Subtle signals are crucial in business

Paying attention to the details sends a strong message to your clients
Even the smallest actions can make a huge impression – think carefully before asking questions.
Subtle signals exist in all of our interactions, and the best businesspeople have a firm command over the messages they are sending.
New Tesco boss Dave Lewis, for example, quickly decided to sell the firm’s fleet of private jets after coming into the job. It’s not the kind of decision that will rapidly turn around the ailing retailer, but he knows how dangerous such signs of opulence can be in a business struggling to maintain its market share. There are many ways in which subtle signals can affect your business or career. Here are three examples.


When I was working for a men’s clothes shop in the 1970s, the owner made a point of ensuring that the suits always hung extremely neatly. The job was to make sure that things were “just perfect”, and his attention to detail was intense. In his words: “we care for the clothes so our customers know that we will care for them.” It worked – he attracted a large clientele.
In a City office, similar messages can be expressed through interactions with your clients or customers. An intellectual property (IP) lawyer who sends out emails with spelling errors, for example, is subtly implying that he won’t pay close attention to detail with your IP. It’s about consistency, in everything.


I recently attended the launch of a new business; it was a glitzy, high-profile event. The management spoke glowingly of all the things they were proud of, and we could sense the shared enjoyment of their success.
But they also talked about one group of staff key to the future expansion of the business. It was clear that the management felt this team had let them down and needed to do more. It was probably just two sentences out of 200, but the subtle signal was “we bear grudges.” The takeaway point – think hard about the perceptions of others when giving feedback.
Things go wrong, and people sometimes fail to deliver. But the question that’s often missed is: “how will others – who don’t necessarily know the details of this case – judge my commentary?”


At networking events, I’m frequently asked questions that appear to have been thought of on the spot. Sometimes they seem vague, and lack context or content. It can be difficult to know what the questioner really wants to know.
These types of questions send the subtle signal that you don’t really have a grasp of what you’re asking, nor why you are asking it. Maybe this is a little harsh, but the fact that many other people react in this way is proof that a subtle signal is being given. Yet often there is more depth to the question than is immediately apparent.
“How many people are there in your business?” There can be a lot of subtlety built into business models: a specialist firm may outsource support functions, others may choose to keep everything in-house. Was the question to determine size, resilience, capability to scale, or maybe value?
And giving the right answers to these open-ended questions can be just as important. If the concern is about capability, simply stating the number of employees may not give the right impression. But exploring the intention behind the question gives a subtle signal that you want to understand, as well as respond. Asking, and answering, questions with clarity and context avoids misunderstandings, and helps to build trust, fast.
By paying attention to the details and clarifying the context of questions, you’ll make sure that you’re sending the right subtle signals. This helps to rapidly grow a profitable business, and can accelerate careers.
William Buist is chief executive and owner of Abelard Collaborative Consultancy and founder of the xTEN Club, an executive level advisory council.

No more mental maths

Back of an envelope calculations are fine, but we all know how easy it is to forget how to perform even simple percentage operations. This app helps you to quickly work out the percentage of a number, the percentage of a partial number, the change from one value to another, and many more calculations.

Related articles