Skip to main content

Transcript: Customer Engagement

John Andre (JA): Hello. Thank you so much for joining today's Acquisition Learning Seminar, hosted by the Federal Acquisition Institute. Today's seminar, entitled “Customer Engagement -- Put Your Service to the Test”, features great presenters from the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services. You do not simply provide your customers product and services. You deliver solutions. The Federal acquisition workforce consists of contracting officers, contracting officer’s representatives, and program project managers, but the essence of each role is problem solver. As members of the acquisition community, you are positioned to help coworkers navigate the challenges and the opportunities of acquiring and managing solutions that best meet their needs. Customer service and engagement has historically been a strength of the federal acquisition workforce, but acquisition workforce competency surveys since 2010 have seen a decided drop in proficiency scores, and these are not reports of supervisors about their employees -- these are what employees are reporting about themselves. So you see it, you recognize it, let's do something about it, and re-energize our commitment to outstanding customer service. 
There are a couple of important items I need to explain before we get started. First, the Federal Acquisition Institute is recording this seminar. This video, as well as the material you see today, will be posted in the video library of You should be able to access these items in one to two weeks. Second, we will hold a live question and answer session at the end of today's presentation. If you have a question about customer engagement or anything you hear from our presenters, we encourage you to submit those questions using the survey link to the right of the video screen. We will collect and review your questions as you send them, and our presenters will answer as many as they can before we have to go. With that, let's get started. Our provocateur, Stacy Cook, from Federal Management Partners, will lead the discussion, with Karl Alvarez, Director of the Office of Recipient Integrity Coordination at the US Department of Health and Human Services, and Lawrence Williams, Chief of the Policy branch, Contract Management division, of the Food and Nutrition service of the US Department of Agriculture. They're going to set us straight on customer engagement and what it looks like an acquisition setting. Let's go to them now. 
Stacy Cook (SC): Hello, and welcome to this Acquisition Learning Seminar focused on customer engagement. My name is Stacy Cook and I’m excited to be the moderator for today’s discussion. I'm joined today by two gentlemen who represent a wide swath of the acquisition community. On my right, I have Lawrence Williams; he is the chief of policy for contracts management division USDA, Food and Nutrition Service.  Very experienced, he is an 1102 with over thirty years of expertise. He has worked in other agencies such as Interior, SEC, Energy and Defense, and brings with him the contracting officer perspectives, so we are very happy to have you here. 
On my left, we have Karl Alvarez, the Director of the Office of Recipient Integrity Coordination working in suspension and debarment at HHS, also a very experienced professional on the program side. He is FAC-C and FAC-COR certified level two and he brings a lot of experience from his time in federal service focusing on program. So thank you Karl, we’re very excited to have you. 
I am excited to kick off today. Once again, my name is Stacy Cook. I come to this group as an adult educator. I am focused on delivering a lot of education programs to federal employees focused on subjects such as this, customer service, but also communication skills, leadership development, management skills, among many more. In that time, I have come across quite a lot of theory and methodology that applies to the subject of customer engagement. So the way our format will work today is we're going to be mixing in some questions from our subject matter experts to learn a little bit more about their expertise and their experience in the field of acquisition as it relates to customer service and customer engagement, and then I'm going to interject every now and again with some tidbits of theory and philosophy and methodology around some very specific pieces of customer service. 
So, throughout the conversation that we have here today, we will have about 60 to 75 minutes. I will just advance this slide. I will present a topic, the gentleman will discuss, and we’ll continue with those teaching moments. At any time, you can submit questions via the live survey link which is to the right of the screen. We will be able to collect those throughout the presentation, and at the end,  respond to your questions as a panel discussion as well and get you the answers to any burning questions that you might have. 
In case you are wondering, these presentation materials will also be posted on following the seminar, so you will be able to see any of the slides that we present and a recording of this presentation as well. 
So, with that, gentlemen, I would like to get into our first question for today, just setting the stage. We will be talking a lot about customer service, customer engagement, what are the key components to this big topic, but let's just start with -- based on your experiences, can you describe some of the impacts of really fantastic customer service on your customers? 
Karl, I will ask you to go first. 
Karl Alvarez (KA): Okay, thank you, Stacy. I turned back to a point in my career where I was trying to put in place a complex contract across organizations under great time constraints. End-of-year funding had to be done very quickly. And I witnessed superb customer service during this experience. The CO was diligent about taking me through this process effectively and efficiently, a process that I only saw once or twice a year, so it was kind of foreign ground to me. He knew what he was doing. However, despite the great service from the CO, I also experienced the most remarkable customer service from our small business specialist, Anita Allen. She was assigned to my operating division. As I was working every day with the CO to get the requirements taken care of, Anita was off answering all the questions that I would need to consider when I got to that point in the process so that when I did get to the point where I had to consider the small business implications of my contract, Anita had for me all of the documentation and answers to the questions that I would have so that she could move forward without delay to the contract. Our processes are not always popular with the people that are using them, with our customers, so it is incumbent on us to be generous with our expertise. Anita did that for me in my process. I would just say that on a customer service focus, that we remain vigilant to the delays in our contracting process because that is what is going to best impact our COR and the program that they are servicing. A good customer service mantra would be to know the limitations. A great one would be to foresee the needs of your customer and to meet them before they even realize they need them. 
SC: Outstanding. And truly impactful when you think about the time savings and how busy and crunched most professionals are nowadays and in particular our customers who are trying to get these contracts in place, they are trying to make advances for their organizational programs, and without that kind of expertise, they really can fall flat or fall behind. That’s fantastic.
KA: Absolutely. 
SC: Thank you for that Karl. Lawrence, do you mind sharing some of your experiences? 
Lawrence Wililams (LW):  Sure. Good customer service results in the building of trust between the customer and the acquisition professional. Last summer, I was tasked with working with a junior contract specialist who was having difficulty with an inexperienced COR. The customer was frustrated because they had received an inadequate proposal from an 8A firm, so we calmed him down by asking him questions about his statement of work, and we asked him to clarify the statement of work so that the contractor could understand better the program and the objectives that he was trying to achieve. We worked with the customer to go through their desired outcomes and objectives and deliverables and to clarify those within the statement of work. We pointed out the areas that needed shoring up within the statement of work, and then we got the contractor on the phone and talked them through it. The contractor resubmitted the revised proposal, and the the contractor demonstrated that they could do the work through their revised proposal, and the customer as a result felt more secure with the project and begin to trust the business advice that we were giving him. 
SC: And that trust is such a critical component. 
LW: Yes, it is. 
SC: Absolutely. It sounds like the impacts of this extends even beyond the customer, in this case, when you're also talking about the contractors and the vendors that you bring into the process and helping them to deliver ultimately a better solution because they understand the requirements more clearly. 
LW: Yes. 
SC:  So I am hearing in both of your stories a lot of these key themes of what goes into creating fantastic customer service, and I want to take just a minute to walk through some of the theories and concepts that will help frame up some of our other discussions that we have planned. 
