SIMPLE People Skills

Often, I get asked what makes a good architect and my answer usually surprises people. They assume I will talk about technical proficiency or business strategy but my answer centers around people skills and imparting value at the people level. Don’t get me wrong, the other parts—Business Technology Strategy, Design Skills, IT Environments, and Quality Attributes—are all important but I believe a successful architect has great people skills and understands how to deliver value with every interaction with someone. Have you ever had a conversation or meeting with someone and walked away feeling like something was missing or you wondered why you actually wasted your time on that? I definitely have. 

Every interaction with a customer, or anyone for that matter, must encompass seven (7) traits in order for the interaction to be valuable for all parties involved. The seven key traits are SIMPLE: 

  • Service 
  • Integrity 
  • Maintenance 
  • Planning 
  • Leadership 
  • Empathy and Enthusiasm 

So, what does each piece of the SIMPLE philosophy really mean? Let me explain. 

Service —Service is actually nothing more than do what you say you will when you say it. Years ago, I was tasked to take over our company’s oldest and most prestigious clients who happened to be dissatisfied with our service. When I first met those clients, they all complained about a lack of communication from our company. They would say things like “you never call unless you’re trying to sell me something” or “you only call when I owe you money.” I made a commitment to each of them that I would call them each week at a time of their choosing. Of course, they were skeptical and did not believe me. Three months into the assignment I had to report for Active Duty in the Army Reserves for my 2week summer camp. I convinced my commander to give me 5 minutes per customer per week to call. I kept my commitment to the customers, and they were impressed. I provided the service that I promised. 

Integrity —Integrity is really pretty easy for me. It is doing the right thing for the customer all the time. I believe that if we’re going to make a mistake it should always be in the customers favor. If the customer wins, we win. I tell them the truth all the time even when it is bad news. Being truthful does not make the bad news any better but it makes the conversation easier when the customer knows they can trust you. 

Maintenance —Maintenance is all about the relationship. If you take the time to get to know your customer and understand them then life is much easier. I make it a point to ask my customer about their family, hobbies, etc. People like to do business with people they know and like.  Customers have a harder time severing ties with friends. I use Outlook to keep track of their birthdays and anniversaries and then send them a quick email or IM. If they get a promotion, I make sure to call or send them a quick email. That personal touch helps me to understand them better and in turn helps me architect the right solutions for them the first time. 

Planning —Planning consists of being proactive for the customer. Each meeting and visit should have a plan that has goals and a direction. We should also have a plan for our customer that is unique to them based on their market, their goals, and how we can help them accomplish their goals. Architecture isn’t always about building or developing a new widget or piece of software. We also need to architect the plan for where we want to take the customer. 

Leadership —Leadership is all about being the expert. Customers believe that Architects are experts, that we’re the best and brightest in our field. They’re looking for us to provide direction. I’m not talking about an overall, one size fits all, direction but a thought-out direction specifically built for their unique business needs. The kind of leadership that looks at tomorrow’s challenges and helps them navigate the seas. Our customers want to be as successful in their industry and career as we have been in ours.  

Empathy —is one of the most important aspects of becoming an architect.  Webster’s Online Dictionary defines empathy as: 

“the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” 

Empathy in relation to our customers requires that we understand their business so well that we know how something will affect them without being told. Understanding a customer’s business this good involves a lot of work and is not easy but it is well worth the trouble. When the customer realizes how much you know about their business then you will become a part of their team and not just a vendor trying to sell them a product. 

Enthusiasm —Enthusiasm is the most import part of any customer interaction. When we interact with a customer it is a privilege, they have granted to us. They have enough problems of their own without hearing ours. Customers want to do business with people they like and are comfortable with not some “doom and gloom” person who is always negative. After all, who is more fun to be around Eeyore or Winnie-the-Pooh? I’ll take Winnie-the-Pooh every time. 

Lastly, being a good architect is all about value. Each interaction with a customer must impart value. The customer pays a lot for the service they receive from you as an architect and they want to get their monies worth. If I send them an email, I look for the value in what I am sending. If it is not there, I don’t send it or rewrite it so there is value. Every time the customer interacts with me, I want them to think how valuable the interaction was. I want them to walk away happy. 

Dan Fain, Cybersecurity Architect at Microsoft