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Customer Service

© September 2000 Tony Lawrence

About once a month or so, I get a call from some new client who is looking for a new consultant. Sometimes the reason is understandable: the present consultant is moving, retiring, taking a job or whatever. Sometimes it's sad because someone has died or become otherwise incapable of working. But all too often, what I hear is something like this: "Great guy, really knows what he's doing- but he never returns my calls, and a lot of times when he says he's going to be here, he never shows up".

After hearing this so many times, I shouldn't be surprised, but my answer is this: "If you call me during normal business hours, you'll usually get me, but if I do have to call you back, if it's not the very same day, it's because I'm dead, in jail, or every telephone that I can possibly walk or crawl to is not working. So if you don't hear from me quickly, call again, send me a fax, send me email- I'd rather hear from you more than once than miss it because there's some dumb problem with voice mail or whatever. As to appointments, I've forgotten exactly one in 17 years- and I was incredibly embarrassed. If I'm going to be even 5 minutes late, you will hear from me, and if you don't, I'm buried under a semi somewhere because otherwise I would have called you. Not that I never have to cancel appointments- emergencies do happen, but again I will call you the minute I know there's even a chance I might have to cancel."

Why? Not because I'm such an incredibly nice guy, but because this is my BUSINESS. When my phone rings, it isn't an alarm clock disturbing my sleep, it's a cash register that pays my bills. That's why I return calls even when I'm on vacation: I want to be able to afford however many vacations I take, and it is customers who let me do that.

Before I go on, understand that I'm not perfect. I screw up a lot of things, and now and then I lose a customer, too. Sometimes people tell me I sound too impatient, that I make them feel dumb- I sure don't want them to feel either of those things, and I try hard to not do the kinds of things that would make them think that, but I do slip up. Then some customers don't like that I don't usually work more than four hours a day- I explain that I start getting a little dumb after four hours of intense work, and don't feel it's fair to keep going (fair to them, not me) , but sometimes folks just want a full days work. Now and then I have problems with someone who thinks I ought to wear a suit and tie, or at least a tie, and they are probably right; I should, but I'm not going to, mainly because a tie looks really dumb on a t-shirt. What, you expected me to wear a shirt with collar? Sorry. If that costs me a customer, well, so be it. And I'm sure there are other things, other character flaws or dumb things I do that I shouldn't, so don't take the preaching I'm about to embark upon as coming from someone with a chip on their shoulder. There isn't one, I just want to share some of the things I KNOW you shouldn't do.

An existing customer is better than a new customer

Yes, we all need new customers, because for whatever reasons, we all lose customers. And yes, if you have a $20,000 opportunity, it's hard to pay attention to the little guy who needs a $20.00 part or maybe just some free advice. But let me tell you a story about one of my customers (and I know he'll be reading this and will recognize himself):

This company has a pretty good sized user base, and their server is never fast enough. Therefore, every three or four years, they buy a new server, and they spend good money on it. The class of computer they buy is too much for me to sell, so I always refer them to someone larger who can handle a bigger sale like that.

The last time they bought a server was about four years ago. It was a big Compaq, and if I recall correctly, it came to about $30,000.00 all told. There were some problems; the company I had them buy it from screwed up a few things, but nothing too terrible, and the installation went through pretty much on schedule. At that point, they had a reasonably satisfied customer.

But then the customer realized that they needed another Digiboard Ports module. This wasn't the seller's fault; it was a genuine oversight by the customer, and they knew it. So I called the vendor for them, got their sales person and ordered the part.

Two weeks later, the customer called wondering where the part was. I called the sales rep, and got voice mail for a few days (and of course no return call!), but finally caught him at his desk and off the phone. I asked him about the part, and he told me he hadn't ordered it yet.

I was more than surprised, and asked why. This is just about verbatim what his response was:

"Tony, I can't be bothered with a $500.00 part right now; I've got too many big fish to fry."

Wow. He was sure happy to take the $30,000 sale, but hey, that was yesterday, and today is today. Too bad, right?

