Managing Expectations Through Clear Communication

My husband and I had dinner one evening last week at one of our favorite local restaurants, an upscale place with a gracious staff and fantastic fare. Or, at least, we went to the restaurant with the intention of having dinner. Our server took our orders and disappeared. An hour-and-a-half after we ordered, our wine glasses had been empty for 45 minutes and I had to take action – which is never pleasant to do in one of your favorite “usual” spots in a small town. We ended up cancelling our order, to the complete surprise of the server (“Are you serious?” she asked when I waved her over). The manager came over 10 minutes later and told us that the restaurant was unusually busy for a weeknight, and she was kind enough to tell us that she wasn’t going to charge us for the food. The reaction of the server and her manager, neither of whom apologized, was enough to put us off the restaurant for the near future.

As is my nature, I had to pick the incident apart over the next few days. What went wrong? Why did that happen? What’s the lesson? Naturally, my thought process spilled over from a restaurant experience to transactions in general and, finally, to mergers and acquisitions. My conclusion: Managing expectations through clear communication fosters effective transactions – whether you’re buying dinner or an architecture firm.

With that in mind, here are some simple rules you’ve heard 1,000 times, but that bear repeating because they’re true:

  1. There is no such thing as over-communicating. Communication among your team during the acquisition process is crucial to rapid and functional decision making. People often forget to share information or erroneously assume that everyone is in the loop. Send a weekly update email out to your team or schedule a recurring progress call.
  2. Communicating is a mix of giving and taking. Listening is a key component of communication. Pay attention to the concerns of various stakeholders. If someone cares enough about something to share it with you, don’t dismiss his/her concern. Show respect and keep quiet. In M&A, the listeners are often top executives who have a valuable set of skills. The downside to dealing with those in leadership is that they have developed a long-standing set of assumptions. M&A, however, is all about handling the unknown. Good listeners are able to relax their assumptions, process information critically, and consider new possibilities.
  3. Respond quickly and meaningfully. Respond to emails and other communication as fast as you can, but make sure that you are actually communicating and not just trying to throw the ball back into the court of the other party. If you can’t respond meaningfully to something in a short amount of time, make that your response — “I need some time to check into your question; I’ll respond to you before the end of the day tomorrow.” Process information in emails instead of firing off a poorly contemplated response as soon as it hits your inbox.
  4. Explain your understanding. I’m working on the initial due-diligence phase of a deal right now, and the potential buyer asked my client for information that seemed beyond the scope of what would normally be requested at this time. I eased any potential frustration by picking up the phone, calling the potential buyer, and asking if there was something that they were having a hard time understanding, or why they otherwise felt that this information was important. Understanding the motivation for the request changed my client’s perception. We got a reasonable explanation and moved forward.
  5. Lists are your friend. Before calls or meetings, write down a few things that you want to make sure that you share. I bring a pad of paper with me into calls to help me stay on track. Especially in an acquisition, where there are many moving parts, it’s important to have a method for making sure that your position is clearly articulated.

My dinner experience could have been fantastic, if the server had shared key information with us when it was available, instead of avoiding me and my husband: “I just wanted to let you know that a large table ordered ahead of you. Do you mind to wait for your food? We are happy to bring you a round of drinks or an appetizer on the house – sorry about that.” The server would have had two customers who were happy to be there and could adjust their evening plans based on a few pieces of the puzzle that were unknown to us when we were neglected. Think about how the people that you deal with could benefit from regular updates, and call me if you need restaurant recommendations in Northwest Arkansas.

Jamie Claire Kiser is leading a seminar, M&A In-A-Day on November 5, 2015. To learn more visit: https://zweiggroup.net/sandbox/seminars/maiad/

Jamie Claire Kiser is Director of M&A Services at Zweig Group. Contact her at jkiser@zweiggroup.com