Are You Really Listening to Your Clients?

DILBERT © Scott Adams. Used By permission of ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION. All rights reserved.

The wild, wonderfully sarcastic and incisive mind of Scott Adams as represented in his legendary Dilbert comic strips perfectly illustrates the core point of this column.

It seems, based on the less-than-stellar outcomes of project after project thrashed out on industry forums, blogs, posts, groups, and numerous other media/communication channels that we have almost made an art form out of NOT hearing our customers/clients.

In an earlier post, I talk about helping clients, especially HOW clients, learn to ask the right questions and focus on getting information that provides both clarity and perspective to their list of needs, wants and goals for any AV/IT project.

However, regrettably, even if they do learn how to ask those questions, they still face the massive hurdle of professional deafness and perceptible lack of enthusiasm for their specific job.

The Other Side of the Table

You need to look at this from the other side of the meeting table. From a potential client’s point of view, we are above all, judged to be at fault for appearing to just go through the motions. Think about your body language, your attitude, your responsiveness and your attention level as seen through their eyes. Review your last few meetings with clients, especially repeat clients or big clients on small projects. Did you act as if you were in the room with them or somewhere else? Did you appear to be listening to their concerns or just hearing noise?

But it is also crucial to recognize that we are most certainly not alone in this regard. My company is a specialist acoustics and sound system design organization. Thus, we are quite often just one of many trades and specialty contractors/providers at a project meeting. And since we are usually fairly far down the budget totem pole, we get to watch how the big boys at the table act and treat the same clients.

Yes, I’m talking about you architects, engineering and electrical specialists, general contractors and everyone else with all the other big ticket project items that need to be handled and finished long before we ever get to do anything. You require our presence — you might even ask us a token question or two — but I almost always get the distinct feeling that I could answer questions in Klingon and nobody on your team would notice, though I expect the client would.

You sit there radiating superiority and omniscience but not hearing a word being said or absorbing any of the input being provided. I’ll wager my fee, that you leave the meeting with the same information in your project workup folder as you arrived with, except if you generated or received a change order.

Perhaps this graphic says it best:

The Core of the Problem

And that, ladies and gentlemen of the AV/IT profession IS the problem. We make assumptions that we understand what the client needs, despite having rarely actually asked that question — after all we’re the pros in the room.

Or we just call up design/concept number 114A from the files and recycle it with new names and dates as if the client’s actual requirements would be met by a system designed for someone else, for another place and project. It sure is simpler, faster and cheaper to work that way. But are you really working or just consuming oxygen and time?

Let’s put this into perspective. Say you go to the doctor. You fill out the forms, describe your concerns/symptoms to a nurse and 20 minutes later the doctor walks in, tells you they have reviewed your file and prescribes some drug or remedy. He never examines you, just hands you an Rx and sends you on your way. Oh, and if course bills your insurance for a full office visit and consultation.

Are you comfortable with that kind of medicine and that mode of practice? If you are then you should have no problem with the methods described above for client service and responsiveness, because you’re doing the same thing to them that the doctor did to you.

Paying Attention

As a case in point, I recently had that exact experience with a specialist I was referred to for a particular set of diagnostic tests my main physician wanted to have performed. The last time he had those tests done, a few years back, was at a different four-doctor practice group, which had since merged into the one he sent me to. The new group was much larger, with its own building with BIG letters on the outside announcing their expertise and a fancy lobby with 28 different doctors’ names listed and room numbers for each. The waiting area had a touchscreen check-in, a host of staff people to handle almost everything except actual medicine or personal contact. It took me 15 minutes to actually speak with a human receptionist, and then only after I had filled out information on the touchscreen, been called the front desk and waited for them to acknowledge my existence. Nobody at this medical invoice machine seemed to care in the slightest that a human being (me) was there waiting for medical care — it only recognized a patient number on a touchscreen. They had completely forgotten that, like our business, medical care is a relationship business — or at least it SHOULD be.

My reaction?There was no medicine going on here, only a well-oiled system to move bodies through the fancy office and send out bills for services. I never actually made it in to see Dr. #22, because, after the waiting room debacle, I simply walked out.

I called my regular doctor’s office and asked for a different choice with actual people who actually practiced medicine, not a factory for billing insurance companies.

It was with some satisfaction that about a week later I got a letter from my regular doctor, apologizing for the referral and thanking me for letting him know what was going on — as he didn’t realize what had happened after the merger. He stopped sending patients to that group.

Are You That Billing Machine?

Back to AV/IT.

If your organization is showing any signs of becoming like that medical office, do yourself a huge favor and stop the process right now. You built your business on relationships, being careful to treat each client as an individual with specific needs, wants and goals for their project — or at least I hope you did. You KNOW one size does not fit most, let alone all.

If you’re beginning to look and sound like that medical machine, you’ve lost touch with your clients and their world. That problem will only get worse over time, and they will look elsewhere for the personalized and responsive service and support you once provided. That I can absolutely guarantee.

You knew once that clients will tell you what they want and you need to help them figure out what they really need to accomplish their goal. If you lose that capacity, it will be virtually impossible to recover it before major and irreversible damage is done to your company and your reputation/perception.

Don’t become like some of the ‘big’ boys at that meeting table. Keep your individuality — it got you here and it will continue to serve you well — IF you actually listen to your clients.