know you need a web page?
Brett: Well, it's what they asked for, so we'll just do that.
Cory: Right, right. That's exactly it. How do you know you need video? How do you know?
Brett: How is it that you find vendors, customers, people like that - how do you get in there and start talking to them about the company to get a better picture.
Cory: Well, you know, it's like this. [gesturing at the two of us sitting down to talk] It really is.
Brett: So do you go to the company and say, "Can I have your vendor list? Who can I talk to?" What do you do?
Cory: No. You know what? Every bit of business that I've brought in has been through relationships that I built outside of the organization. Every time. So it's through somebody that I know. When I sit down and start talking to people about their business, we'll meet over coffee. It's always just a "Hey - let's get to know each other, let's get to know our businesses," and see if there's any synergy there for whatever reason. We do not have a very typical sales model. It really is about just sharing of information. Tell me about you, tell me about your organization. What's great about your organization. What's holding you guys back? All of those things. And you can spend enough time just... and I don't - I never try to size somebody up to say, you know, have this first impression whether or not they're going to fit my organization or not - could they be a client. It always comes in time. Because oftentimes, you just know that they're not gonna be, but inevitably there's always someone else that I can introduce them to. "You know who you should meet? You should meet so-and-so." Or if you're telling me about the issues your organization's having, then I might have a solution. Or I might know somebody that has a solution. And that's what I like to do. I think organizations are like, you know, nearly all have a certain level of dysfunction to them. If there's a lot of dysfunction, ultimately, that's going to catch up to you, and you're going to have some unhappy employees, or people are going to end up leaving, or something's going to happen to throw a cog into that wheel. Is cog the right word?
Brett: A wrench in the works.
Cory: A stick through the spokes. Whatever it is. So just by conversation you begin to learn about organizations and how you might be able to play a role into getting them on the right track. And really, what I've noticed thus far in the year that I've been here is when I start to tell people about R.E.L., and what we do and how we do it, it strikes a chord with people. We have a different way of doing business. When I tell people what we do and how we do it, they really begin to pay attention. And it's kind of like that... there's almost like a sense of, "Oh my god, that's what we need!" And there's not many organizations who don't. Some are in more pain than others. But I really believe we can alleviate a lot of that pain. So that's how the conversation always starts. It's primarily I want to know about that person, about their role and about their organization. And if I have an opportunity, if they ask, to tell them about us, then I'll do so. And that usually happens at some point. But really it's about relationship building. And it's about listening and offering suggestions. The best sales book I've ever read - and I've only read like two good sales books ever - and I'm a reader! - but the best sales book I've ever read is by a guy named Mahan Khalsa. He runs the sales and business development practice area for Franklin Covey. He wrote a book called "Let's Get Real or Let's Not Play." Part of his theory is "Start anywhere, go anywhere." It's about just sitting down and just letting the conversation happen. You go in with these preconceived notions, and you're gonna walk out disappointed. If you walk in, and your goal is to get this sale or close this deal... sales in general is a very dysfunctional occupation.
Brett: It's very funneled, how it tries to channel things.
Cory: Completely. It's a silly silly thing. And that's why I love being at R.E.L. so much. They buy into Mahan's theory of start anywhere go anywhere - you don't force anything. You let the conversations happen. The opportunity will present itself somewhere along the way. But for me and primarily my role is to be building that relationship and to be networking and getting to know more people and what's happening is that eventually somebody will say - you know people are always talking about their businesses and talking about their problems - "Have you talked to Cory Garrison over at R.E.L.?" And I get a phone call, or I meet somebody: "Oh, I've been meaning to call you." Or I'm introduced to somebody and I get the opportunity to tell them what we do, but I'm never trying to force anybody into coming in and taking part the Brand Discernment process. You know, it's like somebody who has a drinking problem. "I'm fine. I can handle it."
Brett: I don't need any help.
Cory: And if you think about it, entrepreneurs - Hey I built it myself - bootstrap mentality. I don't need any help - we can fix it on our own. We get a lot of those people.
Brett: So when you guys diagnose - maybe that's a poor word - when you guys determine what the problems are - when you've discerned the different things that need to be done... you've got quite a bank of talent here: the graphic designers, video production, the other things... do you have like organizational psychologists here too? Because actually what's interesting to me is that from the outside, when I came in, [R.E.L.] started out as a video place, right? Here's our graphic designers and our web guys and everything else. And yet, I find that most of the stuff we've talked about so far really gets into the realm of, like you said, therapy and organizational psychology and trying to fix the dysfunction within an organization. How does that translate into video? But how does that also - what do you do in house to help steer those things and are the companies you work with really prepared for that part of what you do?
