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On a recent trip to our family lake house, we took our usual pontoon boat sunset cruise. Sunsets in rural Georgia are the most beautiful cascade of pinks and oranges one can imagine, so this is an activity we have done dozens of times in the 15-plus years since my parents purchased this family property.
These cruises are typically quiet, tranquil experiences. Short rides resembling more solitude than comradery. We saunter along across the glasslike water as the ball of fire slowly fades into the horizon. A time, for me, of reflection and gratitude, but also a touch of loneliness.
On this day, an unusual occurrence took place. The energy on the boat was boisterous and joyful. Music filled the air, as did laughter. The smiles and frivolity were so contagious that more than half the group found themselves swimming in the water warmed by the Georgia sun, fully dressed in our afternoon clothing. The sheer definition of carefree.
So what changed? There are three subtle differences that provide larger lessons for our businesses and our lives.
First, know your audience.
The first difference in this boat ride was the passengers. The usual participants are my straightlaced, ever-rule-following paternal family. Whether family or clients, we all know the type. They are the consistent, the thorough, the meticulous. They cross every T and dot every I. A diversion from the plan is more a catastrophe than a blessing, but plan A is always followed by a well-researched plan B.
On this day, however, the boat was filled with my fun-loving, generationally mischievous maternal family. If they were clients, the orders would start with a myriad of colors and end a dozen change orders later. The only consistency is inconsistency and the only constant is laughter along the way.
The most successful business developments are done from a place of trust and genuine empathy. And the very heart of that is knowing your audience. Get to know their personalities and their goals. Understand the nuances of their needs that they may not be fully articulating. What do your clients really want out of the buying experience with you? Will they be satisfied with a quiet, calm ride? Or when they say boat ride, do they really mean a dip in the lake?
Second, let go of the past.
When preparing for the boat ride, my family had asked if they should change into swimsuits. I nearly scoffed at the idea. It was dusk and we were not stopping at the shore. No one ever swims right off the boat at this time of evening. Or so I thought.
How many times do we overlay past experiences on current clients? It can be so simple to overlook a client’s uniqueness and use past interactions with similar clients as a guide rather than utilizing thorough communication to make a customized plan of action. As important as it is to get to know your clients or potential clients, that information is only useful in action. Through empathetic listening, work with them to create a custom plan that is mutually beneficial and well-thought-out. It may win their trust and their return business.
Third, embrace planned spontaneity.
But what if you failed at the two steps above, as I did on the boat? Fear not — all is not lost. As the first of the group began jumping in the water that evening, I hesitated. This was unprecedented. Could I? Should I? And then I asked myself, why am I holding back? What were the consequences? Wet clothes? A little chill on the ride back to the house? I was quite literally being held back by a wall I built around myself based solely on past precedence.
Think back to a time when you saved a failing account by pulling out an uncommon solution for the client. When the stakes are high, we find innovations we dare not suggest regularly. This is your planned spontaneity. It’s a mindset that allows us to check all the boxes of planning while reserving enough hutzpah to act at a moment’s notice. This mindset requires that we approach every situation with an open mind and flexible nature. This mindset is the key to seizing opportunity however it finds you.
After all, the places we find our greatest joys and greatest successes may surprise you. Allow space for surprise, space for empathy, space for joy. In other words, jump on in, the water is fine.
This article was originally published on Forbes.