We often hear companies, including Web agencies, boast about how they provide exceptional client service. But how do they define exceptional?
Consider this scenario. You are hired to design and develop a new website for a retail client. The client loves the design, and the pages you develop use the latest in HTML5, CSS3 and responsive design, resulting in a website that works wonderfully across browsers and devices. The e-commerce features of the new website help the client significantly increase their online sales, and the entire project is delivered on time and on budget. Now, is this “exceptional” client service? I don’t think it is.
When the client hired you, they expected that you would design and develop a great website. They also expected it would be done according to the timeline and budget set during the planning stages of the project. As successful as this project may have been for both you and the client, in the end, you did exactly what you were hired to do. You did your job.
Just Doing Your Job Vs. Delivering Exceptional Service
Nothing is wrong with “just doing your job.” In many cases, that alone is a tall order. So, while doing what you were hired to do is nothing to be ashamed of, it is also not exceptional — nor will it set you apart. There will always be other agencies or designers that will be able to do the work as well as you can — and there will certainly be someone willing to do it cheaper! The service you provide is how you can truly differentiate yourself.
Exceptional client service is about going beyond what is realistically expected of you. It is about surprising, and often delighting, customers, turning them into enthusiastic referral sources and lifelong clients who stick with you not only because you do great work at a fair price, but because the value you bring to them goes far beyond just your products.
In this article, I’ll detail a few of the ways that I have tried to take my own client service to the next level and deliver a better experience, starting with the most important aspect: the relationships that you establish with the clients who hire you.
There is a difference between doing what you were hired to do and delivering a superheroic level of service. (Image: JD Hancock)
Creating Real Relationships
Here’s a quick exercise. Write down your five most important clients (how you define “important” is up to you). Then, write down as many things you know about those clients that have nothing to do with their business or the work you have done for them. What are their hobbies or passions? How many kids do they have? How old are those kids, and what are their names? Where do they like to vacation? Things like that.
So, how long is your list? If you’re like most people I speak with, probably not very long at all. We learn everything we can about a client’s business, but we often fail to discover anything substantial about our clients as people. If we do not engage with our clients in a real, personal way, then we are just another vendor — and vendors are easily replaceable with better cheaper options. However, clients are much less likely to consider replacing people with whom they have real relationships.
So, how do you start learning more about your clients? Simple: ask them questions about themselves and their lives, not just about their business.
Asking Real Questions
When I give this advice to others, it is often met with some apprehension. Asking someone about their business goals is easy. Asking them about their life outside of the office is harder. We often avoid getting personal for fear of offending the person or saying the wrong thing; but by being overly cautious, we miss the chance to create a real relationship.
Whenever I get nervous about getting too personal with a client, I remind myself of a story. A few years ago, I had the privilege to work on the website for the Tori Lynn Andreozzi Foundation. This non-profit foundation was named after a young girl who, walking home from school one afternoon, was struck by a drunk driver. Tori survived but was forever changed. Today, she is in a minimally conscious state, unable to walk, speak or eat.
In one of my first meetings with this client, I sat down with the head of the foundation, Tori’s mother, Cathy. I began the conversation simply by asking her, “How is Tori doing today?”
Cathy smiled and answered that Tori was doing well. We had our meeting and discussed the website and the project. As we were wrapping up, Cathy thanked me for asking her about Tori. She explained that so many people avoid asking about her daughter, fearing the news would be bad or that Cathy would be upset by the question. The truth is that, even though Tori has bad days, Cathy always enjoys talking about her daughter and was very happy to be asked about her. By asking Cathy how her daughter was doing, I showed her that I cared about more than just the project.
The website for the Tori Lynn Andreozzi Foundation
Today, Cathy is one of my favorite people to speak with, and we begin every conversation by asking how each other’s children are doing. We have much more than a great client-vendor relationship, all because I asked a real question, honestly cared about the answer, and created a real, human connection in the process. Had I been too afraid to ask that question, I might never have been able to build the relationship that I have now.
Don’t be afraid to ask your clients real questions. If they don’t want to answer you, they won’t. But for those who do (and you will find that most, if not all, of your clients will be happy to have a real conversation that has nothing to do with business), you will be well on your way to building real relationships.
