When I first entered the consulting world in the mid-1970, there was a process in my company where new junior project managers were indoctrinated into the company’s client service culture. They didn’t learn this information via a class or some literature, rather, through on-the-job training. You would be paired with a more experienced project manager, who acted as your mentor and trainer for six months to a year. Your role as a junior project participant was not only to assist on assignments, working with others as a team, but also travel and meet clients with your mentor. Your role in these client visits was to stay quiet and observe how the senior colleague handled clients.

In this article, I want to share one of the invaluable lessons that I learned from this training experience, which has served me well throughout my career. I call the lesson: “reading a client’s office.” (Later in my career, as I became more senior, it led to reading my colleagues and employees’ offices.)

To learn this skill, you must visit a client in their personal office or space. As I was in the midst of this training, the car ride to the client’s office generally served as my preparation time from my senior colleague and the return trip was used as a debriefing. In the debriefing session, I was grilled on what I saw and was asked to think about what it meant in both developing a relationship and delivering the project. The practice forced me to become much more observant about my client’s personal life.

Your 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 to inform you, as to who your client really is, if you would just pay attention, observe and later, interpret. During my visits to clients, I was expected to memorize everything I could: pictures, diplomas, awards, trinkets, text and management books, positioning of the chairs or tables, tidiness of paperwork, children’s art, photographs, clocks and colors. All were there to display personal ‘pride’ or their interest in something, and were direct reflections of the person you visited.

One technique used by my senior mentor was to ‘buy time’ in the client’s office was to ask a question about something in the room, which was always unrelated to our business. This question might be something to the effect of: “Are those recent pictures of your kids?” or “You read Jim Collins’ ‘Good to Great.’ What did you think?” or “You went to Columbia University. What was a city school like?” Other questions could be, “Is that sailboat yours and do you still have it?” or “How old are your children now?” Questions like these caused the client to move from discussions purely about business, to conversations about their personal life and inner thoughts. It suddenly changed the formality of the relationship.

My mentor instructed me to keep a notebook to remind myself of what the client’s office looked like to serve as preparation for the next visit. The “debriefing” with my mentor started with him asking me to take five minutes of silence and write down in my notebook what physical things I remembered while it was still fresh in my mind. That would be followed by a quiz based on what he had noticed. Early on, I was amazed at the items he saw that went unnoticed by me. Over time these debriefings raised the bar relative to my observations.

Sometimes after we went back to our office, we would do some research on types of boats, schools, books and other items that were noticed while at the client’s office. This would arm us for a starting conversation point at the next meeting. We might even send an article or book that was tied to our earlier conversation, thanking the client for their time. It was very important that the accompanying explanation note was hand-written. Old-fashioned handwriting has much more impact than emails, especially today because so few people still do it.

I actually found training quite fun and it established more familiar and personal relationships with each client in a much shorter period of time. It also taught me how to present things in a format that would be most appealing to each individual client. Today, I can still describe some of my best clients’ offices. Due to my adding a personal touch to my business relationships, many have regarded me as a friend well after my professional assignment was completed.

Have you tried reading a client’s office before? Do it, and I feel confident it will change the level of your business relationship.

Also, think about training your new leaders by teaming them with older, more seasoned executives. This mentor training practice is used with law enforcement officers, restaurant wait staff and in many other service industries as their exclusive training method. It is quality teaching based on real world lessons learned rather than PowerPoint slides and manuals.

Dedicated to my two great client service mentors, the late Dr. Frank Grant and Murli Tolaney.

© 2017 Robert Uhler and THE UHLER GROUP. All rights reserved.