As a young public relations professional I had the luck to begin my career with a century-old company. It was a regional telephone company with a long history of customer and media relations. My boss was a former Associated Press editor and I was trained right in writing, too. But the single most important thing I carried with me the rest of my career was a deep commitment to professionalism and customer service.
In our department, callbacks to media were required within an hour of the call. This was the early 1980s, pre-cell phone, and we carried pagers. Someone was on call 24/7 in case of telephone outages–the public needed to be informed immediately. Our response time was measured and we were evaluated on it, too. Communication was that important in what, at the time, was a regulated industry.
In the 21st century, communication is STILL important. But I don’t see much of it among young entrepreneurs. Or some older ones.
Decades later as a consultant in crisis communication and reputation management, that early training came in handy. I worked with many CEOS; some were heads of major corporations. CEOs do not want to wait. Not for anything. Nor do reporters. Media inquiries during high-profile crises must be handled instantly.
Responsiveness was expected. Communication was expected. And I can’t disagree: it’s only courteous. And good business.
In general, that sense of professionalism and service translated to every part of the work I did during my entire career. Fast and incisive response–putting myself in the shoes of my client–was my hallmark because I knew my clients required that kind of professionalism. Also because I knew that was the way to keep clients for the long term. And in fact, I did. My base of business was stable for a dozen years, with most of my clients not just sticking but expanding the work they did with me. Which saved me from the constant quest for new clients.
Consultants who do well are empathetic and responsive. Professional.
But I don’t see much professionalism today. Where did it go?
Why consultants fail
I don’t have to tell you how many service providers fail to show up or call in the specified window of time–the time period they asked us to wait at home. We’ve all had that experience. Why is it so hard to let us know they can’t make it?
Over the past few years I’ve worked on projects with several different younger consultants: “entrepreneurs.” I see disturbing commonalities: They don’t respond in a timely fashion to questions. Sometimes they miss the questions entirely, even questions presented in writing. Worse, they seem unable to anticipate client questions and they fail to communicate straightforwardly with the client about what to expect. They don’t respond to phone calls or emails promptly. They get around to it when they feel like it.
Because they have skill sets that are in demand and because they often work with clients who have no experience, themselves, with professionalism, these consultants simply do their thing with barely a thought of their customer. And that’s where they fall short. They are unable to put themselves in the shoes of their customer. There is no…empathy. It is, in the end, all about themselves.
Even when they have mouths to feed. Even when they could be making way more money by providing way more customer service.
Many of these business owners simply don’t know any better. While I got on-the-job-training young, many of them haven’t had that opportunity. If you start working for yourself before you understand customer service, customer relations and before you develop effective communication skills, chances are you aren’t going to have a clue. And while you may eke out a living, I’m here to tell you that you’re doing in the hard way. You’d have more and happier clients, a more stable client base and you’d make more money if you developed a few important business skills.
So here’s my advice to young–and older– consultants.
Put yourself in your customer’s shoes. This is the single most important thing you can do. Your customer may feel like she’s clueless, and she’s paying your bill. So think about what she might be worried about. And offer solutions before she articulates the problem.
Read emails and take notes on phone calls. Don’t make your ADD your client’s problem. Take the time to understand completely what your client wants or thinks she needs and then respond to all of her questions, not just a few.
Timing is everything and so is time. Show up when expected. Respond in a timely fashion, as in “as soon as possible.” If your client has to email or call you to get a response to a question she’s asked a day or two –or more–ago, you are not doing your job.
Follow through and follow up. That’s right. Do what you said you’d do and then check in with your client about it. This is such a no-brainer I’m shocked when I don’t see it.
Understand what your core business is: how are you making a living, feeding your kids, paying your bills? What is the one business that keeps your dog in kibble and your kids in Skechers? If you are distracted by one, two or even more side activities, then you have not made your core business a priority. And trust me, your clients know that. If they had an alternative? They’d go for it in an instant. Because they want to know that their business is your focus. That’s why they engaged you.
Understand that the game is referrals. Someone might have their reasons to not terminate their work with you–but if you aren’t providing an excellent experience, they’ll never refer you to their friends and colleagues. Referrals are the easiest way to get new business. If you aren’t positioning yourself to get them, you’re making a big mistake.
Understand that just hanging out a shingle doesn’t make a successful business person. Just like the act of writing doesn’t make one a writer. As with any venture, a real professional learns his or her craft and then aims to excel. Your craft involves more than just your technical knowledge–it’s also how you treat your customer.
When I look at the lost art of customer service, I see that excelling is the exception, not the rule. It’s why consultants fail–or struggle. They could be doing so much better if they learned a few basic customer relations and customer service skills.
If you’re already in business for yourself, it may be too late to go back and get experience. But all is not lost. As someone who’s taught business classes in college, I encourage new entrepreneurs–and even those who have been doing this a while but without any formal experience–to do some reading about excellence in business. About customer service. About follow up and follow through.
Here are two book recommendations for any consultant, advisor, entrepreneur who wants to understand how to get clients, keep them and get them to refer others:
Customer Satisfaction is Worthless; Customer Loyalty is Priceless by Jeffrey Gitomer
The Trusted Advisor by David Maister, Charles Green and Robert Galford