Communication By Design: Creating Your Firm's Voice, Reputation

December 15, 2004 · by Joan Capelin

The catchphrase “What you resist, persists” is not a law of physics; to the extent of my research, it is a New Age maxim. I’ve observed in my own office and in our consulting work that the more time people spend complaining about something, the less time, energy, and inclination they have to deal with the situation.

The catchphrase “What you resist, persists” is not a law of physics; to the extent of my research, it is a New Age maxim. I’ve observed in my own office and in our consulting work that the more time people spend complaining about something, the less time, energy, and inclination they have to deal with the situation.

Their resistance to improving the situation permits their problem to fester.

Absorbed by their resistance, these people can’t see their options clearly. How can anyone move in a positive direction when they are sidetracked, frustrated, annoyed, worried, vexed, disturbed, embarrassed—any of the hundred other adjectives that describe a state of anger?

After filling all the other pages of this book (see ed. note, p. 3) with things to consider and do, the resist/persist principle inspires a “not to do” list. Two items head this restraining list: The first is working with clients who don’t want you to make a profit. The second is thinking that a problematic employee—or partner—will magically become an ideal one. Cut it out!

1. Do not work with clients who don’t want you to make a profit.

A few years ago, Dick Ostop of Newfield Construction in Connecticut weighed in on the topic of what constitutes a good or a bad client. I had set up a conference program on client management and retention. During his cameo appearance, Dick explained his philosophy: “Clients who represent legitimate growth opportunities are a worthy investment of your resources, beyond those necessary to provide excellent service. And, a lot of firms don’t like changing architects, engineers, and contractors; instead, they pick a group and work with them. Some, though, go to the bottom of the market: low bid, best price. Do you want that for a client? I don’t.”

Preparing for the conference, my office had polled design and construction firms around the country to learn how their offices handle an unfortunate selection of client or deal with a client’s unfortunate choice of project or program manager. We asked these firms, “Do you have the will and a way to move aside clients without offending them?” “At what point do you talk to the client about the issues?” And, “You give your client the right to oblige you to change your project manager; can you ask for a change if his project representative gets in the way of progress?”

The survey results surprised me, including one blunt retort: “Deal with it. The client is always right.” Always? What vows did that respondent take upon becoming a professional?

If a client proves to be so difficult, you must already have uncovered some concerns during the business development phase of the relationship. If you can’t achieve open communication with the client from the start of the project, if each member of the team and the client can’t clearly state what they want jointly and individually from the project, and if the differences in style once the job is underway lead to disarray rather than admiration, then you simply can’t do that job to your best professional standards.

Refusing an opportunity before or in the middle of the work is a serious decision; of course, there will be consequences. Still, counseled Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps referring to his working relationship with one of his Renaissance patrons, “It’s easier to resist at the beginning than at the end.”

As soon as the issue surfaces, you might ask yourself, “Whom would we harm by continuing on this path?” Not coincidentally, that question is part of the litmus test for a discussion of ethics. Using the question to examine an uncomfortable client relationship puts your discomfort in perspective: What are your professional obligations? To whom are they owed?

Back to the results of our survey about how different firms handle difficult clients: One design office said it changes people internally to make the relationship work; in fact, the firm won’t assign a project leader until it is clear whom the client has appointed as its representative. Another firm stares the compatibility problem square in the face, seeking to be sure that its own people haven’t been the source of the situation: “We have instituted a strong relationship-quality program in our firm, and charged the committee with identifying possible areas of conflict with clients along with suggesting ways to avoid or resolve them. This is a tremendous check and balance within the project team.” A third office just toughs out the relationship: “We give the project manager combat pay for putting up with a difficult client.” (I am not sure what that approach accomplishes.)

“Find clients who value what you can do for them,” advises author Jim Camp in Start with No, a contrarian book on negotiating. Kate Keating, an environmental graphic designer, tells a story about saying no to a vexing client relationship. Kate’s San Francisco–based firm had triumphed in an extensive selection process. “We were elated to have won that very big job. Then the fun part started: negotiations,” Kate relates. “We sat down and talked scope, went back, and wrote a fee proposal—and the client was floored at the cost. They had budgeted totally inadequately.”

“What design firm hasn’t had this experience?” Kate wonders, philosophically. “I knew we couldn’t do this job in the manner in which we work, without compromising the project and demoralizing our people. So we stepped aside. But we parted as friends, which helped keep our reputation intact.”

It takes fortitude to resign from a job, especially one that promises prestige and has been so hard-won. But Kate made every effort to handle the situation well. She was selected because the client believed her firm would be able to make the right choices and control its aspect of the project; in deciding to walk away, she demonstrated her ability to make prudent choices—for both her practice and the client.

Another excellent graphic designer, Roger Whitehouse of Whitehouse & Company in New York, with whom we often work, declares that, “Facing facts, we have an allegiance to our profession and its values, and to the project as well. That sometimes comes before our allegiance to our client—although the client is a very close second.”

