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  • Writer's pictureSteve Alvarez

The Value of Communications

In 2004, I was working as the chief of public affairs for Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq. That mouthful means that I was responsible for telling the world the story of the nascent Iraqi military and police forces that were being trained, equipped and mentored by our command.

September 2004 was particularly violent and I was desperate to share any small bit of good news I could find. One morning I came across a report that indicated an insurgent had been captured by a coalition patrol, or rather, an insurgent had opted to surrender to a coalition patrol who brought him in and interviewed him.

The report stated that the young Iraqi man had joined Al Qaeda Iraq and had sworn his allegiance to them. He was destined to become a martyr. His leaders planned to use him as a suicide bomber in the future. He was just waiting his turn until one day, the young insurgent got to see a U.S. soldier up close. The American was walking a foot patrol nearby and as the American moved around the streets, he stopped, talked to shop owners, shared smiles, snacks and tea with Iraqis and he played with Iraqi children. He gave the kids toys and candies. He was very approachable and Iraqis on the block seemed to know him and welcomed him.

The insurgent told his interrogators that he was shocked by what he had seen. The G.I. was certainly not an American monster like the ones Al Qaeda leaders had described to him over the last few months. The young Iraqi man was mesmerized by the American soldier, when suddenly, the American looked at the would-be insurgent. Their eyes locked from across the street. The insurgent said he felt a rush of heat come across him, but it wasn't hatred, it was shame.

The American smiled at the young Iraqi man and waved at him. "As-salaam alaikum," the American said to him (which is a standard Muslim greeting in Arabic meaning "Peace be with you.). The young Iraqi stood perplexed. Reflexively, he muttered back, "Wa-alaikum as-salaam," which means "And peace be with you too." The American smiled at him, put his hand over his heart, as Muslims in the region do, and turned and walked away, continuing his patrol.

Within a day, the young man turned himself over to an American patrol and he shared valuable intelligence that likely saved a lot of lives. Somewhere out there is an unknowing and unknown American military veteran who likely changed the course of some very violent events all because he made the choice to interact with those around him. He made a conscience decision to be friendly, to communicate, to reach out, and it likely saved the lives of others, including the insurgent, who probably would have died another day in a suicide bombing attack.

I took that lesson to heart and even wrote about it in my book. When I traveled in Iraq, and maybe at my own peril, I always ensured I was presenting myself as friendly and approachable. Even when we flew at rooftop level ferrying the media around the country, I ensured I was waving to people. One Newsweek photographer I was flying with once said I was doing "airborne PR."

The former Capt. Steve Alvarez in 2004 visiting Baghdad's Green Zone market. Months later this market would be attacked by suicide bombers killing killing five people in two attacks.

How does this apply to your small business? The point is, little things matter. Failing to communicate with your customers can kill your business. Showing a genuine lack of concern will erode client loyalty. There are more than 33 million small businesses in the United States according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. Your customers WILL find some other place to patronize and spend their hard earned money.

It is important to communicate with your customers and show them that you want to be helpful and that you care about what they need. Americans more and more are looking for sincerity in their relationships. They want something beyond transactional exchanges and something deeper than the shallowness of the digital world.

If you own a pool service company, make #InstagramVideos that show customers how to do basic maintenance on their systems. Are you a #smallbusinessowner with an auto repair shop? Do the same thing. Make short, useful videos that can help them diagnose simple problems and help them maintain their rides. Start a YouTube channel and get some subscribers. If you do, when they have major mechanical issues, odds are great that they will turn to your shop for help because you were willing to share information with them on smaller matters.

There are lots of ways to stay connected to your customers and enhance their lives, but it takes energy and creativity. If you do not have either of those things, or maybe you do, but don't have the time, let me know. Just wave at me (on this blog page or on social media) and I'll come over and give you a hand.

Steve Alvarez is the owner of McDunnden Communications. His book, Selling War: A Critical Look at the Military's PR Machine was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2016.

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