A lesson in how to NOT treat customers

Have you ever walked into a store to buy something, and found a clerk who doesn’t even deign to look up from their cell phone when asked for help?

How does that make you feel?

It pisses you off, doesn’t it?

Damn right it does. And so it should.

I want to tell you a brief story. Then I will segue into some of the most common mistakes MOST businesses make —often without even realizing— and sharing some advice to help you avoid them.

Maybe you already make some of these mistake. Maybe you don’t. But because you only have the utmost respect for your clients, I urge you to read on.

But first, my story.

A lesson in how to alienate a perfectly good prospect, and throw money down the drain

A few weeks ago, my wife and I were at a social event with a few friends. One of them is currently on track to quitting his job and going completely freelance. He’s making a steady side income on top of his full time job, and in a few months time he’ll be ready to make his move. So he has decided to start looking for an office.

As we chatted about this over drinks, a common friend turned to another guy whom we had just befriended.

“Hey, you’re an estate agent right? Can you help this guy out?”

The estate agent said:

“Yeah, offices right? There’s a couple of them on [street] in [location]. Go check them out. There’s the number on the door. Call it and we’ll sort something out.”

Then, without another word, he turned his back to the group and struck up a conversation with someone else.

I could see the look on my friend’s face. And though he didn’t say anything, I could tell what he was thinking.

“Wow, I’ve got money in my hand and this guy is literally brushing me off like an insignificant fly.”

Now, I understand if the estate agent didn’t particularly feel like talking business during a social event. But there were many ways in which he could have handled the situation better. In fact, at the very end of the article I’ll give an example of how he could have turned the situation around, and made a powerful and lasting impression on my friend in just 30 seconds.

The ways we unintentionally make our clients feel insignificant

To me, and I think you’ll agree, there’s no worse feeling than being made to feel insignificant — that we don’t matter. And yet, sometimes we unwittingly do it to other people, and to our clients.

When that happens, we lose a valuable relationship, and we lose business. We cannot afford that. The scary thing is that we fall victim to this in a myriad small ways. Here are a few of the ways we unwittingly make our clients feel insignificant:

We don’t keep them updated about the job/task/transaction

You might think this happens mostly with businesses that are just starting out, but you’d be wrong. We all fall for this one.

This usually happens because we make assumptions about what the client knows. Since we are so close to the project, we tend to forget that there are details that the client might be unaware of. As a result, we fail to give updates, which in turn leaves the client blind, makes them feel like we don’t care, and leaves them frustrated.

The solution to this one might sound simple, but it’s not always so.

If you work with clients one on one, you’ll find that different people prefer to be updated in different ways and at different frequencies. Some will want a weekly update with main points. Others will want you to chime in daily. It’s your job to find out each client’s preference and make sure you stick to it. And the only way to do is by asking at the outset.

Before you even start on the project, ask these questions:

  • “How often would you like me to update you on the progress of the project”
  • “What details should the report contain? Should it just be a generic progress report, or do you want me to go into detail about what I’ve done and how I’ve implemented it?”

Make sure you get the answers to these questions in writing, and then include these details in your service agreement.

IMPORTANT: Just because a client wants frequent updates, doesn’t mean they’re going to try to micro-manage you. It simply means that it takes them a little longer to start trusting someone, and of course, that’s perfectly legitimate.

We don’t listen/pay attention to what they’re saying

To me, there are few things more frustrating than having to repeat myself. I go to great lengths to avoid it to. When I assign a task, I give a checklist of deliverables including deadlines and milestones, and I demand that the person follow it to the letter.

But most clients are not that savvy. All they know is that they have a task they want done, and they’re paying you to do it.

It is our job to listen attentively to what the client is asking us to do, take notes, and then feed them back to the client for approval.

The process doesn’t need to be complicated. After the briefing, simply write a quick email with the main points discussed, and send it to the client with a brief note:

“Hi. Here are the main points we discussed in our last meeting. Can you please give them a quick read and let me know whether I’ve missed anything? Thanks!”

This approach does multiple things.

  1. It avoids misunderstandings by giving you a checklist that has been approved by the client
  2. It saves clients the hassle of having to repeat themselves
  3. It saves you the embarrassment of having to ask again if you forget something
  4. It tells the client that you’re attentive and are really taking an interest in their business
  5. It saves your ass in cases where clients insist they told you to do something but they actually didn’t

We make assumptions about their business

Being good at your job is table stakes. It’s the price of entry. As you read this, I assume you are competent and can deliver results.

