Put Client Interest Over Self-Interest

Even well-meaning business owners may be selling their customers short — and losing them

by Joseph Callaway

Client-InterestAny entrepreneur willing to endure the proverbial “blood, sweat and tears” it takes to start a business knows how important clients are. They write the checks that pay the bills, so keeping them satisfied is rarely just lip service. In fact, most business owners believe they are putting their clients first — and would be shocked to hear they’re putting clients last. But in reality, they’re putting so many other things first — their own bank accounts, comfort, convenience, even their own pride — that the customer really does come last … or close to it.

This is not about business owners who knowingly do shoddy work or try to shortchange customers — odds are, their companies will die a quick and early death. This is about those who do have good intentions — who try to be polite and fair and offer a good value — but who allow deceptively small aspects of their day-to-day decisions and habits to take precedence over the customer’s well-being.

Closing each customer interaction with “Thank you for your business,” offering discounts for continued loyalty or working the occasional few hours past close-of-business to resolve a client’s problem is nice, even commendable. But these are practices, and don’t necessarily mean the business is putting its clients first.

A business may be inadvertently failing its customers by subscribing to the following practices or mind-sets:

Believing the No. 1 business goal is to make money. While it is a point, it’s not the point. A too-acute focus on improving the bottom line takes the business owner’s attention off the people who are going to enable him or her to raise it: the customers. Clients can always tell when they’re not the first priority. (For those who are skeptical, just consider the backlash that often occurs when small businesses are bought out and transformed by larger, more impersonal corporations.)

The difference between paying attention to service so that one’s clients will bring business and doing so because serving the customer is one’s first priority may feel slight, but it’s significant. By putting the focus on how best to serve clients, tough decisions resolve themselves: If it serves the client, do it; if it doesn’t, don’t — even if the result is making less money.

Letting the little things slide. Business owners encounter a lot of “big” things they should never neglect. For example, one wouldn’t lock up for the night without making sure the restaurant’s kitchen was thoroughly cleaned, and one wouldn’t allow the accountancy office’s college intern to prepare a client’s taxes. However, business owners might not be such a stickler for what seem like “smaller things.” Rushing through paperwork to be able to get home early, failing to spellcheck an email or two, and running late to a meeting probably won’t matter that much six months from now, one might think. But it’s the small details that differentiate “good” from “great.”

And make no mistake: If it impacts a customer’s happiness, best interests, comfort level or anything else even the slightest bit, it’s not a “little” thing. By failing to get the small details right, a businessperson is failing to truly put customers first. On the other hand, promises kept, deadlines met, little extra flourishes and small acts of kindness add up to happy clients.

In our real estate business, when a client is in escrow, we call or email them every day, even if nothing is happening. This simple message of “nothing happening; wanted you to know” is a huge stress reliever and an even bigger business builder.

If it’s not “broke,” don’t fix it. Many business owners subscribe to the theory that if something’s not broken, they don’t need to fix it. If the check-in paperwork a business’s receptionist uses has been in place for years and the company is not getting many complaints, why tinker with it? If one’s knowledge is sufficient to handle most of one’s clients’ problems, why spend valuable time learning more? But the answer is simple: A businessperson who doesn’t consistently strive to improve is not putting his or her clients first.

It’s not necessary to spend every minute attending conferences, taking classes and webinars, and reading industry journals, but it should be a priority to stay familiar with the way one’s industry is growing and changing. Always question the status quo, and be alert to ways to make it better. It’s not enough for a business to simply satisfy customers, but should strive to make them be pleasantly surprised at each encounter.

Downplaying one’s mistakes. Nobody likes the mishmash of negative feelings that accompanies making a mistake. That’s why many business owners (and their employees) resolve matters with clients as quickly as possible when a ball is dropped, and then try to never speak of the matter again. After all, there’s no sense wallowing in the slip-up — one needs to move forward, right?

Wrong. When a company makes a mistake, no matter how big or small, it’s the business owner’s responsibility to stare that mistake in the face and get to the very bottom of what went wrong. That’s   »
not just to be able to fix one particular error; it’s to figure out why it happened and make sure it doesn’t occur again.

Look at every mistake as a good learning opportunity. A mistake may underscore the need to improve a quality-control procedure, for example, or perhaps a client’s complaint about mail being sent to her former address will spur action to update the business’s record-keeping systems. Sweeping a mistake under the rug instead of allowing it to make the business better is not putting clients’ future interests first.

