Over the course of 25 years working in the media—most of that in the legal and professional services space—I’ve acquired a fair amount of specialized knowledge. But although it has never been listed on my resume, the most valuable skills I use were learned on a different sort of job, working in a hardware store in Minneapolis in the 1980s.
My parents bought the shop when I was about five years old, and by the time I was seven or eight, I was earning 50 cents an hour dusting the shelves. By the time I was in junior high I worked behind the counter after school, making minimum wage and learning lessons that would serve me in ways I could never have anticipated.
It was the kind of a place that’s increasingly rare—a shop packed to the rafters with everything needed to maintain an old house. The neighborhood ranged from large, stately homes near the lakes to increasingly modest houses the closer you got to the highway. The store had a distinct smell—a mixture of burnt wood, engine oil and the wax-and-sawdust compound we spread over the floors each evening to keep the dust down as we swept up.
In the backroom shop we fixed everything from table lamps to bicycle tires. I learned how to cut and thread iron pipe, re-glaze windows and fix screen doors, but mostly I learned how to deal with people. All kinds of people, with all kinds of needs. Some of them were affable, others standoffish. Some had idle questions while others were in the throes of a crisis. Understanding how to read and respond to each person and their specific needs has proven the most valuable tool in my professional communications kit. These are both service businesses, after all, and it seems worthwhile to share a few of the lessons learned from this very different context.
Understand what the client needs even when they don’t know how to ask for it.
Like media—and for that matter, law—hardware is replete with esoteric terminology, specialized services and often a sense of great urgency. When I was still just a kid, I began to understand the things people needed when they didn’t have the words necessary to articulate them. I noticed that customers would sometimes use hand gestures to ask a question. “Do you have a …” they would say, extending two fingers and a thumb. That’s hardware sign language for a three-prong electrical outlet adaptor. It’s in the back room in the second aisle on the left. Bottom shelf, 79 cents.
Sometimes they would present symptoms, as if to a doctor. “My window used to stay up, but now I have to prop it up with a stick.” That, given the vintage of the local homes, was likely a case of a broken sash cord. Luckily, we stocked sash cord and could cut it to length. We even had a box of ancient cast-iron sash weights under the back bench, it you needed one. If you didn’t feel up to the task of opening the window casing, we could perform a service call for a reasonable fee.
Lawyers and reporters often lack a nuanced understanding of each other. These are two different worlds, each populated by highly intelligent people, but who speak different languages. As a former journalist I can attest to the facts that lawyers can be the best of sources (because of their immensely valuable expertise) and the worst of sources (when they don’t understand the realities facing a reporter on deadline). An intermediary who speaks both languages, whether internal or at an outside agency, can help maximize the value, and minimize the risk of interactions with the media.
Be honest about value for money.
I recall a January Saturday afternoon when a customer came in looking for an ice chopper. If you live outside the city, where salt is usually applied in equal depth to any anticipated snowfall, you’ll recognize this as a tool that looks like a garden hoe without the 90-degree bend. You need it to chisel your sidewalk and driveway after an ice storm, lest you risk a broken hip, or dare I say, a lawsuit.
We carried two kinds. The cheap one cost about 10 bucks and had a spot-welded blade, likely to break the first time you tried to use it as a lever. The expensive one—about $25—had a head that was a single piece of steel. You could pass it on to your grandchildren in your will. I explained the relative merits of these implements to the customer. He was in his 30s and had the look of a first-time homeowner. He chose the cheap one.
An hour later he came back and, without saying anything, bought another cheap one. Around closing time, he was back again. He looked at me and said, “I know, I know, you don’t have to tell me,” as he purchased the better-quality tool. I’m sure he has it to this day.
Oftentimes, law firms are inclined to dip a toe in the water when it comes to media engagement. Their rationale is to spend as little as possible to see how things go before making a more substantive investment. I’ve learned to diplomatically turn these prospective clients away.
Below a certain threshold, any results will be spotty at best, and not a representative sample of service or value. It’s better to be up-front about real cost over time and expected results, and to allow at least 90 days as a trial period. Three months should be enough time to see just how much value a focused media campaign can provide a client, how much interest the media has in the client’s perspective, and whether they can respond to media opportunities quickly enough to make it worthwhile for both sides. A brief, one-off project may hit the press jackpot, or yield nothing at all—either way it’s not an accurate measure of value.
Provide better service when you can’t offer bigger scale.
During the 80s, the Big Box stores started encroaching on the family business. Locals might come in to buy a handful of screws or some grass seed, but they’d drive to the suburbs to purchase an expensive tool or appliance. But we always had an advantage over any economies of scale that the chain store might offer: We knew the neighborhood, and we knew what we were talking about.
Knowing the neighborhood is like understanding the specific needs of any client. In this case it was the needs of houses built between 1900 and 1940. That means iron radiators, not forced air heating. It means repair parts for fixtures and features you don’t find in newly built homes. We found obscure suppliers to provide these products and knew how to explain them. We also made house calls. We had a fully stocked van that we could send to the customer’s house to fix that 70-year-old toilet or hardwood banister.
Effective legal communications is all about understanding the client, their business objectives and specific needs. Again, the practice of law is quite similar. Whether you need a will, a mortgage, a billion-dollar deal or a bet-the-company litigation, the best representation comes from the service provider that truly understands the situation and the client’s needs.
Know when and why to try to change someone’s mind.
I was at a lawyer friend’s house one summer afternoon when he had to take an urgent call. His client, emboldened by a winning streak, was trying to push for more. My friend provided the wise counsel that—in baseball terms—the client had hit a stand-up triple, but that if they tried to steal home, they would be thrown out.
Growing up in the hardware store, I frequently had to deal with customers whose expectations were simply not realistic. I’ve observed that painters see surfaces, carpenters see structures, and plumbers see more fundamental realities. The communications equivalent is that optics, strategy and necessity are all important, and it requires experience and tact to know when and how to have difficult discussions about the difference between what’s desirable and what’s possible.
A client may have an idea of what a successful media engagement looks like, but that vision can be inaccurate, or at odds with the firm’s best interests and its broader media strategy. Any service professional wants to please the client, but the real test of mettle is knowing when and how to let them know if they’re wrong.
Know a little bit about almost everything.
I’m not an electrician, a plumber, a roofer, a carpenter, a mason, a painter or a candlestick maker. But working at the hardware store I had to know enough about everything we stocked to be able to ensure my customers got what they needed, along with as much advice as I was able to provide.
I was several years into my career before I realized that being a legal reporter was pretty much the same gig. I’d been worried that, as I non-lawyer, I didn’t know as much about the law as I should. But I figured out that it wasn’t my job to be an expert in all legal practice areas, I just had to be reasonably knowledgeable about the ones I covered. My job was to ask good questions to smart people, and translate their responses for other smart people. It’s not possible to be an expert in IP, litigation, compliance, transactions, government affairs and the inner machinations of law firms and corporate legal departments all at once. But I did need to be conversant on these subjects, and understand why they were important and who they were important to.
Most lawyers specialize. They develop deep expertise in specific areas of law, but may not have a clue what their partner in the office next door does all day. To serve law firms and their many practices you don’t have to match all their expertise (if you could, there are more lucrative career options), but you do need a broad view of the field, and all its many facets. In retrospect, I can’t imagine a better training ground than a hardware store.