Once upon a time, businesses lived by a common mantra: “The customer is always right.” Or at least, the successful ones did. Today, we live in a more densely populated, more hurried, and more complex world. Technology has made it possible for us to do great things, but it has also removed some of the human element from doing business. As much as companies may mouth the words, it sometimes seems to the customers that caring, concerned customer service is a thing of the past. And that’s where an important opportunity lies for those who are willing to buck the trends and provide it.
The expectation that customers will be catered to is especially low in the technology realm. Frustrating experiences with software and hardware vendors, cable companies, ISPs, telecoms and other big, impersonal tech-related corporations have left people jaded, cynical and suspicious about the companies with which they do business. When it’s time to contract with a managed services provider, many of them will be prepared for more of the same – price gouging, billing mistakes, service outages, disinterested (or no) responses to their concerns, lack of or lackluster follow-up when they have problems or questions, and so forth.
This means you can stand out from the crowd, earn the loyalty of your customers and get lots of free word-of-mouth advertising by making a real commitment to customer service that goes beyond your written mission statement and permeates your entire organization. But how do you go about doing that?
Customer service is all about attitude. You can view customers as numbers: Customer A brings in X number of dollars per week/month/year and costs us X amount of money and time. This “bottom line” approach is imminently logical and rational – and ultimately destructive to your business relationship with Customer A (and your other customers across the board, who in this numbers-centric analysis will inevitably be measured by income and expenses relative to Customer A).
The opposite approach is to view customers as human beings with whom you interact in a cooperative venture. You provide a service that your customers want and need; in turn, they provide you with the monetary compensation that allows you to finance that service and make a profit. It’s simple and obvious, but too often business people begin to believe that customers are “necessary evils” who conspire to make their jobs harder. When your relationship with customers turns into “us vs. them” thinking, you know you’re way off track in the customer service department.
How do you turn that around? Perhaps ironically, the first key to creating better and more personalized relationships with customers is to stop taking things personally. Customer complaints aren’t about you – they’re about the situation that the customer finds him/herself in. People who are frustrated by their situations may react with anger, sarcasm, and accusations. If you respond in kind, you’ll escalate the bad feelings. If you control your emotions and instead show concern and understanding, most people will calm down and start thinking rationally so that you can solve the problem together.
There are proven methods for dealing with irate people. A technique that has long been employed by law enforcement professionals and more recently been made available to large corporations is verbal judo, which was developed by Dr. George Thompson in the 1980s. It’s described as a way of “redirecting behavior with words,” and those trained in its skills have been very successful at defusing tense or verbally violent confrontations.
Verbal Judo training is available through classroom instruction and live events, online courses, digital media and books. You can find out more about it here.
From top to bottom
The change in attitude and development of new communications skills should be a “top down” initiative. Management must adopt and support the policies, but that’s not enough. The customer-oriented mindset and skillset must be held by everyone in the company who deals with customers. Particularly in a small to mid-sized business, top management personnel serve as role models to the employees they oversee, and the only way to instill the “customer first” attitude in those employees is through strong leadership.
This is especially important for MSPs, because they tend to be companies that are founded and run by entrepreneurial technologists. That is, the owner/managers often have excellent technical skills but sometimes they’re lacking in experience and training in human relations. This is true not only of the leaders, but of most of the MSP employees, who are hired for their technical skills rather than their diplomatic expertise. Technical training tends to focus more on processes than on people. The key is to recognize this gap and take steps to fill it.
From attitude to action
Attitude is the foundation, but you have to build on that foundation through actions. And those actions need to be based on what customers want. In most cases, it’s pretty simple:
- Customers’ productivity is dependent on the IT services you provide, so they expect reliability.
- If there are unavoidable outages, service interruptions or problems, they want you to communicate what’s wrong and how soon it will be fixed.
- When they deal with you, whether electronically, by phone or face-to-face, they want you to be friendly and focused on their business issues and/or problems.
- They want to feel that they can trust you to do what you say you’ll do, when you say you’ll do it, and to keep them in the loop if circumstances beyond your control make that impossible.
- They want you to have a “can do” attitude – they don’t want to hear whining or complaining about what a tough time you’re having solving the problem. They just want it fixed so they can get on with their business.
Companies contract with you to provide managed IT services because they don’t want to have to worry about it. They want your services to be as transparent as possible. They want you to take care of maintaining the systems and recognizing and correcting any problems in the early stages before they turn into bigger problems, and preferably without ever having to know there was a potential problem.
Customer service is about more than just getting the technical problems fixed as soon as possible – it’s about building relationships with people in the process. It’s about showing your customers that you care about whether their businesses succeed or fail, grow or stagnate. It’s about entering into a real partnership, in which both companies help each other become stronger and better. Long term success for an MSP requires more than just attracting customers by offering the best technologies or the lowest prices; it requires that you keep those customers happy.