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7:00pm EDT January 29, 2008

At a loss prevention seminar a few years ago, Dennis Astorino learned of a horrific architectural accident.

A beam at a Chicago-area structure had failed, resulting in a needless death. But instead of assessing guilt and blame, the project’s architectural and engineering firms took immediate action to make sure the building would be safe for future occupants. That kind of proactive response can make all the difference in solving problems, Astorino says. As president of architecture and engineering and CEO at Astorino, a 191-employee, Pittsburgh-based architectural design firm, the leader’s head-on approach to problem-solving has paid off: The company’s 2007 revenue was $40 million, up from $37 million the previous year.

Smart Business spoke with Astorino about how to use different “languages” to pro-actively address the needs of your clients.

Communicate using different languages. You need to state the message that you’re trying to communicate to the client in a number of different languages. Restate the message over and over again from a number of different points of view so that you can manage the client’s expectations through communication.

Just because the client will shake their head and say, ‘OK, I understand,’ that’s not enough. I want to make sure that they really do understand or that we understand what their concerns are.

Keep asking the questions in a number of different directions so you understand what the client’s needs are. Ask the question one way, and come back and ask it again. Then I like to put it in their words and give it back to them so that we’re all understanding.

Every client is different — just as we’re different as human beings. You have to understand the client as a personality.

Try it from a point of humor. You can try it from a point of being serious. You have to explore all of these different pathways to truly understand the client.

At the end of the day, the most important thing is to manage their expectations. You want that client to say, ‘Boy, that’s exactly what you told me it was going to be, and you listened to me because this is exactly what I wanted.’

Exceed expectations. It’s important to try to help clients understand their business and actually to make their business better. We deal with healthy buildings all the time. If we can create a building that’s healthier, and you can have less absenteeism and less sick days and it’s a healthier environment to work in, it’s going to increase productivity. That’s a positive thing for a business.

As experts, we want to give that advice to our clients. I challenge our staff not to stop and just accept everything that (clients) are telling us and continue to look for better ways to do things.

The end benefit is a happy client that’s working in an environment that’s productive and exceeds all kinds of expectations.

Encourage input. You must encourage the staff to communicate freely without concern or fear of punishment.

One of the things that I do here Mondays and Fridays, we have a design review where we put up projects — they’re internal, and anybody can come to them — and we just talk about issues.

We sit there, and someone goes through their design thoughts, and we critique them, and we go through them, and we talk about them.

You encourage that, and you foster that. That really helps. (Employees then) become part of the process. People want to feel valuable with their ideas. You want to encourage their input, and you want to nurture their creativity.

Avoid certain comfort zones.

Never find a comfort zone of putting issues off and missing deadlines. I’ve seen it happen too many times, where you may miss a deadline, and you make it by. Somebody goes, ‘Ah well, it’s OK,’ and you put an issue off that you should have addressed.

If you put it off, maybe it will go away if everybody’s real quiet. If you get into a comfort zone of allowing that to happen, eventually, it will be absolutely disastrous.

Practice clock management. You need to manage your internal clock in assessing how long it may take to accomplish a task. You’ve heard it a million times: It always takes longer than you think it’s going to take. Try to really understand how long you need.

You have to be realistic about it. I see sometimes that people aren’t realistic about it. Forgive the cliché: Their mind is writing checks their body can’t cash. You have to understand that.

That is something that comes with experience, obviously, but even experience sometimes is not enough. I see people who have worlds of experience but still can’t figure out how long it’s going to take to do a task.

(Encourage) them not to be fearful of saying, ‘I can’t do this,’ or, ‘I don’t have enough time to do this,’ or, ‘This is what I need to do this.’ There may be a multitude of reasons, but you have to stress upon individuals to be open and not fearful of telling somebody their limitations.

When (they) don’t know something, encourage them to ask questions, to get help or to talk to somebody who might have more experience about how to manage that situation.

It’s to our benefit if that person is successful and learns and grows.

HOW TO REACH: Astorino, (800) 518-0464 or