Out of Your Rut advises individual entrepreneurship. The scope of personal businesses is endless, but one changeless aspect – once you’ve taken the plunge – is customer service. You must learn that skill to be successful in a small business. In many cases it’s even more vital than product selection.
If clients are not attended to with care, it isn’t important how many bookkeepers you have. If care is not paid to how inquiries, complaints, concerns, orders and returns are handled, it won’t matter how much inventory sits in your warehouse. Word of mouth (good word of mouth) will expand your customer base; customer no service – in the words of Clark Howard – will shut you down in a hurry.
Proper Client Management
The proper management of your clients should be the first skill taught to new employees – not the computer system, not the filing system, not even sales techniques. The only way to be certain you have customers is to treat them right so they’ll keep coming back. More importantly, treating them right will encourage them to bring others to your front counter. That’s the kind of advertising money cannot buy.
Customer service sets the tone and atmosphere of your work place. When dignity and respect for those outside the building is not in doubt, then it will certainly be present among the work force. When people are at ease with each other, they will be comfortable with the clients, whether they are on the phone or at the counter.
Here are the essentials of establishing a system of customer service for any enterprise. There are seven steps – none of them is difficult. And when executed in sequence, they make for a powerful and positive experience for your patrons.
1. Connecting with the Client
Calling them the name they want you to use develops feelings of cordiality. Show respect for their name; if you hear they have a nickname, ask their permission to use it first. (I have a nickname that goes back to my elementary school days that sets my teeth on edge whenever someone uses it today!) Always greet the person by their name when you see them, even if it is not in your business location. Teach yourself the skills of matching names with faces.
Let them make the decisions; you advise and suggest, but unless they give you clear authority to do so, it is their call. They may be paying you for your knowledge, but they really are the “boss”.
Try to establish some common ground outside the business relationship. If your kids share their kids’ school, that’s a connection. If the school is a rival, that’s a connection. Once business transactions have been concluded, make polite but sincere chit-chat about hobbies and interests. Just remember the old caveat against topics like sex, religion and politics, and be respectful of time. A minute or so of idle conversation is long enough to secure the bonding.
2. Involve the Client
They are coming to you because you are the professional. Certainly they will want to tell you their expectations and plans, but share your thought processes with them. Present as many options as you can, but without any prejudice. You may advocate one approach so tell them why you do.
Listen to feedback and ideas. Don’t discount anything based on your own bias. If they are new to the field, gently educate. They may have been doing things longer than you so be ready to acknowledge their views. Don’t lord your professional expertise over them (“You can’t understand that; I’ll figure it out for you.”). That’s arrogance and condescension. Respect their experience and wishes; they’ll do the same of yours.
3. Respond to the Client
Never, never, never let a phone call or email go unacknowledged! Respond the same day, even if it is to say you will be in touch tomorrow. Communication is the top priority. There’s no telling why they are calling; it might be they’ve got a lead for another job for you, not that they’ve decided to scale back the project. Don’t dread bad news and avoid them.
4. Communicate with the Client
Let them see you have an interest in doing the best work for them by sharing new information, new products, and new processes. They expect you to keep up with the industry, so show them you do.
When you have unhappy information to give them, do it immediately. Things will not get better delaying. You certainly don’t want them to discover a problem and have them report it to you.
Report the progress and status of projects, even if there’s nothing new to report. If they don’t get updates from you, they could think you’re not doing anything.
Anticipate questions and have responses ready. You should know the FAQ’s that will come your way so have the answers prepared. If you don’t know the answer, assure them you’ll get the answer. Then, research and provide response both in a written and a phone message. Thank them for alerting you to a potential concern.
5. Listen to the Client
This is the most important skill you must develop. How well you listen shows how well you can perform. Take notes of your conversations, review the notes at the end of the day and before your next contact. Feed back to them what you “heard” so there is clarity of intent and understanding on both sides. Send a follow up email confirming your understanding. Let them take a lead now and then; certainly they are paying for your professionalism, but stroking their ego doesn’t cost you a thing and adds more value to your reputation.
6. Evolve with the Client
Grow in your knowledge of them, their lives and their business. You think of your work for them as growth for you, not only in your bottom line, but opportunity and knowledge. It involves “active listening” in which you foresee future jobs. Look for their business direction and intersect it with new products you can provide. Foresight is better than hindsight, and anticipation of needs is a valuable skill.
7. If You Make a Mistake, Own It And Fix It
Nobody’s perfect, so mistakes are bound to happen. But for heavens sake, if you make a mistake, admit to it – then fix it! Trying to weasel out will cost you a customer. Owning the error and fixing it to the client’s satisfaction will help you to retain their business.
And whenever possible, “compensate” them for your mistake. Discount the price, provide extra service, and even offer a gift (it that isn’t illegal in your business). In this pass-the-buck world, fixing your mistakes might cause your clients to see you more as a partner than as a vendor.
You have to constantly be selling yourself and your business to your clients and customers, even and especially when you make a mistake. Don’t shrink back from making it better – seize the opportunity to wow your client.
That’s it! The cycle repeats itself with each new client and each new job. And each turn of the cycle produces improvement for your performance.