Two Big Lessons

Jun 12, 2006

It’s Sunday morning on Mother’s Day 2006. We have a lot to be thankful for in the Zweig household as my wife just bore our first, a baby girl, “Olive Josephine,” 15 days ago. As I sit here in my bedroom, in a turquoise fabric chair from 1958 (the year I was born), I prepare to write my 666th cover article for The Zweig Letter. As hard as it may seem to believe, I never have a problem thinking of something to write about. Every day, it seems, brings new subject matter to my fingertips so I can easily key in these 700 to 1500 words on my BlackBerry. This past week proved no exception. I just struck a deal to buy a small commercial property so I can eventually launch one of my lifestyle businesses— a place to buy and sell old cars from the 50s and 60s. And the process resulted in two experiences that drive home a couple of lessons for principals in A/E and environmental firms everywhere. First, I needed some help with a Phase I site assessment. Who do I call? I asked our attorney and he gave me the name of the largest firm down here. I checked our database to see who we knew over there and the answer was no one in that part of the business. So I got on their web site and tried to find the person in charge of this service line. Couldn’t find anyone. Nowhere on their site did they say they provided these services. I had a hard time even finding their phone number on the site. I didn’t even bother to call them. My next thought was, “Who do I know who could do this?” The founder of a firm in Little Rock came to mind. They have an office here in Fayetteville, too. He and I used to be friends and, beyond that, we both shared a love of old cars. I called his office, asked for him, and immediately got put through. No auto attendant, no grilling from the receptionist, no third degree from his personal administrative assistant. Sure, he’d be glad to help me out and he would have his local office manager get in touch with me immediately. Big Lesson #1: You have to make yourself accessible IF you want clients to do business with you! This means looking at everything, from your web site, to your direct contact info being on your business cards, to how you handle incoming callers! Tear the barriers down! Then I had to find a lender who would give me the real-estate financing. Even though I have a dislike for megabanks that runs deep, my personal bank account is with one of them (they have a zillion ATMs all over the country). I got on their web site to see what kind of financing they’d offer. I couldn’t find anything specific, so I called the toll-free number. After two or three auto-attendant selections and a short wait, I get a surly, robotic customer service woman from Hell. I tell her my interest and she immediately informed me there’s no way they’d give me a loan for a piece of property owned by a business that doesn’t exist yet. She has no idea of what assets I have or anything else when she tells me this. She says I will have to buy the building personally and lease it back to my business. I don’t want to do that for a variety of reasons. She then puts me on hold to “look up the number of a local branch I can go talk to.” No thanks, I thought. I hung up. No one ever bothered to call me back, either, even though by then I had already given her my account information. Next stop (should’ve been the first stop)— who do I know? I asked my local business attorney. He gave me the name of a CEO of a new bank down here, one that’s been wildly successful. “This is a small deal,” I told him. “No matter,” he said. I called the bank and asked for the CEO, a fellow I’d read about in countless newspaper and magazine articles recently. She said he wasn’t in, but I could leave a message on his voicemail if I wanted. She then immediately put me through. No questions, no prescreening. I left a message and, a short bit later, he called me from his cell phone, with a warm welcome and sincere expression of interest in helping me. We talked for about 30 minutes and he learned a lot about me and my other financial service needs. Sure, I could borrow through my as-of-yet unborn business, he told me. He tested our e-mail connection immediately and told me he’d have one of his lending people contact me immediately. I got a follow up from the CEO and heard from that person in five minutes or less. Big Lesson #2: You have to be responsive. It makes an incredible difference. No matter how high up you are in your firm, no matter how long you’ve been doing this, no matter what idiotic barriers have sprung up in your firm, being accessible and responsive are two essential attributes for ANYONE who is in a professional service business today. The firms with principals who embrace these two characteristics and relentlessly demonstrate them will outperform their competitors every time. Originally published 6/12/2006

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.