Calibrate How Much You Care

Caring too much about something can put you at a distinct disadvantage.

Car salespeople know this when they detect even the slightest interest or sense any desperation on your part. Savvy negotiators sniff out this weakness when working their magic at the final hour. Kids know this when they look up at you and ask for something you wouldn’t normally allow but hope that they can tug at your heart strings with that special look. It's such a significant component of the sales process that we did an entire episode of 2Bobs on it, calling it the only new business indicator that matters.

Caring is good—caring too much is dangerous—and I can’t help but think about how this relates to your own handling of client relationships. So on that subject, what is it that you care about? Let me paint that, first, and then talk about how caring too much gets you in trouble.

Looking for Two (or Three) Things in a Client Relationship

I'd suggest that client relationships should be profitable, impactful, and (maybe) fun, in that order. If a client relationship isn’t profitable, it really isn’t a “client” relationship at all but more like a friendship (albeit a fairly empty one because it’s built on false premises).

Profit, impact, and fun are the things you should care about in a client relationship. That leaves off things like an opportunity to build your portfolio, an opportunity to get your foot in the door somewhere and later start to make money, or an opportunity to do Y after we’ve done X. In a few select situations, this can make sense, but the problem is that these X opportunities seldom lead to anything beyond more X opportunities, and Y is pushed out ahead of you like a raft on the bow wave of a cruise ship—always just out of reach, but never out of sight.

This idea of opportunity is so alluring to us, probably because all of our business lives we are trained to snatch opportunities so that they are not wasted. The USA even calls itself the "Land of Opportunity" and thus it has become a federal crime to waste opportunity.

So that's what we should care about: making money and impacting the client's world, mainly. But what happens if you care too much about other things?

Working Hard at Caring Enough

Say you land a chance to find what appears to be a "right-fit" client and the opportunity is ripe for profit, impact, and maybe fun. In fact, the money is fine and this frees you from having to think about it anymore. You've checked that box, and now it's time to do good work.

But some weird signals make their way through the activity and you suddenly realize that you care more about the impact of this project than the client does. It's a really weird feeling, too. You're fighting for what you know is the better concept or the smarter approach to the dev project, but you're struggling to get through. You've been pressing your team to do their best, but the client doesn't seem to be reciprocating. You give yourself a good ol' dope slap and come to your senses.

Which you should, too. When you care more than the client, you're robbing other clients who do care...and your own long-term future. This belief is built on a concept I invented, though I should be clear that there's no scientific basis for it. It just makes sense to me.

Each of us has a finite number of "Care Tokens," but when we care more than the client does, we carefully set a token down on the table and spend it. We are spending a part of ourselves, and the worst part is that these token do not regenerate themselves. We're each born with 200 or 400 or whatever and we have to use them carefully.

Calibrating How Much We Care

So what's the solution to this? The solution cannot be to "not care" about our work with clients, but rather to calibrate our care to match theirs. As long as the effort you put into a client relationship doesn't exceed the effort that the client invests, your tokens are safe and you can do this indefinitely.

Here are the signals that indicate a client cares. They:

  • Make long-term decisions about the brand.
  • Give you all the materials you need to do your job.
  • Bend their own schedule to make meetings and are then make the effort to be there at the scheduled start.
  • Make high-level client-side people available rather than relaying everything through assistants.
  • Give you credit for the true partnership.
  • Don't think about what something will cost as much as "what's the most that we can accomplish with this money?"

When you see those signals, match your care (as long as the money is there) and honor their commitment to doing impactful work. When you don't see those signals, calibrate your care to match what they are paying for...and not a single Care Token more.

You care a lot about shoveling beautiful holes. You have an imported shovel with layered Damascus steel, carefully curved and pointed. The handle is crafted of Claro Walnut from northern California and polished with oil from a special tree in a Japanese forest.

But sometimes you've just got to put it down and fire up the noisy diesel excavator, take a big swipe at the general spot where a hole should be, and then move on. With your pile of Care Tokens intact.

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