When I first joined James M. Montgomery in 1976, there was a process where new project managers were indoctrinated into the company.  It was not by a class or some literature, it was on-the-job training. You would be paired with a more experienced project manager, who acted as your trainer for six months to a year.  Your role as a junior project participant was to assist on assignments, working with others as a team.  In this three part series, I want to share with you the lessons that I learned from this training experience, which have served me well throughout my career. The first is “reading a client’s office.”

To learn this, you must repeatedly visit a client in their office.  As I was in the midst of this training, the car ride generally served as preparation time and, later on, the return trip was a debrief. I was told not to say much during the visit, just observe.  In the debriefing, I was grilled on what I saw and asked to think about what it meant in both developing a relationship and delivering the project.

The client’s office is a physical reflection of their value system, their points of pride, their interests and hobbies, their families, their accomplishments, their organizational idiosyncrasies and, in general, a window into who they truly are.  Nothing could be more revealing if you would just pay attention, look and, later, interpret I was required to memorize everything: pictures, diplomas, trinkets, books, positioning of the chairs or tables, tidiness of paperwork, art or pictures, equipment (electronic or printers), phones and colors.  All were there for a purpose and a reflection of the person you visited. I was also asked to keep a notebook to remind myself of the office after the trip, and to serve as preparation for the next visit.

One technique used by the senior person to buy time and get more 360 views was to ask a question about something in the room unrelated to our business.  These questions might be something to the effect of: “Are those recent pictures of your kids?,” “You read Jim Collin’s ‘Good to Great.’ What did you think?,” “You went to Columbia University. What was a city school like?,” “Is that sailboat yours and do you still have it?,” “Why do you have four phones?”

I actually found this quite fun and it led to establishing a more familiar relationship with each client in a shorter period of time. The ride home was like a quiz and was mentally stimulating.  It also taught me how to present things in format that would be appealing to the client.  In most of my really good relationships, I can still today describe their offices and some now include pictures with me.

Have you tried reading a client’s office before? How did it work for you?


© 2013 Robert Uhler and THE UHLER GROUP.  All rights reserved.