Every business has a voice – a unique and complex message, a way that message is delivered, and the target receivers of that message. The way you communicate can make or break your relationship with your customers. Finding your business’s voice is a sure way towards consistent, effective communication. Business voice coaching is the forte of Ken Welsh, who has been working as a professional communicator for three decades and as a coach since 1999. His rich experience in this field has given him a unique approach to business language that propels his clients to communicative excellence. In the process of helping his clients find their voice, Ken has essentially found his own, unique consulting voice that is dedicated to giving the best quality service he possibly can to his clients. Take part in the unraveling of his story as he joins Michael Zipursky in this insightful conversation.
I have Ken Welsh with us. Ken, welcome.
Mike, thanks for having me on board. Hello, everyone.
Ken, I’m excited about this conversation. The last time you and I spoke, it was in person. It was a real pleasure to meet you when I was with my family in Australia. We go back many years more than either one of us can remember. I’m excited because I’ve always been impressed with what you’ve accomplished, how you operate, how you think and how you act as a person but also in business. Your background as a professional communicator for over three decades. You’ve been coaching since 1999. Your clients include well-known organizations like KPMG, IBM, Coca-Cola, Headsets.com and a whole bunch of others. They hire you for team building, communication training, and client experience coaching. You’ve written three books and you’ve mastered the art of helping organizations to create a remarkable experience for clients and customers. On LinkedIn, if someone goes there and says, “Who’s this Welsh guy?” They’ll see that you call yourself a Business Voice Coach, which might throw some people off. Tell us what does that mean and a little bit more about what you do.
It’s interesting the way the term, Business Voice Coach, came about was because of quite a few of my North American clients. They decided that what I do is I create the voice of the business. That’s partially the way people sound. When you’re dealing with people, the tone and the rhythm, that’s also the messaging and the words you use. For instance, in one respect, I was working with some restaurants in New York and their approach to business was, “Let’s identify one word that sets what we are.” Gabriela’s, which is this amazing Mexican restaurant decided to celebrate what they’re about. We weave that language through everything they do. All their messaging from the way the customers are greeted through to the menu and the advertising. It’s about creating the voice of the business.
It makes me think a lot of owners of businesses or executives would want to own that themselves. It’s not that they would want to already have. Why bring an external person in to help us decide on what our voice should be? That’s something that we should already own. What does that dynamic look like? How have you found that clients are bringing you in or inviting you to have that conversation when it seems like it’s something that’s personal to the organization or the owner of the businesses themselves?
Companies are in two different positions. One is a new company that’s starting out and it’s trying to brand itself and create its identity. Others are ones where you’re right. The president of the company has this strong vision, their marketing team has a strong vision. What they want is that extra that you can add on to it. For instance, my dissertation was that language has the ability to create physiological change that results in behavioral change. The words we use, if we’re precise enough, can create a big difference in the impact we have with our customers, that’s internal customers as well as external customers. It’s helping those people expand on the vision they already have. It’s challenging because they already know what they want. It’s an amazing and exciting experience when you see those people see their vision come to life on a whole new level.
How do people find out about you? One thing that struck me many years ago when we first started talking and when we met in Australia, most of your clients are coming to you. You’re not going out and doing a lot of outreach or you don’t have your face on some billboard on the side of Sydney Freeway. How are your clients, which are very global, which we should talk about as well? What have you been doing to generate opportunities for your business?
It has all been word of mouth. I have done virtually no advertising and marketing. It’s one person who passes me on to another. I have a limited scope where I work with only ten companies a year. I won’t go beyond that. I don’t feel like I can give the quality that I need to. Some of the companies I’ll embed myself with a month at a time. Other ones, I’ll do regular check-ins by phone and face-to-face. They’re all over the world. It has been word of mouth because it’s a fairly unique product. It’s challenging to get the message across to a bigger spectrum of clients. It’s exactly what I need because I tailor it uniquely to each person and each company. Word of mouth and they send me an email or go onto my website which is KenWelsh.com
Can you trace that back to the first client that you had? Can you see how it all started from this one client and then went to the next and to the next?
My real champion is a guy called Mike Faith who runs Headsets.com, which is in San Francisco and Nashville. Mike spent about six months trying to track down a coach that would work only on the phone because he had a call center. It had to be Mike’s way of doing things. He tried out half-a-dozen sales coaches and that’s not what I want. He was after customer loyalty, a term he calls customer love. Mike started off my international work and quickly that developed into a much stronger relationship. I’ve been working with him for many years now. I’m even included in their recruitment process sometimes.
