The ability to hear and understand what we are told, directly or in less obvious ways, separates the successful from the struggling.

Hard times are here, and it looks like they could be with us for a while. As we all wait, watch and hope for things to get better, it is important to remember that a key function of times like these is to reset reality.

Coming hand-in-hand with a period of dynamic expansion in any industry is a similar expansion in the number of companies working in that industry. The unbridled growth in construction that continued through 2007 was no different, leading many to seek their fortunes in construction-related fields. Custom woodworking was one of them.

While great for business in general, such growth also affords new companies early success, since the more experienced and established firms are so busy. Many boom-born companies do excellent work and are able to survive economic downturns. But many others quickly fold. What separates the survivors from the casualties?

In a word: Listening.

It is relatively easy to skate by in good times when customers are thankful just to have a contractor, any contractor, return their phone calls.

But when someone decides in bad times that they simply can’t live without that more functional home office, simply returning phone calls isn’t enough. Shops that don’t realize this are usually the first to go under.

Multi-generational companies — those resilient enough to get by in tough times and smart enough to “make hay” in good ones, over many years’ time — get that way precisely because they understand two things: (1) business is cyclical in nature and, (2) the best way to stay busy in all economic conditions is by getting very good at making customers happy.

You simply can’t do that without the ability to listen.

Most of us have done projects where we feel completely in tune with our customer. From the moment we walk on the job site, it’s as if no words need to be exchanged. We know what they want and how to give it to them, and they have utter confidence in our ability to deliver.

Whether your company is relatively young or has existed for generations, you know such jobs are not the norm, but rare gifts. Still, if we identify and apply practices that help such mutually beneficial projects develop, we can turn more jobs into true partnerships, leaving customers happy and earning us the kind of word-of-mouth advertising that helps us survive even the darkest of times.

Such practices include the obvious: Making absolutely sure of what the customer wants the project to accomplish; how they want it to look; what their budget is; when they want it finished — none of which you will learn if you are not a good listener.

But there’s another element of “listening,” one that has nothing to do with active communication. Instead, it is about opening your eyes, as well as your ears.

An example is taking note of the other décor in the room to ensure that your project fits in with the wider aesthetic. It really doesn’t matter what style of furniture your customer thinks he or she likes. If they are asking you for a post-modern dream in an 18th Century-inspired drawing room, the responsibility of talking him or her down is yours — unless you prefer to take your reputation down instead. Making sure your design works in the room is an example of “listening” that is actually visual. But do it, and you take a major step toward a happier customer.

Once you open yourself to them, you will begin to notice opportunities for creative listening all the time. If you take them, you will be surprised how much easier life becomes.

Do you ever get the sense, for instance, that events (“signs,” for lack of a better word) are pointing you in a direction other than the one in which you are going?

Likewise, I think that many of us have had the experience of “feeling” we should call someone and deciding not to, only to learn shortly later that the call might well have resulted in a positive outcome? Maybe it was a chance to bid a job or maybe it had nothing to do with work at all; perhaps you would have saved someone a run to the store or they would have saved you one.

Such opportunities occur many times each day. Generally, they have small but positive impacts. But every now and then you will see or hear something that can have a profound effect, just by paying attention.

As long as I’m out on this limb, let me jump up and down a little.

I submit that everything we experience, no matter how mundane, represents an opportunity of one kind or another. Opening the car door allows us to get in the car. Driving the car takes us to a meeting. Sitting in the meeting, we overhear a passing comment, but looking at it more closely, it helps solve a problem that had stumped us for weeks. And it all started with climbing in a car.

“Tough times” is just another way of saying “opportunities.” But to discover them, you need to be paying attention.

Anthony Noel has helped custom shops make more money for more than 20 years and has written for CWB since 1994. Send e-mail to

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