Participate In More Than Just Projects
Another way to build a relationship with a client that goes beyond the project is to participate in their events. If the client runs a non-profit organization, they might have fundraisers or similar events that offer you an opportunity to support their cause and nurture the relationship. Go to these events and participate. As a bonus, you will also be helping a worthwhile cause.
Not all of your clients will have fundraising events, but they might invite you to holiday parties and other gatherings. Take advantage of these opportunities to interact with your clients outside of a normal business setting. It will go a long way to reinforcing those real relationships that you are trying to create and show that you are more than just another vendor.
Similarly, consider inviting clients to some of your events to show that you view them as more than just a source of business. When they arrive, greet them warmly and enjoy their company, leaving business talk for another day.
Help Them With Services That You Do Not Provide
Clients may hire you to design and develop a Web presence for them, but in the course of the project you will often discover that they need other services that you do not provide. By listening to their needs, you might learn that they have issues with their payroll company or their accountants or some other aspect of their business.
Look to your own business and the vendors you use. There may be a service or company that you have had success with that you could recommend. Also look to your other clients to see whether they offer services that fit. If appropriate, set up a lunch meeting between you, the client with the need and the client that might be able to fill that need. Not only will you be taking two clients out for lunch, you will hopefully be helping them both by making a valuable connection between the two companies.
When a client can say, “I hired this company to design our website and they ended up helping us revamp our entire payroll system!” you position yourself as much more than just their “Web team” — you show that you are a valued business resource and a trusted advisor.
Pick Up The Phone
Good communication is key to any relationship. Still, judging from the number of clients I speak with who are unhappy with their current Web team — not because they do a poor job, but because they are unresponsive — quality communication is not always a given.
Regularly updating your clients by email is important, but also pick up the phone every now and then, so that you become more than just that distant person behind those electronic updates. By hearing your voice, clients will feel more connected to you and the project. It also shows them that you value them enough to take the time to make a personal call, and it gives you a chance to talk about something other than business.
Regular phone calls allow you to have real conversations with clients, communicating at a personal level that email and other electronic updates do not allow for. (Image: opensourceway)
Face The Bad Times Head On
Have you ever had to share bad news with a client, but rather than pick up the phone to discuss the issue, you waited and sent an email at 5:15 pm on a Friday? By doing this, you may have bought yourself a few more days before having to face the client’s worried questions, but you also damage the relationship by hiding behind an email. It also means that the client will read the bad news first thing on Monday morning; definitely not a good start to their week, and definitely not the way to treat a valued relationship.
Here’s a secret: clients do not expect you to be perfect. They do, however, expect you to be honest. When something goes wrong, let them know quickly so that they are not blindsided by the issue later on. And never deliver bad news by email. Picking up the phone to discuss the news lets you reassure the client and answer any questions they may have. An after-hours email certainly won’t do that for them.
If the matter is handled correctly, the client will not remember that something went wrong. They will remember that you were honest and kept them apprised of the state of the project, even when it did not go according to plan.
Be Thankful And Show Appreciation
When was the last time you thanked a client for working with you? How did you do it? Did you send a basket of cookies or chocolate with a generic “thank you” message, or did you do something more personal?
Too often, we fail to even thank our clients for their business. We are so keen to finish a project and move on to the next one that we forget to properly show our appreciation.
While a basket of sweets and a generic message is better than nothing, consider sending a personal, handwritten thank-you note.
Handwritten letters have become all but extinct these days. With the rise of electronic communication such as email, social networks and text messaging, so few people take the time and effort to actually write a letter. The gesture of a personal letter will delight and surprise your client, not only because you have thanked them, but because the way you did so was personal, memorable and the perfect cap to a successful project.
A thankful, personal handwritten card is a great way to cap off a successful project. (Image: irrezolut)
How About You? Do You Deliver Exceptional Client Service?
I hope this article starts a conversation. How do you deliver exceptional client service? What tips can you share so that others can delight their own clients and offer them value beyond just products?
© Jeremy Girard for Smashing Magazine, 2012.