Our Culture: Respectfully Leading

By: Andrew Kurtz

Our Culture: Respectfully Leading

Our Culture Series explores the guiding principles reflected in our company.

The Customer is Always …

We have all heard the old adage, “The customer is always right.” — but is it true?

We are trying to positively impact our customer/client’s organization, and we cannot deliver our full value by always saying “yes.” Sometimes our value is the result of asking challenging questions. Our objective is to work with our customers/clients to figure out the right solution to the right problem.

At times, this means we need to challenge our customer/client, which risks being perceived as confrontational. There is also a chance we are wrong. As confident as we might be, perhaps we don’t have all the facts or don’t fully understand the objectives.

Challenging the customer/client might result in friction and frustration, yet always saying “yes” doesn’t deliver value. The dilemma is figuring out how can we lead while reducing the risk of creating friction.

The dilemma is figuring out how to lead while reducing the risk of creating friction.

The key is to live another core value, Respect. Here are a few examples related to this situation:

  • As mentioned above, we should always approach the situation with the understanding there is a chance we are wrong. We need to be confident, but not to the point of arrogant. Messages can be delivered with both confidence and humility. As we will see below, that can often be done through questions.
  • We should approach every customer/client engagement with empathy. We should seek to understand what is driving them. For example:
    • Do we know how the measurement of their success is impacted?
    • Are they being pressured from elsewhere within the organization?
    • What are their quarterly, annual, or long-term goals?
    • How does the current/proposed solution impact their daily lives?
    • What is the impact to the perception of their value to the organization?

Ultimately, we need to always remember that the true value might be several layers deep, and below our current level of understanding.

We need to remember the customer/client owns the idea they are presenting, so a challenge can be taken personally. Our goal isn’t to be right. The goal is to work together to find the right solution to the right problem.

Seeking a Deeper Understanding

Along those lines, it is much more powerful when people reach conclusions on their own. This can be facilitated by asking questions to gain a deeper understanding, but these questions need to be delivered in a respectful manner. Questions themselves can be confrontational.

For example, leading with “Are you okay if I ask some questions to make sure I understand the bigger picture?” gets you permission to then ask tougher questions.

“Can we step back to make sure I understand the core problem we are trying to solve?” is another question that moves the conversation away from “what to change” to “why are we changing.” Also note that both soften the discussion by suggesting we might be missing information.

As we ask questions, we might find an answer changes our mind by arming us with new information. A great quote from a longtime customer is “two reasonable people, armed with the same information, seldom disagree.

The goal is to find the right solution to the right problem.

When we engage with customers/clients, we must remember the objective of the questions is to ensure everyone is “armed with the same information.”

Recommendations that might run counter to a specific customer/client request can be couched with respect and humility. We are not looking to “win” because that means someone else has to “lose.” We are trying to jointly reach the right decision.

Phrases like, “There might be some other ways for us to meet the objective. Would you mind if I threw out a few other options?” are a great way to present alternatives, opening the door for discussions without appearing confrontational.

Sometimes a client asks for something where we really believe the answer we need to give is “no.” An example is when changes are requested ahead of an important deadline that might put the deliverable quality or deadline at risk.

However, even in these situations, a direct “No, we can’t do that” is not the right answer. As mentioned earlier, we need to understand that we might not have all the information.

So instead, we ask questions couched with facts, such as:

“If we made these changes now, we will not be able to fully test them prior to the deadline. Our concern is that we would either need to push the deadline or risk the quality of what is deployed by the deadline. Has anything changed that might have moved the deadline or that makes it worth taking the risk?”

This preamble presents the facts while showing we are open to the possibility that something may have changed. We are ultimately creating space for a discussion.

So, in answer to the original question, the customer/client isn’t always right. Then again, neither are we. Keeping this in mind, we can lead respectfully and create opportunities for open dialog that ultimately result in stronger partnerships.

Andy Kurtz
President & CEO

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