When we think about customer perceptions, it is really the delta between what customers want compared to what they actually get in the end. Sometimes those are real close, other times they may be a bit further way, but whatever that delta is, that is how the customer is going to view their experience, and you can break it down into four levels of service. At the basic level, what you see and what you want is what you get and then you have met my expectations. I have the expected level of service. Now if what I get is what I will take, it might not be what I've asked for, but it is good enough, and that would be my accepted level of service. It’s not quite what I hoped for, but I’ll take it. Below that, we have this idea of rejected service. So what you gave me is not what I wanted at all, and in fact, it is not even something that I can accept; it is so far below the requirement that I had established. When you have a rejected service, ultimately you will probably get a complaint from the customer, and that is really the worst of all worlds. 
But the last one, the one we should strive for, is going above and beyond meeting the expectations of the customer and trying to give them not just what they want but the manner in which we give it creates this excellent experience. So that leads to truly fantastic service. You can look even further to see some of the more specific components that go into that level of service. It is not just what you deliver but how you deliver it, and when we talk about some of the theory and best practices in customer service, we focus on these four critical components. 
The first one that you will see here is reliability. You said you needed this, this is what I gave you. I have reliably produced to expectations. Moving beyond that, there is also the responsiveness component. Am I delivering on schedule? Am I making my commitments and meeting those, or am I falling behind or do I need to make excuses for why I cannot hit the bar that I established at the outset? So that responsiveness key – very very important. And then you have assurance. 
Assurance really takes two components. It starts with your technical ability to know how to do the job that is expected of you. In contracting, that means you know the regulations, that you understand the process and you can help make it easy for somebody else to navigate that process, even if they aren’t familiar. And when you do this, when you have this core competency, then you project competence, and the customer has the satisfaction of knowing yep, I trust this person, they can get the job done. All of that is really wrapped up in this idea of assurance. 
Last but not least, critically important is this concept of empathy. Not only delivering the goods, not only meeting your requirements and your timelines, but doing so with respect and understanding. Our customers have needs that come from someplace that make sense to them, and even if they haven’t communicated that background to us yet, if we strive to understand what that is and use that context to help them get to their end result, what we see is a better outcome for everybody involved.
It is interesting when you look at these four components, you can slice them in three different ways. The first slice you can take is just to look at reliability. If I am really reliable, this is probably the most critical component to meeting expectations, delivering that expected service. But that in and of itself is not going to bring me to fantastic. So bringing me to fantastic is getting that trust that warrants Lawrence already spoke about, doing it with that respect and understanding. So when we’re talking about trust, really responsiveness and assurance are the key component to building trust. Do they believe you will do what you say, and do they believe that you know what you are doing? When you can combine those two and project those to your customer, you are truly demonstrating this trust component. They know they can rely on you. And then you take it to the next level, when you add that bit of empathy, when you are truly trying to understand their perspective, you are truly trying to get at what the core requirement is, that is when you reach this point of fantastic customer service. 
So there are a lot of concepts here that are all wrapped together, and I am hoping that Lawrence and Karl can help make it real for the group and really bring in your experiences on this. So given that responsiveness, assurance, and empathy are really critical to that fantastic service, I am curious -- what are some strategies that you guys have seen done from the program side or from the contracting side that professionals can use to enhance these areas? Lawrence, do you mind going first? 
LW: Certainly. It is important to demonstrate empathy when dealing with customers. I will use my previous example of the junior contracts specialist and the inexperienced COR. The COR came into my office and was agitated. He actually had a meltdown and was getting ready to leave, but in order to diffuse the situation, I showed empathy, and I showed him that we wanted to work with him to help him achieve his objectives. We let him know that we understood his frustration. I apologized for taking so long to come to a viable solution, and I remained calm and listened to what he had to say, asking relative questions when appropriate. At first, the customer wanted to leave, but he soon calmed down and understood that we "felt his pain." In summary, three effective strategies include careful listening while having them repeat the important point than asking correct questions at appropriate points. Number 2 -- apologize, and number three, take it to the next step to build the customer relationship. 
SC: Very good. Thank you so much for that. Karl, I am curious about your perspective on the program side. 
KA:  From a little bit outside of the actual acquisition workforce, I would offer that from the outside, from the course perspective, responsiveness is truly that hallmark of better customer service, but the people that we are working with, the contracting officers and contracting specialists have a tendency to highlight and focus on assurance, on knowing regulations, on knowing the process and helping you get through it. Empathy is a hit or miss within our work and is what I think truly distinguishes between good and great customer service, but to get outside of our comfort zone. I would say let's focus on responsiveness for just a second, in much the same way Lawrence spoke about it. I'm currently not in the business of ever saying no to one of my customers. I strive to understand their programmatic needs and administrative needs in coming to the contracting professionals, which is kind of the empathy side of things. I believe that I need to show and demonstrate that I know my regs, the assurance side, but as you said before, to build that trust, I have to be responsive. I have to communicate effectively so that that responsiveness plays out in every exchange. Establishing trust is key in this process. Again, our customers come to us once or twice a year. They are navigating a process that is not anything but foreign to them, so we need to establish the trust that we know what we are doing and that we are trying to help them and that we know the perspective that they are bringing to this entire process. So I always attempt the very beginning of the process to provide a primer on where we are going from here. Hear from them their expectations, as Lawrence mentioned, and take that along the way so their answer becomes part of our process. So I say here is what I see us doing, they answer back with the words “this is what I need to get to”, and we navigate from this point forward. To do this, I find that you have to make yourself available. Do not allow calls to go to voicemail if you can avoid it. Be accessible by being available. Pick up the phone even at those most difficult and trying times of the year when you have got a lot on your plate. The other person does as well. So if you are responsive in those moments, you are building that trust in real time. It also reduces the needs for follow-up questions, so by providing this primer, you are getting them beyond the point of having to ask you the basic questions, and you are foreseeing some of their future questions, so I would recommend that we all invest in those relationships. Responsiveness, assurance, empathy are hugely important in building that trust that will get you through the process in the short-term and in the long-term. 
SC: Absolutely. And a theme that I am really enjoying hear from both of you is this idea of the relationship that you have with the customer and how critical that is, and that trust being definition of that relationship is really how you get it done in the end because there will be problems along the way, or at least challenges, and it is hard to get through those of you have not had that opportunity to establish rapport and trust with the customer and work through those. I am also hearing two concepts coming out from the both of you, one related to this idea of getting to “yes”, helping them navigate the process, make it easy, and also Lawrence, what you were saying about listening, how important it is to take a step back, let them explain what they need, take that to heart, suspend your judgment for a moment, and use that to move forward, right, coming from that common understanding. I want to focus on those two pieces, first with the listening, and second about getting to “yes”, and talk about specific strategies for that, again focusing on the theory and best practices around those concepts. 
So if I may, I want to just give you guys a quick tidbit about listening that you may or may not know. Most human beings speak at about 125 to 150 words per minute. Pretty quick. However, most people listen at 450 words per minute, so what that means for about double that time, there is a lot of downtime in your mind as somebody is speaking. So if they're only going so fast, you are way far ahead of them, you are making up the difference somehow, and usually how that comes out as our inner monologue, the judgments that come up, you might be thinking about dinner tonight, we might be thinking about what we will do this weekend, so all kinds of things can come up in this dead space in between the rate at which people speak and the rate at which we listen, and that gets us into trouble because it takes us away from what the person is saying, the message they are trying to convey, and it causes this interference, so that is number one. 