With Mike’s team, they do such an amazing job of customer service over the phone that the company called Los Niños in New York were buying headsets. Scott Mesh, who runs Los Niños, rang up. He had such a great experience. He then tracked down Mike Faith and rang him and said, “You’re the president of this company. How do you get these people to do it?” Mike literally said two words, “Ken Welsh.” He put me on to Los Niños. From that, I can track that it’s almost like watching my family tree grow to work in Vancouver to more work in New York, New Jersey into London because of someone who contacted someone. I can track the whole family tree.
You mentioned ten clients per year and that you won’t go beyond that. That’s interesting because a lot of people these days, the buzzword is scale and it’s growth. It’s more money, more of this, more of that, more team and so forth. You’ve done the exact opposite by limiting to only ten clients. Take us through a thought process there, Ken. Why do you do that? Why not find ways to make more money to scale, grow, leverage what you have? Maybe you have, they’re just not apparent at the surface level. Walk us through your thoughts around the business, lifestyle and decisions around growth, limiting and capacity.
It’s an interesting one because I’ve been asked to go into or to merge with larger companies. The decision I made early on was I wanted a life-work balance, not a work-life balance. I only chose clients I enjoyed working with. I was offered opportunities to work with enormous companies. One was a call center in India that wanted me to run a personalized workshop with 500 people in the class. Everyone has a different approach and that wasn’t what I was about. I was about creating a highly personalized product for individuals or individual companies. One element was I didn’t want a conflict of interest. I become embedded in a company. I know a lot of the ins and outs. I work with all levels of the company.
I see a lot of the decisions that are made which could present a significant issue in terms of conflict with interests. Conflict of interest if I was working with another company in the same field. That immediately called that. I’ve worked in about 26 industries to my recollection. That limits how many companies you can work with. The real driving force was I wanted to be able to deliver highly personalized quality service. I can’t scale that up because I adapt on the fly a lot of the time. It’s my broad experience that lets me adapt on the fly and I could never bring in people that had the same experience. My unique set of experience is what’s led me to this position, offered that through someone else.
Do you ever regret that or question yourself and go, “What if I did bring on and train someone else to do the coaching that I’m doing? What if I develop this into training materials and licensed them, did a train the trainer?” or something along those lines. Has that ever been a question or something that you’ve considered?
It has. There have been times where the bank managers have rung up and you’ve thought, “I wish I had scaled this a bit better.” That was mainly around the 2008 to 2009 period where a lot of international clients pull back. With Coronavirus, my clientele is pulling back and I’m doing a lot of telephone and video conferencing rather than face-to-face. However, at that same time in 2008 and 2009, I would have been upset if I had to lay people off. If I had grown it and then it crushed 95% of the time, I’m happy with the choice I’ve made. It’s because I love the work I do. I’m personally getting a lot out of this in every company and every person I work with. Building the relationship with you is one of the most joyous things I’ve had and catching up with you face-to-face. It’s all this personal side means so much to me.
I love that and I feel the same way around that, although I must admit, I do always think about growth and scaling but not at the expense of time with family, creating memories or meaningful experiences. You clearly have done an amazing job with your clients in creating these experiences that their clients and customers rave about. That is what has grown your business. For the independent consultant or small consulting firm owner, what might they be able to implement? They’re not running call centers or they don’t have call centers for their own business. What are a few ideas that you could share from customer loyalty, customer love type of perspective or experience that we might all be able to use in our own businesses so that we could provide better experiences for our clients?
There are some simple language techniques that make a massive difference in the way people relate to you. There’s something called the three prompts. I do this with everyone from politicians and presidents of companies through to call centers and face-to-face hospitality customer service. The three prompts are asking yourself this question before you go into a transaction with someone. What do they want? What do I want? How do I help both of us enjoy getting there? On that first one, we are the most insecure animal on Earth. The first thing everyone wants is reassurance. They have a tangible need and then they have a subconscious need. Second is, “What do you want?” If you go into a transaction without knowing what you want, you are not going to get it. It’s that simple.Business voice is not just about tone and rhythm, but also about the messaging and the words you use. Click To Tweet
Many people go into something, they don’t know what they need, what they want, and what they’re prepared to give up to get it. The third is how do I help both of us enjoy getting there. You’re going to do this day in, day out. You want your client to enjoy it. If they enjoy it, you enjoy it and the journey will be much stronger. You have to take them on a journey from A to E via B, C and D, enjoy that, and have them enjoy it. That’s the first step of customer love, customer loyalty is people enjoying working with you. People are thinking, “I want to ring up Mike and have a talk to him.” There’s a whole batch like in North America, it’s strong on positive, I refer to as covert positive language: great, awesome, fantastic, wonderful, excellent. You hear that all the time and it does make a massive difference.
