Clients Are Your First Priority
Originally published: 07.10.14 by Joseph Callaway
Any 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. What they don't realize is, they've developed an array of bad habits that accomplish the opposite.
Most HVACR business owners would be shocked to hear they're putting clients last. In reality, they're putting so many other things first — their own bank accounts, comfort, convenience, even their own pride — the customer really does come last … or close to it, anyway.
I'm not talking about business owners who knowingly do shoddy work or try to shortchange customers — odds are, their companies will die a quick and early death. I'm talking about those who do have good intentions — who try to be polite, 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
I'm something of a self-made expert on the subject of prioritizing customers. My wife and I built our real estate business — a rarity in an industry that's had more than its share of challenges — by making the customer's needs their top priority every day, and in every situation.
In our book, Clients First: The Two Word Miracle, we credit 100 percent of our success to our Clients First philosophy, and we're convinced that it can help all businesses grow in similar ways. The reason why more business owners don't operate this way is obvious: It's not easy.
Putting your customers' interests ahead of your own — every time —will seem counterintuitive, risky, and sometimes even frightening, especially in the beginning.
Eventually, though, keeping your commitment to Clients First will start to feel more natural. By then, the benefits, rewards, satisfaction, and success will be rolling in — and you'll be proud of the person and professional you've become.
Here are 10 ways in which you may be inadvertently failing your customers.
Ummm…isn't that the point of running a company, you might ask. Well, it's a point, but it's not the point. A too-acute focus on improving the bottom line takes your attention off the people who are going to enable you to raise it: your customers. Your clients can always tell when they're not your first priority. (If you're 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 your clients will give you more business and doing so because serving the customer is your first priority may feel slight, but it's significant. Taking your focus off the bottom line may feel uncomfortable at first. But you'll soon find that when you focus on how best to serve clients, tough decisions make themselves. If it serves the client, you do it. If it doesn't, you don't—even if you make less money. This neutralizes moral dilemmas and really simplifies your life. And it can have a miracle effect on your growth and success.
As a business owner, there are a lot of "big" things you'd never neglect. For example, you wouldn't lock up for the night without making sure that your restaurant's kitchen was thoroughly cleaned, and you wouldn't allow your accountancy office's college intern to prepare a client's taxes. However, you might not be such a stickler for what you believe are "smaller things." Rushing through paperwork so you can 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, you think. But that's not necessarily the case.
So often in life, 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. When you fail to get the small details right, you fail 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.
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 your receptionist uses has been in place for years and you're not getting many complaints, why tinker with it? If your knowledge is sufficient to handle most of your clients' problems, why spend valuable time learning more? The answer is simple: If you don't consistently strive to improve, you're not putting your clients first.
I'm not saying you need to spend every minute of your spare time attending conferences, taking classes and webinars, and reading industry journals. However, you should make it a priority to stay familiar with the way your industry is growing and changing. You should also do everything possible to offer your customers the quality and value they deserve. Always question the status quo, and ask yourself how you can make it better. You don't just want your customers to be satisfied; you want them to be pleasantly surprised every time they do business with you.
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 your slip-up—you need to move forward! Right?
Wrong. When your company makes a mistake, no matter how big or small, it's your responsibility to stare that mistake in the face and get to the very bottom of what went wrong. That's not just so you can fix one particular error; it's so you can figure out why it happened and make sure it doesn't occur again.
Every mistake is a good learning opportunity. Maybe you'll figure out that you 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 you to update your record-keeping systems. My point is, when you sweep a mistake under the rug instead of allowing it to make you better, you aren't putting your clients' future interests first.
I'm not saying that you should disregard a client's preferences and desires—of course you should try to get to the bottom of what each customer wants, and then do whatever is in your power to deliver that product or service. However, when customers are simply wrong and their best interests are at stake, it's your responsibility to say so.
Allowing a customer to be "right" when you know he isn't may pacify him temporarily, but in the end, it won't be good for either of you. 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.
