Telling Clients They Have – Gasp! – a Weakness or Two.

When you’re a position to have to tell a client that they have a weakness or two or seventeen, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to do. Someone asked me that recently: “So, um, what do you do when you have to tell a client that, uh, a few things they’re doing aren’t…quite…good?”

“You’re asking me how do I tell someone their baby is ugly?”

“Well, I’ve never heard it said that way.”

“It’s exactly like that. Because when someone is close to their brand, it’s their baby. Some people know that deep down, their baby isn’t perfect even when they talk about it to other people. And they’re right. After all, a baby is a human being and humans are far from perfect.”

Brands are far from perfect too. Yet we see cases all the time of when CEOs and aspiring entrepreneurs have fallen in love with their own product far too quickly.

They haven’t asked the tough questions.
They haven’t talked to their potential prospects and gotten their take.
They think they don’t have competition when the reality is they haven’t looked hard enough.
They think areas like sales and marketing will just develop with time and besides, this will just ‘sell itself,’ right?”

“So…you don’t hold back?”

“Not really. And I don’t feel bad about it one bit because I’m coming into it objectively. They’re not. If they want to disagree with me, I’ll live with that and respect their point of view, but I can’t live with sugarcoating it for someone who wants to believe it’s all sunshine and rainbows just because their new product is on the market or that they’ve got 32 locations or $X million in revenue or they’ve been in business for 25 years. These are all admirable things. But just looking at the positives is not strategizing. That’s blowing smoke up their you-know-what. I’ve tried to prevent myself from doing that as I’ve gotten more experienced and wiser.”

“But do you say that in a diplomatic way or do you say it harshly?”

“I try not to be mean in any way, really. Everyone has flaws, myself very much included. But the funny thing is that when I start to say, ‘OK, now that we’re going to talk about your weaknesses, I’ll try to be as kind as I can…’ Do you know what they say in response?”

“Don’t pussyfoot around. Give it to me straight.” 

If you’re genuinely about client service, you don’t hide what they need to know for their own good from them. Unfortunately, there are some cheesy, service-with-a-smile-client-is-always-right people out there who don’t know how to do this because they’re too afraid. Plain and simple. No matter what they portray on the exterior, they’re just too afraid to offend, too afraid to lose their jobs, too afraid to lose the client, too afraid to do anything wrong. They don’t trust themselves and their experience to say what’s in the best interests of a brand. And not only will that fear hurt themselves, but ironically, it will actually hurt the very clients they claim to serve.

Need an extra incentive? If you don’t tell them their weaknesses, their competition will find those weaknesses and exploit them.

Better relationships are built on true honesty. That means delivering all of the news – the good, the bad and yes, the ugly. And then showing them how to turn that something ugly into something far prettier.

We Are All In The Hospitality Business.

The other day I was watching a show called “Hotel Impossible” in which a consultant gives shabby, unprofitable hotels and resorts the makeover treatment from a design and operations standpoint. As you can expect, he didn’t pull any punches on what was wrong with these places, whether the rooms were dirty, the color scheme was boring, the staff was disorganized and more. Many times the hotel owners thought the location would make up for a lot of these miscues (nice try). Worst of all, these shortcomings had translated into an awful time for the guests, who would surely never come back if the hotel remained in that condition.

In reality, if the hotel was merely OK, it’s safe to say the guest wouldn’t come back for that either, right? Surely they wouldn’t tell many others about it.

That’s when it struck that it’s kind of odd that we confine this word “Hospitality” to hotels and restaurants. Don’t we all want to be hospitable, after all?

Treating our brands as hotels
while seeing our customers as guests
wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Think about it. Most hotels get to keep a guest for a few days or maybe just overnight. Obviously, for restaurants, it’s even less – an hour or two. In that very limited timeframe, they have an opportunity to either provide service or provide an experience.

How does that apply to other industries?

If they say you’re “professional,” you’re probably providing a service. Good for you. Welcome to a giant pool of people who get paid for what they do. In other words, big whoop.

If they are amazed by the experience, have been given a memory, recommend you to others, sing your praises, etc., you’re providing something special. We’re talking about great surprises that are above and beyond the expected. This is hard work. It’s not easy to get here. But it’s something to strive for if you hope to have repeat “guests.” By the way, if something goes wrong during their “stay,” you do something incredible that surprises them too. Even the best hotels make mistakes – it’s how they make it really, really right for the guest that shows a higher level of sophistication.

I try to remind myself that clients are guests within my care. I’m pushing myself to ask the questions and give insightful reporting before they even ask for it. Why? I’ve learned that if they ask and ask and ask and ask, there could be something I’m not providing enough of. Take most advertising agencies – many tend to have the mindset that when the client asks for something, you jump on top of it, rally your team, come up with great ideas and hopefully, you wow the client with your brilliance.

But again, what if we had done that before they even asked? I go back to the hotel analogy. If you have to ask the front desk for many things, it gets to be an inconvenience for you. Sure, they’ll probably bring up what you want and you’ll be mildly appreciative. And yet, what if they brought something to your door just because they thought you would enjoy your stay that much better? What if they realized it was a special event based on your history with them, so that before you ever reminded them that “it’s our anniversary,” you got upgraded to a bigger suite? Wouldn’t you stand a greater chance of telling someone else about it online at a review site?

What’s the point of having LinkedIn Recommendations if all someone can say is, “They did what I asked them to do?” What kind of referral is worth having when you are nothing more than an order taker and “service provider?”

Guests in hotels don’t stay forever. Neither do guests in our businesses, whether it’s for a short-term engagement or a relationship that lasts until we retire. So during the time they’re with us, we have to think of it before they do. We have to advise even if they never think to ask for it – because, after all, that’s why they choose us. We have to ask how we’re doing far more often than assume no news is good news.

Brands that only tout their professionalism or years of experience may be able to keep a guest but they won’t get glowing reviews and raving fans. Not by itself. That’s the difference. What they see as advantages are often merely the point of entry of doing business. And as a result of either not looking deeply enough within themselves or asking their own clients how they’re doing with greater humility or both, they think everything is right with the world. Until someone checks out. By then, it’s too late.

One last thought: Hotels don’t have to be The Ritz in order to create a great experience. They need to understand their guests, listen to what they prefer most and deliver that in the most appealing/creative/unexpected/surprising/amazingly efficient way. That’s what extends their stay, motivates them to write better reviews and extoll the virtues of that brand to many others.

Further thoughts and ideas on this?

Be my guest.