Change / transformation Leadership Management / Strategy

Listen to what your clients mean, not what they say

Inspiration has the coolest way of showing up when you least expect it.

I was in New Orleans with Team MACPA recently for the massive and mighty Sage Summit, the largest conference for small and mid-size businesses in the world. After an incredible opening day of learning, my MACPA colleagues and I settled in for what we thought would be a quiet, relaxing dinner.

Then Ed Kless and Ron Baker showed up.

Ed is senior director of partner development and strategy at Sage. Ron is the founder of the VeraSage Institute, one of the world’s leading think tanks dedicated to educating professionals. Together, they spark some of the most innovative thinking in the CPA world.

They also produce a weekly podcast called “The Soul of Enterprise: Business in the Knowledge Economy.” At dinner that night in New Orleans, they told a story that should hit home for any small or mid-size business owner.

A recent episode of their podcast featured Kless and Baker interviewing Lee Cockerell, former executive vice president of operations at Walt Disney World. During their conversation, Cockerell shared the top three questions that Walt Disney World guests ask during their visits:

  1. Where are the restrooms?
  2. Where is Mickey Mouse?
  3. What time is the 3 o’clock parade?

Read that last one again. Carefully.

It’s like asking, “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?” And yet Disney employees hear it over, and over, and over.

If it were me, my stock reply would be, “It’s at 3 o’clock, moron.”

When you work at Disney, though, you can’t call your guests “morons.”

Instead, you politely answer the questions they actually meant to ask: What time will the parade pass this spot? Where’s the best spot to watch it? Will my kids be able to see it from here? Are there restrooms and / or Mickey Mouse nearby?

The point, said Kless and Baker, is this: Every business has its version of “What time is the 3 o’clock parade?” Every business has clients who ask what, on the surface, appear to be baffling questions.

How you answer those questions will define you.

Moving beyond what your clients say and understanding what they mean is a gift that few possess. Do you have it? Do you know your clients well enough to understand that what they say and what they mean might be two separate things? Can you ask the right questions and draw out crucial information that will reveal the meaning behind the words? Can you reply with relevance and kindness?

If you can do those things, you’re golden.

What’s your “3 o’clock parade” question?

Perhaps a better question is this: Are you prepared to answer it?

Listen to Kless's and Baker's interview with Lee Cockerell here.


William D. Sheridan