People Are Strange When You’re a Stranger

(Listen to this post, here.)

My wife Linda and I are down in Costa Rica this week.

We rented a small house in a little hill town called Grecia.

Costa Ricans are legendary for their friendliness and the people who own this house are no exception.

In fact, I would venture to say that even by Costa Rican standards, they are warmth outliers – inviting us over for coffee, bringing us fresh homemade yogurt, taking us to see the local attractions.

Plus, there are a lot of them – six sisters and their respective extended families, four of whom live in houses just steps away.

Earlier this week, one of the sons – 30-year-old Daniel – invited us to Sunday breakfast at his aunt’s house, around the corner.

It wasn’t planned, he just happened to mention that they get together on Sunday mornings and said we were welcome to join.

That’s when it got tricky … was this a “real” invitation?

The question was complicated by several factors.

First, by the language. Daniel’s English is way better than our Spanish, but there’s not much nuance to it. 

When he says, “Come for breakfast,” it’s hard to decipher if his aunt would disapprove of her nephew’s invitation. Or if they invite relative strangers all the time. Or something inbetween. 

Second, by the culture. Like I said, Costa Ricans are super-friendly. 

So, in this case, we’re not sure if he is inviting us just to be polite (but expecting us to graciously decline); inviting us because they’ve grown to like us; or inviting us because we are visiting humans and that’s how things work here. 

Third, by the relationship. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof. We don’t know them; they don’t know us. 

We don’t yet understand their sense of humor, their degree of formality, or even their perception of time. (When Daniel says nine in the morning, are we rude for coming much later or rude for arriving when told?) 

The truth is, all of this confusion, second guessing, and potential for miscommunication is not much different than what happens when you begin work with a brand new client. 

In those cases as well you… 

… don’t speak the same language: When they say, “This needs to be done by Tuesday,” do they mean “more or less by Tuesday,” or “even if the Earth should fall into the sun”? 

… don’t know the culture: Does the boss appreciate being told when she is flat out wrong, or are we all expected to tiptoe around her? 

… don’t have a relationship: Most of the client gear-grinding happens at the beginning. It’s nobody’s fault (usually), it just takes time to establish a routine – on everything from work standards, to communication, to invoicing. 

Taken together, and as a direct result of the newness of the connection, all of these things add time and effort – sometimes physically, always mentally. 

Which is why I try not to work with strangers. 

So I …

  • Publish a newsletter. People who read your newsletter for months (or years) and then get in touch, may not be friends, but they are a long way from being strangers. Each time you publish, they get to know you, your style, and your point of view a little bit better.
  • Stay in touch with past clients. There’s already a routine … a way of working … an appreciation for each other. The specific work involved may be new, but repeat business with a former client tends to go very smoothly.
  • Never raise rates on existing clients. Could I earn more money if I did? At first glance, it may seem that way. But I might lose some as well, as a result of raising the fee. That means more time looking for new clients and all that pesky gear-grinding that occurs when you bring them on board.
  • Seek out client referrals. It’s not always a perfect match, but in general, if you’ve got clients with whom you click, the people they send your way tend to be equally clickable.

Here’s the bottom line. On paper, the work and associated fee may be identical, but all clients are not created equal. The better we know each other, the easier and smoother everything goes. 

And while getting to know strangers may be a fun way to spend a vacation (it is), it’s far from an efficient way to run a business. Pura Vida!

Discussion Questions:

  1. Did the title of today’s newsletter remind you of that great Doors song of the same name?

  2. If you’ve never heard of The Doors, you may be too young to be reading this newsletter.

  3. How do you minimize the new client gear-grinding in your work?

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12 thoughts on “People Are Strange When You’re a Stranger

  1. Stacey Shipman

    1. No
    2. However I’m old enough to know the Doors.
    3. Up front. My work is coaching or workshop or facilitation so we don’t have a lot of time to build trust. So on an exploratory call I ask them a lot of questions about their culture, why they want what I offer, results they are seeking, their personal or company values, etc. Then I explain my approach and values to be sure they know what they will and will not get by working with me. Then if we work together there is a lot of contact to plan the event or workshop so by the time we meet we have had a lot of interaction. It’s works well and I have a few retainer clients as a result.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      That sounds like a great way to kick things off, Stacey. Do you work from a set list of questions or just go with conversation based on your experience of what needs to be covered?

  2. Wayne Cerullo

    Doors? Doors that play music? since when? Like the Creaky Hinges?

    (OK – thank you for your US cultural literacy! Now I just need to get that song out of my head!)

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Yes, a sticky song.

      Just be glad I didn’t mention Steve Miller’s Abracadabra (“I want to reach out and grab ya…”). Oh wait, sorry….

  3. Gary Knowles

    Great Doors ref – I suppose there’ll be more to follow?
    “Break on through?”
    “Love Street?”
    “When the Music’s Over…??”

    Nice post – thanks…

  4. Laura Ellis

    I like your idea of not raising rates on existing clients. I am sure that sometimes it must be impossible not to, but I’m sure most people understand that. It seems to me that all of these discounts and incentives offered to people to become new clients and customers are downright insulting to those bread-and-butter folks who have been with you (not YOU) all along. I personally feel that it’s more beneficial to your relationship with existing folks (who are the source of a good part of your new business, if you are doing it right) to reward and thank them for sticking with you. A little bit of appreciation goes a long way!

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      I agree, it goes a long way. And existing clients truly are cheaper to serve in that most of the wrinkles have been worked out. So it’s not a hardship – or even, really, a purely friendly gesture. I want these companies to stick around forever (assuming you like the client and the work to begin with).

  5. Susan Sparks

    1. Yes
    2. Afraid I’m not too young, and that’s a story for a different day.
    3. I found creating my own SOP and questionnaire very handy for working through those early gear-grinding days. Asking questions such as: How hard do you want me to push for follow up? With a bulldozer on one end and a feather duster on the other. It gives some levity, but also lets them know I’m doing my part to move a project along, but they have to do theirs as well.


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