At one of companies I worked with, we had to fire our PR firm. I say “had’ to because we made considerable efforts to make them understand our business (which was fairly simple by the way); shared feedback regularly on our expectations and gaps but to not much avail. While we were reasonable enough not to hold them to ransom on the terms of the contract vs. deliverables (which they consistently missed) and; showed patience to let them understand us and come up the curve, they appeared to be lacking in their overall attitude towards customer-centricity.
This took me back to the start of my career as a part of the customer service team and growing to lead the call center business at a telecom major in India. I acknowledge that the ways of selling to and servicing customers has undergone a sea-change in today’s digitally connected and “always-on” world. Customer expectations on how they should be treated; and service delivered to them is ever demanding and continuously evolving.
But then, at the heart of it all, the basics of customer service remain the same, even today. A handy reminder of things to keep in mind if you are in a customer facing role:
1. Listen, listen, and then listen some more: There are things your customers are telling you and then there are things they are telling you without actually spelling them out. Be intuitive enough to pick on both the said and unsaid feedback, especially if it is coming back to you at regular intervals.
2. Be receptive to feedback – Don’t take it personally. It is not a reflection of you as an individual. However, if you do not acknowledge the issues; and clearly demonstrate willingness and efforts to address them; it sure is a reflection of your incapability to take feedback and quickly act on it.
3. Become an expert on your customer’s business: Easier said than done, agreed. Especially in the B2B space and against the constantly changing tech landscape. But make sincere efforts to understand your customer’s business, their end-customers and watch their competition like a hawk. It will help them appreciate you better when you bring value with your inputs/intelligence to each PR opportunity instead of just acting as mediators between the press and your customer. Trust me, if you do not do that, there is nothing stopping the customer from establishing his own rapport with media and eventually removing you from the scene.
4. Adapt to the ways of your customer: You need to tweak your internal processes to be in line with the way the customer wants to do business with you, not vice- versa. If a customer wants weekly status reports or a monthly one; a simple email or a formal tracker, or a snazzy ppt with pie-charts – give them what they want, the way they want it. Not what you want to give them just because it is easy.
5. Make the customer your top priority -Remember, You ARE because of your customer and for your customer. The moment you lose sight of this you can be sure you will lose your customer too, sooner than later. It is better to adjust your calendar to suit the customer’s needs. Telling the customer that you are “busy” or have a “full calendar this week” even if you have one is a strict no. Call when you say you will, even if you may not have all the answers. Being proactive only shows you always have the customer’s interest top of your mind and that you are putting your best foot forward.
6. Acknowledge your shortcomings/ gaps: Keep a close watch on what you promised, what you are actually delivering and what the customer really wants. Course correct. Just because the contract says something it does not mean it cannot be changed after mutual discussion. If you are a slave of the letter in the contract and unwilling to change, the customer may soon change you!!
7. Don’t blame the customer for unmet deliverables: Blame games seldom help, more so with a customer. If the spokespeople at the customer end have challenges giving time for regular media meetings, work with it. That’s a reality with most startup founders/leadership straddling multiple fronts. Complaining about it is not going to help anyone. You need to figure how to navigate that limitation and still deliver results.
8. Humility always wins – Do not ever be rude to the customer. It is just not acceptable. Leave your ego at home – the customer is always right! The times you think he is not he probably is telling you something you again need to dig deeper into to uncover, but he is never wrong. If you are out to prove he is, he will soon prove you are not right for him! Respect for the customer is simply a given – he is your bread, butter and share price. Bad language, being rude and giving smart answers just does not work.
Last but not the least, if your customer is complaining about your service, product and deliverables – be happy because he wants to make this work. So work with him. The moment a customer goes mute; stops talking to you, giving you feedback or coming back to you about things he wants done differently; you can be sure it is the calm before the storm; and he is channeling his energies in finding an alternative to you. Be aware!