Why is it, Ford R. Myers asked himself, that we can deliver jobs of equal quality to two clients, and one thinks we're great while the other never wants to deal with us again?

To try to answer that question, Myers, who heads Ford Myers & Co., a graphic-design firm in Ardmore, Pa., hired an independent research organization to interview prospective clients, current clients, and former clients. Afterward, he concluded that he could better serve his clients by tailoring his company's operating style to their individual expectations. And the easiest way to find out what those expectations were was to ask. He drew up a one-page list of questions that he now asks all potential clients -- and continually refines and updates.

Myers's questions run the gamut: they try to ascertain procedural ground rules ("Upon the project's satisfactory completion, will you require a detailed itemization of costs, or will our invoice be adequate to effect payment?"), and they attempt to set priorities ("Which is of paramount importance to you -- scheduling and budget considerations, or innovation and creativity?").

Because straightforward questions don't always get straightforward answers, Myers often likes to chat informally with the client. When asked what is more important, maximum quality or staying within budget, many clients will say, "Both," but Myers's probing will reveal a distinct preference for one or the other. "I believe every client has one real primary concern," says Myers, "and I want to find out what it is."

Getting the information for the client-preferences profile takes Myers only about 15 minutes. If Ford Myers & Co. gets the job, Myers has the client-preferences profile typed. He briefs the staff on every new client and staples the typed profile to the job folder so everyone involved can see it and operate accordingly. -- Tom Richman

* * *