That is not the only thing we have going against us in this situation, unfortunately. Another concept that is pretty common in literature, this idea of the ladder of inference. It is a metaphorical ladder that we climb as we make assessments and judgments about things. I will walk you through it. It is not as complicated as it looks. The first rung of the ladder is observable data. So these are the sorts of things we would see, like if we were looking through a camera and recording it. So, for example, in this room, I see the table is here, see the screen is here, there are two gentlemen on either side of me, this is the observable data that I have available to me in this moment. From there because we cannot pay attention to everything, it is just not humanly possible, if we had to pay attention to everything on our plate at all time, we would be in sensory overload, so we are going to choose to pay attention to some of that information, and ignore other bits of information. Now based on information that we select, we're going to make assumptions as to what it means, so we are going to make guesses. Our best educated guess on what does that selected data mean to us. And from that assumption we come to a conclusion as to where we are headed. From there, if I make enough conclusions again and again, I fall back on a belief that something is the way it is, and once I believe something, I'm going to act based on that belief, and so it will interfere with future interactions with that person. 
Let me play this out in a situation. Let's say we are in a meeting, we’re talking requirements, there are a lot of things going on in this meeting, and maybe there is somebody shuffling in their chair, checking their phone, and they seem very distracted. I might choose to pay attention to the fact that they're looking at their phone, shuffling in their chair, and so I'm going to make the assumption that they don’t want to be here, they could not make time for this even though it is an important part of the process. I’ve made this assumption and have concluded that they just don’t care, that this is not important to them. Now that I believe this, I might start to act on a regular basis and expect automatically that this person is just not invested in the process, does not care about the outcome, and now I have got a judgment in place. 
Now here is the problem -- when we work in this ladder of inference, we can get stuck into two traps. The first trap is that the beliefs that we create affect the choices that we make in terms of what we pay attention to. So if I already believe that you do not care about the process, I'm going to continue to pay attention to any signs that you are not interested in the process, so I'm going to ignore things that disconfirm my belief and I'm going to pay attention to things that verify it. So I will get stuck and I will constantly be choosing the information that bolsters my opinion on what’s going on. It is a trap because that might not be the case. The other trap is when my actions then create more situations for me to see this observable data. So now that I assume you do not care about the process, maybe I rush through the meeting because I think you are too busy, you cannot be bothered with it. Well, if you are rushed through the meeting, maybe that will make you feel flustered, and you will be shuffling in your chair, checking your phone. So I have done a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have created a situation that confirms my belief. 
So this ladder concept is a good way, when you’re talking about listening, to check your filters, make sure you are not falling into one of these two traps, and the way that you do that, there are two good strategies that you can use. The first strategy -- always be questioning your assumptions and your conclusions. I am looking at this information. What assumption am I making about this person, and what else might be going on? That is the other piece. Seek contrary data. Maybe the whole issue of them shuffling in a chair and checking their phone is because they have got a sick child at home and they are worried about when they will be able to get home and relieve their spouse and takeover. A very different possibility and might lead to a completely different picture of what is going on with that person. And especially when we are talking about up front in these relationships when relationship building becomes so important, if you have made these conclusions and beliefs in the beginning, you may be setting yourself up for failure, and that can be really disastrous. 
So when we talk about good listening, to listen really well, we like to say “give your full attention”. Recognizing that somebody is speaking is not going to keep up with your inner monologue because our brains move a little faster on their own. Do the work to paying attention to the other person. Really focusing on them and their needs. And then to make sure that you have got it right, paraphrase to confirm understanding. Lawrence gave a great example of this in his last point where he said, “what I am hearing is this” and “what I think you need is this”, or” do I have that right?”. Ask the question to verify do I have this correct? And do that with sincerity. Sincerity comes out in terms of vocal quality, but it also comes out in nonverbals, so how are we sitting, do we looking angry as we are having a conversation, or are we projecting openness and a willingness to listen? So that empathy piece plays into all of that as well. 
And the last point, and the really, really critical part of this, is asking really good questions. There are two types of questions that you can use. Close-ended questions are ones where the answer is either yes or no. So, “will you be going to the store tonight?” is a close-ended question. Yes you are going or no you are not. So these questions are really effective when you are trying to clarify facts. Or you are clarifying your understanding. “So what I am hearing you say is this, do I have that correct?” That is one way to get out the facts. The other type of question is more powerful when you are trying to explore possibilities or you are trying to get to the bottom of something. That is an open-ended question. This would be something like – “how do you think we should proceed at this point?” So by keeping it open, I am not dictating the potential course of action, I am leaving that open to the other person to give me their thoughts before we make a judgment. Or I might ask a "what" question. “What is most important to you at the end of the day? What do you want to have?” By asking really good open-ended questions, we create an opportunity for people to give us new information rather than imposing our assumptions, imposing our conclusions on them. So getting good at asking those questions is very powerful. 
At this point, I have done plenty of talking on the theory. I am more interested to hear about how these things play out in the real world, so I would like to go back to our wonderful SME's here and ask you guys again, reflecting back on your experiences, reflecting back on the real world, I want to know about this in the real world -- can you explain a time when you were able to avoid problems by using some of the techniques I have been talking about? What did you or the other person do in that situation? Were there any really good questions that they asked?
LW: I will go back to the example of working with the agitated customer. I remained calm and asked him to explain the parts of the proposal that they felt met their program objectives and also to explain the deficiencies in the proposal. And I asked, what impacts do these areas have on the risks for the performance for the program? We demonstrated a desire to understand his program. We focused on the business at hand and did not react to any negative or disparaging comments. We made sure that we focused on the business objective that the customer was trying to achieve and not on the personalities. That’s important. 
SC: Absolutely. When you focus on the personalities, people get defensive. It is almost like it triggers it worse than it already was. Excellent, thank you for that. Karl, I am curious to hear your example. 
KA: Similar to Lawrence, I will go back to another complicated contract being done under time constraints and across organizations. In this case I was seeing the contracting officer more than I was speaking to my boss. We were that tied at the hip. Very early in that process he asked the most important question I have heard in an acquisition situation, which was basically – “what do we really need from this contract”? Let's dissect that for a second. By using the word “we”, he made it something we were doing together. We were going to collaborate on the solutions we were creating. By asking me what we needed, using the word “need”, he elicited from me program priorities. Together we were setting expectations for this procurement, which ended up being almost eight months of our lives. It is an important thing to know at the beginning what you are doing and where you are going. By asking this question first, he set the guideposts and a roadmap to move forward and to define where success was in our future. Not only did this incredible professional ask that question, but he heard my answer. He was taking notes. Immediately following the meeting he sent me back his understanding of the answer. He made midcourse corrections throughout the intervening eight months until we got to procurement. He referenced where things were changing as we went through this process by repeating my answer back to me. He maintained an understanding, together, of the priorities we had set, and the definitions of success that we were working under. It gave us a guidepost to know that we were on the right track throughout the process. As I said to someone following the procurement, I always knew that we were trending positively because he had asked this question and heard my answer. He never made this my procurement. He was part of that team. I could not have done this without him. To this day, he would define himself as a contracting expert. I will always see him as a true customer service professional, whatever he chooses to do, that kind of effort will place them in the pantheon of those people who do great things for others. The process that he created was collaborative, creative, and positive throughout. It was great customer service from the outset that built the trust that got us to the endpoint with everybody in line. 
