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In the set of skills required of leadership at an agency, sales is by far my weakest area. So I decided this week to make that problem go away (sure, simple, right?). The beginning stages of my research brought me to The Clever Consultant, a fantastic site run by Jason Parks.

What I discovered from reading his work is that I’ve absorbed a great many of the skills and ideas required to sell effectively from all the client communication practice I’ve gotten over the last 5 years. I just lack a framework of understanding to put it all together in the right order in my mind. I’ll be working on that over the next few weeks, and will probably publish some more posts about what I find, but in particular I was struck by a post on the four components of an outstanding sales process. The article, The Remarkably Simple Formula For Selling Without Being Salesy, lays out these components as: be insightful, be honest, be responsive and deliver well. I want to focus on “be responsive” in today’s post and how that applies throughout the entire project, not just sales.

A lesson in being responsive

This summer, after 3 years of home ownership, I finally hired someone to cut my lawn for me. I despise mowing the lawn. It’s by far the worst chore I have to deal with. But I also despise having other people do stuff for me (Yeah, I know. Great trait for a team lead to possess…). It took a new baby and a new job to convince me it was worth taking one chore off of my plate, and it might as well be the one I hate most.

So I got some quotes, picked a company, and arranged a mowing schedule with them. The day for my second mow comes around, and nobody shows up. No landscapers, no call, no email. Off goes a confused email where I ask if the company hasn’t received my check for the first mow. A few hours later I get a reply. “Oh, sorry. We got your first check. But we had to do service on our trucks today, so we won’t get to your lawn until tomorrow.” Now, that’s not a problem for me. I don’t care if they’re a day late because I still don’t have to mow the lawn, which is excellent for my state of mind. What I do care about is not knowing what’s going on. I have a pool, with a fence around it with locked gates. This is so unwatched children and stupid teenagers don’t drown in the pool. But on lawn days I have to leave it unlocked so they can mow. If they’re a no show, then that fence sits unlocked all day and has to be left unlocked again the next day. The longer it’s unlocked the higher the odds of a child wandering into the pool (This is actually a danger in my neighborhood. People taking walks with their kids let them play in my yard. It’s obnoxious). All it takes is a phone call or email to solve this problem for me, but I didn’t get one, leaving me to wonder when the service I was paying for would be done and how long I’d have to leave my attractive nuisance unattended.

Clients do NOT like being left in the dark. It sounds obvious, but one of the problems I’ve had to focus on when training junior designers and devs is that they can’t run off and hide for 4–5 days while creating the perfect concept or prototype for presentation. I often enforce this with the dictum “feedback early and often” but that message tends to only inspire internal communication.

The same folks I can train to ask their team for critique several times a day won’t send messages to the client without forceful reminders. This is a byproduct of the bullshit that Don Draper sold us in Mad Men. Everyone wants to wait until the idea is perfect and then have their astonishing reveal where the clients gasps and faints when confronted with the brilliance of the concept being presented. Well, that only happens on TV. In the real world, your client is wondering why you aren’t working.

“But Steve, I am working,” they say. Ok, but how do they know that? You’re maintaining radio silence while they sign checks and don’t have any idea where that money is going. The longer you go without contact the more anxious they get, and the higher they perceive their risk to be in working with you. Over time, as more of these long delay cycles unfold, trust erodes. You run a greater risk of making stuff that won’t meet their mark and you’re increasing the likelihood of a poor reaction the first time they see something that doesn’t meet their standard.

So, how do you solve this? It’s ridiculously simple. Just email them once a day. Let them know what you’re working on, even if you have nothing to show them. Or ask for feedback on something that’s in progress, by asking how the current work is matching the business goals. The client is a domain expert in their business, the product work serves that business, ergo the client’s feedback is always important (Even if it’s not the best feedback it could be, which I’ll try to cover in a future post). Let them into the process.

When the client has a question, try to answer it as quickly, simply, and effectively as possible. If you don’t have an answer, that’s fine. But don’t leave the email sitting for 3 days while you finish up what you’re working on so you can chase down an answer. Let them know quickly that you don’t have an answer for them, but you will be getting them one, as soon as you finish this task you’re working on that’s critical to their project. Now they know you’re working hard, and they know when to expect a reply.

This simple trick has greatly increased client satisfaction in the projects I’ve worked on. A client who knows where their money is being spent and has the opportunity to shape that direction is a happy client. A contractor who catches work that isn’t right early and can correct it quickly is a happy contractor. Happy teams build better product, and happy clients become repeat clients which improves everyone’s day, because chasing work isn’t fun, doing work is fun. Help your sales folk, and keep your work fun for the whole team. Be responsive.