Archive : May 2011

Do You Speak Client?

Posted May 23, 2011

YOU:             “Tell me what kind of event you’d like.  Do you want something classical and formal or modern and understated?”

CLIENT:            “Um . . . I brought some pictures?”

We are a super creative industry, but when it comes to understanding our clients, we can really be a bunch of dumb-asses sometimes.  We live in our own bubble, a bubble where the locals speak Eventese.  We know that “classical” means crystal chandeliers, tapestry table runners, oriental rugs, carved oak paneling, blah, blah, blah.  And “modern” means an open loft with white walls, hardwood floors, maybe some sleek couches, etc.Inspiration Board

Or does it?  With so many designers of events, hotels and restaurants mixing modern and classical touches, even we’re not so sure anymore.  How then can we expect a client to know what these words mean?  Especially a client planning their first event, like a wedding, a company anniversary, or some other one-off event.  The truth is we can’t, and you can often drive a truck through the gap between what a client says they want, and what we think that means.

So what do we do?

  1. We keep trying to make the client understand our Eventese language.  We think if we use even more Eventese terms, and gesture more with our hands when doing so, they’ll eventually get it. Like the stereotypical loud American tourist abroad who, when the local doesn’t understand their English, thinks that if they just speak the same words LOUDER, that’ll do the trick.
  2. We guess.  We’re so creatively gifted and stylish, we can just . . . tell.  WE know what the client wants.  We look at what they’re wearing, how they speak, what names they drop, and then categorize them in our heads and spit out a design we think they’ll like.  Or more likely, one we think they SHOULD like, (if they knew what was best for them).
  3. We learn to speak Client. We could actually, wait for it . . . learn to talk to the clients in a language they understand. Pretty radical, huh.

Radical indeed.  Welcome to the world of Sasha Souza, wedding and event designer extraordinaire, who has cracked the code on speaking Client when it comes to event design.  Sasha’s come up with 10 simple non-event-related questions she asks all new clients.  The answers to each question give her specific insights into her client’s design preferences, which helps her produce Inspiration Boards that are spot-on.  She

Sasha Souza

Sasha Souza

uses these boards to then implement specific event elements that reflect the client’s vision.

Here’s a sample question:  “Where do you go on vacations?”  If the client says they go to spas and resorts, they’re far more likely to want to be in a ballroom; if they’re more the hiking and adventure type, they’re more likely to want a loft, barn, etc.

I was so impressed with Sasha’s methodology that I invited her to fly out to NYC from her base in Napa to speak at the very first live event hosted by the Event Leadership Institute.  (If you’re interested in attending, it’s on June 7th at the incredible Gansevoort Park Avenue hotel rooftop.  Click here for more info.)

Mind you, it’s not the questions themselves that are so special, though she will share those with the audience at our event.  It’s the concept of even coming up with them in the first place that I loved.  The idea of getting out of our own bubble and climbing into the client’s head to really understand what they want.

What’s the Benefit?

The impact is dramatic, and has several tangible benefits.

  1. The client feels like they’re getting a highly personalized design that is truly a reflection of what they want.
  2. The client feels more invested in the process because they’ve taken the time to fill out a detailed questionnaire.
  3. Sasha becomes known not just for great event design, but for really listening to her clients and knowing how to customize her work to meet their needs.
  4. Both parties save a great deal of time in going back and forth on concept development.  The questionnaire, when done right, is like taking the express elevator to getting a design that meets the client’s desires.

The questions and the answers will only get you so far, however.  The heavy lifting comes in reading the tea leaves, in learning how to interpret the answers. Read them wrong, and you’ll get a client that’s frustrated that after all the insight they’ve given you, you still don’t “get it”.  Experience and intuition need to take you the rest of the way.

So take some time and start learning to speak Client.  Get out of our Eventese bubble and get inside your client’s head, and you’ll be amazed at the results.

When to Fire Someone: Toxic Employees & The Curse of Mediocrity

Posted May 18, 2011

[Author’s Note: Yes, I know it’s been almost two months since my last blog post.  Where have I been, you ask?  OK, I’ll just come right out with it: I’ve been sleeping with another audience.  There, I said it.  Don’t get me wrong, you’ve been great; I just needed something . . . new.  Actually, as many of you know, I’ve been buried in event training and education land, working to get the Event Leadership Institute ready for prime time.  If you haven’t been yet, take a peek; the site is live, though the official launch is coming soon.]