Yeah, too bad. Because, as I said, this customer buys new servers pretty regularly, and just now, they are ready to buy again. Do you think they'll buy from that company? Not a chance.

Existing customers know you and trust you. You know how long it takes them to pay and who to go to if there's a problem. Take care of their needs, and you'll get business from them for a long, long time.

Do the billing

Gosh, you'd think this would be a no-brainer, but I regularly get asked something like "Would you please make sure you bill us before too long goes by?"

Huh? The bill is going out TONIGHT unless I get back too late to do it, and then it will definitely go out the next morning. Hey, I want my money! And beyond that, I want that bill in front of your face while the details of why I'm billing you are still fresh in both of our minds. Oh, and the bill itself or attached paperwork is going to say SOMETHING about what I did if it's for services. You may not believe this, but I've seen bills that looked like this:

Sept 8th- 3 hours at $175.00
Sept 12th- 8 hours at $175.00
Sept 13th- 8 hours at $175.00
And this useless thing was mailed on December 30th- 3 months later! Who remembers how many hours this nameless person ( that particular firm has four consultants) had worked on what nameless project? The customer didn't- and when they called to ask, the consultants couldn't tell them who or what either! If it had been mailed September 14th, or even the next week, everybody probably would have remembered.

Don't Assume

My wife and I vacationed down in Pennsylvania a few years back. We stayed at a place that included breakfast in the room fees if you were there for a week or more as we were. Great, but the breakfast wasn't exactly what we wanted, though we could see on the menu that they actually DID have the food we liked. So I ordered that. Boy, did that cause a fuss. The owner came over, all upset, she couldn't afford to give us what we asked for, what were we trying to pull, wow! I had to calm her down and tell her that I was NOT asking for more expensive food for free; that I fully expected to pay for it, and in fact she could charge me the full menu price if she wanted because THAT WAS WHAT WE WANTED REGARDLESS OF THE COST.

Don't assume your customer won't pay, don't assume that they expect something to be free. Maybe they are unreasonable jerks, but find out for sure before you do something dumb.

Know your limitations

There is no sin more grievous than getting out of your depth. Nobody expects you to know everything, so if you are clueless about whatever your customer has approached you with, be honest. Say so. Your customer will value you much more than the self-styled "guru" who is supposedly the be-all and end-all of computer knowledge. Not only that, but you won't get sued for screwing up something you never should have been involved with in the first place.

Some projects are too big for you to handle

You aren't Andersen Consulting, are you? Don't bite off more than you can chew. Not only will you tick off that customer if you fail, but you'll probably lose a bunch of others because you'll be too busy to call them back. Be realistic about what you can do and when you can do it.

Some customers need to be somebody else's customer

We all can't get along. If you and I just can't mesh at some level (those T-shirts I wear just grate at your nerves), then we both need to move on. Or maybe the customer has just gotten too big for me to handle, or needs 24 X 7 support, or has moved their software to that awful NT junk that I detest working on. Or I'm a morning guy and he likes me there at night. The point is, you can't be all things to everyone and you don't need to be. Move on. Be honest about the reason if you can; be diplomatic otherwise. But sever the ties and move on.

Be Happy

What's the point of doing a job you hate? If I'm your customer, I'm not going to like your miserable attitude, and I'll find someone else as quickly as I can. There's a Dunkin Donuts near me where the help has the most unhappy, put upon, boy does my life suck attitudes I have ever seen. I like Dunkin Donuts coffee, but across the street is a McDonalds that mostly hires senior citizens. Frankly, some of them are a bit ditzy- they screw up my order, give me the wrong change- but they are HAPPY and friendly. They say "Hi!" and sometimes they even get my name right and even though the coffee is not as good, and costs more, and is half full or I get change for a five instead of a twenty, I still will not go to that Dunkin Donuts. I don't need somebody else's bad attitudes; I have enough to deal with my own. I like going to a place with happy, friendly help.

Got something to add? Send me email.

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