Some customers just can’t make a decision. They may have too many options.

One of the greatest skills we can learn in life and in business is the art of communication. It is one that can be sharpened throughout our lives, if we are observant enough to learn from both our successful and not-so-successful dealings with others.

As regards doing business specifically, I’m remembering a recent exchange with a customer of mine. It prompted me to think about the way many of us deal with customers; in particular, our tendency to be so accommodating that we wind up tying our hands behind our backs.

I was about to respond to a phone message from a customer requesting that we meet ASAP. As I began dialing, I looked at my planner and saw that I was already fully scheduled for the week.

As my call rang through, I made a decision.

My customer answered and after the customary greetings, I said, “I got your message, and unfortunately I’m absolutely slammed right now. It’s going to be at least 10 days until I can get to you.”

He hesitated, then said, “That’s fine. What day are you thinking?”

“The 12th is the best I could do at this point.”

“O.K.,” he said. “What time?”

“I could do it first thing. But first, could you give me some idea of what’s up?”

Five minutes later his problem was solved, I was hanging up the phone – and my morning of the 12th was still open.Here’s what I was thinking as my call went through: “My week is crazy enough already. I’m not going to alter my schedule unless there is no other option.”

No other option. What powerful words these are!

Many times, when we get a message like the one my customer left, we spring into action – scarcely remembering that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Juggling my schedule was certainly an option, but the decision to do it only as a last resort helped both of us get what we really needed.

All of which got me wondering how often, in trying to personify the customized nature of our work, do we give the customer more options than he needs?

I’m not advocating a dictatorial approach to customer relations. What I am saying is that it makes good sense to put your experience to work in helping guide your customers to good decisions – decisions which ensure a result meeting all of their functional and aesthetic requirements, along with your bottom-line concerns.

Most of us have become mired, at one time or another, in a customer’s indecision. But have we stopped to consider its source? Often as not, we’ll find it in a nearby mirror.

In our growth as both businesspeople and woodworkers, we develop favorites: certain finishes, a given wood for use in a given color scheme, a particular style of cabinet construction. We make these choices with good reason, perhaps the best reason there is: they are what we believe works best.

So why do we turn off this favoritism when it comes to counseling customers?

Let’s take the example of decorative hardware.

How many of us willingly acquiesce when a customer asks to see a full catalog so they can make a hardware choice – or worse, volunteer the book and ask them to get back to us with their decision?

On its face, this may seem like the “custom” thing to do. “If picking the hardware makes them happy, why wouldn’t I do it?” many of us reason.

I’ll tell you why. Because you’re the one building the project, and nobody is more qualified to choose the right hardware for it than you. Care to guess who is most likely to choose the wrong hardware?

My recommendation: Don’t even bring decorative hardware into the discussion. If your customer mentions it, say, “I’ve chosen something that I know is going to look and work beautifully.”

Have a picture of it with you in case they ask to see it – but not the whole catalog.

If they press you to be involved in the hardware choice, be prepared. Have five more pictures, and tell them any one of them will work aesthetically – but that you believe the one you’ve chosen is the best for your design.

Why am I suggesting limiting your customers’ options, if not squelching them altogether? Because, as the old saying goes, time is money. And the more you demonstrate a willingness to get bogged down in your customers’ indecision, the more willing they’ll be to “spend” your time.

If you feel it is somehow incumbent upon you to turn small aesthetic decisions over to your customer – so they can feel “involved in the process” – that’s fine. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you when you are producing 17 different sample shades of the same finish for customer approval – or when the customer holds their approved sample up to the wall unit you’ve just installed and asks why it looks different.

Suddenly you’re not only a custom woodworker – who may or may not get paid the balance he is owed – you are now a wood finishing instructor. All because you thought your customer should feel “involved in the process.” Are they involved enough for you yet?

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you’re lucky. If you’re not, the reaction may prove both unequal and unreasonable.

