Building trust Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2007

While many expect employees to be loyal to the company, James B. Heller says there are times when the company needs to stand up and be loyal to its employees.

As president of ka architecture, Heller recalls an architect whose client was so angry that the employee was sure he was going to lose his job. Instead, Heller supported the company man and helped him work out the issue — mending the client relationship and cementing the employee’s loyalty in one stroke.

Smart Business spoke with Heller about why the customer isn’t always right and why you can’t always take on every project.

Q: What are some pitfalls a CEO should try to avoid?

Typically, I might get a phone call from a client who identifies a concern. They say, ‘This is happening on this particular project.’ There’s a problem there, whatever it might be. One pitfall is to too quickly jump on that particular project manager and always side with the client. The typical comment, ‘The client is always right’ — well, don’t fall into that trap. Have a face-to-face conversation with that staff person. Understand there are always two sides to every story, and work with that person to solve the problem. Don’t jump down on that person.

We’ve been doing a better job of supporting our people over the last couple years. Even saying that to the client, saying, ‘Look, I’ll look into it. I’ll get back to you, and we’ll figure out a resolution.’

Also, you can always get caught when a client starts talking about a particular project and saying they have to get this project done by a certain date. Without thinking, because of my zealousness and aggressiveness to get a new project or new client, I will commit to a timing circumstance too quickly: ‘Oh yeah, we can get that done in the next three days.’

That’s another thing I could easily fall into, which I no longer do. I no longer commit to anything that I am not physically doing. It’s always, ‘I’ll call you tomorrow or later today, I’ll let you know how soon I can get it done.’

Q: How do you manage business growth?

We have been very attentive to the types of projects who call us and what we can handle. We are looking to have relationships with clients that, No. 1, we know have a future, and No. 2, are projects that permit us to engage our staff, that are interesting to our staff, and that are also sensitive to the outside world and the environment.

We are selective in choosing the projects. Some make sense for us; some don’t make sense for us. If the project is one where we can learn and excite our staff, we are much more receptive than we used to be in the past. We used to just take everything, and that’s no longer the case.

As the company grows, let’s face it, you only have so much staff and so much time to do a project. And when you make a commitment, it’s important that you meet that commitment. We do our darnedest to meet that commitment. You don’t want to just hire staff for an upsurge in work, and then let the staff go. The human side of the story is much more important than just trying to get more work in the door, build it up and then cut it.

It’s not the way of handling the public or our staff, and because of it, we have a lot of longevity in our staff.

Q: How do you empower your employees to run projects?

They are given the full responsibility to handle all aspects of the project and interface and use myself as well as others in the office as a resource. They basically are taking that particular client and become their client.

We allow them to handle all aspects of the project, and the rest of the office becomes a resource to that team. There is still a continuity of the ‘ka’ way of doing a project, but they very much run the day-to-day of that particular project.

Q: What has been your greatest challenge in business?

You’re dealing with lots of different people and lots of different personalities. Certain folks have certain strengths. It’s a matter of balancing those strengths against one another and applauding what other folks do in the office — it’s real easy then for the outside client to say, ‘Jimmy, you did a great job.’

But you have to say, ‘It was really their doing, not mine,’ and commend them internally and externally.

That’s what it takes to bite your tongue a little bit. It takes the human resources side because the human touch can go a long way.

HOW TO REACH: ka architecture, (216) 781-9144 or