It was a brilliant September day in 1973. What people in¬†Spokane, Washington, call an Indian summer. Now I think we would call it a Native¬†American summer.
It was the first day of my first year as a teacher and I was¬†tied up in knots. Hadn’t slept much, wondering what exactly I would do all day¬†with 29 small, noisy people.
I had made detailed lesson plans. But, still, I didn’t have¬†a clue.
Teaching pigs to swim
I had a dream the night before. A nightmare,¬†really. My principal, Mr. Buri, was standing at the side of a swimming pool.
He swung his head in the direction of the water.
“If you want to work here, you have to know how to¬†teach pigs to swim, ” he said.
In the shallow end of the pool were four pigs with the¬†largest snouts I had ever seen.
“Well?” Mr.¬†Buri said, his arms crossed.
That was when I sat straight up straight in bed, sweating,¬†heart pounding.
A first day story
The next morning, I walked along the rows of tidy desks,¬†placing a box of new Crayola crayons on each one. Even today, all I need is a¬†whiff of that heady wax scent and it takes me right back to the classroom.
That, and the rectangular pieces modeling clay that reeked¬†of oil and stained your hands in the one of the three available colors: Army¬†green, chocolate brown or steel gray.
The 63-year-old teacher in the classroom next to me, with wise eyes and gray hair pulled into a bun, tipped me off about the clay.
“Honey, they’re going to be scared,” she said.¬†” Give ‘em the clay right away, when they first get here. It’s hard as a¬†rock. Working to soften it keeps their hands and brains busy and they forget¬†their other problems.”
She was right.
I gave each kid a piece of clay. Celia, a girl with frizzy¬†red hair and a missing front tooth, let out a big sigh and pulled the wrapper¬†off her clay. I had managed to distract her.
Then it started.
Chris, the tall, blond-haired boy in the second row I later¬†would catch coloring his stomach‚ÄĒnot coloring lying on his stomach; actually lifting up his shirt and¬†coloring his tummy‚ÄĒ sniffed. A lone tear trickled down his cheek.
Katie, the¬†girl to his left, was on the edge of her seat. She looked at me, her mouth a¬†minus sign. Now everyone’s eyes were on me.
Tell the truth
In a stroke of genius, I stopped acting like I knew¬†everything in the world. I stopped acting like a teacher. I held up a piece of clay one kid had shaped into a¬†ball.
“You know,” I said, “I feel like this piece¬†of clay.”
Now the room was deathly still.
“My stomach feels like it’s rolled up in a thick ball.¬†Were any of you a little afraid to come to school today? Maybe like you didn’t¬†know what was going to happen and you were afraid you would do things¬†wrong?”
At least 10 kids nodded their heads.
“You know, I’m scared, too,” I said. “See,¬†it’s my very first day as a teacher. Ever.¬†And I’m afraid I won’t know what to do. How to do things right.”
I looked around, expecting some kid to say, “Look out.¬†Ship’s going down!”
And a mass exodus of 28 six-year-olds, running for¬†their lives.
What I saw instead were faces relaxing and shoulders rising like ten pounds¬†had been lifted from them.
Katie raised her hand. “I think you’re a good teacher, Mrs, Dunn,” she said with a lisp. A couple¬†of other kids chimed in with simple words of encouragement.
The tide was turning.
Why? Because I was honest with my¬†students who, back then were my customers. It was a lesson that I never forgot.
Can you be too honest with¬†your customers?
Now there are there those times with customers and clients¬†where you just have to keep your thoughts to yourself.
If you are a surgeon and it’s your first operation, you’re¬†not going to say to your patient, “Hey, it’s okay to be nervous. I’m scared,¬†too, because this is my very first surgery.”
Or you’re a pilot who just got her wings and your pathetic¬†voice comes over the intercom.
“Good morning. We’ll be flying at 39,000 feet. Just¬†wanted to share with you that it’s my first flight. I really hope I don’t screw¬†up.”
Okay, you could say¬†that, but it might not go over very well.
No one knows all the¬†answers
You don’t have to admit your fears and insecurities to your¬†customers. But being open and honest with their questions can actually build trust¬†and credibility.
Just last week, a client asked Bob, my biz partner, “¬†Will these graphics work with the WordPress theme I’m thinking about¬†using?”
Now, although some designers would be afraid the client¬†would think they don’t know their stuff, Bob’s answer was, “I’m not sure.¬†I’ll check into that and get back to you.”
Because, with new themes coming out all the time, it’s¬†impossible to know the features of every single one.
The client said, “You know, that’s refreshing. My last¬†designer would lead me down the garden path and I would find out later that it¬†was bad advice. You actually admit it when you don’t know something!”
How often do we do that?
We say, “Certainly. I can do that!”
Then after the¬†client walks away we say to ourselves, “How am I going to do that?”
Sometimes I say to a client, “I need to think about¬†that. I’ll get back to you.”
It’s okay to need time to think. To explore other options. To¬†be a thinking, feeling person. To change
your mind about something, even.
It’s what being human is all about.
How about you?
When you react honestly, in the moment, or when you need¬†time to think about the best strategy or service for a client, how do your¬†customers respond?
What if you change your mind about what you think they really need?
Do¬†they still trust you as a credible professional?
Would love to hear from you.