Why giving our investees ideas and solutions never work?
Author: Nguyen Thi Anh Xuan, Customer Experience Manager, Mekong Capital
Have you ever worked a puzzle before that you are totally convinced to know where a piece goes? But no matter what you do, that piece just will not fit. I am going to share a story of how I was trying to fit my “perfect” piece of advice into one of MEF III’s businesses, and how I discovered being a true partner for our investees’ success is not about “great” advice, but about something much harder.
It had been a week since my email with my “perfect” advice to the Customer Experience team in the company. There were no responses. It made me worry about what I might have said wrong. The company was undergoing a major Customer Experience transformation, and when the project team reached out to Mekong for expert help, I was excited to take on this task. Before my email, they had been actively chasing us to set up meetings and ask for our advice. But now, they had drifted into radio silence. I was so confident my piece of advice would fit oh-so-perfectly with the company’s picture, yet somehow the company seemed to be rejecting it.
“How could they not see that it was the missing piece?”
Determined to build the partnership, I contacted the Head of Customer Experience. Immediately after our hellos, she excused me with a technical issue and promised to get back to me. And she did get back to me after two hours, saying “This is excellent consulting work Xuan oi!”
You might think that I’d be pleased. But, no! A heavy cloud hung over the word “consulting.” It felt like being an outsider looking in and offering unsolicited advice – while what I actually wanted was to be a trusted partner for their success. Apparently, the feelings were not mutual. She politely diverted from my request for the next meeting, stating that the company had been doing similar things to my suggestions. She struck me as a classic Northerner. A well-spoken lady, outwardly friendly but it was almost impossible to grasp whether she actually agreed with you – a “diplomat” archetype. Even her exclamation mark at the end of the sentence seemed diplomatic.
Desperately trying to fit my puzzle piece into the company’s picture, I reached out to our Deal team to arrange a follow-up meeting. I convinced myself “This is exactly what they need, they just don’t realize it yet.” I prepared for that follow-up meeting with all possible arguments to support my case and was excited for the day.
Unexpectedly, and luckily, minutes before the meeting, I had a discovery that completely changed my perspective. It was in the bi-weekly enrollment practice at Mekong. Enrollment is one of Mekong Capital’s Core Technologies to cause new possibilities from conversations.
My counter-party was with Sjoerd. It felt like the universe dealt me a tricky hand when I saw Sjoerd appear on the other of the screen. Sjoerd was one of the most experienced Deal Leaders at Mekong and had worked with many of our investees. I was nervous but I thought my well-planned arguments would hold no matter what.
Well, it could not be further from reality.
Sjoerd did not take the Enrollment practice lightly. Crossing his arms, he threw question after question, very direct questions, and promptly dismissed any arguments I had. I struggled through what felt like an endless uphill battle. I could not pull out anything from my cheat sheet. Slowly but surely, I discovered that I was listening with my head, only letting in the information that supported my theory.
“Xuan, what is your commitment to the company?”. Sjoerd suddenly asked. Right there, it hit me, my big AHA. I could describe MY commitment, but it was not a commitment that was shared with the company, with the Head of Customer Experience. To make this partnership work, I—we—need to establish a common ground. That moment I knew I was ready for my first critical conversation with an investee company.
I set aside my carefully prepared script of arguments, my notes, and my cheat sheet. No longer attached to my fixed outcome, I went into the meeting with the context of fully listening to the Head of Customer Experience—just listening. At first, she was reserved when she started the conversation. She gave us a quick rundown of what she had been doing since the transformation. It was well-prepared, highlighting only the good progress, and with clear explanations for any delays. The ‘me’ of yesterday would have tried to assert my opinions. But for the first time, I experienced being an empty space for endless possibilities. My thoughts disappeared as I listened without the slightest urge to interject. I leaned in closer to the screen, just like I would reach across the table if we met in person, to fully absorb everything she was saying. The Customer Experience picture became clearer and clearer in my mind like puzzle pieces fitting together. I was there to empower the company, not to tell them what to do.
Being deeply listened to, the Head of Customer Experience started to passionately share about her works, both successes, and struggles. I could feel the defensive wall was gradually taken down. Her voice was high with excitement. Nothing was in the way of our conversation. At times, we even bounced ideas back and forth, building up one after another. Our ONE intention to cause breakthroughs in Customer Experience came alive.
Through listening, I discovered what the company actually needed. By asking open, relevant questions, we created a brand new dialogue – one that the company actually pulled for.
‘Listen’ is composed of the same letters as ‘Silent’
I get it now. I did not walk a mile in their shoes, yet I was now so certain I knew what they really need. No matter how brilliant my idea might have been, like forcing a puzzle piece into a picture where it did not belong, the piece would always be wrong.
Immediately after the meeting, the Head of Customer Experience created a chat group for us and scheduled the next meeting for more discoveries. This time I knew it was not just a diplomatic act.
Six months on from that day, the company has achieved many breakthroughs in Customer Experience. From delivering the same messages and campaigns to all customers, now they have nine customer segments, and initiatives are customized based on their needs. As a result, revenue from loyalty alone has quadrupled (4x) compared to the previous quarter. And the company continues setting new records. At the forefront of this achievement is my now trusted partner, the Head of Customer Experience, accelerating initiatives across all departments and motivating other leaders in delivering WOW service.
As for our partnership, I no longer feel the need to march in with grand ideas and answers. We can comfortably talk and listen to each other without any agenda or reservation, just like two friends.
Reflecting back on this experience, I realize the importance of listening to really understand someone’s world and look through a lens of curiosity. Then and only then will the puzzle pieces fit firmly together. And I can truly be there for their success and discover new possibilities for breakthroughs.
14 December 2021
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Mekong Capital makes investments in consumer-driven businesses and adds substantial value to those companies based on its proven framework called Vision Driven Investing. Our investee companies are typically among the fastest-growing companies in Vietnam’s consumer sectors.
In January 2022, Mekong Capital founder Chris Freund published Crab Hotpot, a story about a bunch of crabs who found themselves stuck in a boiling pot. The colorful cover of “Crab Hot Pot,” complete with expressive cartoon crustaceans, looks like a children’s tale at first glance. But as one continues reading, it becomes clear that the work has an important message about organizational transformation, leadership and focusing on a clear vision for the future.