JoAnn and I had our Clients First revelation while wrestling with whether or not to allow a customer to be "right." Should we allow a family to buy a home they wanted, but that would have stretched the buyer's finances and caused the seller to accept less than they should? We could have kept our mouths shut, but we decided to tell both parties that the transaction was a mistake. Ultimately, we were able to find a better option for both parties because we put their best interests above profits, pride, or convenience.
It's happened to everyone: When you see that name flash on your phone's caller ID, you slowly pull your hand back from the receiver and let the ringing continue. You just don't want to deal with the drama, or the whining, or the accusations, or the belligerence just now. Yes, 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 your behavior. (And be honest: Would you want to give your business to someone who might write you off when the going got tough?)
Clients First means all clients. In over fourteen years, my wife and I have never gotten rid of a single client—even when we secretly wished we could — and we believe this no-fire strategy has contributed significantly to our ultimate success. Here's the payoff: When you make the choice to stand by all of your frazzled, frustrated customers, you will eventually reap financial and personal rewards.
You may even become known in your company or industry as the guy or gal who can handle the toughest customers. And chances are, your clients themselves will be grateful that you didn't give up on them and may even send others your way.
Telling clients white lies, or exaggerating, misdirecting, or omitting, might make life easier temporarily. It's easy to justify such behavior (She'll never know, and it'll save me hours of work, for example). But these little lies are as bad as the whoppers. There is always a chance that customers will see through you and call you 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. (In return, that's usually how they'll rate you.)
Honesty can be tough in the moment, but a reputation for trustworthiness — or untrustworthiness! — can stick with you for life. Live by a policy of never holding back or sugarcoating and you'll gain loyalty that money can't buy. Plus, when you have only the truth, you don't have to worry about getting the story straight or remembering what you have and haven't shared. You know you're doing the right thing.
Chances are, you roll out the red carpet in order to get prospective clients on board. And you'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? Do you take the same amount of time and care with them, or do you assume they'll stick with you out of habit and convenience?
If you wouldn't hang up the phone at the first opportunity with a client you signed last week, don't do it with one you signed ten years ago. Companies that become number one 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 that your level of service has slipped.
In your eyes you're being professional when every question in your meeting is about the client's financial preferences, for example, and not his family, pastimes, and interests. But in his eyes, you're cold and impersonal. Remember, to truly serve, you have to care. When you keep yourself at arm's length, you can't give your clients 100 percent … and you give them an incentive to take their business elsewhere.
Do you see your clients as sources of income, or do you see them 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! Make a deeper connection with your clients by asking about their kids, their pets, their hobbies, and their jobs or businesses. You'll find that most of them are just like you: filled with worries, hopes, and dreams. Once you get familiar with and invested in these things, you'll work that much harder on each client's behalf, and you'll earn their loyalty in the process.
While (of course) you don't treat employees like dirt, you may feel that you don't owe them any special favors, either. After all, you're paying them—isn't that enough? Well, no. The way your people treat customers reflects the way you treat them. Are you courteous? Kind? Enthusiastic? Do you listen when they talk to you and try to accommodate their needs? Or are you short, perfunctory, and even (sometimes) rude?
Your job is to serve others, period. You can't do that by making distinctions between the people who work for you and the people to whom you provide a good or service. Realize that you set the tone for your company's "personality," and that you're creating a tribe of people who will beat the drum for your message. Try to see your employees through a client's eyes and be honest: Would they win first or second place in a customer service competition? If you don't like the answer, try adjusting your own attitude first.
After reading through all of these scenarios, the one way to put your customers first is probably pretty obvious: Put them first! There can be no excuses and no exceptions.
If you recognized yourself or your business in any of the examples above, don't beat yourself up. Clients First is definitely the exception in the marketplace, not the rule. And that's why adhering to it will propel you to increased customer satisfaction and success.
Joseph Callaway and JoAnn Callaway are coauthors of the New York Times best seller Clients First: The Two Word Miracle and founders of the real estate company Those Callaways. For additional information, visit www.clientsfirstbook.com.
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