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The Claim of Sanctuary

2003 October 7
by Malcolm Sleath

You are in a car pulled up at the traffic lights. Looking to your side, you see a car pull up alongside you. The sole occupant and driver is a woman in her mid thirties. You can’t hear what is going on, but you can see that she is singing at the top of her voice. This is your client.

On the Tube/Metro/Subway you look across at the young man sitting in the seat opposite. He is totally engrossed in playing a game on his mobile phone. You know he must be in his late twenties, but the expression on his face suggests he is nine or ten. This is your client.

In the commuter train you see a middle-aged woman with three or four large carrier bags on her knee. Balanced precariously on top is a large blockbuster novel. From the state of it you can see that she has been reading it for some time. Maybe this is not the first time she has read it. It’s somewhere she goes for a few precious minutes every day. This is your client.

Your client is in the flotation tank, on the golf course, abseiling down the side of a precipitous drop, snowboarding in Canada, in a club where the music pounds so loud you just can’t think. What are they doing? They are escaping: escaping pressure, escaping corporate decisions that make no sense when exposed to the light of reason, escaping breakfast meetings called at 7.30 in the morning so the chief executive can have a friendly chat and get to know her people. Above all, they are escaping you.

“Me?” you cry. “Me, the bringer of helpful advice and solutions? Me, the calm voice to turn to in a time of crisis? Me, the inspiration for saving squillions on administration costs?”

Yes you.

We all like to think we are part of the solution. Much of the time we are seen as part of the problem. Any time we make our client think, it takes up time they feel pressured to devote to something else. We talk about investing in solutions. Investment means that you devote resources to something that will pay off in the future. It means that you forgo spending now. It’s not just money; it’s time and intellectual effort. However trivial the investment we are promoting seems to be, the client will go through the ‘investment dip’, that temporary loss of efficiency in the here and now while they think and do something about a solution that might pay off in the future.

You might be feeling a bit uncomfortable reading this (especially because you know it’s true). That makes me part of your problem. I’d better be careful. You might not thank me. You might not come back.

What can be done? Go out of your way to provide your client with a bit of sanctuary. It might just be a small chunk like taking coffee in that place round the corner with the nice pastries rather than in their meeting room. Ask them how you can best fit into their day so you become an event to look forward to. Study the way they like to work, and work around it. What’s the bit of the project they hate where a bit of extra help would not come amiss?

Above all, take time to give them that commodity that they lack: your sheer undivided, unconditional attention. (See Listening = Value.) They might not thank you for it, but they’ll soon find ways of telling themselves that time spent with you is a real investment.

This article was inspired by The Support Economy. Next: The Demand for Voice.