Phil Bruno | Crain's St. Louis

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Phil Bruno

Background:  

Treat 'Em Right is a St. Louis-based consulting firm that provides training and other services to clients including the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau, Destination Cleveland and Destination Niagara USA. Treat 'Em Right founder Phil Bruno has more than three decades of experience in the tourism and hospitality industry, including 17 years in various hospitality management positions at Anheuser-Busch.

The Mistake:

My mistake was not recognizing red flags from situations where you just don't fit or your product doesn't fit the client’s culture or the client’s capacity to support the product you give them.

In the past, I was so excited about building the best product with all the bells and whistles. But, sometimes, it was not something the client could support when I walked away.

In one instance, I had a client who handed me money at the end of the year saying, “We have this money that we need to spend. Can you come up with something for us?”

It's kind of a dream for an independent consultant to be handed money, so I developed an e-learning type of program very similar to programs I had been developing for other clients. I didn't go to my regular process of feeling the client out for what they could support. It turned out the employees were not necessarily willing or able to help in the process. They just didn't have the time or the feeling that it was important to participate.

I ignored those red flags and moved forward to make sure the product got designed and delivered. I found out in the course of time that those red flags were signals that, down the road, this client had absolutely no interest in implementing the product and didn't really have the capacity to do so.

It was actually bad for my company's reputation because this client was also influential in the industry I was working in. To design a product for a client that they didn't use, wouldn't use and didn't appreciate didn't do anybody any good.

Having more of a rifle-shot solution as opposed to a shotgun-blast solution actually  saves money and effort over the long haul.

The Lesson:

I learned a lot from that. Nowadays, I look for those red flags and I respect them more. I step in, stop and check, and go back if needed to make sure we don't make the same mistake to build a product that's not going to be supported down the road.

The lesson is: Design solutions that fit the competency level of your client. You can build and deliver a tremendous product, but if it is not the exact special thing a client needs, it’s not going to work. Now, I perform in-depth discovery visits to clients to define their needs. I get there to engage those involved in the process and seek buy-in for the project. While I'm there, I'm also gauging capacity.

It's not like I don't want more clients. But I have to find a fit that works best for the services and products I provide, the needs of the clients, and their desire and capacity to support sustainable change. It can take a little bit longer up front, but doing your homework and having more of a rifle-shot solution as opposed to a shotgun-blast solution actually saves money and effort over the long haul. The product is also much more attuned to and more effective for more people once it's rolled out.

It took me some time to learn that it's not about you. It's not about how well you can design a tremendous product with all the bells and whistles. The consultant’s craft is to bring everyone along to the finish line, wherever that may be. So the best product for one client is not the best product for another client. You learn that customization of solutions is more of the challenge than building the best and biggest thing on the block.

Phil Bruno is on Twitter at @Phil_Bruno.

Photo courtesy of Treat 'Em Right.

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