Cory: Sometimes they are and sometimes they're not. Again, keep in mind that the idea here is to help organizations tell their story. And that's really what all of that is designed around. Great design, great web sites, video production. These are the things that are going to help you tell your story. Building a great blog, whatever that may be. But before you can tell that story, you've kind of gotta clear out all the minutiae. You gotta, you know, use the mental floss and clear everything out. And understanding who you are - remember when we were talking a little while ago if you know and understand your brand you can make better decisions. You can make more purposeful decisions that make sense for the organization. That's all in sort of building that storytelling. You start with understanding what you brand is, and understanding who you are, and once you sort of talk through all this stuff, you really start to see people nodding their heads. Yes, that's right - that's true. It's sort of like reigniting or helping people remember, you know, why did we start this in the first place? Why are we doing this when it's not even in our skillset? Why are we ignoring this when that is our core? And that's the therapy part of it - helping them bring all that to the surface. One thing you asked earlier that I never addressed is you asked me if we, do we talk to other people. You know, you might three or four other people in this room, how do you find out the truth? And that's part of it.
Brett: Because my opinion of myself is not correct.
Cory: That's exactly it. Or at least it's going to be - that's one person's opinion, but you have all these other people looking at you. In our Brand Discernment process, we have a spot in there we call the Reality Check. And that Reality Checking - it looks, it can look different depending on the situation, but oftentimes it's doing a survey, an employee survey. We've gone a sat down and interviewed employees of our clients before and just asked them questions and gotten some really really interesting responses.
Brett: I suppose.
Cory: Oftentimes, it's very accurate. Sometimes, it's not so accurate. You know, you can tell some of the employees - we did this with one of our clients, and we took them through the Brand Discernment process about a year ago. When we went through and did a Reality Check with their employees, there was one employee in particular that had a different story than everybody else did. In other words, the owners, the employees really seemed to be on the same page. But they really didn't know how to communicate who they were, and they were taking on a lot of business opportunistically also because they didn't know how to get out and tell their story in a meaningful way. We helped them do that, but there was one individual who was really telling a different story than everybody else. And you knew that that person was not going to be around very long. You just knew it. They really didn't buy in to who the organization was. They weren't a fit, and you knew it and the guy's not there any more. I could have predicted it. I saw it back then - he's a short-timer. And you just knew it. But yeah, we've done surveys with customers, employees, and you really get a lot of good feedback from that. That's the Reality Check, and it's very very helpful.
Brett: That's cool.
Brett: So how would you define listening?
Cory: That's actually - that's a tough question. You have to remove the selfishness. When you sit down with somebody, it can't be, "What are you gonna do for me?" I try to look at it from the opposite way as "What is it that I can do to help this person?" It's not always about, "Can this guy's company be a client of mine?" You know, we may get there sometime, but what I love to do, and this I guess is from all my years in executive recruiting, was helping people make connections. That's really about - that's really what I love to do is help people make connections that's going to somehow help them move forward. And you can't do that unless you really pay attention. And it's not just about - this is really cliché, right? - but hearing and listening... it goes beyond... you sort of have to read between the lines when people arte talking and telling you something because there's... I guess it's about being selfless and engaging and figuring out what it is you can do to help move somebody forward. When I think of listening, especially in a business environment, that's what I think about. And sometimes it's just being a sounding board. I've learned that the hard way - in marriage mostly. People don't always want an answer.
Brett: Right. Sometimes it's just talking stuff out. And people always move better and more passionately on something if they come up with it themselves or if they realize it for themselves - even if you give them the beginning of it, for them to make it their own and then move forward with it, as opposed to just advice advice advice.
Cory: Well that's exactly right. If you're asking questions along the way that are meaningful, and that make sense, to help somebody kind of get to that point and sometimes you can see that on their face when they come to that realization: "I know exactly what the answer is." You don't have to give them advice. But then you can ultimately help somebody - again I'm thinking back to a business environment which is to help you with your issue or your problem or your frustration. Maybe I got you closer. And I think ultimately if you're doing that - if you're engaging and you're actively listening and participating in that conversation... I mean, ultimately in some way it's going to come back to you.
Brett: If I could encapsulate the whole thing... it's not always important to be the sole solution at the end of the day... instead, more being a conduit toward the solution because then people realize, people then will value what you do and what you have to offer, not because you gave them the answer, but because you helped them get to the answer, whatever journey that led them on. What I'm hearing you say - whether I'm giving you the whole solution or just help you along the way, if I'm selflessly hearing what you're saying, in a way that I can help you, then you're going to have the desire to come back to me again and again because I am a solution provider. I act as a conduit toward solutions.
Cory: I couldn't have said it better myself.
Brett: I just paraphrased. So I was gonna ask you then, who would be a really good person for me to talk to who might have an interesting perspective on listening?
Cory: That's Mike Wagner. I don't know if he's been referred to you yet or not. Mike, in my opinion, is one of the most amazing people I've met since I moved to Des Moines. The other guy, and I'll get you his number, he's a guy that I've never spoken to directly, but we've had conversation via our blogs, and his name is Steve Harper. He is in Austin, Texas. He's written a book and his blog and his business are all - it's called The Ripple Effect. And it is all about making a rippling effect on the environment and the community and the people around you. It's about networking. It's about listening. It's about creating. And he really comes off to me as a brilliant guy.
Brett: Thanks Cory.
Cory: Thank you very much.