Friday, September 5, 2014

Reputation and engagement

I have a friend Lotz who owns and runs a record company and band in Wellington.  I've managed to catch his group, HMR Records a few times.

Lotz is a proper professional musician, and has built up HMR over several years.  They specialise is reggae, but have a stable of musicians which include a lot of genres.  As always I there's a lot you can learn in life by having around you people who have a genuine passion in life, and just listening.

A few months ago I ended up getting a lift back with him from a gig, and he told me a bit about this mixer he uses.  Sound checks for gigs are always a bit of a nightmare (heck, they're a kind of test, aren't they?).  Typically most time goes for the headline act, and that can leave very little for the other acts to tune up, especially if there are problems, when things tend to overrun.  A core part of his business model wasn't just the diversity of his group (something for everyone, and no two songs too much the same), but also that he could pre-program his mixer, so they needed minimal sound check time.

This was really important because he wanted to build up the reputation that HMR was "easy to work with" and no egos.  They wanted to build up that kind of reputation because it was important to get new work to be seen as someone that was no hassle, and could "play well with others".  No one wants to be an act after all that people go "uh, not them".  And Lotz is about one of the most relaxed people to deal with you could imagine.

Today I ended up meeting with several senior managers, and found that conversation with Lotz came flooding back.  Of course in our own way in the IT vendor industry, we're striving as individuals to get the same reputation of "easy to work with" for our companys' sake.

But what does that mean?  Does"easy to work with" mean we obey every customer request?  Even the ones which we know will cause problems down the line?  Of course not.

The trick of course is this mysterious thing called "engagement".  And there's no real absolute recipe - different people do this differently according to their personality.  Engaging means listening to what the customer wants, and potentially asking for clarification.  It's then guiding them through your experience on other similar projects, highlighting pitfalls you've experienced before, to attempt not only to mentor and enlighten them, but also to try and give counteroffers of what you can do (if you can't just say yes to their requests).

Engagement with a customer is a complex thing, because in essence it's a relationship.  And any relationship is a tightrope.  You are trying to give them the benefit of your experience, hopefully without belittling them or playing the "I'm right, you're wrong".  I know with the relationship with my wife, I've occasionally tried to use my advanced experience in science to tell her she's wrong, and as I settled down to bed on the couch that night, wondered to myself "well, that could have gone better".  No-one likes to be made to feel stupid, no matter your qualifications - and we tend to shut such people out.  The greatest teachers we know are not the ones who made us feel ignorant, but the ones who made us go "ah!", as we came to a realisation.

A comment I loved from KWST3 is a great relationship with a customer is like the movie Inception, where you're planting the seeds of powerful ideas about testing in the minds of your clients.  But the clients need to feel these ideas are their own, not ones "mandated" and forced upon them.  As I've often said, we tend to value ideas we understand more than ideas we're forced to take up, and trying to make our actions and activities understood (with clients and team) is a big part of my role.

If you're in New Zealand and reading this, I really recommend if you ever get the chance to go to a HMR Records gig, you go along - they're really great guys, and well worth seeing live!

By the way the Time Will Tell YOLO - before you think the YOLO is too gangster - it was actually a charity event run by a Les Mills PT to thank the hospice who'd looked after her father.

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