SC: Absolutely. What a powerful experience. Imagine if we have that in all of our customer service relationships. It feels so rare these days to have an experience like that. I also love that in both of the pieces here we hear the strategies playing out. Listening carefully, respecting what people say. Also, verifying, repeating back, asking for clarification, bringing the focus back to what matters most rather than letting the other noise get in the way. I think that is so powerful when you are talking about this important job that you gentlemen have day in and day out. So, earlier we discussed this concept of listening as being very important. The other aspect I wanted to touch on today is getting to “yes” and the importance of getting to “yes” in any customer service relationship. Particularly in the acquisition field.
I would like to talk a little bit to this point. I have this graphic up here, two gentlemen, clearly very incensed. I guess it is the same guy, unless they are twins. To illustrate the point, on one side if you have someone saying “no, I can't”, the inevitable response that person will receive is – “yes, you can”, or if not outright “yes you can”, it will be “well, you should”. You create this combative situation between two parties when you present a “no”. Some of you may have experienced a time like this, where someone gets an answer they don’t like, so they go to someone else with the hopes of getting an answer they do like. “Going from mom to dad”, so to speak, can create a lot of frustration, a lot of anxiety. It is inefficient in a lot of ways. The idea of getting to yes is to break the cycle of “no, I can't, yes, you can”, and saying – “what can we do?”, and what answer can we get to that moves us forward rather than keeps us where we are, which for everyone is a very frustrating place to be? 
So, it helps to further illustrate what I mean when I say something is negative. Even some very benign statements that we use every day come off as very negative statements, because they cut off the discussion. One example here, the customer says – “why do I have to do it this way?” If the response is that “it is the law”, you did not say no, right? There is no negative in that sense, but it is negative in the sense that it stops the discussion from moving forward. It is very matter-of-fact. There is no place to go from here. Think about it, if you back someone into that corner, they don't have an out, or something else to explore. Remember, they are not experts. You are the expert. Helping them then find the next step to move around the issue is the challenge for reaching this point of excellent customer service. In the second example that we have – “do you know where I can find a good explanation?” This one is an out and out “no”, pretty easy, I guess. By saying no, you are shutting down. A possible response could be – “I could find out” or “you might want to start here”, or “If that still does not work, get back to me, I might be able to help you find it.” It does not mean you always have to do it for the person, but being of assistance, being generous with your expertise, is crucial in helping them to be self-sufficient in the long run. That is what you want in a productive relationship. The last one I have here is someone saying – “what options do we have?” The response is – “well, I don't know.” There may be times where you don't know and it is ok not to know everything under the sun. That is acceptable. But what can you do with that? Can you find out? Take it from there and ask someone else with deeper expertise in an area you’re less familiar with? What options can you explore? If you approach any customer service situation from the perspective of – “what can we do” -- instead of – “what can’t we do”, you change the entire narrative of what can happen from there, and you produce entirely different outcomes – it is very powerful. 
So when we talk about getting to “yes”, this idea of where can we go using positive language? The negative version would be – “you did not fill this out properly”. “You did not take the proper steps in this process”. The positive would be – “Let me help you with that part so that we can get it done the right way”. In the example Karl gave earlier, he mentioned the idea of anticipating requirements and being ready for when things happen and that responsiveness that comes out of knowing that someone who is not an expert might struggle. How can you bolster them? How can you make them -- make it that much easier? So, that piece on positive language. To highlight the key point, good customer service means being very generous with your expertise. We’ve heard that as a common theme already. I think you will find this to be a nice mantra to take up when you’re trying to get to that fantastic level of service. 
Given that, I wanted to go to some strategies for how to say “no”. Because in our field, in the acquisition community, regulations are what they are and there may be very distinct limitations that have very big restrictions on what we can and cannot do. When you have to say “no”, the first step, Lawrence has mentioned this time and again, it is -- listen to the other person, even when you know that you may not be able to do what they are asking, just listen. That empathy, that respect, let them get it out. And then cushion your reply. Show them respect by saying – “I know this is important to you and I wish I could get it done for you, because I know it is very important”. Your next step is to follow that up promptly with what you can do for the person. So, we can look at using another vehicle to accomplish that, or we could talk with this group over here to see what might be possible. Then even if you don't know the answer, it can be about getting to “yes”. This process can be helpful even when you feel like you have to say “no”, which happens now and again. So, with that, I want to explore the idea of getting to “yes” and learn more about how each of you work with your customers on getting to “yes”. Karl, would you mind going first? 
KA: I will go first. In your examples, there are classic challenges to the acquisition professional in that with so much work being done by so few people, it comes to a point where each of them is asked the question – “what do I have to do?” We each draw that line in the sand, as “this is as far as I can go”. I think that what Lawrence and I are trying to say today is -- see if you can push that line out even farther to get to fantastic service. The regulations that we work under guide us in certain ways. In reality they do not block much. It is a matter of interpretation and holding to those regulations while finding innovative and creative solutions. Many of those creative solutions come out of a temporary “no”. When you hit a point where you have to answer with the word “no”, you follow it up, as you said, promptly, with this is what we can do. You will often find the most innovative solution at that point from the temporary “no”. A great CO is going to provide that vision, to get you beyond the “no” to the “yes”. But “yes” is not part of every one of our situations. We have to recognize that. There are in our midst, these people if I tell them “no”, they will go to the person next to me to see if they can find a “yes”. We call them “forum shoppers”. Having a “forum shopper”, you have to be a bit cynical. You have to reeducate that customer as to why the answer is effectively “no”. It is more than just saying “it is the law”. It’s the law because these things happen when we don't hold to those laws strongly. Reeducate them as to why the answer was “no”, and then work with them to find a creative solution. I arrive every day, as do the people that work for me, with a commitment to provide the best possible service to everyone who is going to call us in that day. That way our customers see us as effective and efficient in dealing with their business. Getting to “yes” is a great goal, don't get me wrong, but getting around a “no” is going to be the mark of the true customer service professional. It is equally important to get to “yes”, but not every situation is just going to have a clear path to that place for everybody. So, creative and innovative COs know this at their core. The rest of us have to approach them, collaborate with them, and learn from them these incredible messages of creativity, innovation, remaining positive, and providing creative solutions. 
SC: What a great challenge for professionals. There is almost an excitement in the idea that, yes, the job is knowing the regs, but what the exciting part is, where the creativity and innovation can come out of how you respond to “no”. Karl, in your experience, for the folks who are newer to the acquisition field , are there any ways that they can get support in being more creative? 
