Originally this month's column was supposed to be a harsh spectacle of exacting criticism concerning the villains of my last column - the Time Burglars (Digital Graphics, Feb. 2000).

But the millennium brought on an epiphany. As the new year rang in I kissed all those around me (it's all a matter of good positioning), and I reflected on the last year. I realized that the stress of running a business and the fact that I was constantly "out of time" had transformed a warm, sensitive, happy-go-lucky guy into an impatient, mean-spirited rattler.

I was never outwardly mean, mind you, but inside I was rolling my eyes, and saying things like, "Yeah, yeah, that's real nice. Can we move on now?" or, "Sure, I need another hoop to jump through today. Can you hold that one a little higher please?"

Sometimes, if someone was really wasting my time I might even scream to myself, "For the love of God, man, get on with it!"

It wasn't really personal, it was just that I cherish my valuable time and want to use it to better my business, and to perform necessary tasks - not spend it lolly-gagging around, stroking people and jumping through unnecessary hoops.

But my customers were starting to pick up on that lack of gentleness, even though it was buried deep inside - and I began to see definite signs that my all-business attitude was being interpreted as a cold attitude.

But I really do care. Honest.

I care about how to make that job perfect, and I was trying to filter out any Time-Burglar type activity. But just because I was getting good at fending off the Time Burglars' advances (thus preserving more energy for their work projects), I don't think my customers saw it that way.

If, during a conversation, a client started to ramble, I would take over and brashly ask the questions I needed answers to. But I think I started making people feel uneasy as I rushed them to cough up the needed information - I just wanted to get off the phone and get on with working.

Furthermore, I was having less and less contact with clients. I was letting my employees insulate me from the Time Burglars, but I soon realized that this was exactly how a growing business loses its personal touch. What I needed to do was use them to insulate my work load, so I could get back up on the smiley front lines where I could be the face man.

My business has always prospered because of the personal approach I take with each client. It's inescapable friends - business is about people. What I am saying is that a good understanding of what makes people tick will not only make those people feel good about themselves, but it will also make them feel comfortable with you.

Dale Carnegie's How To Win Friends and Influence People isn't just a bunch of malarkey. I think we all get a little myopic when we are impassioned and you would be surprised how showing a little interest in someone else's world warms them up. Which brings me back to my epiphany.

I now realize that giving my customers even the smallest amount of attention to non essential subjects they bring up - like their personal problems, their stories, their stupid jokes, those impertinent job details and the like - actually creates a comfortable feeling in the client.

When your clients feel understood they trust that you are giving their job sufficient energies. When you rush them around or cut them off, it's all too possible that they think you just don't care.

Therefore, a little change of heart was in order. It's really not that hard to make someone feel good about themselves. My first test came soon enough.

We'll call her Time Burglar #1. She sure is a joker, that one. Did I mention she is just not funny? Oh, and she really likes me to joke right along with her.

Yesterday the door bell rang, I glanced through the lobby and saw her. In fact, her copious flow of jokes was already beginning. As Jeff let her in I could see him feign a couple of laughs and I could hear her cackle repeatedly. I noted the time: 2:10 p.m.

God may have given some of us the ability to do the courtesy laugh, but it makes me kind of panic because I know that it's obviously fake. However, I discovered that if I quickly follow that courtesy laugh with a quick summary of the witticism, and then offer up a related joke, they'll think I got their joke, that I believed it was funny, and they'll start feeling like I've connected with them because I shared my own experience. My goal with this woman: a super-friendly funny five minutes.

We talk a little business and then we just plum joke around. She makes fun of her clients and I stretch to either summarize her joke, or tell her a somewhat related experience.

She declares that professionals like herself and me understand the business, and then she cracks another stupid joke. I smile, I laugh, and then I shoot one right back at her.

Then I ask, "How do you keep up? I am so busy." She agrees that she is equally busy, and she says should really get running. I say, "Hang in there," and she, feeling really understood, departs as a satisfied customer.

I noted the time: 2:15 p.m. A new record!

Okay. Now that everyone's warm, fuzzy and understood, let's talk about those pesky hoops. With my new kinder, gentler attitude I realized that some hoops, regardless of actual importance have to be jumped through in order to keep people calm and make them feel the special, warm glow of great customer service.

So, in this new great millennium I invite the masses to burgle my time. Tell me stories, give me unnecessary information, touch base, check in, drop by and present me with big, glorious hoops to jump through.

Stephen Augustine owns and operates Eye Candy Graphics, a graphic design and digital printing shop in Denver. www.eyecandygraphics.com

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