How Gary Price grows PwC by building customer and employee relationships Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2010

Somebody, somewhere higher in the PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP structure thought Gary Price was a smart guy.

Somebody thought that Price was worthy of being the Greater Atlanta market managing partner of the accounting and professional services firm. And because somebody thought Price was a pretty knowledgeable guy and could handle that responsibility, the firm gave him the position overseeing 1,300 people across three states.

But just because somebody thought he was a smart guy, doesn’t mean that those 1,300 people think he’s a smart guy, too.

“Just because someone anoints you king for the day, … just because you think you’re doing all these great things and modeling all these great behaviors, it doesn’t necessarily generate the trust and enthusiasm and change you’re looking to get until you make the connection,” Price says.

And it doesn’t mean that his clients think he’s a smart guy either.

“We have to sell ourselves every day, and you can’t sell yourself if your client doesn’t trust you,” he says. “The client isn’t going to trust you because you’re smart. It’s the same analogy about when I stepped into this role. Maybe some people think I’m a smart person, but my partners aren’t going to trust me because someone said I was smart. I have to have a relationship, and the way you have a relationship is you have to invest time.”

Build relationships with customers

PwC used to run a television commercial that said, “Your clients don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” and that tagline has stuck with Gary Price.

“There’s no specific formula for doing this — it’s an art as much as science,” he says. “It starts with relationships. If I walked into company X’s offices tomorrow and I didn’t have a good, trusting relationship with whoever’s office I was in, I wouldn’t get very far asking questions. The starting point is it’s all about relationships, and you’ve heard that before, and it’s true, and it’s exceptionally true in our business because our product is ourselves.”

But how do you show your customers you care? How do you make them the center of an organization that has not just 1,300 people in one region across three states, but 30,000 people and revenue just below the $8 billion mark across the whole country?

“If you really, really want to, you can turn that into a complicated story, but if you think about what we do at the core, it’s very simple,” Price says. “We help our clients solve difficult issues. It’s that simple. It’s no more. It’s not that complicated. When you’re able to distill it down, it really takes away the complication.”

It’s a simple mission, but even the simplest of tasks can get muddied, so start with how you initially communicate with your customers.

“I always start with, ‘What are you trying to achieve,’” he says. “Whether that’s financial goals, strategic goals in the market, growing the business, product expansions, mergers and acquisitions, and divestitures, tax planning, improving processes in the business, there’s a lot of ways companies like to make themselves better. I always ask, ‘What are you trying to achieve? What are your goals? I want to make sure I understand clearly what your goals are.’”

Show them you truly care about those goals so ask them to not just tell you about them but to show you, as well.

“Most people in most businesses have personal plans where they put on a piece of paper somewhere their goals, and somebody in their organization reviews it and holds people accountable to those goals,” Price says. “We encourage people to actually ask people to review their plans with them. Usually, not always, our clients share those with us, and when they do, it provides a great road map to how you can help them be successful.

“When I have a clear picture of their goals and have that trust with them, then I have the opportunity to step in their shoes and start to break down what’s keeping them from achieving those goals.”

For example, if a client says they want to reduce their tax burden and do some tax planning, he can begin to ask questions.

“Questions you begin to ask are let’s talk about your structure — you start drilling down into the details and let’s talk about where your tax burden is here or overseas,” he says. “Where is your tax burden most problematic? If you say, ‘What are you trying to achieve?’ and they say, ‘We close our books in 20 days, but we want to close them in five; how do we get there?’ So you have to understand what they’re trying to achieve.”

As he builds these relationships and asks these questions, he’s able to see patterns across industries that allow him to pinpoint the real issues for which his employees should be focusing on finding solutions.

“You start talking to multiple companies, and you start coming back and saying, ‘You know what, what we heard from Company X is the same thing we hear from Company Y,’” Price says. “You begin to build a knowledge base, and in a firm like ours, it replicates itself in many ways, and it allows us to be very focused. … We get very focused around the most important issues our clients have. We don’t go into our clients and say we can solve all your problems. One, it’s not true, and even if it were true, we don’t have the capacity to achieve that. But where we do go, we say, ‘Tell us what your problems are; we think we can help you with some of the biggest problems.’”

Through all of this, you have to keep the customer at the center of your focus instead of money.

“You might hear, with professional services firms, the old saying, the billable hour — how important that is,” Price says. “In our mind, equally important is that nonbillable hour where you’re investing that time to build trust with your clients. That’s the baseline. Once you have that trust, how do you get at those things?”

And lastly, you have to be yourself. It’s the best advice that he ever received and it’s true in any situation with customers.

