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Sadder But Wiser

By: Ford Harding
June 2007 Selling 1 Comment

We have all learned something the hard way, and those lessons tend to be well learned.  Those of us with little gray hair can use these experiences, the way rainmakers do, to persuade the client that we know better to make such mistakes again.  Though we might not want to point out a mistake we made this week, stories about mistakes earlier in our careers can be compelling.

Bob Hillier, an architect who knows how to bring in business, showed how powerful the sadder-but-wiser anecdote can be, when a prospective client said to him, “I’ve had some bad experiences with architects. How can I be sure you’re going to bring this project in on budget.”  Everyone in the room knew that the engagement hung on the answer to this question.  I looked at Bob.  He responded with the following story:

When I had only been in business a short time, I won a project to help renovate a classroom building at a local university.  Our design substantially exceeded the client’s budget, but I thought it was so beautiful that I could talk them into spending the money. When I met with the facilities manager, he looked at my design and immediately asked what it would cost. I told him, and he handed me back my drawings and told me the engagement was over. I said I would redo the work to fit his budget, but he said no, he couldn’t work with someone who didn’t listen to him. I’ve never forgotten that lesson.
With that story, so much more effective than promises or statistics, he won the engagement.

This story is powerful on several dimensions.  We all can identify the young architect trying to build a firm.  We can feel his devastation on being fired.  We all know that this lesson was well learned.  The listener was a facilities manager.  He could identify with the client in the story and feel the satisfaction of dealing abruptly with an architect who doesn’t listen.  He had probably wanted to fire several architects over the years but didn’t want to incur the costs of starting the projects anew.  The anecdote also shows that Bob is not just another posturing professional; he has enough humility to reference his own mistakes.
Here is a story that I heard an attorney tell to an accountant he was hoping to get referrals from:

When I was a young lawyer, I was trying a case in front of the judge with a reputation for being hard-nosed. I found myself getting so wrapped up in my client’s case at one point that I stopped and apologized. The judge got mad at me right there in front of my client. “How dare you apologize,” he said. “If you don’t feel emotional about your client’s case, why should I?”  Ever since then, I have never felt embarrassed about being emotionally committed to my clients’ cases.

This story is far more persuasive than a statement like, “I will really fight for any client you refer to me.”

So, think back to mistakes you made early in your career.  Is there grist in them for a good story that will make clients want to hire you?  Would you care to share your story?  If so, please post it on this site.



About the author

Ford Harding is the founder and President of Harding & Company, a firm that helps management consultants, public relations specialists, accountants, architects, attorneys, executive recruiters and engineers win new clients. The author of a number of books, he often writes for publications such as the Harvard Business Review, the Wall Street Journal, and Consulting to Management.

Originally published in Ford Harding’s Blog at http://www.hardingco.com/blog/ on On April 17th, 2007.

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