We’re Just Not That Into You: Sending the Right Message Over the Life of a Client Relationship

Last week, Sam Ford published a great article in Harvard Business Review blogs.  It could have been a fairly garden-variety rant about a bad customer service experience with the home improvement retailer Lowe’s, but the author translated it beautifully into an analysis of four reasons why the experience went wrong.

When I discussed it with my friend and local “co-opetitor” Sadie Van Buren, we saw how applicable Ford’s points are not only to retail but to the services industry, and quickly moved to translating the author’s analysis into four points of prescriptive guidance:

Author’s   Analysis of “What Went Wrong”  Our Thoughts on Prescriptive Action (“Go Do/Don’t Do This”) for Our Professional Services Firms
“Communications is not considered an important part of the work flow.” When working on an issue for a client, are you making sure to provide ongoing status updates?  Keep in mind – the client doesn’t care that you’re working on it so much as they care about when they’ll have a solution. Communicate status, and communicate an estimate of when you expect to have the situation rectified.
“The infrastructure is designed from the company’s perspective, rather than the   customer’s.” Think through your organizational design and your client-facing processes from the point of view of the client.  How many different people or departments do they deal with over the life cycle of a project with you?  Are they getting the same message from Accounting that they get from your delivery staff? Do they know, at each step, who their contact person is?

Try to interact with your company from the point of view of the client:  call your 1-800 number, submit a web form, or Tweet at the company.  Observe and learn.

“Success is measured primarily by sales.” Hey, we understand:  nothing happens until a sale is made.    Unfortunately, it’s short-sighted to have reward systems that are too leveraged around sales. This can happen because sales are easy to measure; it’s important to find ways to understand your performance on harder-to-measure aspects like quality, client satisfaction, repeat business, or even gross margin, with clawbacks for writeoffs.  These metrics will keep sellers engaged with clients longer and ensure better client outcomes.
“A sales is the climax for the company but often a milestone in an ongoing   relationship for the customer.” There was a great line in a recent political debate where one candidate hinted that the other was more interested in HAVING the job than in DOING the job. Think about how your organizational culture, reward systems, and organizational structure make it clear to all your client-facing employees that SERVING a client is as important or more important as OBTAINING a client. Do you sell projects?  What happens to the client when the project is over?  Allocating resources to a formalized closeout and introduction to a “Client Care” team gives the client a lot more comfort that you’ll be there for them the next time they need you, rather than next time you have something to sell them.

In a client relationship, as in any relationship, each interaction sends a message to the other party about the degree to which we are “into” or “not into” them.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of expending time and energy pursuing the “shiny new object” at the expense of existing client relationships.  Being aware, via the prescriptions above and a healthy dose of empathy, of the messages we’re sending our clients will help us serve them better and drive long-term, healthy relationships.  In short — continue to invest.

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