However, because you do hear it all the time, one of the great things to do is use covert positive language. Covert positive language is when you leave out words: can’t, don’t, won’t and but. They are all barrier words. They’re blocking. We’re constantly told what we can’t do, don’t do this, or you can’t do that. However, if you can delete them from your vocabulary, people won’t on the surface notice it. They’ll go away thinking, “That was a great experience,” and they won’t know why. That positive experience is what does it. With can’t, don’t, won’t, and but, it’s not that they’re barrier words, they also have the tonal structure of a four-letter word, an expletive. You can hit your thumb with a hammer and go SHIT or you can hit your thumb with a hammer and go, “Can’t. Don’t.” You’ll get the same punch of adrenaline. You get the same betrayal.
There were experiments done where people put their fist in a bucket of water, they had a normal conversation, and they could keep their fist in the bucket of water for X number of minutes. When they swore as many four-letter words and expletives as they could, they could keep their fist in the bucket of water roughly three times longer. If they said can’t, don’t, won’t, and but with that same venom, they could keep their fist in the bucket of water twice as long as when they were holding a normal conversation. Subconsciously, we register these words. If you can delete those and tell people what you can do rather than what you can’t do, then this is a covert positive language. The other one that is a strong one is the word actually. It is so ingrained in the North American idiom that I pick it up when I go to North America.
I challenge anyone to find a sentence where they have to use the word actually and only the word actually other than when they’re describing the word actually and where it has a negative input. That’s the redundancy in it. It’s a redundant negator. The negator aspect is when we were children, all of our well-meaning parents, aunts, uncles, teachers, mentors would use it to soften the blow. John is going to the zoo and it’s his first time at the zoo. He’s excited. “Mom, look at the zebra.” “Actually, Johnny, it’s a giraffe.” It pulled the rug out. We were programmed that when someone said the word actually that we’re going to move the goalpost. We’re going to change the rules on us all.
I want to go back to one of the things you mentioned at the beginning, Ken, which is what do they want? What do I want? That whole piece there. Is that what you do when you go into work with organizations? Do you go in and identify what are all the potential questions, objections, or situations that you might find yourself in whether it’s in a call center or dealing with clients across the table or communications? Work through that structure of what do they want typically? What do you want? Where’s the resistance? Where’s the challenge? How can you make it so that it’s a win-win for both people or create the right experience in that specific situation? Is that an example of work that you would do with a client?
Perfect example, Mike. In the perfect world where I can travel overseas to spend time with the client, first, I’ll spend 3 or 4 days shadowing people, spending time with the key people, finding out what they do, and finding out what they’re trying to achieve. I then develop what I want and then the journey after that. You nailed that completely.
The reason I’m trying to hit on this is for anyone out there that wants to improve or to see some benefit from these best practices and techniques that you have, they can do this. For everyone reading this, think about what are the most common objections, questions or situations that you’re in when you’re speaking to a client or writing even copy for your website or proposals. Think what does the end client want? What do they care most about then? What do you want to make sure that you’re also able to capture or to receive? How do you make this an experience for both sides to win or a great experience? It takes a bit of time to work through which is the value of having a coach like you involved in the process. Even if someone was to sit down and think about this themselves, they could likely find some gains or some ways of improving and therefore creating greater experiences and leading from that longer customer loyalty.
I agree with you totally. Applying those three basic steps as three prompts to any transaction, these steps that I spoke about, and the language as well. Relate it as well in your personal life as your professional life. It enhances personal relationships and understanding where people are coming from. Definitely in a business world, taking those three steps through. You don’t need a coach to sit and take you through those. You need the time to analyze it.
What’s interesting about that is even though a lot of times people don’t need a coach, the value that they would get by working with someone like you or whoever it is that most often, we’re not prepared to do the work. We need the hand-holding because otherwise, we know we’re not going to take the action. I find that when we work with coaches. We could figure out what we want to achieve but it would be a much longer, secure route to get there. We might get distracted but by making an investment ourselves or making the decision to work with someone, we know the chance of success, the chance of crossing that line is significantly higher. Is that your experience as well?
That’s the case. It’s a better bang for the buck. You’re pulling in someone who’s been doing this for decades, cut to the chase, and help you much quicker plus instill the discipline in you to achieve that. One of the things I do quite a bit is what’s called back seating in meetings. Particularly in the Middle East, I’ll go in with a company that’s dealing with a sheik or someone like that. I’ll observe and then I’ll give them feedback for their next meeting, we refine it, and we work on it because when you’re engaged in a transaction with someone, it’s hard to be stepping outside and analyzing what you’re doing at the same time. Having that other set of eyes is important as well.
