The Entrepreneur's Guide to Dealing With Unsolicited Business Advice
Thanks for the advice...?
That's what we're all thinking - puzzling - wondering - when we get unsolicited advice from someone about our business, our careers, or even our personal lives.
The next thought is often: "Wait... I didn't ask you for your opinion."
And the worst one follows, "Damn - that crap's stuck in my head now!"
And look, we all give advice to other people. We've been on both sides of this equation. Today, here are two examples of the range of unsolicited advice I get, how I dealt with them, and what I learned.
My hope is that you'll read these and know 1) you're not alone, 2) to keep an eye out for when you do this to others, and 3) you won't ever, ever give someone notes on their "performance" when meeting for an informal coffee(curious? read on!).
Your business model sucks
(basically because it's not mine).
I do coffees and Skypes often to get to know a lot of different people. This year, I've had something interesting happen to me twice on the unsolicited advice front.
On two separate occasions, I was talking to a new connection - someone with a somewhat different business from mine. Within 15 minutes of conversation and having barely explained what I do, this connection launches into this criticism -
"But your business model is a ton of churn. You're always having to get new clients. It's so much better to have a few recurring clients so you don't have to do all that new business stuff."
I'm thinking: Only 15 minutes of conversation. And this person takes issue with my business and how I run it? Hmm.
How I Dealt With It:
The first time it happened to me, I was surprised and swallowed my feelings until later that afternoon (you know - that moment when you have arguments in your head of what you should have said!). The second time this came up, I had more time to process it and I knew what to say:
"I appreciate the thought, but the thing is that there is no business nirvana (or career nirvana, or personal life nirvana).
There is no perfect business model - there will always, always be trade-offs. In your business (and life), you should seek the trade-offs, the pros and the cons you can live with - that you can thrive with."
I pointed out to this fellow business owner that his business model is an awesome fit for him - and my business model is an awesome fit for me!
For example, that while I do spend a lot of my time meeting and booking new clients, I truly love working with a variety of businesses. I love setting people up for success and watching them grow. And I enjoy meeting new people in the new business process. It's not all sunshine and puppies being a business owner, it's the trade off's that work for me.
What I Learned:
- Firstly, I remind myself that people like this generally mean well - they are encouraging from the place they know. I'm sure I've given advice like this to others without asking in the past. And I'm now friends with both of the connections, even though their comments took me aback. This interaction won't keep me from knowing their intentions were good or seeing them as collaborators, because otherwise our conversations have been great.
- In the future, I'm trying to be a lot more intentional about doing something simple like asking "Is it okay if I give you some constructive feedback?"
- I try to give advice more when it is asked for in general, and more as a consultant (when people are seeking it, rather than a new connection over coffee)
- I try to ask more questions. I remind myself that 15 minutes is not long enough to give major input like "your business model sucks" - whether the advice is asked for or not.
- I try to look at situations from others' perspective, coupled with my own, remembering that my trade off's are different than another person's.
- I try to never forget: there is no nirvana. No silver bullet. We aren't seeking perfection, we are seeking progress and better.
Annie and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Coffee Date
This is one of the craziest things that have ever happened in my career.
I went to a meeting for a communications club as a friend's guest. There I met a new connection who was in the club leadership. We connected later via email and I asked her to grab coffee to swap stories, 1-on-1, as I do pretty often. All was great.
We met in a busy coffee shop that turned out to be pretty noisy. The woman has an accent so it was fairly difficult for me to understand everything but I tried to listen intently. The conversation quickly became about 75% her, her life, and endeavors - which hey, okay - that happens sometimes.
When I had a chance to talk, I tried to work in relevant things - mention a lot in a little bit of space. But we all know what it's like to be on a business coffee date and get the vibe that the other person is just "not that into you." Oh well.
All this would have been generally normal, until we were wrapping up. The woman started to try to sell me hard on joining the club. I had already explained by that point that I'd love to come as a guest again but was currently very busy with clients and wouldn't want to join until I could commit and be a productive/contributing member.
That wasn't enough. We're about over with our coffee when she turns to me and starts selling again -
"..You know, that's another thing the club could help you with. Nothing personal, but I haven't understood a lot of what you've said this whole time. You speak very fast. The club could really help you with that."
Is your jaw open yet?
You know when your stomach sinks? Yep, cue that feeling. For me, the rush of thoughts went through my head went something like this, "What? I spoke too fast? Was this an audition and I didn't know? What do you mean you didn't understand anything I said? But you talked so much! Why didn't you say something or ask? Do I SUCK majorly? and hey... what the heck?! This is a coffee, not a job interview!"
And what did I actually say from all that?
"Oh, thanks for the feedback. I appreciate it." Thanks for the advice...
We parted nicely and I left. Confused, stirring, processing. Couldn't quite believe it.
It got crazier. Two weeks later I saw her at a networking event. She walks up and introduces herself to me. Like we'd never met. Like we'd never had the weirdest coffee of my career together for an hour the same month.
You can't make this stuff up, seriously.
So, How I Dealt With It:
- Similar to the first example, though harder, I reminded myself that this person probably meant well and thought they were helping me. They probably didn't realize that their advice was in a weird context and could be unintentionally hurtful. And maybe they felt uncomfortable about not understanding me... I'm not sure.
- I knew instinctively it wouldn't be valuable or the right thing (at least for me) to do anything in the moment other than say out of courtesy, say thank you. So I did, even though I did really want to stand up for myself in the moment. I don't regret it because I'm not sure the right words would have come to me and I've had some time to learn and think through this since then.
- I learned from it and it taught me by juxtaposition how important listening, empathy, and intention are in my relationships - new and existing - in business and in life.
What I Learned:
- This experience gave me a very important reminder: even when we are meeting someone in a business context, we are being vulnerable. We are putting ourselves "out there" and to some degree, we are trusting this other person to be careful with that - to respect it - and not hurt us. It made me realize that it's a very vulnerable thing to ask someone to coffee, to share your story, to come to someone and say "Hey, my business is in trouble - can you help me?"
- In so many ways, this experience grounded me in that understanding and how critical it is to make people feel that they can put themselves out there without getting hurt. To the extent I can make that happen now, I do. I watch my words. I consider someone's feelings.
- A part of this story is about listening. We weren't hitting it off, but part of what hurt that was either of us not stopping to say - "Hey, tell me more. I would like to better understand x." I try to do more of that too where I can.
- Lastly, you know those things you agonize over? I kept wondering if she had a bad time and was puzzling the coffee and what happened as much as I was. NOPE. That was pretty clear when she didn't initially remember me the next time we saw each other. So there it is, nobody is as worried about stuff as you are - at least for me, in this instance.
Finding the Good in Unsolicited Advice
I'll be the first to say I'm not perfect. I've been thinking about this post for awhile and wasn't sure how to find the right angle. The thing is, I want what I write for you to be centered on positivity and encouragement. A lot of people write articles about what you should be afraid of, what sucks, etc. - there's enough of that in the world.
It took me awhile to think about this topic and these stories and think of the positive - the things we can learn and take away.
It's not lost on me that this is weekly advice. I give a lot of advice in what I do. And I love to do it - in so many ways, it's what lights me up. And in my personal and professional lives I've learned that advice can be a great, powerful thing - even when it's unsolicited.
So if you're dealing with unwanted, icky or otherwise unsolicited advice - here's what you can always do. Give the person grace, learn what you can, and practice a better, more compassionate way when it's your turn.
But that's just my advice. :)