A simple question

Mar 28, 2017

What can I do for you today? As it turns out, perhaps not a whole lot, but in a crunch, a little can go a long way.

It’s a simple enough question. But how often do you actually ask it of your peers, managers, and subordinates? We’re busy people in big jobs and never have enough hours in the day to get things done. I get it. But this might be one of the more valuable business lessons I’ve learned. It’s a question that spans B2B, B2C, M&A, CSR, IT, and works 24/7: What can I do for you today?

The first time I was asked the question, I was frantically building a website for a national client in the retail space. I hadn’t slept in about 24 hours and was up against a tight deadline that I was not going to miss. Email was spooling, voicemail was stacking up, and I was quickly developing an eye twitch. My boss walked up, recognized the gravity of the situation, and rather than ask for a status update, just looked at me and said, “What can I do for you today?”

He couldn’t jump in and help build the site. Dealing with my mounting email and voicemail wouldn’t have helped, either. What made the difference at that moment was that his question cut through the tunnel vision for a brief moment so I could take a breath. I looked up and said, “Coffee.” Three minutes later I had a fresh cup of joe and a new respect for the CEO. Not for the coffee, but for recognizing an issue and addressing it directly.

Since then, I’ve asked this question from a number of roles managing teams, clients, customers, and companies across various industries. Teams love the personal attention. Managers get direct input into teams without pressure. And clients/customers are taken aback – just before they tell you exactly what they need to make them a long-term, loyal customer. It’s an “easy button” for business and interpersonal relations.

Here’s the catch, though. You’ve got to deliver. And quickly. This doesn’t mean taking on a task you’re incapable of achieving, or trying to teach yourself a new skill. Do something you’re uniquely qualified to do, or something that will make life easier for that person. Doing this can also get you out of your own head for a minute. I tend to deliver and disappear where appropriate, letting that person get back to the task at hand.

I’m a geek. I build platforms. I link systems. I tell you to reboot your computer. But I am also a student of communication. I build teams of people smarter than me. I give them impossible goals, equally impossible deadlines, and still we achieve. I attribute these successes to solid communication, reading situations for stressors, and always being ready for the assist. And, of course, asking the simple question: What can I do for you today?

Jay Thornton is Zweig Group’s director of IT and ecommerce. He can be reached at jthornton@zweiggroup.com.

This article is from issue 1190 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here to subscribe or get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.