How to talk to clients

Or: A professional tutorial for the awkward.

I was reading a post by Elizabeth Esther some time ago in which she gives some great advice to a reader who is working on catching up to everyone else in knowing how to be socially normal.  And that reminded me – you know, I had to do something similar.  I was a bit of a loner growing up and I am naturally socially awkward; I had to teach myself how to be normal.  So if that is you, you are not alone.

I have also noticed, after a handful of years in the workforce, that even people who are more than fine socially are not comfortable handling themselves professionally.  So you have a situation where the awkward person (that’s me) has to teach the not-awkward person how to not be awkward at work.  IRL irony!  It’s the best.

I’ve found that having a basic script to work from can really help you develop your confidence because you have some stock phrases to fall back on.  Now, when you work as a CPA (an auditor in particular), you start at a disadvantage, interpersonally.  The client might be polite and pleasant enough, but the bottom line is that you are a nuisance to them, and you interfere with the timely completion of their job.  So your keys to success are to be the most likeable, pleasant, respectful nuisance you can possibly be.

Disclaimer: Some of this may be pretty female-specific, because I am aware that I have to walk that assertive-submissive tightrope in order to be effective in certain circles.  But I think the general principles still apply to males as well. 

Here’s how I usually begin:

1. Get their attention.

I usually do this with a knock on their door / cubicle or a verbal “knock, knock” if my hands are full, followed by, “Do you have a minute?”  Now, this opening gambit serves two purposes:

a) actually getting their attention while giving them a bit of time to shift their focus from (insert miscellaneous task here) to whatever insightful, brilliant question you have come to ask them.

b) showing them that you are respectful of their time (pleasant, respectful nuisance, remember?) by giving them the opportunity to say “no.” If they say “yes” right away, game on! If not, follow up with “When would be a good time to come back?”  And then make sure you arrange your schedule to accommodate them, if possible.

2. Open with some general background information that leads into your question.

Example question: “I was looking at the detail of your expenses for dilithium containment field generator maintenance ….”

Why do I do this?  Again, two purposes:

a) give them a bit more time to mentally shift their focus from (insert miscellaneous task here) to whatever insightful, brilliant question you have come to ask them. Yes, I know that was the purpose of “Knock, knock – do you have a minute?” but it takes a bit longer than that for most people, so you want to stall for a FEW more seconds before you jump into the heavy content.

b) show them that you are not lazy or stupid. You have started the work on your own to the limit of your understanding and while you need their help to fill in the blanks, you will not be asking them to do your work for you. You are well on your way to being the best likeable, respectful nuisance you can be.

3. Ask the question in a blame-neutral way.

Example question: (continued from above) “I was looking at the detail of your expenses for dilithium containment field generator maintenance, and I noticed an item labeled ‘JACK DANIELS’ for $5,000 – could you help me understand what that is?

Note that I do NOT ask – “Why are you running alcohol purchases through company expenses?  Did you REALLY think I wouldn’t see this?”  That would immediately put them on the defensive, and you would get zero cooperation from them for the rest of the job.  Which would of course be your fault because that’s how your company works.  So don’t do that.

If you phrase your question in a way that assumes they did everything right, you give them an opportunity to continue to be right and explain why this thing that looks weird to an external auditor (i.e. you) is actually totally cool.  Because let’s face it – they know their job WAY better than you do; if you assume that you can walk in there and in 30 minutes figure out that they screwed everything up, you have been reading too many juicy audit fantasy novels.

Wait, those don’t exist?  Huh.  Well, they should.  Maybe I’ll write one.

Like this

Like this

Anyway, moving on –

4. Listen to their answer and ask them to repeat key details until you understand what they are saying.  If necessary, ignore relevant details, interrupt with an “excuse me, could you please clarify?” – type question, and / or redirect them to the actual issue at hand.

Example dialogue:

Client: “Oh man, that project was a real doozy.  I gotta tell you, man, I was already running late that day because my frakkin’ dentist was SO slow, so I’m in a bad mood, but then Beuchamp across the hall just comes in practically skipping with glee, so I’m like, whaaat?  And then …”

Me: *Smile, chuckle* “That sounds really great, but could you tell me specifically about this ‘JACK DANIELS’ expense for $5,000?”

Client: “I’m getting there!  So we had this contractor who was just the worst.  Showed up late reeking of booze, did a crap job, we had to fire him …”

Me: “Okay, but …”

Client: “ … and then to top it off, I saw him hanging around the front desk a week later!  I told him, dude – GTFO or I’m calling the cops …”

Me:  “Wow, sounds like you guys had some issues with this guy.  But I just need to know what this expense item is – could you help me understand it?”

Client: “Oh sure!  Why didn’t you say so?  The contractor’s name was Jack Daniels, and we paid him $5,000 for his time and the work that he started.  See?  Here’s the contract, here’s the invoice, and here’s the memo from legal documenting the termination of the contract.”

Me: “Great – thanks for your help!”

Now, I just want to go on record and say that most clients are not as scatterbrained as this hypothetical guy.  But some of them are much, much worse.  I once worked with a guy who was every bit the stereotypical monotone accountant.  He would just go on and on and on …. And on … and on … A simple phone call with me trying to pick out the actual answers to my questions was exhausting.

“But Athena, how can I be a respectful, likeable nuisance if I’m interrupting them?”

Great question – generally they won’t react badly if you interrupt with a respectful “excuse me”; this is their expectation of you as a nuisance working in your favor.  Also, if you are successful in managing the conversation so you are out of their hair faster, they will dislike you less.

5. End by saying “Thank you.”

Example: See above.  Alternatively “Thanks for your time.”

Regardless of how helpful (or unhelpful) your client is, ALWAYS say thank you.

Why do I do this?  It just ends the conversation on a pleasant note.  Nothing more complicated than that.


 

Now, I wrote the above with examples from my job as an auditor, but the script is more broadly applicable than that.  For example, I use it every time I approach a store employee when out shopping, or a coworker in my office, or really anytime I need to approach someone in a professional setting.

Feel free to let me know if you have any suggestions!

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