reserve an empty chair for the client

Keep the client’s spot open at all important meetings

The Empty Chair Exercise

The client deserves a seat at the table for all major decisions. Sometimes that involves bringing together a representative sample of clients, physically or virtually, like an advisory board. Other times it means including them in spirit.

In his book To Sell Is Human, Daniel Pink writes about an exercise probably started by Sears, Roebuck but made famous by Amazon – The Empty Chair. Jeff Bezos founded Amazon to be the “World’s Most Customer-Centric Company.” For several years, he resisted defining exactly what that meant. But he incorporated a technique to keep the idea on everyone’s mind.

In every meeting involving an important decision – product design, customer service, marketing – they place an empty chair. It’s the position at the table for the most important person in the meeting: the customer.

After learning of and writing about the practice, Pink implemented a version of the idea himself. He is always creating text intended for his customers (readers). He does it at his desk rather than at a conference table. So, he has a small plastic chair in front of him on that desk. When he struggles over what to write or how (which he says is frequently), he looks at that little chair and attempts to imagine what the reader needs or wants.

A client driven practice always starts with the client. The specific one you want to attract. To properly represent them at the table, create or refine your client persona – a dossier of the hypothetical ideal client. It goes further than simply listing the demographics of who you want to attract. It includes the unique challenges that client faces or the unique experience they seek.

You may find it helpful to give your profile a name (or names if it is a couple or family). Anticipating what a 62-year-old pre-retiree couple, for example, thinks of something may be too clinical to bring specific ideas to mind. But you can give the profile life by considering what “Bruce and Sheila” would want.

Just keeping the image of that couple in mind on a regular basis can provide inspiration.

A detailed profile will help evaluate the impact a decision will have and the client’s likely feelings about it.

You might even place a name tent at that spot of the table in front of the empty chair.

Don’t make assumptions. David Livermore, President of the Cultural Intelligence Center, reminds us that not everyone thinks what we think or wants what we want. Your values and perspectives may not apply to your clients.

As you consider a significant decision, take a few moments to ask the client’s point of view. How will this look to them? How much additional value will it add? How will it change the experience of working with your firm?

The empty chair will never replace carefully collected client feedback. You will still need interviews, surveys, and your advisory board. But the reality is the client cannot be there in person to represent their interests for all the discussions that affect your firm’s interactions with them. Holding a place for them at the table can remind you to at least consider each decision from their point of view.


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