KA: I believe that if you are going to put yourself in the situation of your customer, you need to understand them better. A quick review of the organizational chart might get you an interesting perspective on that. In a meeting it is not uncommon for a programmatic person coming to you for help to drop the name of someone. If you better know who they are in their chain of command, you are in a better position to know what they are trying to get across to you. If you look at reviews of their regulations, their programmatic precepts, you could be in a better position to understand why they are pressing so hard in a certain direction. So, if you place yourself a little bit in their situation, not days of research, but an hour of research, you could be in a better position to understand more clearly what they are saying to you. 
SC: That is very helpful. Especially the idea of the “why”. By getting into those issues, by having that moment of “they have a requirement for a reason, they are not just doing it to be a pain”, they’re coming at it with a perspective that can come from pressures in the org chart or from their unique regulations. But if you figure out the “why”, it sounds like the process to getting to “yes” is that much easier. Very interesting. Lawrence, do you mind sharing your experience with getting to “yes”? 
LW: Sure. As Karl said, it is important to be creative and innovative to help the customer meet their outcome while staying within rules and regulations. You should never immediately tell a customer “no”. This particular customer wanted to know how to get a particular individual under contract. We should always help them achieve their ultimate goals and outcomes. We can get to the same place by taking a different route. I explained the benefits of our suggested solution, our route, and the negative impacts of going in a different direction. Always explain the thinking behind regulations and rules. How they help to protect the public interests and how they help to protect taxpayer funds and the positive benefits to the customer’s program. 
SC: Again, getting to the “why”. It is not only for the customers, but now it sounds like, Lawrence, you bring in the great idea of explaining your reasoning to an issue. Particularly when the answer is “no”, if people just understand the process or your thinking behind the process, it can be easier to swallow. Sometimes you have to go through the painful process of bringing people along. It is interesting, when you do that, as challenging as it can be up front, you end up educating the customer. Right? It is almost as if a customer service representative as the teacher in that case. There is an activity I have done -- as an adult educator I do a lot in the field of performance management, setting goals and expectations. One of the activities I have done time and again -- you put people in four corners of the classroom, right? All with a  flipchart. You send out one person, give them a note card. And you have got 1 -- two people at the front of the room with another person standing by and giving guidance. Another person has no guidance whatsoever. You start giving them instructions on what to draw. You say draw a square, three small squares within that square, bisect them twice, draw a rectangle within the large square. Of course, the person with no guidance, this is a picasso coming out. The other two people are being guided on where to put them and they start to see that I’m giving instructions for how to draw a house. As we go through, the small squares are the windows. The rectangle is the door. You can see the picture emerge, but that it takes a long time. By the time I get done with all the instructions we look around, get a good laugh at the picasso, see the simple houses in the front, and when you look at the person who comes in, they inevitably have this beautiful home with decorations, landscaping, a driveway, a car in the driveway, you look at this and think -- how did they get to that? They held up the card and it said – “draw a house”. Rather than giving all the painful steps of the process, if I can help us figure out the ultimate goal, you will find that people will surprise you. Maybe the house has different decorations than you expected, but sure enough they look alright. That kind of brings this idea of helping your customer along and being the teacher, getting together, really powerful for you guys and for them. We have had a great conversation on these four questions. I really appreciate the time our experts have given us. I am interested in opening it up to question and answer. We are going to take a short break, go to the questions you have been submitting. If you have not had a chance to do so already, you can again send your questions to the right on the screen. We will be back in just a few to give you our responses. So, thank you very much. 
SC: Welcome back. So, question #1 is, “Any general guidelines or methods for helping less experienced or less knowledgeable customers find a ‘solution’ when they themselves are not 100% clear on what they need?” Lawrence, from the contracting officer perspective, I’m hoping you can help us out with this one.
LW: Yes. This happens quite frequently in our profession. You should ask open-ended questions, repeatedly, to find out if this project is similar to any other project that the customer has had in the past. Also, you have to find out if the project is similar to any other project from your office or from another CO or you have managed in the past. Try to find out if there are similar projects that have been executed by your office. There are two questions you have to ask. First, what is the background of the project? Also, you want to find out, what is the final result that the customer is trying to achieve? So, the main point here is that it is important to ask a lot of open-ended questions. Also, two areas that are important – one is the “is”, or the current situation. What is the problem you are trying to solve? And the “to be”, that is, what is the result or outcome you are trying to get to?
SC: That’s really helpful, and it gets back to what we were discussing earlier about “what is the end result?”. What’s going on behind the scenes that is driving what you need? And listening really carefully to those drivers, listening to the results that they are expecting. And Lawrence, I love what you said which is something new, related to almost giving a “benchmark”. So, what other projects have we done that look really similar, and within that, they can find a good example they can replicate, right? That way, you are using something else to give them something to react to, rather than doing the “doom loop” of “Is this what you’re looking for? Oh, no, I guess I have to go back and figure it out,” and you can get caught in that cycle endlessly in acquisition or training when a person isn’t exactly sure of what they want. That was very helpful, Lawrence.
With that, I want to move to our second question which is really two questions combined, focusing around trust. The first is “Do you feel the trust and respect that you display to your external customers is just as important to your internal customers and workforce?”, and the second is “What happens when the trust has been broken? What is the best way to begin mending the relationships?”. Karl, I’m interested in your perspective on these questions.
KA: The short answer to the first one is “yes”, absolutely. I’d like to reference back to your discussion earlier about reliability, responsiveness, assurance, and empathy. Trust comes in this situation from that element of reliability, in that we know what we are there to do, and we can guide our customers through where they need to get. So we need to be reliable in that case. The best customer service that I’ve seen entailed giving the same message to every one of your customers. Regardless of where they sit, they need to hear the same things, the same values, the same vision, given to all of your customers. We as acquisition professionals can often hide behind our regulations. During your presentation, you talked about positive, expansive answers. Instead of the negative “no”, and “that’s the law”, give them the answer that will allow them to move forward. You will be more trusted if they see you as a guide, instead of a gatekeeper that’s keeping them from getting where they want to be. I have to say that internal customers and the workforce must trust that you’ll be consistent. So as you can see, our external customers and our internal customers and the workforce must trust us as we walk through this process. I think there are subtle differences in the elements that make up that trust, but it is trust itself that needs to be established.
SC: That’s great, Karl, and I think, building on that a little bit, with the internal customers or workforce, I would say that this applies to your external customers, too, but that consistency of service is very important. Otherwise, you can create perceptions of favoritism if you are giving one message over here and another message over there, or varying levels of support. So I think there can grow a reputation around your character depending on whether you’re giving different responses to different people, so consistency becomes just as important internally as it is externally.
