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How To Rock At Client Service Without Being A Doormat

How To Rock At Client Service Without Being A Doormat
"This job would be great if it wasn't for the fucking customers." — Randal Graves in Clerks (1994).

Note: this post contains profanity, in case you're offended by that :)

I've both heard and used some variation of this line for most of my career working in agencies. It's no secret that many designers, developers and marketing consultants have a love/hate relationship when it comes to clients.

On the one hand, clients put food on the table, keep the lights on, and may even let you afford that trip to Amsterdam you've always wanted. On the other hand, it can be hard to make them happy, some of them give you late feedback, or no feedback, or silly, irrelevant feedback, and some even try to get extra work out of you for free. There's a reason sites like Clients From Hell were developed, or videos like Make My Logo Bigger Cream.

As a result, many professionals have developed a mild disdain for clients and customer service in general. The word "service" is very close to "servant" and no one wants to be a servant.

My attitude changed in the last year of running my startup, and as a result I've gotten better at customer service and now I even enjoy it. It's helping us attract and retain customers, and build a great reputation.



My point here isn't to brag. It's to show that what I thought was adequate support was actually being interpreted as above average support, so I decided to analyze it more closely to learn why.

This also got me thinking that any company, whether you're a product startup or service agency, can offer better support to customers without necessarily getting taken advantage of or going over budget on projects.

Why customer service is important

Anyone who's had a bad experience with an airline or cable company knows that customer service is a lost art. When a support agent is rude or apathetic toward us, it creates a negative perception of that company as a whole and we don't want to do business with them.

When we receive amazing customer service, however, it has the opposite effect. We want to tell the world how great that company is, and we'll even put up with the occasional problem or hiccup with their product or service because we're loyal to the brand.

If you're the one offering service to your client, keep in mind that even if you produce the most stellar work on the planet, your client will probably remember their experience of working with you more than the work you produced.

This isn't just my opinion, it's SCIENCE.

According to Wikipedia:

"Numerous studies have shown that the most vivid autobiographical memories tend to be of emotional events, which are likely to be recalled more often and with more clarity and detail than neutral events."

How do you deliver that "emotional event"? With great customer service, of course!

What customer service isn't

You may worry that in order to deliver what your client considers great customer service, you need to be a doormat — providing free work outside the scope of a project, accepting abusive treatment, or following orders at the expense of doing your job properly (like making the logo bigger when you shouldn't).

That's not what great customer service is.

You are still the professional and you can stand up for what you believe in and charge what you're worth while still going above and beyond the call of duty. Let me use an example of someone who is a professional at customer service but who is definitely not a doormat.

Learn from The Wolf

Pulp Fiction is one of my favourite movies of all time. And one of my favourite characters is Winston Wolfe, played by Harvey Keitel.

The Wolf gets called in by Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) to clean up a big mess known in the movie as 'the Bonnie situation'. Although at first he rubs Vincent (John Travolta) the wrong way, by the end of the "project", Vincent has complete respect for The Wolf and thanks him profusely.

Now obviously this is a crazy example and you wouldn't want to emulate everything about how The Wolf talks to his customers (you should reduce the F bombs just a smidge), but he does provide some good lessons we all can learn from:

Take charge

The Wolf walked into the Bonnie situation, quickly assessed the problems and what needed to be done, and then provided clear direction on what his clients needed to do.

Despite what you may think about clients, they usually don't want to micromanage your work or provide prescriptive feedback (i.e.: bigger logos). But if they feel like you aren't leading them, if you are just waiting to be told what to do and then delivering what you think they are expecting, clients get nervous and feel the need to take over the reins even though they don't know what they're doing.

In many cases, your client has never been involved in a re-design process or a marketing campaign. They need to know that you're in control. That doesn't mean you should be aggressive or condescending, it means that your client should never be left wondering "where do we go from here?" You need to hold their hand and guide them through the process in a kind, professional way.

Do what's expected and then go one step further

When The Wolf is talking to Marsellus on the phone he says, "It's 30 minutes away, I'll be there in ten."

We can learn a lot from this:

Speed matters

When clients need answers to questions, even non-emergencies, they will always be impressed when you get back to them sooner than expected.

I use Groove for my help desk software. It's awesome for a lot of reasons, but one reason I love it is that it gives you metrics associated with your customer service, like how long it takes you to reply to customers.

