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The Perfect Client

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Despite the axiom that “every client is a good client,” we all know that some of them are wonderful to work with – and that dealing with others is a form of slow torture.

I’ve always loved hearing the horror stories about bad customers that float around the watershaping trades: The telling and retelling of these nightmares (often with exaggerations as the stories travel from ear to ear) is often a treat, and I know I’ve had my share of therapeutic fun at the expense of a knucklehead or two.

We don’t generally hear quite so much about the good ones, but it’s fair to say that most of us have lists of satisfied clients and that our experiences with them give us much of the motivation we have to stay in the business.

What it boils down to is this: Each and every client is different and presents us with an individual profile of likes, dislikes, needs, wants, hot buttons, communication styles and opinions about everything from politics to the social significance of fly-fishing. That’s simply the nature of doing business with human beings, and sometimes things will work out very well, while other times things will go south in a hurry.

Either way, these observations lead to an obvious point: Clients are, for better or worse, the most important influence on our business, and although there are those who would disagree with me on this, I believe that knowing how to work effectively with them is every bit as important as knowing how to design, engineer and build quality watershapes.

THE BALANCING ACT

Watershaping as an activity is essentially a two-fold proposition. On one side of the equation, we must do everything we can to be as competent and expert at our work as possible. On the other, we must skillfully manage client relations.

As I’ve stated before, watershaping is all about bringing joy, relaxation, luxury and fun to people’s lives. Thus, the experience someone has in obtaining a pool, spa or some other body of water is a critical component of long-term satisfaction with our output. This means that, without a doubt, we must be good at dealing with people.

Through years of talking with people in the industry, however, I’ve come to observe that a great many of us focus far more clearly and effectively on the work side of the equation and are much less resolved when it comes to human relations side of the job. In fact, too many people I know think that dealing with clients is something that unfolds by chance.

I believe that leaving client relations up to happenstance and the whims of human personalities is a big mistake. The client is, after all, integral to the entire process, so it only makes sense to approach the process of dealing with them in a deliberate (if not structured) way.

The first step in that process is understanding what it takes to foster a good watershaper/client relationship and working consciously to bring out the positive personality attributes of those with whom we do business.

Certainly, we cannot control the personalities of other people – nobody can. But watershaping is a give and take, and in so far as we can set the tone of the interaction, govern expectations and understand what makes our clients tick, we can influence every such situation in a positive way.

Sometimes that will mean making a difficult situation only tolerable, while in others it will mean taking a good situation and making it even better. While we can’t ever determine or mandate the responses others will have, we always have choices in how we do things on our end of the process.

Yes, competency in our work takes a great many of us down the road toward good client relations – no doubt about it – but in my book it’s the side where the human touch comes into play that seals that deal.

WHAT’S GOOD?

When I think of the “perfect client,” a number of big things come to mind, starting with sufficient budgets (and the will to spend), affable personalities, good settings for proposed watershapes, some idea of what they want and how they want to use it – and, of course, great wine cellars and a willingness to share a bottle or two.

Among all possible positive client characteristics, however, to me the most important is the simple desire to be involved, to get engaged in the process. Client feedback at all stages, whether you’re only doing designs (as I do) or just do construction (or tackle both), is perhaps the most important information we receive throughout the course of any project, bar none.

Look at it this way: If the client doesn’t communicate, we have absolutely no way to direct our efforts toward a satisfying result. Without input, we are only guessing – a fact that, on its own, means that it is our professional responsibility to establish working relationships with clients that promote the exchange of ideas.

It also means that we have to be prepared to work with clients with smiles on our faces when in the course of the process they change their minds. And this is a huge point, because almost without exception an involved client will be the one who will most likely change direction in one way or another at some point in the project, very often more than once.

This defines the client-relations issue as being a matter of seeing our work as an ongoing collaboration and structuring that work so that we can accommodate and are in fact comfortable with change.

Of course, I’ve always maintained that changes are a good thing in our business. They generally add to how much money we can make on a project, but far more important is the fact that they represent increased client involvement and help us zero in on what will almost certainly be a fully satisfactory end product.

On the flip side, I maintain that if you’re someone who can’t comfortably roll with change, you’re probably in the wrong business.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

An enormous part of bringing out the best in our clients has to do with managing their expectations. A client who knows what to expect when it comes to timelines, the scope of the work, communications during the process, technical support after the fact and a range of other substantial issues is a client who is less likely to have problems along the way.

In fact, the most common irritant for clients is expecting something to happen that doesn’t. Clarity of communications is the key here, and to a large extent it boils down to being upfront with clients as the process unfolds.

We all share a natural human tendency to make promises that we believe will make other people happy. When those promises aren’t based in reality, however, and are offered only to gain favor during the sales process, then you’re only setting yourself up for trouble down the line.

