Ideas around customer service have got to be one of the most heavily covered topics in modern business. With an inner circle of my personal friends I’d hazard a guess that it comprises nearly a third of our core business discussions. At my own business we train for it, dissect it, review it, and obsess over it, and we don’t get it perfect every time.
And that’s okay – no one does, but it’s the constant revision that gets us as close to perfect as possible.
But it occurred to me that while plenty has been discussed or written about how to be great at customer service, very little is discussed or written about how to be a great customer.
It made me wonder if I am a great customer. Am I? Are we? It made me question what the attributes of a great customer are.
This is not a rant about all the things business owners wished their clients would do. There’s no time for that in business. Even the most successful captain of industry is a customer at some point, so let’s focus on what we can all do, and the role we play on both sides of the service coin.
Here’s my list of attributes for how to be a great customer:
Start with Trust
The bedrock of any successful partnership. Trust is a two-way dynamic and you must impress upon the agency or supplier that you trust them to make this work. When it becomes a trusting partnership, the opportunity to maximize value through synergy increases. As the customer, I can engineer conditions to maximize my chances of success by enabling the service provider to do what they do best, and tell them I’ve got their back in the process. Verify intent and credentials, of course, and know that good operators want to make good on your faith in them.
Think of it this way: trust the singer enough that you encourage them to go on stage and smash the album, rather than confining them to a highly critiqued demo reel.
No point entrusting someone to build the Titanic if you really just want a rowboat. It can mean a lot of wasted effort on many fronts if we don’t identify our needs and manage the expectations of those around us. Managing expectations goes beyond the item or experience you’re seeking to buy. It also means being realistic about needed delivery times, communications frequency needs, budget ceilings, or style, etc.
I think some of my worst performances as a customer are when I projected an image of who I wanted the service provider to be, and not what I really wanted or needed. This made my expectations bigger and more demanding than what was realistic, and likely frazzled the well-intentioned supplier. To use the music analogy again, it was like I added a few new songs to their set in secret, and then got upset when they didn’t perform their best.
If you have a habit of changing your mind and doing a bit of shopping around, I think it’s fair to admit that up front. Again, good service providers take that on as part of their mission to impress. You’ve helped manage their expectations by doing so.
Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.
A pitch will be paralyzed by lack of feedback. Silence empowers in the same way a blank stare tells the chef what’s wrong with the fish. I once asked for ideas on a deluxe picnic for an event, and when the quote came back at $1,000USD I just left it at that. Clearly I didn’t add any value to the chain here, and I lost an opportunity for the supplier to come back with something more reasonable…or more creative…or more in their wheelhouse. I didn’t ask them why they suggested what they did (arguably this is their job, but I play a role here as the customer). Silence led to a smaller overall experience, and it added unnecessary layers and other suppliers to the fray without me being frank about what kind of catered picnic I was hoping for. A picnic could be $100 or $1000 and they could both be perfect. Just communicate where you’re at as the customer at each stage of the process.
Do your homework
Know what you’re buying. Sounds simple, but as customers we often blow this. As a service provider myself I’m often puzzled as to how I end up in conversations trying to explain what it is we actually do in our business. As the customer, make sure you understand exactly what the service provider offers. Find out their sweet spot, their specific value-adds, and ask questions. As a customer I’ll try to understand what they are good at, what they can and can’t do, and what they suggest to fill the void. Again this arranges the chessboard with the greatest chances of success for everyone involved.
We often coach our service teams how to answer questions, but sometimes there are no questions to answer. This is a warning light – there should always be questions to answer.
Be available and give updates. Acknowledge an email you intend to reply to. If the service provider has sent a thoughtful communication, give them the courtesy of a response and indicate where you’re at with the process. “Email received, but can you remind me to reply next week?”, is a reasonable response. Ghosting someone is not. Everyone in the value chain must know where they stand. Being in the dark paralyzes progress. If the provider has a reasonable questionnaire, please fill it out – and feel free to challenge them on why they think this is necessary. Likely both sides will learn from this process. This partnership strengthens with mutual participation and increases the chances of an agreeable result.
Personally I have improvements to make on this. I do try to fill out survey forms, and often call out exceptional service by a staff member for an experience I’ve had, and occasionally send a personal email to a manager or owner. But to be a truly great customer, I think I can do more to help service providers I interact with raise their game. Providing feedback during and after helps expand the value chain. As the user of the service, you will directly benefit from the last person who provided constructive feedback, just like my feedback helps the next person down the line with their experience. We’re all connected to this ecosystem. Provide the feedback it needs to help it grow.
Providing constructive feedback on what needs improving is also an act of generosity. Your actions could help the business in question tweak its game to survive. That said, I think most of us are now comfortable with the fact that unfair and damaging feedback – online or otherwise – actually does very little to damage a business or service provider long term. It is rarely ever called for. As a service provider, don’t sweat this stuff. And a customer, consider who you want to be before launching your tirade. The market (and society, for that matter) have natural ways of filtering out the visceral and vindictive.
Think of yourself as part of the value chain, not an adversary. Instead of thinking of how to limit the role of the supplier or service provider, consider how you might bring out the best in them and what that can mean towards the outcome. Again, stack the deck with the best chances for success by viewing the relationship as a partnership. It is a value chain in which we are participants, not a supply chain in which we are mere users.
It is a tough and exciting world of opportunity out there, and I hope this mindset helps us maximize everyone’s chances at success.