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I recently caught up with leadership guru, Steve Denning, author of award-winning books like The Secret Language of Leadership, and asked him about his new ideas on delighting clients.

Seth: So Steve, what’s all this about delighting clients? Why is this important? 

Steve: Delighting clients is central to the future of any project or firm. Delighted clients support you, buy from you, stick with you through thick and thin, are waiting eagerly for your next offering. They tell their friends and colleagues about the wonderful things you do. They act as positive information radiators, They are the core of your client base. 

If you’re not delighting clients, it means you are going to have to work harder for your current clients to stay. Merely satisfied or disgruntled clients are easily picked off by competitors. When clients are not delighted, they are not telling their friends and colleagues about the wonderful things you do. 

Seth: What’s involved in delighting clients?

Steve:  The seven most important things to do are: 

1. Commit explicitly to delighting clients as your goal, not just pleasing or satisfying or serving people, or worse, merely delivering products and services.

2. Decide who your clients are and keep a sharp focus on them.

3. Work in teams that are focused specifically on delighting clients.

4. Work in an iterative fashion: delight clients early and often.

5. Explore multiple options, rather than sticking to the first thing you thought of.

6. Listen, listen, listen.

7. Give the teams a clear line of sight as to whether and how clients are being delighted.

This is a fundamentally new way of thinking about work. For most of the last hundred years, the object of a firm, or a project or work itself was seen as "producing goods or services". You still see management books and experts saying that. This is about a fundamental re-conceptualization of the goal of work: The purpose of work is to delight clients.

Seth: As an example, can you apply this to organizing a conference or workshop?

Steve: Sure. Here’s how the principles apply:

1. The goal is to delight the client. 

With a traditional workshop or conference, the object is to provide a service, i.e. to hold a workshop or conference. In the new thinking, the goal is to delight the client, whether by holding the workshop or by any other means. The workshop itself is no longer the goal. It becomes a principal means to achieve the goal, but not the only means. 

2. Repeatedly ascertain what the client wants and doesn’t want. 

By survey, by telephone, by planning sessions in the workshop itself, put the client in charge. Let the client drive. Participants can say they want more of this, and less of that. And they can change their mind, as the workshop unfolds. They can say they have had enough of this, or even drop elements altogether. 

3. Work in cognitively-diverse teams.

Delighting clients isn’t easy or simple. Thinking of all the different ways that are available to delight clients requires divergent thinking. Studies show that cognitively diverse teams do much better at this than individuals. 

4. Work in an iterative fashion.

Iterative design offers multiple opportunities to find out what the clients want, and to delight the client before, during and after the workshop. Instead of only focusing on what happens during the workshop, iterative design offers multiple opportunities to delight the client. 

5. Use radical transparency to give the clients opportunity to steer.

Enable the class to participate in ongoing decisions as to what the workshop will focus on and to see how decisions are made. 

6. Create planning processes that are light, quick and fun.

Use "planning poker." This makes it possible for a large number of people to quickly make complex priority decisions in an engaging way. 

[note: Planning Poker is a quick vote procedure taken from agile software development – see more here - Steve uses a version where people vote with their fingers instead of cards, rating ideas as a 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 - I have seen him do this - it is fun for participants and fast.]

7. Measure results in realtime and adjust as needed.

Find out during the workshop whether clients are being delighted and where the trouble spots are, so that they can be fixed on-the-fly, rather than appearing in the final evaluations when it is too late to do anything about it.

Seth: Have you written more about this?

Steve: There is more about this on my website. I wrote a piece specifically about workshops and another in which I share lessons I learned in a French village about delighting clients.

Steve Denning and I will be putting these principles into practice in the next seminar we offer, Getting Change Right through High Performance Teams, Washington DC,  July 30-31. Register to participate and experience it for yourself.

- Seth Kahan,