If, for example, your schedule is too extended to meet a client’s desired timeline, there is absolutely no upside in over-promising something you know you almost certainly won’t be able to deliver. Yet we see this happening everywhere with people in all walks of life making commitments they have no intention of backing up with performance.

The other side of expectations management is about understanding in realistic terms what you can or cannot provide. This principle of self-awareness reaches all the way from big things (such as whether or not you’re really skilled enough to execute a perimeter-overflow design) to small things (such as the speed with which you’ll be able to obtain permits or arrange inspections).

It’s also important to be aware that by your own demeanor, you set up an expectation for what you’ll be like to work with. If you’re abrupt or given to confrontation, you can expect those characteristics to come forward with some clients and that they’ll respond in kind. By contrast, if you respond to difficult situations with a good-natured, businesslike, non-prejudicial attitude, you’re far more likely to see those tendencies in your clients.

In my case, I am also ready and willing to establish personal relationships that go well beyond the task at hand with my clients. I know that many of you are uncomfortable with that possibility, but through the years I’ve found that when clients and I engage in personal friendships though shared interests, it aids the process and creates a natural expectation that we will work together well.

Even when that turns out not to be the case (which does happen from time to time), the fact that we have some degree of personal rapport that goes beyond business enables us to work through most any rough spots that emerge.

LEARNING TO READ

Whether you choose to like them or not, bringing out the best in clients requires skill in reading their personalities.

There is no question that skill in understanding others is intuitive and comes easily to some but not to others. Whether you’re good at it or not, however, it’s something we all must try to do: In many cases, it’s only through understanding the client that we can ask the right questions and ultimately gain the information we need to make things work out for the best.

I have to admit to not being one who is gifted in this area, the reason being that reading people is primarily about listening. I’m known as someone who is good with people: I enjoy them and generally look for the good in most. But when it comes to effective listening, I’ve needed to work hard at it, doubtless because I’m such a ready talker that I sometimes don’t listen as well as I should.

Fortunately, good listening is something that anyone can learn. First, we must be prepared to be quiet – not easy for me by any means), but I’ve learned to restrain myself. In fact, I now recognize that although there’s always a great deal I would like to say to clients about the spectrum of possibilities available to them in their watershapes, it’s far more productive for me to keep my mouth closed, especially in early conversations with clients.

When I do speak up, I’ve learned techniques for drawing people out and asking questions that will garner meaningful responses. The hard part for me has always been listening to their responses, and I now make a conscious effort to do so. (I’ve found that taking notes is not only a good way to retain what my clients are saying, but it also prompts me to fall silent more often than I might otherwise.)

It’s human nature to want to open up to those we perceive to be a good audience, but when I’m with clients I make sure that I’m really there with them and focused on their needs. This is often tough, however, because there are so many distractions and multiple issues running through my mind about the project at hand and others on which I’m working.

I can and do fight through those patches and consciously remind myself that when I’m with a client – in person or on the phone – I must focus all of my attention in his or her direction. People know intuitively when they’re being listened to or when they’re not, and it’s a plain fact that nobody likes to be ignored.

And for crying out loud, when I’m with a client, I do everything I can to resist interrupting the proceedings to answer my blasted cell phone! If there’s anything that says “I don’t care about you right now” more than disrupting a conversation because you’re a slave to your cell phone, I don’t know what that might be.

WARM TO THE TOUCH

Like our clients, each of us has a different personal style. Some of us are far more comfortable with the human touches than are others, but whether you have an effusive personality or are more reserved, as watershapers we share an obligation to reach out to our customers in the spirit of building a rapport.

On a certain level, this requires revealing something of yourself. That doesn’t necessarily mean divulging personal information or your life story, but it does mean having an open-hearted attitude about communicating and making a connection and being unafraid to reveal your own personality on some level.

In my case, I rely on humor to facilitate communication with clients. I’m generally seen as a funny guy, and I’ve found through the years that it’s rare to find prospective clients who utterly lack funny bones. Watershaping can be such serious business sometimes, with so much by way of money and expectations on the line, that I see the importance of breaking the seriousness from time to time.

If you’re not good at telling jokes and sharing witticisms, then at least be willing to enjoy the attempts of clients if they attempt to break the ice with humor. It may sound silly, but it’s also human nature to like people who laugh at our jokes. I’m not saying that you should laugh at stuff that’s not funny, but it’s useful to try to avoid full-time seriousness and engage from time to time in lighter banter. Works for me, anyway.

I enjoy my working life more than most watershapers because I allow my interactions with clients to be enjoyable. The way I look at it, I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to work with interesting people and that I would be doing them (and myself) a disservice by not being personable.

Bottom line: When it comes to finding and working with good clients, I believe that bringing out the best in others is all about presenting the best in ourselves.

Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants, a design firm based in Miami, Fla., and is a co-founder of the Genesis 3 Design Group; dedicated to top-of-the-line performance in aquatic design and construction, this organization conducts schools for like-minded pool designers and builders. He can be reached at [email protected]

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