We all expect it but we struggle to do it. I’m talking about good customer service. And not just good. Exceptional. In stores, at restaurants, in business. And if we’re the one on the giving end, it can be very difficult to juggle all our competing priorities and still remember to schmooze our clients.
But is good customer service really all about schmoozing? I think not. Customers want us to deliver… on time, with quality and with a smile. Does that seem unachievable? Well, here are my 3 secrets to exceptional customer service, learnt from 20 years of servicing every kind of client from the aggressive to the passive aggressive.
“It’s only natural that we want to please our clients, and so we agree to unachievable deadlines or make promises we know we can’t keep.”
1. Set realistic expectations
Ever heard of the old adage “under-promise and over-deliver”? I live by this motto now but it was a hard-learned lesson. It’s only natural that we want to please our clients, and so we agree to unachievable deadlines or make promises we know we can’t keep. But that’s exactly the opposite of what we should do.
It doesn’t help anyone if we set unrealistic expectations with our clients. Be truthful. A client would prefer be told that we can deliver a week later than chase us for a week. And if the client values our services, they are usually willing to wait. Or at least they can make alternative arrangements and manage their stakeholders. We often forget that we are usually part of a chain of events, so when we miss a deadline, our client is probably also missing a deadline for their client.
So we should do our best to accurately estimate how long the work will take to complete, then add a bit more time and that’s your proposed delivery date. It’s essential to add some buffer time in case of unforeseen circumstances that inevitably come up.
“We often forget that we are usually part of a chain of events, so when we miss a deadline, our client is probably also missing a deadline for their client.”
I also warn against woolly, unclear promises. Trust me – it is worlds better to tell a client a specific date as opposed to being vague or not giving a delivery date at all. In my experience, when I was vague on dates, the client always assumed I would deliver much earlier than I intended to. By putting a date on the table, the client has an opportunity to tell us what their expectations and constraints are. Then we can have a conversation. They will appreciate our honesty and the open communication. Also, a concrete date puts us on the hook and for me, that works as a great motivator to actually get it done.
Of course, setting realistic expectations hinges on two things:
- accurately estimating the time and effort required for a job (in next week’s blog, we give simple guidance on how to do this), and
- our ability to manage our priorities (discussed below).
2. Prioritise and deliver
There are so many textbook prioritisation techniques out there but you need to do what works for you. I have different ways to prioritise depending on what I am working on. However in this context, I have two basic rules:
- Revenue generating activities (i.e. client work, prospecting) are always prioritised over non-revenue generating (internal) work.
- Higher paying, more strategic clients are prioritised over smaller, less strategic clients.
You might see the second point as contradictory to exceptional client service. What I really mean is that when I need to commit to delivery dates on competing work, I will promise an earlier delivery to the more strategic clients… within reason.
BUT… always do what you promised. For anyone – clients, prospects, suppliers and staff. That’s just good business. This means that once you have made a commitment, you do everything in your power to deliver on that commitment.
Things happen, and now and then we might have to miss a deadline. That is life and we are all human. This is where communication is imperative. Don’t shut down and hide, avoiding all calls and emails from the client. That makes us look very unprofessional and it seriously it is not worth the stress. You’re not saving lives (unless you’re a doctor and you are!). The world is not going to end.
Buck up the courage, pick up the phone (do not email) and call the client to let them know what has happened. Here honesty is super important. Don’t tell the client your life story or anything too personal, but explain what has happened that has meant you’re unable to make your deadline, apologise and ask for an extension. Be ready to give a new timeframe, because the client will ask you how much longer you need.
“… always do what you promised. For anyone – clients, prospects, suppliers and staff. That’s just good business.”
The other element of this is make the call before you miss the deadline – at least 24 hours before and even longer if the deliverable is significant. Again, it’s better to be told before something goes wrong and providing pre-notice of the missed deadline enables the client to manage their stakeholders.
So those were my 3 secrets to exceptional client service. I would love to hear what you think. Do you agree? Do you have your own client service tips? Please post your comments and feedback below. And if you found this useful, please share with your networks.
* Stock images sourced from Shutterstock.
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About the Author: Angeline Zaghloul is an expert in business strategy, client management and business processes, and is the Principal of Peer Business Consulting, a Sydney-based consultancy providing strategy and operations support to startups and small businesses.
* Portrait by Markus Jaaskelainen.