One thing I noticed is that there's a direct correlation between speed and customer satisfaction. Notice in the stats taken from Groove that when reply times go up, we get fewer satisfaction ratings in general, especially "awesome" ratings.



Anecdotally, I've noticed that the faster I respond to questions, even if they aren't urgent, the happier customers are.

What I learned is that it's not necessarily the answer you give that delivers the "wow" moment, it's how fast you give it. If you gave the same answer but waited a few days people will not show the same level of delight. When you respond quickly you are saying to the customer "I care about you and don't want to make you wait."

We all get busy, and obviously no one is ever going to be able to respond to every question immediately, but the faster you can answer your client, the more positive impression they'll have of your company.

Follow through on what you say

The Wolf responded quickly to an urgent problem his clients had, stepped in and solved it with time to spare. Essentially, he under-promised and over-delivered.

This is a good lesson for us. Lack of follow through is a big reason why clients get frustrated with their agency and take their business elsewhere. When I ran Headspace, we often got calls from people who told us they were leaving their current agency because they didn't follow through on what they said they would do.

I hired various consultants this past year, and I noticed that the times I felt the most irritated as a client was when the consultants didn't do what they said they were. It was often as simple as them saying they would follow up with me by a certain day to give me an update. If that date came and went without hearing from them, I felt like I wasn't a priority, and I even felt lied to.

Clients will often understand if minor deadlines can't be met as long you over-communicate. Waiting for your client to get in touch with you to ask for a status report when you didn't deliver something you said you were going to is a customer service FAIL.

Go further than expected

We've all been in this situation. You're in the grocery store and you can't find the coconut milk (hey, I like to make Thai soup on occasion). You're looking in the canned fruit section, it's not there. You look near the evaporated milk, your eyes aren't seeing it. Finally, you ask a passing employee.

Either of these two things may happen:

  1. The employee looks busy, not wanting to make eye contact with you. When you ask where the coconut milk is she says in an annoyed tone of voice, "Aisle 12, that way", and carries on.
  2. She stops what she is doing and says, "Follow me". She walks you to the aisle, finds the coconut milk for you and puts it in your hand. She smiles and says "Have a nice day, let me know if you need anything else".

I suppose I don't need to ask which response will make you feel happier as a customer.

A way to apply this as a consultant is when you present a design, answer a question or receive feedback, always ask yourself, "How could I take this one step further?"

  • What if instead of just emailing website mockups as screenshots you made it a clickable prototype so the client would understand the flow easier?
  • What if instead of just sending research as spreadsheets you put it into a nicer looking PDF document with pretty graphs?

What other ways could you figure out what's expected and go one step further?

Never lose your cool

When The Wolf offends Vincent by not saying 'please', he explains in a calm voice:

"If I'm curt with you it's because time is a factor. I think fast, I talk fast, and I need you to guys to act fast if you wanna get out of this. So pretty please, with sugar on top, clean the fuckin' car."

This may not be what you say to your client when they are upset, but The Wolf's clients also happened to be hitmen so he was speaking a language they understood.

The point is, The Wolf didn't lose his cool. He diffused the situation by reminding them of the time factor and by using some light humour to break the tension and move on.

When clients are upset, even rude with you, blasting back a response over email that contains attitude never helps. Empathize with your client and try to put yourself in their shoes. They may be feeling wronged by you, but even if they aren't correct, perception is reality. Being rude back will escalate the situation instead of diffuse it. Remove emotion from the situation and focus on the problem at hand.

The customer isn't always right, but being right with customers doesn't matter. All that matters is, can you solve their problem and make it right in the end?

"Was he cool or what? Totally fucking cool. In control. He didn't even really get pissed when you were fucking with him! I was amazed!"

— Jules (Samuel L Jackson)

Conclusion

So is it worth the effort in the end? Even if at the time, clients don't seem to appreciate the effort you make to create an amazing customer experience, it can come back to you. People show their gratitude in different ways, like referring you more clients down the road.

Regardless, delivering great customer service is part of being a professional. It's not just what you know or what you can do, it's how you package it all together for you clients. That will separate you from the pack.


What other ways do you over-deliver for your clients?


author bio

About Kyle Racki

CEO of @proposify. Product designer and podcaster. Dad to two beautiful boys. Karaoke superstar. Freed cultist. Batman enthusiast. Follow me on Twitter

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