Your business is global. A lot of people wonder, “Doesn’t a business have to only come in in your own backyard?” but here, much of your business is outside of Australia. Is that intentional? Did you seek that out? What are your thoughts on that?
It turned out intentional if you like. The first impetus I was doing a bit of work in Australia and then Headsets.com came on board. That took me as my first overseas step. As I started developing the network, I made a conscious choice and thought, “I don’t want to work in Australia. That’s where my home is. I want to have time off. I want to relax.” As well as that, the Australian psyche is a much more laid-back business psyche. It’s changed a lot in years since I’ve started doing this. However, to tell people in Australian business how to run things and to use this high-level language is almost a slap in the face for them because as truth, “I want to sit back and get the job done,” type of thing.
Interestingly, in North America, I’m introduced to everyone and shown around proudly, “We have this coach from overseas.” In Australia, I have to sign NDAs and not tell anyone the companies I’m working with because they want to be seen as self-made. The way it turned out is great because I largely chill in Australia other than conference calls, video conferencing, and video coaching. Most of my work is overseas. I’ve created two lives. That was what I was talking about initially about having that life-work balance. I have a home in Australia, which is more relaxing.
You’ve done some work with governments. That’s an area that a lot of people are quite frankly scared, fearful or they see it as these insurmountable massive stacks of paper, RFPs and all kinds of stuff. What’s been your experience working with the government?
It’s been mixed. Some bureaucracies in some countries are solid red tape in paperwork. A lot of the developing countries are the ones that are challenging in that they almost protect themselves with the paperwork and change. For me, the idea has been finding a champion. In every government agency I’ve worked with, there’s always been a couple of people who are after new progressive ideas from wanting to try something new. A lot of that is the fresh blood that comes in to change the world and they’re great to work with. It’s being selective in who you work with. If you can find the right champion in a government organization, it can totally change the way you approach it.
How do you identify them? Aside from them, if they’re new to the organization, that might be a bit of a hat tip. How do you identify who is that champion or who’s the right candidate to become a champion? The second part of that question is once you’ve identified them, how do you engage them in conversation to confirm that your belief that they could be a champion without putting them off or without guiding them in the wrong direction? What are your thoughts on those two?
There are a couple of factors in it. One is that a lot of the champions I’ve worked with have been the people who reached out to me. They’ve identified a deficiency in what their organization was doing. That was obvious. The other is when I’ve been invited to either attend the situation or contract situation, I hold an initial workshop with middle management. By seeing the way that people are reacting in that, their body language, the questions they ask, you quickly identify those that are sitting there, leaning back saying, “Prove yourself to me.” Those that leaning forward are saying, “I want to get involved in this.”
The next step for me, once I’ve picked the 2 or 3 people there, I’ll have a social cup of coffee with them, I’ll sit down and talk to them. I’ll find out what they’re trying to do, what their frustrations are, and what their goals are. I try and tailor it to what’s in it for me for them. They’re going to get and then in the champion situation, we work out so they and I, what’s in it for the managers above them? How can we make their life easier? Where are they going to get the kudos? It’s a bit manipulative but it’s getting through a situation where you’ve got a strong, old school bureaucracy.The words that we use and don’t use have a big impact on our messaging. Click To Tweet
That sounds also like a way to move things up through the organization to affect greater change where if you’re coming at it directly, you might get knocked down. This way, you’re building up that champion and slowly moving one step and step up until you’ve reached the point of the true decision-maker or the one that can influence the real change that you want. Is that correct?
That’s right. You nailed it completely.
You’ve written three books on customer service and client relationships. Out of the three books, which one would you recommend to a consultant who’s looking to grow their practice and to improve the work that they’re doing?
The third book, Who Killed Customer Care, is a more readable book to get the message across. It’s an allegory, it’s a murder mystery, a little bit Ken Blanchard in his approach of telling the story and letting you find out the message through the story. The other two are much more case studies. If you’re orientated towards I want to be taught, I want the bullet points to be shown to me and spoon-feed me, the first two. Who Killed Customer Care is a more enjoyable read. People that I have worked with who have read it have remembered the points a lot stronger because of that.
Ken, first of all, I want to thank you for coming on sharing some of your insights and experiences. That has been wonderful to have that here and spend this time with you. I also want to make sure that people can learn more about you and your work. Let us know where’s the best place for people to go.
Keep it simple, Ken. Thanks so much.
Mike, just a word. Anyone who’s reading this, read the other episodes. Mike has some amazing people talking on these shows.
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