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Structural Solutions: Nuggets of Wisdom for Engineers Young and Old, Part 3: The Final Chapter

Douglas Fitzpatrick on October 2, 2017 - in Articles, Column

My previous two columns covered two main pieces of advice I like to share with students at the Direct Connect session at the NASCC conference: careful use of computer software, and mastering verbal and written communication. In this issue, I’ll finish my list of sage advice for the students with a couple of quick hitters.

Listen to Your Clients

As experts in our field, it’s easy to answer questions quickly. Most of us are anxious to share our expertise the moment we think we know what the answer is. The risk we run, however, is “jumping the gun” and answering the wrong question. Although that might not be a terribly bad thing, sometimes listening allows us to answer the real question and avoid misstatements.

We encourage our engineers to ask good follow-up questions before answering. Ask for more information related to the initial question. Sometimes our clients aren’t exactly sure how to ask their question, or they don’t know the real problem. Answering with the first thing that pops into your head might make the client more confused.

Try to get a full understanding of the issue or problem before answering. In my wife’s words: “Let the information come to you.” Asking more questions allows you to better answer the real question, and it may also reveal a larger issue that needs to be addressed.

I’m not suggesting you answer every question with a laundry list of more questions. Listen to your client. Listen to see if there’s an underlying problem that needs better clarity before you answer. Your clients will come to respect your thoughtfulness.

Client Relations

Clients and the people we interact with on a regular basis come in all shapes and sizes. Some like a quick answer, some like several options that allow them to make educated choices, some are slower thinkers, and some require a definitive first answer with no wavering in response. They all have different personalities, hot buttons and interests.

Engineers typically are consultants, so we need to learn how to interact with all these different types of clients. Naturally, your personality will be better suited to respond to some types better than others, but learning how to navigate and communicate with different types of personalities will make you more versatile.

A corollary to this is treat all clients the same: large or small; sophisticated or not; “focused project types” or “jacks of all trades.” Make each client feel like they’re the perfect fit for your company and that you enjoy working with them. If your clients feel like you truly enjoy working with them and are looking out for their interests, it will go a long way to fostering a lasting relationship.

Social Skills

Right or wrong, our two daughters spent much of their formative years in private school before heading off to college. Although that relatively closed environment allowed them to really get to know their friends through the years, it didn’t give them a lot of exposure to all walks of life. Their first year in college was an eye-opener and full of some difficult lessons.

Our profession is the same. Co-workers and clients have all different types of personalities and come from all walks of life. Learn to get along with everyone as best you can or, at the very least, tolerate the differences. Sometimes that’s easier said than done, but it’s still important for maintaining your relationships (and sanity).

Schoolyard rules still apply: Never talk behind people’s backs. If you wouldn’t say something directly to their face, it isn’t worth repeating. We live in an incredibly small world now. There’s a good chance saying something bad about someone will come back to haunt you later.

Finally, Engineering

Like any profession, engineers are a proud bunch. We like to think we’re right all the time. However, I encourage you to be humble. I still learn new things every day. Our industry knowledge and design principles are changing all the time. Be willing to go with the flow and adapt to new changes.

Don’t be afraid to say you need to look into something further. Everyone doesn’t have to have the quick answer all the time. Most people understand this; particularly with a young engineer.

A simple “That’s a great question; can I get back to you with an answer?” can go a long way. You gain more trust by providing the correct answer later. If you make up an answer, and they start peppering you with questions, it’s likely you’ll be “discovered,” and that’s never a good thing.

Finally, you do not have to be the smartest engineer on the planet. I’m sure everyone has been in a meeting where an engineer pontificates, trying to show just how smart he or she is. They also argue too long that they’re correct. In my opinion, being helpful is more important than being right. No one likes a blowhard, so listen to the client’s needs and try to help them solve their problem. You’ll gain more respect doing that than forcing an answer down someone’s throat.

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About Douglas Fitzpatrick

Douglas G. Fitzpatrick, P.E., is the founder, president and practicing engineer of Fitzpatrick Engineering Group, a 14-year-old structural engineering firm specializing in commercial and healthcare building design.

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