You know what works, what you like and what you think is best for the project at hand. If you can bring that confidence to your customer interactions – and do so tactfully – your job will become a whole lot easier.

Anthony Noel owned and operated Noel Custom Woodworking for 15 years. He is now a consultant helping custom shops with the business of woodworking. He has written for the magazine since 1994. Past articles are available at

‘Ask Tony’

This month’s question is not from one person, but many.

In a recent poll, readers of CWB were asked what they would like to see addressed in upcoming “Management Strategies” columns. Their topic ideas were diverse, interesting and appreciated, and I’ll be putting them to use in future columns.

Several readers, however, had specific questions and used the survey to ask them. Hands-down, the most-asked question was this: “How do I motivate (blank).” The blank in some cases was “employees,” other times it was “sales reps,” but most simply, “people.”

I’ve long believed the words of my favorite management expert, Robert Townsend, from his classic book, “Up the Organization.” “The door to motivation,” he said, “is locked from the inside.”

There’s not one thing you, I or anyone else can do to create the spark of motivation in another human being. That spark – most essential to success – flashes inside the individual. The things that generate it are as unique as the person himself.

Sure, if an employee doesn’t want to get out of bed and get to work on time each morning, there are things you can do as a manager in an effort to make him show up. Or if your sales rep isn’t making the calls she needs to, there are things you can do to hold her feet to the fire.

But do any such strategies actually motivate people? Do any, in and of themselves, create that spark, that drive, which pushes a person to excel, to remain enthusiastic about life or work or anything else?

No. That has to come from within, as Townsend so eloquently puts it.

In truth, all any manager can do is try to hire people to whom the work matters and administer a management approach consisting of three things: Goals, Accountability and Consequences.

I call this the Manager’s Tripod, because if you don’t have all three elements, your management approach will not stand.

• Goals. The people you’re managing can give you what you want only to the extent that they understand what you want.

• Accountability. You can only hold people accountable for the goals they fully understand. If you’re not crystal-clear about what’s expected, how in the world can you think they are?

• Consequences. Be they reprimands or rewards, you can penalize or praise people only within the context of the Goals you’ve clearly established and their success or failure (Accountability) in

meeting them.

For people lacking that initial, essential spark, even the sturdiest Manager’s Tripod will have little effect. But for those who genuinely want to succeed, you’re actually doing them and yourself a disservice if you don’t have an excellent Tripod in place.

That’s right, excellent. Adequate, good or even very good will not cut it.

People who bring to your company a drive to succeed deserve clear Goals, standards for measuring their progress (Accountability) and the chance to enjoy rewards for their consistently excellent work (Consequences).

Similarly, those who lack that spark need to know what Goals they are failing to reach, the reasons they are failing to reach them (Accountability), and that continued poor performance will not be tolerated (Consequences).

As you can see, the Manager’s Tripod is great for eliminating employees who don’t demonstrate the drive necessary to succeed. But where a carefully planned and administered Manager’s Tripod really shines is in enabling your company to maximize the opportunities that excellent employees represent.

In companies without an excellent Manager’s Tripod, even the best employees feel under-appreciated. They will continue to search for an organization where they are challenged (Goals), scrutinized (Accountability) and rewarded (Consequences).

The beauty of this management technique is that it makes the same demands of you – the manager – that it does of your people. It forces you to become a Goal-oriented manager who assesses his progress (Accountability) and makes adjustments based on the degree to which you do or don’t succeed (Consequences).

Once you’ve used it a few times and seen what a straight-line, no-nonsense approach it is, you’ll use it all the time.

So maybe you can’t motivate people. But you can give them something to aspire to.

If you don’t, you’re not doing your job as a manager.

Questions for Tony?

Got a question? An experience you’d like some feedback on? Send your e-mail to Please put “Ask Tony” in the subject line. Even if your question is not used in the magazine, Tony will do his best to respond personally via e-mail. Because CWB reaches the desks of company owners and managers, we gladly preserve questioners’ anonymity upon request.

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