I’ll start in on this third question about breaking trust. There is a great book, I recommend getting your hands on it, it is called “The Speed of Trust”, in it, the author goes into a lot of detail about a good, trusting relationship, and how you know you have such a relationship when you can recover when trust is broken. It’s not the end of the world. It’s not two ends of the spectrum, trust or no trust, it is a continuum in terms of how much trust you have with somebody. So, in a good relationship, you’ll probably break trust regularly, and that builds even more trust in the future. I’ll give an example. If, in your personal relationships, you are late—that’s a break in trust, you said “I’ll meet you at 1 o clock” and it is 1:30, and that’s a break in trust. In relationships you’ve had for a long time, it’s easier to get over that lapse because you’ve had that long history with somebody, you know them, they know you’re a steady person and they’ll look past it. But if it is a brand new relationship, or it is your first time meeting them, that break in trust becomes magnified. Going back to the ladder of inference, since they don’t have any other data points on you yet, they assume that you’re just a late person, and that will be a real breaker for you. Understanding the magnitude of the break in trust is step one, but when trust has been broken and you know it is of a significant magnitude, the first thing I do is put it on the table and call it out. You can’t fix what you don’t know. Getting everyone in the room and saying “Hey, I know things to this point may have been rockier than we would have liked,”, call out the break in trust and own it. Taking responsibility will be huge in that instance, especially if it was you who broke the trust. Then, move forward, exhibiting those characteristics that are so important. A couple of them are: making sure you are transparent, that you demonstrate respect, that you are trying to right the wrong, which shows you have a positive intent to fix what isn’t going so well. And show loyalty to the other person, that you’re in it for the long haul, and that it is worthwhile for you to get it right. So that step is very important.
And then the last piece that goes a long way is extending trust. It is a reciprocal relationship. If you are demanding trust from other people but never giving it out, you are sending a mixed signal, which can diminish what you are going for. So that’s some of the theory behind rebuilding trust, but Karl, when we were talking you said you had a good example of this playing out?
KA: Earlier, I mentioned in response to your statement in one of the teaching moments earlier, you said that we need to be generous with our expertise. I also reference that our process isn’t popular. People are coming to us, to get beyond what we have to do, in order to get what they need. So we can sometime start out with this trust building at a deficit, in that we are the managers of a process that is not necessarily popular. So I would agree with you. I had a technical evaluation panel for a very large contract that I was working with, and there was a perception that external forces to the TEP were impacting some people’s perspectives on the proposals we were looking at. What we had to do is break this down, as you said, you had to call it out for what it was. There was a perceived or real break in trust, so we brought the entire panel together, we sat down, and called out the break in trust. “Some people feel that they are not being provided all the information that people have.” So you call it out. Then, you find a brainstorming mechanism to, looking at the short term, move forward from the perceived break in trust. You sit and you let everybody say, “This is what it is going to take for me to get over this. I need to trust this, I need to know that.” Get all those things on the table, and come to an agreement about how you are all moving forward collectively. 
Once you have the plan forward, everybody outside of that panel steps out, and the panel asks “how do we own this?” and “how does each and every one of us commit to the elements of this?” Coming from health and human services, I often use a medical reference to give ideas for this. You cannot be sure of the prognosis that is going to work until you have diagnosed the problem. You need to dedicate the time to coming up with what is really the problem here. Hurt feelings are equal to broken regulations. Sit down, come up with a plan forward, and elicit a commitment from everyone in the group to moving forward. 
SC: Yes, that is so important too, and I think it is challenging for most people because it demands vulnerability. To have to admit—let’s first say you are responsible for whatever didn’t go so well. To admit that in front of a group, especially as the Contracting Officer who knows the business, to say that something didn’t go well can feel really hard. But there is something to be said for overcoming that ego, because ultimately we are trying to get something done and that something in many cases is more important than our bruised egos.
I want to move on to our next question now. It’s a two parter. The first part is somebody asking, it had a lot more context and we had to slice it down, “How do you deal with customers who are making the same errors, ask the same questions and ask for the same templates” and of the context around this was somebody saying “are you enabling them?” Are they not learning because you are so Johnny-on-the-spot with the response? The other question from a separate viewer is related – “As a contracting officer who strives for excellence customer service, I find I have created an environment where an emergency is brought to me because they know I can get it resolved. How do you balance excellent customer service with not being taken advantage of?” Lawrence, with Contracting Officer hats on, on this one, how do you do that? 
LW: There are two parts to that. The first part is that I would use the “Help me help you” approach. That is, you have to explain to the customer the benefits of following the templates and business advice that you gave them previously. Explain to them also the negative impacts of not following your advice, the negative impacts of coming to me at the last minute, how it takes time away from me being able to devote time to producing a business solution, a helpful business solution. Time is money, basically. That can impact them and outcome they want to achieve in those programs. The second part of that is basically when you have someone that comes to you at the last minute, we have a term for it, customers with their “hair on fire”. They learn to come to you because you get things done, so it is a balancing act. Providing excellent customer service and at the same time being careful not to become an enabler. The way that you do that, you have to be proactive. You have to communicate with the customer frequently to find out what it is that they have coming down the pike or the plans that they have and how the programs are working. For example, we have monthly customer production meetings with our customers. The purpose of those meetings is to find out progress on current projects, but not only that, to find out if there are any problems or issues, or whether or not another important project is coming down the pike. Sort of so that we can get advanced notice. You have to be proactive in that area, otherwise they will repeatedly come to you with emergencies. 
SC: That is helpful. Creating an opportunity, multiple opportunities for them to interject issues before they become these “hair on fire” situations? It is a simple strategy that seems genius in it's simplicity. If it’s not something you’re already doing, it’s certainly something to consider. Karl?
KA: From the flip side of this same question, there may be a lesson learned here. A lesson to be learned here is a better way to put it. I was recently working with my boss. Very smart, very astute woman who was trying to write requirements for something we had never done in our office, it was specifically new tablets. We had always bought computers, we had bought BlackBerries, but never tablets. So we were trying to determine the business need for these tablets. Twice during that conversation I said something to her that later in the process, when she needed it, she repeated back to me. I had said it too early. If I had sent a template to someone, to a customer, who was not ready to receive it and did not see where it fit in the process? I could get the question back from them – “do I have this template?” One is to say “yes, you have it, it was in my e-mail of March whatever” and point them in that direction. But to also recognize in your next procurement that a customer who does not have a full appreciation of our process, may need you to resend the resource later in the process closer to when it is needed. It’s not that they are dumb, it’s a timing sort of thing, and that we can learn that lesson as we do this over and over again. 
SC: It’s kind of like this mantra I have heard of in other situations, “Meet someone where they are”. It might be different from where you are at the time. Extending that courtesy and thinking through where they are at and what they might need in that moment? This idea of “just-in-time” help. 
KA: I get the frustration. We are working at a deficit of time and energy. So, “I sent it to you. I sent it to you”. The second time I will be less understanding than the first time. I get the frustration, but we could learn about these questions on an equal footing with our customers. 
SC: Absolutely, and I will add one more thing to what you and Lawrence are saying, and that is that the one-on-one relationship that you have with your customer goes a long way in these situations. If they see you as the contracting officer and that is it? They will probably come to you with their “hair on fire”. If they see you as Lawrence -- I know that guy, he is generous with his time, so helpful, we know about each other's families. You have a relationship that you build. In the relationship you have more empathy and understanding. When Lawrence comes to me and says that “if you get this to me at the last minute, it is really going to affect us on the backend”. Now, I am not just looking at the process, but the person I am interacting with. That speaks to the theme we had earlier, which is the relationship with the customer being so paramount to making these things run more smoothly. Any last thoughts on that one before and move on? Great. Thank you, viewer, who passed along those lovely questions. 
