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converseI have touched earlier on the psychology of the professional in general, and of architects on particular. I’ve mentioned the need for empathetic leadership in a time when all your staff are going to feel threatened, concerned for their futures. I’ve spent some time talking about fear. Now is the time to pull this psychological understanding together once and for all in dealing with the single most important aspect of developing and sustaining a business – delighting your clients.

All 6 of the elements of the business matter but the business starts and ends with its clients. So the next few articles are going to concentrate on them, on how to listen to them, how to focus your energies optimally on them, and how to maximise your awareness programmes to them, before we turn to managing the client interface, and winning bids. First though why is the psyche of the professional so relevant to client management?

Psychologists 1 are increasingly seeing populations as tending to be more “empathetic” or more “systemic”. The “empathetics” tend to have larger daily working vocabularies of up to 20k words, as compared to the “systemics” with perhaps only 7k words per day. As you would expect those with the larger volumes of words tend to operate through words – put simply they talk more! But they tend also to be more concerned with people’s feelings, they want to share more, need to collaborate and are “naturals” at understanding body language, being sensitive to others and, perhaps surprisingly they are more aware of color – and most frequently they are women. They are happy with many challenges at any one time. Confronted by threat they will more likely share their fears with a best friend, talk about them, and use the interaction to reduce the stress involved.

The systemics are very different. Their world has fewer ambiguities, they are strongly focussed, driven in a single minded way. They have little concern and little natural skill in seeing how others react because they are so strongly focussed, obsessed almost, in finding the right answer. They tend to be silent. They will miss body language, even dismiss it as fanciful. Where the empathetic’s face and body is mobile, reflecting their thoughts and passions, the systemic is still, concentrating. This is the world of many of the leading professionals, driven to study long and hard so as to be right. They will tend to think things through in their own mind first rather than opting to think out loud –  and most frequently they are men. Many will be colour blind (it is interesting how often architects wear black!) Confronted by threat, they will feel a strong fear of impending failure, being wrong, found out, rejected. It is from this pool that society finds the greatest achievers, men whose dogged determination to win through has changed the world. Many of the greatest architects are systemics. Most of the top designers, in my experience are systemics.

Why does this matter so much, why is this so relevant to managing clients and especially during tough times?

Selling is 90% about listening.

First of all because in all your intercourse with clients what matters most of all is your sensitivity to their feelings, to their fears, to the language and culture they espouse, and in many cases leading professionals are psychologically least qualified to be receptive to these messages. The overwhelming first law of selling is to listen, listen and listen again. Our leading systemics want instead to explain their winning ideas, to overwhelm the client with their excellence, to show how right they are.  The real secret of client management is to seek first to understand before you seek to make yourself understood – those who are empathetic know this because they do it all the time. 2

Secondly the very act of selling is especially threatening for the systemic. Driven by the need to win, be proven right, he (for in the main at the moment at any rate it will still be a “he”) will find this the one moment when he can and often will be rejected. That is why so many professionals are in effect “frightened” of their clients. This is the one critical area of their world where they regularly face losing, where they cannot be in control. The implications for a firm trying to manage its way out of a recession are significant and will be highlighted now at every stage in the columns that follow.

The major challenge with clients is to think and debate from their point of view, in their language and aware of their concerns.

In particular:

  • all senior staff need training in how to listen, present, and interview;
  • appoint the most empathetic staff to liaise with clients rather than just the most senior;
  • in a recession work as closely to your client base as you can, in principle you cannot do enough for them.
  1. The Essential Difference by Professor Baron Cohen, pub Penguin Books 2003
    Understanding Leaders by James Cooke, available direct.
  2. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, pub Simon & Schuster 1989