I had a boss once, a long time ago, who was fond of using little colloquial sayings to emphasize a point. At the time it really bothered me, but over the years a number of them have stuck with me and I find myself trotting them out every now and then. One of my favorites was:
You don’t put a horse with a broken leg in a race and then kick it when it doesn’t win.
Now, there are many interpretations to this turn of phrase but I always took it to mean that people are who they are right now. People react and behave in a manner consistent with their experiences and values at this very moment. And, it’s hard for them to break out of this mold, even if desired. It’s not an excuse for acting a certain way, but it is an explanation, and an empathic one.
Organizations and companies are like this too. Groups of people develop a culture, a collective personality in which some edges are smooth, some jagged, some soft, and others hard as nails.
Good consultants will know this going in to any new engagement, sales call, or mentoring session. Good consultants meet people and teams where they are. Always with the goal of affecting improvement and growth of course, but not with the presupposition that growth can be bestowed, but that it can only be fostered.
At Tandem(software development company), I’d like to think that we meet customers where they are. They often come to us with baggage, broken processes, or poorly performing teams. This is not their fault, it is merely the state they’re in and it’s our job to help, in whatever small or large way possible. This is incredibly challenging, and something we ourselves are learning and maturing around. I’d like to share a few ways that we try to meet people where they are.
Listening and Mirroring
As with any good relationship, it all starts with listening. In this case though, you have to listen between the words. In the setting of a new relationship people will rarely tell you the whole story, and what you can really, truly, help them with may be hiding behind the specifics of their inquiry. So we do what we can to hold our tongues and take in as much information as we can.
I’ll let you in on a little secret, we talk about customers behind their backs a ton. Not in the way you’re thinking though, we spend a lot of time synthesizing how we read between the lines in the last meeting, what the person was really saying in that email, and how our responses will be interpreted.
This all allows us to mirror the customer in certain ways. Focusing on the things they think are important to them even when we may have the intuition that the real work lies elsewhere. Mirroring a customer’s own feelings about things helps to accumulate that intangible trust capital that can be later spent to move in the direction where we can be most helpful.
Countering and Balancing
I mentioned earlier that clients sometimes come with baggage, and oh boy do they. Over the past year we’ve taken on a number of rescue projects, initiatives that have failed or are failing for one reason or another. These all come with baggage: financial, personnel related, technical, emotional, you name it.
In these cases there’s almost always one overriding factor in the failed project that’s out of balance. It could be that the client’s internal team has a few bad apples spoiling the lot. It could be that they’re financially strapped and the last consulting firm dropped them rather than working with them. It could be they chose a bad vendor that couldn’t deliver and they had no visibility until it was too late. Regardless what the issue is, we try to find that and counter it, bringing the system back into balance.
As an example, at the beginning of a recent project we noticed the client being particularly agitated around when the next meeting was going to be after each previous meeting. It was very curious, but we later learned that their previous interactions with developers had been very haphazard and unpredictable. Quickly countering this by setting up two or three meetings in advance and sending calendar invites with an agenda gave us instant credibility.
Before I move on, I want to address technical debt and “legacy code”. This is another common area of baggage which our team deals with when spinning up on new clients. Developers like new and shiny, no doubt about it, but sometimes what a client really needs is help with old and dirty. This is something our team is good at and getting better every day. It takes a special set of skills and patience to methodically plod through a messy code base, see the path to refactoring, and then on to new features – all while staying upbeat, curious, and engaged.
Giving and Mentoring
One of the best ways to meet customers where they are and still move them towards a better state is to give things away for free. People will rarely pay you for things they don’t perceive to have value, but they’ll often take you up on an offer of free assistance in those areas.
Knowing that a customer has a serious issue with having too many junior members of their team which they themselves can’t see might lead you to offer some free mentoring. “Would it be alright if we pulled Sarah and Mark onto our team for a week so they can work with some of our folks? We’ve got a week of downtime for two people and we’d be happy to offer that free of charge. It might help them gain some experience with X.”
That kind of thing almost never gets turned down. The side effect in most cases is that the client now attaches value to that activity. Why were Sarah and Mark so much more productive last week? Well, it’s because some senior folks from Tandem spent a week pair programming with them. When it makes financial sense this kind of thing almost always pays back dividends.
I want to conclude by saying that this is a journey. Just like we need to meet customers where they are, we are somewhere too! A healthy dose of introspection and self-awareness makes an enormous difference in your ability to empathize with another party’s situation. I’m proud that this is something we work on at Tandem.