It was time to meet a new enterprise client for the first time. Late one afternoon, I headed to the kitchen area where the key stakeholder and their team were after running a workshop.
I nervously introduced myself and explained my position in the usual fashion of job title, department, and time at the company in months.
Nothing remarkable happened in the initial introduction and I sat there and listened to how the day went. Hearing a woman who hadn’t been in the country for long, talk about technology, was refreshing and intrigued me.
Half an hour in, I had to leave to attend a brief meeting. At the conclusion of the internal meeting, I returned to where the key stakeholder was positioned in the kitchen having a few refreshments. Myself and a colleague began talking to her, but not like a customer — more like a long lost friend without all the complications and expectations of business.
Somehow we got on to the subject of homelessness and the way humans treat each other. In what can only be described as passionate flow (a term I just coined), unintended words began to come out of my mouth.
The first story I told my new client was about working in the homeless shelter. She had worked in the same industry as me for many large companies and seen what volunteer days can unexpectedly do to someone who may have lived his/her life in a self-serving manner, having never helped a stranger.
I told her how a few years ago it was a KPI for me to complete a few volunteer days, and I’d become sick of the traditional choices that many of my colleagues chose because they were really just a hidden excuse to slack off and waste a day without doing anything useful for the community.
While browsing through the list of options to spend my volunteer days, I came across two homeless shelters. I didn’t know what it was like to be homeless outside of the situation with my friend who has lived this existence for more than a decade, and still goes in and out of homelessness to this day.
As I talked through the experience, a realization hit me that hadn’t crossed my mind before. I shared it with her:
“You start by thinking that working in a homeless shelter and serving free meals is about giving food to those who have none. What you realize after doing it a few times is that the homeless people are not coming to the soup kitchen for food; they’re coming to have a conversation so that they may escape the loneliness.”
The conversation then moved on to one of the people I met at the homeless shelter one cold Melbourne morning. The elderly gentleman asked me what I did and the response I gave him was that I worked for a major institution in the finance industry. He said to me:
“Wow, it must be amazing to go to work every day in a suit and work at such a great company.”
He seemed to be somewhat disappointed that he wasn’t able to live that life.
In response to his question, I politely asked about his working life and any jobs he may have had. To my surprise (because looks can be deceiving), he mentioned how he used to run the rail network and ensure all the trains had drivers and were on time. He was the big boss.
Even though he had lost much of his confidence through his battle with homelessness, the reality was that he had an important job in society and has done something far more significant than work in a major corporation like I had at the time.
I told him that, in some ways, I should be looking up to him and what he has done in his life, not the other way round. It was obvious that he hadn’t considered that idea for a long time.
It may have been a meaningless conversation or it could have completely changed his mindset and belief in himself. The answer may never be known, but the thought inspires hope.
Sharing this story with my brand new client made me hesitate towards the end. As the words came out, I found it hard to talk and my eyes watered up. I was able to hold it together, but there was no doubt that what had happened was obvious to the client.
“Is that the best that we can do?”
The conversation continued and my new client told me about some of the people she used to know who would talk down to homeless people and tell them they didn’t work hard enough, followed by screaming, “You BUM!”
We agreed that this was a naive view of people who are struggling — especially homeless people because it conveniently forgets about the mental challenges of being human, which far outweigh how hard one’s work ethic is.
Shortly after this interaction, we breaked for snacks.
I returned with a few salty treats and found myself knee-deep in another story about a CEO that I’d met a couple of years back. He was in charge of a multinational pension fund and earning more in a year than I’ll probably earn in a lifetime.
When our hands shook, there was a sense of kindness in his eye that could turn any loyal employee like me into a different shirt with a different company logo, in a heartbeat.
After meeting him, the person who introduced us told me a story.
He began the story by explaining that in the building they worked in, there was a problem with the toilets in the lobby. Homeless people had begun using the toilets that were easily accessible from the street to take advantage of the shower, which was there for employees to wash after they cycled to work (what a privilege, hey?).
The concierge was alerted to the issue by employees who complained about the homeless people using what they deemed to be their shower. Taking swift action, the employees and the concierge began locking the bathroom during the late afternoon when the homeless people would use it.
The CEO of the company found out about this issue by accident and asked a simple question that still sends chills down my spine. It’s a question I wish was asked more often:
“Is this the best we can do?”
He didn’t tell the staff at the company what to do; he just challenged them to see if there was a better way.
As it turned out, the decision was reversed and the staff decided to open up the bathroom downstairs to the homeless people so they could use it. After they had finished, the cleaners were instructed to give the bathroom an extra clean, so it was ready for the next day when the employees wanted to use it.
The CEO showed the sort of humility and faith in humanity that I haven’t seen at that level of the corporate world before.
As the story concluded, it became difficult for me to speak again. I was emotional again for the second time because there was just no way to ignore how powerful kindness can be when it’s given to those who need it most.
About two hours had passed after my colleague and I swapped stories with our new client. It was no longer business; it was personal. Opening up in a genuine way and seeing our roles as something more than feeding a revenue line in a spreadsheet changed the relationship.
The bond that was created after a couple of hours has led me to have a relationship with a client that reflects one of five years, not one day.
When you show your real self to a client or in a business context, people listen in an entirely different way. They open their hearts and that’s a pretty persuasive skill that should be used for good.
The power of telling stories and showing your emotion is the best way I have found to build strong relationships with new clients.