Monday, March 7, 2016

Customer Service: Doing it right

Photo by SparkFun Electronics/Creative Commons
A professor stood in front of a class and held up a book.  He asked, "What color is the book?"  Student after student replied it was black, because the cover was black.  Each time, he would tell them it actually was red.  As the students were coming to the conclusion the professor was nuts, he smiled and turned the book around, showing the red cover on the back of the book.  To him, the book was red because that's what he saw; to the students, it was black.

Perception and acknowledgement.  Working with customers comes down to those two things - perception and acknowledgement.  How we see the world - our perception - is reality to us, just as how our clients' perception is their reality, whether the facts bear it out or not.  In business, remembering that is crucial.  Let's see how.

Evan is a roofer, living and working in upstate New York.  Half the year, he's scrambling to get everything done before winter sets in, which basically puts him out of work for the other half of the year.  Because he has to hurry, he sometimes makes mistakes (like we all do), but he tries his best to get it right.  His biggest challenge?  Communicating with customers.

"I hate getting emails or phone calls," Evan says, "so I do everything I can to respond as quickly as possible to keep the customers happy."  His first step to avoiding problems is to make sure he answers his customers' emails and phone calls within two hours, at most.

Frank, a web developer in Houston, has a different approach.  He's acknowledged as one of the best in his field, but his communication style is different.  "I constantly get emails from my clients wanting to know when their project will be done.  I avoid those emails and just keep my nose to the grindstone to get their project done before I reply to their questions."

If you asked Frank and Evan's customers, which would they say had the better customer service?  Evan every time.  Why?  Because Evan acknowledges their concerns.

Here's why waiting to communicate with a client doesn't work.  The customer wants to know when something will be finished, so they send an email.  They get no response within an hour, so they send another email.  Crickets.  They are now wondering whether you're even working on their project, so another email gets sent.  Because they still haven't heard back from you, they call and leave a voice message.  Now, they're getting angry.  Another voice mail and a text to you and now, you've got a situation.  

You're wanting to just get their work done so they'll quit bugging you; they're really annoying with all those emails, texts and phone calls.  Don't they know you're just trying to get the work done?

The customer, in the meantime, thinks you're on the beach, having coffee, sleeping late, in the hospital or otherwise ignoring them.  They're getting more and more frustrated with each passing hour.

The customer's perception is the only one that counts.  By not answering until the work is done, you've now cost yourself time in looking at all those communications coming in and possibly cost yourself a client.

The best chances of success lie in communicating from the very beginning.  Make sure you let your customer know when they can expect an answer; it doesn't matter how quickly respond to their questions, as long as they know what to expect.  And then stay within that time frame.  

Figure out how your client wants to be communicated with.  If they prefer phone calls, schedule a 15-minute call sometime each week just to update them on progress.  If they just want to know where you are in the project, provide a weekly status report.

The bottom line is that, while your perception is your reality, it doesn't count nearly as much as the reality your client has; if they perceive you're ignoring them, they're going to find someone who will communicate well, even if the work isn't as good as yours.