Monday, July 25, 2011

Do Ask - Don't Tell


I met a man at a marketing event named David Berkus. David Berkus has had a wonderful 40-year run as an owner and investor in companies. He claims a 97 percent return on his Angel investments. He is one of the founders of something called the Tech Coast Angels. He wrote a book, Berkonomics, about lessons he learned from investing in emerging companies, most of which have been very successful.

I devoured the book in one day.

One of the things he writes about in the book is how the customer is the teacher. He highlights the fact that customers know what they want from us; we do not know what is best for the customer. This is worth repeating: customers know more about what they want than we do.

So how do you find out what they want? Ask them! Ask them! Ask them!

You’d be surprised how many professionals don’t ask a customer what they want. They tell customers what they need. This should never happen. Professionals are supposed to be listeners. When you listen, you cannot help but exceed a customer’s expectations because you are smart enough and creative enough to hear what they want and imagine for them a bigger future than what they can imagine for themselves. I firmly believe this and believe that is why customers respond to my company, and why they will respond to yours.

There’s a quick process you can use when you are talking to customers. (By the way, they are customers or aspirants—not clients. In Old English, a client is was another word for a serf. Unless you also use words such as “me lady” and “doth” and “betwixt,” don’t use “client.” But I digress. My point is that customers are not your subordinates.)

But I digress again. Here is an effective process I recommend:

First, be sure you contract with the customer to set their expectations reasonably. A customer might want something more than what you can deliver. The time to be honest with them and set reasonable expectations is at the beginning. I have never known a customer that would not accept what they have been told can be reasonably done.

If you do encounter someone who doesn’t accept your professional estimations, they shouldn’t be your customer. For instance, if you design swimming pools and somebody who declares money is no object wants you to complete an Olympic sized pool with a wave machine, water slides, and talking animatronic dolphins in 24 hours, run, don’t walk, away from them. I’m no swimming pool expert, but I’d be willing to bet ten dollars it would take more than a day to build a swimming pool with these specifications.

“Money is no object” is certainly enticing, but before being seduced by such an offer, ask yourself: Is it worth the damage to me and my reputation when I am unable to complete a job I knew was impossible to begin with? It sounds like an awesome pool, but I’m guessing it would take at least two days to finish.  

Secondly, communicate expectations both verbally and in writing. After you have had a conversation, follow up in writing so you have the words down. Confirm what you have discussed with Mr. Smith in an email. Copy your immediate supervisor, whomever is supervising the job, or anyone else associated with the job. Be specific. If you are asked to do X, Y, Z be sure to inform the customer you can do X and Y in four days and Z on the fifth.

Sometimes even the smallest details can bring a project down if everyone is not on the same page. I am reminded of the epic rock band, Spinal Tap. For their show stopping song Stonehenge, they wanted a replica of the Stonehenge ruins on stage while they sang the song. The sketches of the original design included measurements in inches rather than feet. Consequently, when the pieces arrived the night of the concert, they barely rose to the musicians’ knees. This is hilarious, though the band wanted the effect to be dramatic.

Third, when conditions change—and they will—don’t assume the customer knows it. Tell them. Re-contract around expectations. In many ways, a business relationship is like a personal relationship. Customers liked to be talked to. They want to be paid attention to. Remind them what you had committed. Remind them about any changes in conditions and then re-set their expectations verbally as well as once again in writing:

“Dear Mr. Smith:
Your attorney did not send his legal rep letter in on time. As we discussed, this will push us back a week…”

Above all, communication is key. Legendary filmmaker Cecile B. DeMille would have attested to this in his day. DeMille was preparing an epic battle scene that had been rehearsed relentlessly. As the sun began to set, hundreds of extras charged up the hill dressed as Roman soldiers, while hundreds more charged down dressed as slaves. It took fifteen minutes to play out the entire scene. When it was done, DeMille was thoroughly pleased by what he had seen. He waved to his camera crew supervisor to confirm everything had been captured. The camera crew supervisor waved back and yelled, “Ready when you are, C.B!” thinking they had just gone through another rehearsal. Then the sun went down.

Listening and communicating is critical. And the most valuable tool available for this is your ability to ask questions, such as, “Is this another rehearsal?”

Today’s challenge: Examine experiences in your own personal and professional life in which a lack of communication either helped or hurt you and think of what you specifically learned from those experiences.