George A. Pontikes Jr. Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2007

As a young man, George A. Pontikes Jr. was taught that it was best to learn business from the bottom up. So that’s what he did, working every job in the construction industry, from craftsman to superintendent, before founding Satterfield & Pontikes Construction Inc. with Tom Satterfield in 1989. Since that first year, Pontikes has grown the company from $1 million in revenue to an estimated $300 million in 2007. As president and CEO, Pontikes shares his expertise daily with his 500 employees, using his experience from previous jobs to help those in tough situations. He says doing so lets them know that he understands what they are dealing with because he has been in their shoes, and that creates a sense of unity. Smart Business spoke with Pontikes about why you have to put the client first in every situation.

Communicate and listen. Communication is key. Listen to your clients. They’re going to tell you their side, what’s going on and the way they see it. An employee can come and tell you that everything is rosy and everything’s going well, but if you’re not communicating with your client, you’re only hearing one side.

You may find that the client has a completely different understanding of your company than your employee does. I can’t tell you how many times somebody tells me that the client’s happy, and you go talk to the client, and they’ve got a different opinion.

A lot of people go out there and try to tell their clients what they want. You can’t do that. You’ve got to listen to what your clients tell you. If you’re not going to listen to your clients, you’re not going to get work.

If you’re not careful and don’t question, it’s easy for employees and clients to dance around questions. Pay attention to what they have to say and follow up with questions to try and dig deeper and see what you can find out.

It’s easy to dodge a tough question if you don’t want to provide an answer. Dig deeper to find out, and make sure that you’re not missing the true intent of their response.

Put the client first. Frequency of communication is key because things change. Your clients have to have trust and faith in you.

Work hard to do everything you can to let the client know that you’re working in their best interest. When a client loses confidence in you and doesn’t think that you’re putting their best interest in the front, then you’ve got a problem.

It’s hard to get that back. It’s not impossible, but it’s hard. Any time a client loses faith in you, it’s generally because they think you’re putting other interests in front of theirs, and you can’t do that. Try and demonstrate your good will at every opportunity.

Meet frequently with the owner and see what the owner’s feedback is. Meet with your clients; your clients will tell you what’s going on. Stay close to the client; he’ll tell you if he’s satisfied or if he’s not. If you know he’s not satisfied, you have an opportunity to correct the situation.

Don’t hide the truth, but be cautious.

Encourage your team to be open and realistic with clients. You’ve got to have realistic expectations. I encourage my employees to work hard, be tough but fair, and be open and communicate with their clients.

Be cautious of the expectations of your clients. You don’t want to oversell your capabilities, and you don’t want to under-sell. Be realistic with your clients. If a client has a request that’s unreasonable and you don’t diplomatically inform them that it’s not realistic, even if you do perform well, you’re going to have a problem down the line.

Recognize a job well done. Give employees responsibility, hold them accountable and provide strong support. You’ve got to create a positive environment for your employees, and then you’ve got to reward them if they do the right thing and if they meet your expectations. Let them know early on if you think they can do better, and if they continue to succeed, provide them with more and bigger opportunities.

Recognition goes a long way. Compensate them fairly, recognize their efforts publicly within the organization and encourage them to not be afraid to make mistakes.

You’re never going to have all of your employees reading the same sheet of music; you’ll always have a handful who are trying to prove you wrong and not following your direction. Do everything to try and reward the people that are on board, and get rid of the people that aren’t.

Face your mistakes. Don’t be afraid to encounter your vendors or your clients or your suppliers. You don’t want to express an opinion when you don’t know the topic, but don’t be afraid to tell somebody you don’t know the answer.

A lot of times, you’ll see people try and bluff their way through a difficult situation. You’re better off being truly open. Clients are going to have more than one issue, and you answer the ones you know the answer to and go out, research and do whatever you have to do to resolve the other problems. Just don’t try and bluff your way through.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You can fix mistakes. Inaction is the worst thing that you can do. Just jump in there; just go do it.

You’ve got to make your own brand, but you’ve got to work through the process. Don’t be timid, make your move, make your brand, you’ll do fine.

If you’re in a situation where it’s not exactly like another problem you’ve dealt with, or it’s one you’ve never dealt with, research the problem and make the practical recommendations. Use associates, peers, outside consultants, employees in other areas to chase down an answer. Most questions have a practical answer.

HOW TO REACH: Satterfield & Pontikes Construction Inc., (713) 996-1300 or www.satpon.com