Subscribing to the idea that the customer is always right. This is not to say a business owner should disregard a client’s preferences and desires — of course the owner should try to get to the bottom of what each customer wants, and then do whatever is in his or her power to deliver that product or service. However, when customers are simply wrong and their best interests are at stake, it’s the business owner’s responsibility to say so. Allowing a customer to be “right” although knowing he isn’t may pacify him temporarily, but in the end, it won’t be good for either the customer or the businessperson. Putting clients first sometimes means politely but honestly disagreeing with or disappointing them. If a financial advisor allows a client to make an overly risky investment he’s determined to make, it doesn’t make the client right; it just makes the advisor irresponsible.

Habitually letting certain clients go to voicemail. It’s happened to everyone: Seeing that name flash on the phone’s caller ID and slowly pull the hand back from the receiver and letting the ringing continue. There’s just no energy to deal with the drama, or the whining, or the accusations, or the belligerence just now.

We all have “problem” clients. But to avoid them or just go through the motions for them is a mistake. They will notice and remember that behavior. (And be honest: Would you want to give your business to someone who might write you off when the going got tough?) Also, the person who makes the choice to stand by all of his or her frazzled, frustrated customers may become known company-wide or even industry-wide as the guy or gal who can handle the toughest customers.

Telling little white lies. Telling clients white lies, or exaggerating, misdirecting or omitting, might make life easier temporarily. But these “little” lies are as bad as the whoppers. There is always a chance that customers will see through them and call the liar on the carpet. Even if they don’t, a willingness to play fast and loose with the truth suggests a broader attitude that relegates clients to second or third priority.

Honesty can be tough in the moment, but a reputation for trustworthiness — or untrustworthiness! — can stick with a person for life. Living by a policy of never holding back or sugarcoating will gain loyalty that money can’t buy. Plus, dealing with only the truth means not having to worry about getting the story straight or remembering what was and wasn’t shared.

Spending more time trying to get off the phone than really hearing what the customer has to say. Businesspeople generally roll out the red carpet in order to get prospective clients on board. And they’re probably willing to bear with the whims, questions and requests of fairly new customers whose business isn’t yet cemented. But what about older, more established clients? Are they given the same amount of time and care, or is it just assumed they’ll stick with the company out of habit and convenience?

Companies that become No. 1 don’t do so because they win customers over once, but because they do it every day. A good experience last month usually won’t keep a customer coming back this month if he or she believes the business’s level of service has slipped.

Not knowing a client’s daughter’s name or what the client likes to do on the weekends. A businessperson may see it as being professional when every question in the meeting is about the client’s financial preferences, for example, and not his family, pastimes and interests. But the client sees it as cold and impersonal. Remember, to truly serve, one has to care. When one keeps oneself at arm’s length, one can’t give clients 100 percent — and one gives them an incentive to take their business elsewhere.

People can sense if they’re seen as just a client, a source of income, rather than as actual human beings with likes, preferences, quirks and stories. People want to do business with individuals they like — and they like people who like them! One makes a deeper connection with clients by asking about their kids, their pets, their hobbies and their jobs or businesses. That’s where one finds the common ground — that they, too, are filled with worries, hopes and dreams. The businessperson who gets familiar with and invested in these things will work that much harder on each client’s behalf, and earn the client’s loyalty in the process.

Feeling one’s main obligation to employees is writing their paycheck. While not treating employees like dirt, a business owner may feel that he or she doesn’t owe them any special favors, either. After all, they’re getting paid — isn’t that enough? Well, no. The way a company’s employees treat customers reflects the way their employer treats them. Is the employer courteous? Kind? Enthusiastic? Attentive? Or short, perfunctory and even, sometimes, rude?

A businessperson can’t serve others by making distinctions between the people who work for the company and the people to whom the company provides a good or service. Those at the top set the tone for the company’s “personality,” creating a tribe of people who will beat the drum for its message. Employers need to see their employees through a client’s eyes and honestly assess: Would they win first or second place in a customer service competition? If they don’t like the answer, the first thing to adjust could be their own attitude — put the customers first. No excuses and no exceptions.

Joseph Callaway and JoAnn Callaway are co-authors of Clients First: The Two Word Miracle and founders of the real estate company Those Callaways. Making the customer’s needs top priority every day and in every situation is how they built a thriving real estate business, and to date, Those Callaways has been the market leader in their area for years.

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