“Some people are always trying to work on things that are viewed as negative and trying to create an image externally with other people that is not consistent with their personality and who they are. I had a mentor and he said, ‘Take that solid foundation and those values and build on it and be a positive person and be who you are. Don’t take on someone else’s personality just because it’s expedient or you think it will get you somewhere.’

“It’s hard to go into a client’s office — and we work with really smart people and clients — and fool them. They see through that really quickly. And then once that happens, you no longer have trust and credibility with them. You walk in, you are who you are, you help them, and by the way, if they ask you a question and you don’t know the answer to it, ‘I don’t know,’ is a great answer. ‘But I’ll be sure glad to find out and get back to you.’”

Taking this approach to building customer relationships will help your customers trust your leadership and what your organization does.

“I used to think that commercial was so hokey, but that tagline is so good,” Price says. “It’s true. … It’s very difficult to outsmart the competition, but if you can build better and deeper relationships, you can outhustle them.”

Build relationships with employees

Earlier in his career, if someone walked into Price’s office or he walked into his or hers, he didn’t waste time with small talk.

“If someone walked into my office, boom we’re talking business,” he says. “But what I learned is we’re all humans with the same issues and frailties that we’re working through. And it’s amazing the connection you make with people when you open up and share.”

Since that realization, Price strives to build relationships with his employees and to really know them.

“That’s a challenge, no doubt about it,” he says. “And it’s an ongoing challenge — you don’t do it once and check the box and you’re done.”

While it’s difficult to know 1,300 people, he focuses primarily on the partners.

“First and foremost, starting with those other 99 partners, was really spending quality time with each of them and reaching out to them,” he says. “It was me reaching out to them and not saying, ‘Come to my office and let’s have a meeting.’ Meeting them on their turf and their terms and really doing it without an agenda.”

Getting some quality time with 99 people can be tough, so he uses a combination of informal and formal methods. First, map out an informal plan for making connections.

“The informal ways are you try to find opportunities where there are intersections between work and personal and social, whether it’s having dinner with a partner or inviting a small group of partners into your home for dinner on the weekend or playing golf with a partner or going to a play or something. Or you bring a small group of partners together with a small group of clients and you have social time,” Price says. “There’s a lot of ways informally to do it.”

He also drops in their offices and asks open-ended questions to just get to know them better.

“It’s just simple questions — ‘What’s going on, how’s the family, how’s the golf game, how was your vacation?’” he says. “You get to know what makes your partners tick.”

Beyond the informal, you have to also find the formal ways to connect with them and get to know them better. Price works with his assistant to rotate through those 99 people throughout the year.

“You start at the top of the list and work your way down, and it doesn’t always work that way if there are certain partners you want to get to immediately, but hypothetically, you start at the top and work your way down, and you say, ‘In the next two months, let’s make sure I get some good quality interaction with these eight or 10 partners,” he says. “Then the next month, pick the next eight or 10, and work through formally.”

While he may be focusing on spending quality time with eight to 10 people each month, he has other ways to make sure he doesn’t lose contact with everyone else when it’s not their “turn.” Monthly he has an all-partners meeting over a lunch hour, and the agenda is to build relationships and trust with one another so they can turn to each other when business opportunities come up.

He also has a small group of six people that he meets with for two hours every two weeks. It’s typically the leaders of each line of business and three key enablers — his human capital leader, marketing and sales leader, and administrative leader.

Combining these efforts, it gives him far more insight into his partners than he would get staying in his office.

“It’s really understanding their personal agendas and really understanding what makes them tick,” he says. “If you think about it, it’s about making them successful … because if you can enable success in the team around you, there’s a lot more leverage and a lot greater chance you’ll personally be successful in that approach and model than going and doing it yourself.”

By taking these steps, it helps people buy in to what that high-up, powers-that-be person originally thought — that Price is a smart guy.

“What that did was start to break down some of the, ‘Who’s this person; what are his motives?’ and enabled us to connect on a more human level,” he says.

And it’s the same approach as the commercial.

“It really gets back to that simple message from the commercial — you have to demonstrate a real genuine care for the person, the whole person, and that’s both professional and personal,” Price says. “When you do that, that engenders trust and loyalty. Strategy is 10 percent of the battle, and everyone has a great strategy, and everyone has smart people. Whatever your strategy is, if they trust you, they will follow it and execute against it, and they will perform well and be successful. That same person could be a very bright person, but without that trust and without that loyalty, that person won’t be as successful, and you won’t get the same productivity out of that person as you otherwise would.”

How to reach: PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, (678) 419-1000 or www.pwc.com