This is a recent article that I wrote for my "Tales from the Pits" column in SSSA's Soil Horizons publication. It is that time of the year when most of us are crazy busy with field work, projects, you name it, and that doesn't include what is happening on the personal side of our lives. So...just some thoughts on keeping up with a side of your work life that is very easily pushed aside amidst the busy workdays.
A Tale of Communication and Customer Service
I don’t know about anyone else, but I grow exceedingly tired of poor customer service. Perhaps I am old-fashioned (yes, I do find myself sounding like my parents every once in a while), but I don’t think it is too much to ask to speak to a human and, then when you do, to have that person actually have a conversation with you, try to help you, or provide a direction towards whatever solution you are seeking. Can you tell I’ve had a frustrating week trying to talk to people that are in customer service? Again, at the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I think good customer service has been lost somewhere along the line and I would argue that if you can provide good service to your customers/clients you will stand out as brilliant among your peers in what has become a lost concern and/or mediocre practice at best.
I am not trying to imply that everyone’s customer service is bad or needs improvement, but I do find that good service to customers had become the exception rather than the norm. Perhaps it is our reliance on computers and cutting the costs of employing people to answer the phones. The sad thing to me is that many people seem to accept it, even as they complain about it.
Have we really lost the expectation of good customer service? In this fast-paced world does the customer/client still want and need a high level of service? I would argue that yes, they do, and that they do recognize and appreciate it. When I first started in consulting I worked for an engineering firm who instilled basic business practices (or rules) within me that I still hold as important today – and this is 22 years later. These practices are not just consultant specific, and I have tried to follow them no matter where I have been employed. I think on some level these “rules” are intuitive, but when we deal with clients (clients includes customers, students, or anyone looking for our time) it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves that providing competent service that lets those we interact with know we are listening is very important. It is a practice that will be appreciated and can pay back in terms of professional respect and additional work.
There are three major points that I try to keep in mind when interacting with clients: 1. be responsive, 2. be polite, professional, and care about the client and their issues, and 3. take the initiative to follow up. Let me explain what I mean by each.
1. Be Responsive: The engineering firm I first worked for was run very strictly in terms of client service. We were expected to put communication with clients as a priority. This point of being responsive and communicative is important. I was taught that all phone calls were to be returned within 24 hours. It didn’t matter if you had answers for the client or not, the phone call had to be returned to let the client know that you were working on their project. (I should point out that email wasn’t the major way of communicating at this time since it was just beginning to be used and yes, I just dated myself.) I still try to live by this rule even now when email or texting tends to be the way we talk to each other. I don’t like when I don’t receive some acknowledgement of a phone call or email so I try not to do that to others. If someone took the time to contact you, then you should take the time to respond to them in a timely manner. You should respond even if it is to say that you don’t have the answer(s) yet, but you are working on it and will get back with them within “x” amount of time. It is also important to remember to get back to them when “x” amount of time has expired. Do not make them call you again by being late!
2. Be Polite/Care about the Client: Being respectful, polite and professional isn’t always easy if you have a client that is not behaving that way towards you. However, you need to be the bigger person, so to speak, and remain professional. There are two things that I tend to think about with regard to this point. The first comes from my Dad who has always said to treat people as you would like to be treated. The second comes from a very smart friend and is one of the best consultants I know who says to put yourself in the other person’s place, understand where they are coming from and then figure out how to talk to them. This is valuable advice to remember no matter what the circumstances, but especially important when the conversation is contentious. Your client wants to feel like they and their project are important to you and you need to convey to them that it is. Understand their pressures and obligations and make them your own to the extent that you can. This means understanding their responsibilities, obligations and the project as a whole, what your part in that project is, and how the timeline all fits together.
3. Initiative and Follow Up: It is the lasting impression that you are going for so make sure you leave a good impression. Following up to the work that you did is important and shows someone that you find them and the work that you did important. Take the initiative to follow up with your client to make sure that everything was done to their satisfaction and ensure that they were happy with your work. Find out if there were things that you could have done better by giving the client a chance to tell you how they thought the job went. You may not always hear what you want to, but it will make you better at what you do and provide you and your client with an opportunity to build a working relationship that can move forward. One important note for this point is to do this follow up on the phone or in person. The point is to build a relationship with your client, not just add them to the email list.
I don’t mean to suggest that we are all perfect with customer service all the time. We all have our “bad” days where our problems seem much more important than the client’s or we are distracted by something going on elsewhere in our work or personal lives. This is when it gets hard to keep focused on the client, but it also when it is essential. The client is there because they trust your or your colleagues to address a problem and they are willing to pay for your insight, expertise and advice. I think we need to remember that it takes a lot of time to build the trust with our clients that makes them want to come back and also leads to more business from word of mouth. It takes very little time to destroy that trust or turn away a new client if they don’t feel like they have your attention. Quite honestly, your clients don’t necessarily care what your problems are when they have financial considerations, are on tight deadlines, or are trying to obtain permits for their project. They want a professional attitude and attention to the details that they hired you to take care of. While that sounds one-sided, it actually is not. If you do a good job for your client they are more likely to come back to you on the next project and in that, you have just scored. Add to that the solid reputation that you will build and the new customers will tend to show up because they want the type of service you provide.
So next time you have a voicemail or email waiting for you, can you answer it within 24 hours? Try to challenge yourself to do this even if your schedule is busy. It may mean few extra minutes in the work day, but I have found that the consideration and response time is much appreciated and not taken lightly.