Moving onto our sixth question, which is directed at Lawrence. Famous, nowadays. Earlier in the program, I believe it was the part where we were on question number two, the question about the strategies that acquisition professionals can use to enhance responsiveness, assurance, empathy. Lawrence was telling a story about someone that he worked with. You said that you got them to calm down. This person wanted more clarification on what you did, precisely, to achieve this mystical state? 
LW: I asked them about the history and background of their project. I also asked him about his program, his job position, and his objectives. Most people are proud of the position they have and proud of the programs that they manage. So, I played on that to make him focus on the business at hand rather than focusing on the emotions. That way I got him to calm down and be less emotional. I also asked him to tell his story and explain what he thought would be a good solution so that it did not appear as though we were trying to force him into an acceptable solution. It is important to start early on customer buy-in in a customer relationship. You're not providing good customer service if at the end of the day you force the customer to accept a contract or contractor for which they do not have buy-in. 
SC: That ties back to the different levels of service in the beginning. The accepted level – “I'll take it, I guess”, but it is reluctant. That is helpful clarification. Sounds like another thing you did there that stands out to me, at least, is this idea of making it all about them. In the moment where tensions are high and emotions are running wild, I need to make it about you, I need to not make it about me. The more successfully I can do that? It is that trying to understand, what is it that you need? Karl, you mentioned it earlier when we talked about trust. I want to understand your perspective, the background behind something. That can be very powerful. Viewer, hopefully that answered your question. Lawrence, thank you for elaborating on that. 
I am going to move to another viewer question. It is related to the time we were talking about the ladder of inference. The viewer asks -- how critical is impression management in a kickoff meeting with a new customer, given they may fall into a ladder of inference trap? I will speak to it from a theory perspective. Karl and Lawrence, feel free to chime in with any examples. They say -- again, the royal “they”, that first impressions are made in roughly the first two minutes of meeting someone. In that first impression there are all of these things going on. They have got their filters, their reasons for selecting some information and leaving out different information. They may from the get go be creating their own self-fulfilling prophecy. Where if they behave in a certain way, you react to it and suddenly we have created the very thing we were worried about. Our customers do this as we do. Being aware of it is the first step, in my opinion. Impression management is critical from the get go. I would say that in particular if you want to manage that impression, it is as simple as going back to those first four critical characteristics that we talked about. From the beginning, demonstrate that you will be a reliable resource. In a kickoff meeting that would be showing up on time. If you have commitments or an agenda established in advance, it is as simple as following that and being on the spot with what you said you would do. Responsiveness -- how much are you demonstrating your responsiveness? Is what you are offering them helping them in that moment? Or do they get the sense that you will not be responsive? Assurance has to do with confidence. This does not mean that you cannot be wrong. It does not mean say that you can’t say you don’t know. But it does mean that you want to give them the assurance that you’re willing to find out, and I think that goes a long way take in the trust component. The last part, empathy, from the kickoff if they get the sense that you are truly invested in them right out the gate, you can go a long way. The last Contracting Officer that they worked with maybe did not do that, and already out of the gate you are showing them that you do care and that maybe we can break some of those expectations that you have, or maybe your biases about contracting, and give you a new experience. This is kind of the academic answer, relating to these concepts. I don't know if you have any stories you would want to add or anything I might have missed. 
KA: Real quick, Stacy, the theme of these last questions has been the timing and the quality of our communication. Communicating effectively is going to allow Lawrence to ask a series of open-ended questions of an agitated customer and get a whole set of data that will not only help him to get beyond the agitation, it will also help him in the long term in getting through the contracting action. In that situation he probably learned a great deal about this guy’s program. He learned about what direction he thought he was going with this. So, over time he could, after the initial communication, begin the process of weaving those themes into his roadmap moving forward. So, building that trust is key very early on. This question of impression management is critical in starting this off right. If it does not start out right, you step back and try again until you get to that point where you have managed the impressions of your customers so that they know that they are going to get what they need. It may not be the most direct route, as they see it, but you are going to find alternative and innovative solutions, you will be creative with them, you will recognize their program criteria and goals in meeting the requirements of the regulations that guide our work. So, if the end goal is a signature on a document that will allow the customer to go off and do what they need and want to for the program and allows us to sign that document, you have gotten to a better place. But that is all based on that first set of impressions. How did you come to them? How did you meet their needs? How did you guide them when the needs were outside the scope of what you could provide?  All of that builds trust.
SC: Absolutely. 
LW: I just want to piggyback on what Karl said about impression management. The situation that I had with the particularly difficult customer could have turned out a lot differently if I had begun the defensive role initially. That is why it is so important to make it all about the customer, initially, and not worry about anything that may seem negative and trying to defend yourself. 
SC: Absolutely. Well, let's move on, then. We have got a question from a viewer, this one gets towards listening, right? To understand. “It seems to me that many people listen to reply rather than understand. Do you think that customer service is the ability to balance between customers thoughts and monitoring the customer's issue?” I will start with that. The concept of good listening skills, that is something that comes up in a lot of different contexts when I train others. When we train supervisors and others on general communication skills -- listening is always such a powerful topic. Because the traditional ways that we are listening is from our frame of reference. If you told me the story of your recent vacation that I am sure was wonderful, I would be I would be thinking of the last time I went on vacation, and relating to your story through my own experience. That is what human beings do. Humans attach meaning to what they hear, and usually meaning comes from past experience. Our brains are furiously working to do this all the time. The problem is sometimes our thoughts about ourselves can get in the way of hearing what the other person is actually saying. So listening to understand is more challenging than listening from our own frame of reference. It demands that we sit outside ourselves for a moment and really challenge ourselves to see how accurate a picture we can get from what the other person is painting. That is difficult to do. Especially when you're really busy. When you are really busy, not only are you thinking about the last time you had an experience, but you're thinking, “my e-mail inbox is filling up, I have a meeting in 15 minutes and it's really important”. This is standing in the way between you and hearing the other person. You have listening to understand. Very valuable topic. I think good customer service pushes you to work on that level, that deeper level of listening. 
I would also say that in any conversation, especially a heated one, there is usually two conversations going on at the same time. One is the “thinking” conversation and the other is the “feeling” conversation. For any of you who have been in arguments with significant others at home, right, the emotion gets in there -- it could be that you did not empty the dishwasher, right? That is the big trigger. Then it stops being about the dishwasher and it becomes about my emotion because you did not listen to me about what I told you I was angry about, and you have this strange baggage going on. The original issue didn’t even matter in the first place. So, in any conversation, you need to attend to both the “thinking” conversation and the “feeling” conversation. And you may need to do that separately. A strategy is to say, “let's set aside the dishwasher, you seem really upset”. “Help me understand where you're coming from”. Attend to the feeling and then get back to the issue. More often than not, the issue is no longer as big. It does end up being a time saver ultimately. I don't know if you guys have any points to elaborate on that? 