Clients pay us for our expertise. They pay us because we know more about our field than they do. But be careful. Just because you’re great in your field of expertise, doesn’t mean you know more about the client’s business than they do.

Remember, even if your client has been doing a crappy job at running their business, they’ve already been in it for a while, which means they can offer valuable insights that might help you do your part better.

So, when taking on a new client, make sure you ask the following questions:

  • “When it comes to [your field of expertise] what have you tried up until now?”
  • “Which of those things worked? Would you have any insights as to why they worked?”
  • “Can you tell me why you think the others might have failed?”

That information will save you the hassle of trying things that are already proven to not have worked in that particular industry, as well as get you started with a set of approaches that are already proven to work. This will make your job a lot easier, helping you to produce results faster.

We make them feel like idiots

This partly ties into the previous point.

The client is paying us because we know a lot more about our field than they do. That can be a very intimidating thing for a client. They’re trusting you to do something they’re not capable of doing themselves, and you’re doing it on a business that they’ve built from the ground up, investing lots of time, money and energy.

Most clients will respect the fact that you’re an expert in your field. That doesn’t mean you have to rub it in.

Sometimes a client will resist a piece of advice that you know is for the best. This might happen for any number of reasons. When that happens, don’t be dismissive. Don’t say, “I know best, so you’d better do as I say.”

Instead, here’s what I like to go about it:

“Listen, I know some of the stuff I’m proposing might sound a little alien to you, and I understand that. I want to reassure you that these concepts I’m proposing are based on my experience working with other businesses similar to yours, as well as data collected from case studies in my field of expertise. These concepts have been proven to work. Now, you’re paying me because you trust my expertise in this field, and because you wanted someone who knew more about it than you do. So, it is my duty to make these proposals. But of course, if you don’t feel comfortable doing this, I understand.”

How is this different from just telling them, “Shut up, I know better”?

  1. You’re acknowledging their concern
  2. You’re reassuring them that you’re not using them as guinea pigs
  3. You’re reminding them that they were the ones who wanted you on board because they acknowledged your superior knowledge and expertise in the field
  4. You’re re-framing your assertiveness as something that is coming from a sense of duty towards them and their business, rather than just pigheadedness

We demand that they take our word for things without ever offering any insight as to why we’re doing what we’re doing

This builds on top of the previous point.

You have to realize that our expertise gives us a view of things that our clients can never fully grasp. And sometimes, they will be skeptical about things we propose.

It is our job to explain to clients —in clear and simple terms— why we’re suggesting a particular course of action. We need to tell them why our approach is better than others, and how it is going to benefit their business.

Remember, they don’t need to have a thorough understanding of what we’re doing. They just need to understand it enough to appreciate that the suggestion is sound, and that it won’t drive their business into the wall.

We make them feel like we’re just in it for the money and don’t really care about their business

This is probably the toughest one to project, and it boils down to a collection of the above points, plus a few other things.

One of the things I love to do, is talk about the client’s business in terms of “we” when talking with the client. In other words, I allude to the fact that I am part of the company, not just a contract worker.

I’ll say things like, “I feel this would really benefit our clients” or “this should help us connect better with our audience” or “let’s kick ass”.

I’ve worked with many business owners in many industries, and I keep hearing the same complaint:

“It’s so hard to find contract workers who care”

If you can demonstrate that quality, it will set you well ahead of your competitors, and your clients will love you for it.

Back to the estate agent — 30 seconds to get the prospect’s loyalty

At the beginning of this article, I told you how an estate agent shrugged off a friend of mine who is looking to rent an office for his freelance business.

His response was:

“Yeah, offices right? There’s a couple of them on [street] in [location]. Go check them out. There’s the number on the door. Call it and we’ll sort something out.”

This completely alienated my friend, ensuring that he will never want to be anywhere near that estate agent ever again.

Granted, it was a social gathering and maybe the agent didn’t want to talk about work. But here’s what he could’ve said instead.

“Wow, so you’re thinking of starting out on your own? That’s great. Yeah, having a good office is really important, especially since this is your own business, so you want it to be something that feels right. I already have a couple of places that I think you would love. But it’s really noisy here, so it’s not the best place to talk. Tell you what. Give me your number, and I’ll call you tomorrow so we can talk a bit more in depth. What’s the best time to call you?”

Your thoughts?

There are many other ways to handle the common pitfalls that I’ve mentioned in this article. And there are also a few other pitfalls that I haven’t mentioned.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about them. What do you do to make your clients feel special? How do you make sure you don’t make the mistakes I’ve mentioned? Do you know of any other common mistakes?

Tell me all about it in the comments section below.

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