Franky sent me a link to Mr. T's new reality show, I Pity the Fool, knowing I'm a huge T fan (Pete from DiData even sent me a Mr.T In Your Pocket the other day!!).

So I'm sitting at my desk at 11am Monday morning, watching Mr. T, while people walk by my desk, probably thinking, "What the hell is that DPE guy doing now!!?"

I have to say, Mr. T is the bomb ditty! No joke, that first episode hit home one absolutely simple yet powerful truth, "Treat your customer right!"

See, early in my career, I learnt that when dealing with anyone, especially customers, you have two choices, the first is you can tell them what you think they want to hear, or you can tell them how it is. Simple case in point, despite your best laid plans, things can sometimes go awry. I remember once when I first started working, I was on a project where the development team headed down a path, and approaching our delivery date, realized we had made a pretty big boo boo, and had to backtrack and try another approach. Our team leader didn't want to tell the customer, so instead, he made up a big story about some third party not doing the right thing, etc. Problem was, the customer had a friend who worked for the third party, and when the customer approached his friend and asked why this had occurred, the friend completely disputed the story. This escalated pretty quickly, and before anyone knew, the mob I was working for got dropped as the supplier, lost the customer forever (including some others) and also got dragged through the court by the third party! That was just one story, I have many more (as do most of you!).

Over the years I have realized that the best approach when dealing with a customer in the software game (well, any game really) is to treat them as a partner, not a customer. When I ran my own business, I had one simple rule; we have no customers, just partners. Why? Well, most people walk into an engagement with the concept of one side being the provider, and the other the consumer. That's fine with ham sandwiches and coffee, but with software, it's not just about taking down an order. It's about sharing your customers vision, understanding their history, predicting their trajectory, and wanting it as bad as they do. It's why people say "no one will ever take your business as seriously as you do!". You have to become part of your customers business and want it to succeed, which means you won't screw them around, and you must also want to do the best job for them because their success will ensure your success (there is an old sales tale about successful customers paying the bills!). As they say, 'a rising tide lifts all boats'.

You have to walk into any customer situation as their partner, yes there will be a process where money is exchanged, but that's for the accountants to worry about. You must walk in there as the partner who will use all your knowledge, experience, resources and connections to get the customer from were they are now, to where they want to be. Yes you may stumble here and there, but if you take the approach of being a partner, then you can approach the customer at any stage and tell them what's going on. After all, it's not your problem, it's everyone's problem. Don't get into the situation of keeping things from your customer! You wouldn't do it to your business partners, don't do it to your customers. Otherwise they will be forced to treat you like a child; I think all of us have been in that customer meeting where the customer has had to take on that motherly tone while they try to ascertain where in the vendor's schoolbag did they hide the rest of the software! Oh, and don't think you are doing the customer a favor by running the old "need to know" game! Trust me, there is nothing they don't need to know!

The other aspect is qualifying your customers properly. I don't mean the old skool qualification technique of do they have money and want to spend it, I mean, is this customer engaging me because they want me to assist them as a technology specialist and are reasonable about the potential for success, or is this a customer who has no idea of what their requirement is and does not know what it's going to take to make it happen. As Mr. T will tell you, the latter will only bring you pity fool! I've seen so many companies get greedy and take on any customer just for the work, only to realize that you are locked in the misguided customer death spiral where they never actually had a vision of success, so nothing you can do will magically create one! What you and your customer must always do is sit down, work out what it is the customer needs delivered, what it will look and smell like, how it will improve their business, and what the plan of attack is. Without these core things, you'll just end up doing stuff and no one will know why, or even care, and worst still, your customer will wander why they are paying you to do it, and eventually turn nasty.

Ahh, all this from one episode of I Pity the Fool! Jeez, I hope some of the business and consulting schools start prescribing this for their graduates! Mr.T, Business Coach, now I'd pay for that kind of on the job training!