Very early in my career as a planner, my boss had shared with me some harsh feedback from a client. The client had remarked that I did not appear to have a sense of urgency. I was surprised by this.
I asked, “Did the events not go off well? Did I not deliver on deadline?” My boss confirmed that yes, I did all those things – but it was the pace in which I walked when we were on site that did not convey urgency. I did not act urgent.
Now I was even more upset and confused. After some reflection I understood where I went wrong. In my quest to appear cool, calm and collected, I had overshot in my body language. I missed the sweet spot between frazzled and apathetic and the client had interpreted the latter. This was the lesson I had to learn.
I recently read A Sense of Urgency by John P. Kotter, an excellent business book that made me remember that earlier episode. In the book, Kotter talks about the most successful businesses today and how they are able to act with urgency. It made me think about this notion of urgency and what it means in our industry today. How important is urgency and what does it look like to act urgent?
Urgency is currency in our industry
Next to executing an event successfully and on budget, urgency can be the deciding factor in booking repeat business. Although not usually vocalized as a learned skill, it is an important one to master. It comes with conveying to clients your capability and value. It’s how we build trust.
How to act with urgency
- Make each and every client feel like they are your top priority in all interactions. Even when you have three other files on fire on your desk, never say that to your client, “well, your meeting is in two months so I’m focusing on the one that’s next week first. Then I’ll look at yours.” A better approach is to give them a realistic timeframe when you can deliver: “I hear that you need XYZ. The earliest I can get it to you is Wednesday. Is that timing you can work with?”
- Write stuff down. When in meetings or on site with clients and they ask you to do something, write it down – and let them see you writing it. Be present and understand what they are asking. Repeat it back to them and ask for clarification if necessary. Nothing looks worse than when you have left a meeting and call a week later for clarification of a fundamental point that makes you look like you haven’t even started on their request. Leave the interaction making the client feel like they are your top priority.
- Watch your pace, and your face. This one may be hard to gauge and a friend or trusted colleague may help in providing some coaching. Unless you’re in an emergency, don’t run – but never stroll either. If a client asks for something urgently, never stop for a coffee on route to fulfilling their request. It appears disrespectful. When receiving information and direction, keep engaged focus and eye-contact. Again, it is that fine line – never appear horrified or bored (watch those eyebrows). If you hear anything concerning, take a minute, think about the reaction and come back with a neutral and informative response: “I understand you just asked for a live tiger. Unfortunately, we can’t fly one in within our current timeframe. However, with the projection-mapping technology we have onsite, we can make one virtually appear as guests walk in.” Keep it positive. You’re in it together to find solutions.
- Don’t cry wolf. Someone I once knew would mark every one of her emails ‘urgent’. All of them. Even the trivial ones. At a certain point people stopped opening anything coming from her. If all your interactions are urgent, you look disorganized, simple as that. It looks like you didn’t manage your time properly and now you’re scrambling and expecting others to scramble too. We all know how the tale of the boy who cried wolf turned out. Don’t be that person.
- Set a clear time and date. Sense of urgency is rooted in culture, which means its interpretation can vary by country (and event within Canada). Communication is key. Instead of saying ‘urgently’, specify a time and date: “Can you have an answer to me by Tuesday?”
Our world is only moving faster and urgency is the currency by which business is done. Trust is built by inspiring confidence with your clients. Making your client feel prioritized, understood and respected is the key to your own career success.