KA: I would just say -- in an acquisition setting, one point of note is that we could get to a place if we don't address the agitation on the part of our customer. If we don't recognize the nervousness that they bring to the table, they will not get what they want. If we do not respect the fact that they consider themselves to be under extreme time constraints and being judged on those time constraints by senior managers. If we do not respect that, what is going to come into that room is a whole lot of the emotional side. We, being people ourselves, could react defensively or we could sit and not listen because we are trying to answer the first statement they made. That defensiveness needs to get kind of picked apart as they are speaking. We often talk about going to our happy place and finding a quiet moment in their answer that it is not all about me. I am here to do for them what they need to do to get through this process. I do not want to come across as a gatekeeper. I do not want to come across as a defensive gatekeeper. And allowing our folks to say anything to us and respectfully answering back, not through a defensive posture, but through an expertise posture -- I get it. You think I’m dumb, but -- it is never going to be that black-and-white, but it is going to be, I do this for a living every day. I am pretty good at it. Why are you accusing me of not caring about your needs? I do. But I need to say that out loud. I need to show it by using all of these reliability and responsiveness and assurance and empathy to continue to make it about the customer. In one of my questions earlier, I actually said that the super CO never made it my procurement. It was always “ours”. And when we were sitting back. Things were getting tense. We have to remember, we are in this together. Keeping that at the forefront will allow you to keep your happy place and answer back in a way that is productive to the process instead of distractive to the process. 
SC: All right. What I'm going to do, we will go to the next one. It is our ninth question asked by viewers which is “how can you serve a forceful customer in wanting to do things his/her own way rather than follow policies?” So, who wants to take this one first? 
KA: I will. Thank you, Lawrence. I think Lawrence and I would probably have the same response. I would remind people we do not do this for our health. Regulations are there to do certain things for the public, for the department, for the process itself. And they would not look good in orange or stripes and want to go to jail, because they want it their way instead of the way it is supposed to be done. I have never found a timid contracting specialist or officer on this topic. People can come in with an overinflated impression of their own importance. It takes a good contracting officer to say – we all have to live by the regs. It is another way of saying the old adage, that we all put our pants on one leg at a time. We’re all in this together, let’s get it done right. Not in a way that will impact your career negatively or my career negatively. Do you agree? 
LW: Yes – you have to stress the importance of this. We have a term, like Karl said, we don't look good in stripes. Another saying is that we don’t want to end up in the Washington Post.
KA: My first training in acquisition, many, many years ago, the person who was teaching this class started with a statement. “Don't do anything in your career that you wouldn't want to see on a billboard”. If it is not going to make you proud, don't do it. Never sign your name on something you can't justify as being in compliance with the way things are supposed to be done. It embarrasses you. It embarrasses your management. It is not going to be good in the Washington Post.
SC: it sounds like giving them the consequences, giving them that full picture of if we go down this road, this is what is going to happen. That is helping and open and that is going to be helpful to somebody who may not realize what they are suggesting is as bad as that. That is a helpful behavior, going back to talking about avoiding saying “no”, even when the answer is “no”, how can we do that? The same strategies. Bring people back to the common goal. We are here to accomplish ‘x’, and there are a lot of different paths we can take to get to ‘x’. The ones you're talking about will take us to jail in this case. And so, how about we still get to ‘x’, but how about we do it this way? Bringing it back to the goal can be really helpful. I hear this when I coach others on micromanagement, leadership style. Same thing. I will go along with you on every step down the way. Should you be doing that? 
KA: As uncomfortable as it can be, sometimes you just have to elevate. There are plenty of people, in most acquisition professionals’ hierarchy, that you can tell he or she is right. Let's do this the right way. And that will often match a senior person with a senior person. They will have the conversation and it will dispel the tension that the person’s position has brought into the discussion. I have also seen a contracting officer push back from the table and say, “if that is the process you are going to use, we don't need to be part of that discussion”. “When you want to come back to us with a solution that meets regulations, we are right there with you”. There is no other way to push a non-regulation player. 
SC: Those are good strategies. All right, thank you for that. I think we have got one more question we can tackle here. It is amazing we have taken as much time as we have. You guys ask such rich questions. The very last question we have here is "how valid or helpful do you think it is to give your customers an anonymous customer satisfaction survey?" I will let you guys think about that one a little bit, but I would say, it kind of makes me think of the old adage, “what gets measured gets done”. I think knowing there are people trying to objectively evaluate the quality of the service you are providing can be in and of itself a helpful motivator. I think it is kind of horrifying at times. As a trainer, we have questionnaires that go out at the end of the workshop, for example. Going through those results can be harsh. I can get a comment that makes me think, “I wish I would have figured that out beforehand”. The data point is still helpful. The other part to it though that I think you need to balance is that in many instances people speak  when things are not going very well. Right? I think a customer satisfaction survey is helpful, but it can't be the only tool to determine how well things are going. Because some people may make a complaint, and it is not even a valid complaint, but it is what they are putting out there. So, you always have to have that set of glasses on when you take a look at that kind of feedback and try to triangulate what you're hearing in a survey and, let's say you are a supervisor. Are you going in and observing the same thing? Does this come from the multiple sources? Because the one-offs can be misleading. So, I would say it is helpful, but be aware of those limitations and the sure you are managing those. So, that is my take on it. 
KA: having been on both sides of this, I will say to you, we should not be perceived as forum shopping with our surveys. If you are willing to do a survey to all customers on all actions, you are in a safer place. Also, we need to survey those things we can control. 
SC: Very good. 
KA: I recently saw I was a customer for an organization. The availability of budget was one of the things that could've impacted the process. It was not something they had control over. There were questions about, “did this happen in the timeframe you wanted”? They did not have a valid answer for me, because this thing got derailed by something out of my control and their control. The survey needs to be about those things you actually have control over. Some of this -- well, surveys are great because they give you real numbers and data to chew on, and they can be more objective than your opinions from process. Having that discussion with all of the people involved, including your managers who are going to view this as part of your performance, having those discussions after an action, having an after action check-in by phone, by a meeting. But checking with all the stakeholders can get you the same set of data and put a survey set of data into perspective. 
SC: Anything to add, Lawrence? 
LW: Yes. I have worked with two contracting shops have struggled with the idea of how do we get constructive feedback from our customers that is useful to us? And at the same time not just provide a forum for people who want to complain or want to say something, but we want to hear about what has gone right so we can replicate those things that are positive, those things that helped. One organization I was in decided we were going to send out a request for customer survey every time we awarded a new contract. The current organization was getting ready to push not awarding the contract until the customer fills out the survey. And -- 
SC: Holding it hostage. 
LW: Yes. And I have my own opinions about that. But it is something that I think all contracting shops struggle with. I don't know what the correct answer is, but it is a two-edged sword. 
SC: Sure, sure. Thank you for that. With that, that wraps up the Q and A portion for today. As I said earlier, all of these materials will be available on FAI's website in a couple weeks. We will include answers to your questions. Thank you for spending time with us today. I want to thank the gentleman here who have done so much. Thank you, Lawrence and Karl. Both of you have been incredibly insightful. With that, we will wrap up for the day. Thank you to our participants for your time despite your busy schedules. 
SC: Have a lovely week. Goodbye.


An official website of the General Services Administration

Looking for U.S. government information and services?