Below is an advance peek at my next In Business Column for Event Solutions Magazine.

In my last column I talked about becoming a boss and hiring your first employee, and outlined the process for effectively training and ramping up new hires.  Alas, not all employees work out.  One challenge small business owners face is the hassle of replacing underperforming workers.  Larger firms with dedicated HR departments can, and do, manage this process more efficiently.

But with a small business, the owner typically has to do it all: fire the person and find his or her replacement.  Most people dread both tasks, the first because it’s wickedly uncomfortable; the second because it’s a huge, time-consuming pain in the ass.  So they end up ignoring the problem, rationalizing that the person’s performance is not THAT bad.

The damage a problem employee can have to your company can range from moderate to catastrophic, but in any case it is usually far greater than you think.  Let’s look at two scenarios.

The Toxic Employee

This is the person (let’s call her Toxie) who is unhappy about something (their compensation, their boss, etc.) and develops a chip on their shoulder.  But Toxie isn’t content with keeping her irritation to herself; she’s got to share her misery with others.  She whispers in the ears of her co-workers, firing them up.  “Can you believe they want us to work on a weekend without paying us overtime!?”, or, “We shouldn’t be expected to do this task; let the interns do it!”

Toxie’s frustrations aren’t validated until she gets others to join her cause and storm the castle.  She wants to bring others’ morale down to her level, and pretty soon her drama starts consuming more and more of everyone’s time. When that happens, she’s got to go.

Toxic employees by definition spread their malcontent around the office, like a cancer.   And like a cancer, they need to be removed before the damage gets worse and more healthy employees get infected.  In sports we see examples all the time of athletes that “infect the locker room” and become a bad influence on others; rarely are those teams successful, no matter how good that athlete may be.

The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

Sometimes you’ve got a mediocre employee, however, with a great attitude.  Unlike Toxie, this person will be the first to admit when they fall short in their performance.  They don’t blame anyone but themselves, and they have the support and sympathy of their co-workers, and you, their boss.  This is the mediocre/low performer, so let’s call her Melo.

Now, you might think, what’s the harm in keeping Melo around?  There’s no collateral damage to others like you’d have with Toxie, right?  Wrong.  The risk here is that by keeping Melo around, your A players might be tempted to measure themselves against her, and start settling for A- and B+ performance.  Worse, they may lose respect for you by continuing to allow someone to stay on who clearly is not meeting the job requirements.  Either way, they become a drag on your company’s mojo.

In some ways, Melo is a much harder situation, because she’s likely to stick around longer.  Eventually Toxie wears out her welcome and pushes you to take action.  Firing Melo is like giving away a pet that you like but refuses to be house trained.  But if you want to grow a strong business instead of a half-way house, you know what you need to do.

Firing Someone

In my 20 years of running an event company I’ve probably fired 8 people, and the only thing worse than firing someone is firing someone who doesn’t see it coming.  That’s a sign that you haven’t clearly explained what you expect of the employee and/or given them proper feedback.  It’s a miserable feeling on both ends of the table.

To avoid this, make sure you lay out, in writing, your job expectations, and give frequent and specific feedback at regular intervals.  If the performance problem doesn’t improve, be very clear about the consequences that will ensue if it’s not corrected.  If you do this right, nobody should be surprised when they get fired.

Once you’ve bitten the bullet and terminated an under-performer, you’ll be amazed at the ancillary impact it has on everyone else’s performance.  It sends a message that not getting the job done will not be tolerated, and the other employees will begin stepping things up.  Plus, the replacement worker usually brings fresh energy and drive to the office and you’ll notice everyone’s productivity will receive a boost.

These tangential benefits, however, are lost on your business if instead the problem worker quits before you fire them.  Please understand, I would never advocate taking away someone’s livelihood just to boost office productivity.  What I am saying is, if you’ve determined that a worker is no longer a good fit for your company and cannot turn things around, you’re better off taking the bull by the horns and proactively dealing with the issue directly.  It demonstrates strong leadership and your commitment to high standards for everyone you hire.