A few years back I found myself in a transitional place professionally. I was in a new state looking for work in a related (albeit only marginally related) field. I found myself in an interview wearing a suit (yes, a suit), sitting in front of someone whose role, and entire department to be honest, I did not fully understand. It’s times like these, when one takes a resume from one field and submits it to another that you realize you have been talking in hyperbole, or in other words BS laden task lists made to look like a resume. All of a sudden a resume riddled with sexy items like managing the production of vertical specific variations for non-transactional web content becomes worked closely with writers to update various website articles. The latter line item is boring, lame, flat…and as humbling as it may be, more informative to most people on the planet. It was during the vernacular-free discussion that I realized the fulcrum of my career was the fact that I had refined a way to tell my clients and managers “no” on a regular basis and have them love me for it.
Allow me to explain…back to the interview. As it turns out, I got the job. A while later, my boss told me I pulled off the upset and edged out someone with much more relevant experience because of my answer to one single question – “Do you have any experience with difficult clients?” My response – “Respectfully, there’s no such thing as an easy client. But, if you keep them informed and deliver what you say you will, they get a lot easier.” Before you fire me, let me explain. During the interview, I went on to elaborate about how clients come to agencies and research firms to extend their own skill sets and resources. As such, both sides – agency and client – are almost constantly teaching each other new things. This may be learning about new technical product features only a senior engineer could understand (and love) or mastering the phrasing nuances of an insightful discussion guide. For this reason, each project includes an ebb and flow of novel information that makes both sides vulnerable to mistakes which can quickly derail the productivity of any given project.
Now, combine constant learning/exploration with a smartphone in your pocket that makes you available 24x7 and you’ll find that it’s the urge to please, and over-commit that can get you into trouble very quickly. For instance, I may tell my boss I can crank out three reports in as many days. But the end result is going to be a 60+ hour week, and three reports where a substantial piece of each was written past midnight. To quote my high school golf coach – “Nothing good happens after midnight.” I and my client would have a much better product to show for it had I just inserted a little incubation time for each of those reports. Faster is not always better. Once you fail to meet a deadline or underperform, whether irrationally overextended or not, you’ve just set off a chain reaction that will take a whole heck of a lot longer to sort out than the original extra half day you cut out of the schedule, just to be agreeable.
Now, there are two qualifiers here – 1) you must not overuse this gift and 2) this must never be for solely your benefit. Frequently use “no” and you will find yourself fired for being an obstructionist, as you should be. Too much self-serving “no, because that would require me to work past 6” and you’ll be fired for being lazy, as you should be. My point is that we must strive to exceed expectations. Sometimes, that means that you have to lean hard on a history of achievement and ask your colleagues to “Trust me; you’ll be much better off if we do this…” Sometimes you swallow your dissent, roll up your sleeves and make impossible deadlines looks like a walk in the park.
Clients, and our bosses, pay us (not to be tacky, but) a good chunk of money to exceed their expectations – which is not a matter of killing yourself to crank out deliverables. Exceeding expectations is a delicate balance between building up credibility through over-achieving when your client/boss needs you and then calling upon that reservoir of goodwill when things appear headed off course. Master the art of “no” and they’ll love you for it.