I’ve coached principals through we-can’t-continue-like-this moments in their client relationships. We discuss how to tactfully but not necessarily subtly communicate their perception and grievance to their client in a way that also permits all parties to listen and resolve the problem.

After all these preparations, after the difficult discussion is over, the best outcome is not the handshake with the client. Rather, it’s the reaction of those in the office and, in particular, the team, reinvigorated because its work has been supported.

2. Do not put up with a problematic employee.

Dale Carnegie observed that “any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain, and most do.” Does that describe someone who reports to you?

What is the purpose of holding on to an employee who is not the right fit? Certainly, employers look for people who will further the firm’s goals. We have even written job descriptions for our clients that include—besides the specifics of the work and level of technological literacy—the mission for the firm, a description of its culture, the reason for the position, and the qualities that are the starting point for consideration for the job.

Firms that want such precise and complete job descriptions certainly must use them to guide candidate interviews and reference checks. Their ability to frankly discuss their expectations signals their commitment to open communication with their employees.

An employee who does something horrific will, of course, be dismissed instantly. One who undermines the client relationship will ultimately, though regrettably, spark a firestorm with that client. But what about something less obvious—for example, people who don’t sustain the firm’s culture? One office hired a young professional whose bright personality was a plus for the position. What no one spotted was that her previous employer expected her to take a project off his hands, produce it on her own, and then bring it back. As it turned out, she preferred to work in isolation and, therefore, had no way to fit in the collaborative culture of the office. No amount of mentoring, outside courses, or reviews could change such a fundamental difference. She was released.

In the early days of my business, I scratched together enough funds to ask a well-known management consultant to public relations firms to assess whether we had gotten off on the right foot. Among other things, he told me to fire someone every six months, an action that would foster a nose-to-the-grindstone attitude with all the other employees. Anyone in particular, I asked anxiously, since I didn’t have many employees at that point and tend to get attached to good people? Without a likely candidate, he responded, the choice would be totally mine. That advice still perplexes me—I don’t follow it—but when I mention it to other business owners, it always gets a knowing smile. Triage? Hmmmm.

Many people hope that the situation with an employee who doesn’t measure up, causes dissension, ignores the rules, and consistently disappoints or antagonizes clients will somehow right itself. There’s an old joke that goes, “One day as I sat sad and dreary, a voice came to me out of the gloom saying, ‘Cheer up! Things could be worse.’ So I cheered up, and sure enough, things got worse.”

In an interview in Fast Company, turnaround consultant (and former Chilean minister of finance) Fernando Flores comments sternly, “Hope is the raw material of losers.” What happens when troublesome people remain in the firm, even after warnings and attempts to modify the behavior? They conclude that they are welcome to continue creating havoc. Even worse, other staff members lose faith not only in that person but also in the principals.

More than once, I’ve been asked to help with damage control when a self-righteous employee who overstayed but was then fired went to former clients and the media with detrimental and dramatic insider tales. Whether or not the tales are true, it’s hard to admit at that point that the leadership didn’t see this situation coming, and harder yet to accept that staff members may have spotted (and endured) problems but chose not to address them with the principals. To what or whom were they being loyal?
There may even come a point at which principals and partners—the post, not the title, is relevant—need to be released from their responsibilities. Performance can skid, or people may have been elevated beyond their willingness to shoulder responsibility and to grow. Because of their highly visible position within the office, their breakdown will be fairly obvious to everyone, starting at the front desk. For that alone, resistance to dealing with the predicament is not an option for the other leaders of the firm.

A problem of this magnitude demands very precise, very direct communication and action from the leadership group. Un-partner, reassign, or release: Your credibility is on the line.

At the least, try for goodwill at any separation, if it is possible and merited. Word gets around. Be clear within your office and with the departing person—you both should sign a written agreement—precisely what story you will be telling the world.

What’s to be learned from such experiences? In The Journal of Negative Results, a new peer-reviewed biomedical journal, some scientists have tried to formalize an approach by providing scientists and physicians “with responsible and balanced information in order to improve experimental designs and clinical decisions.” The journal’s founders were frustrated that all they ever read or heard about were the positive results of research, which leaves the rest of the community in the dark about what didn’t work. They call this “negative data.” Worse yet, they feel that such a void condemns researchers to repeat trials unnecessarily. With people’s health and lives in the balance, they reason, anything that can increase research speed is essential.

Except for the storyline of The Producers, no one sets out intentionally to fail. Accumulating negative results is just part of life in any business. What most firms don’t do, however, is contemplate their negative data. Incidentally, Ben Franklin didn’t like that word “fail.” “I haven’t failed,” he said, “I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

It doesn’t matter that you find the situation a nuisance, that it creates stress, or that you fervently wish you were not the person who must deal with it. The important thing is to assess what happened and why, who was harmed, and how the sequence of events could be remedied for all time.

Coming face to face with what you value—and have temporarily lost—will inspire you to formulate powerful principles that will guide your future commitments.

—Joan Capelin

Ed. Note: This chapter excerpt is from Capelin’s new book, Communication by Design. It is available through Ostberg/Greenway Communications.

Buy this book now (in stock).

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