How bad customer service habits you didn’t know you had may be holding you back—and tactics on how you can sweep them out of your repertoire for good.
If you’re like most business owners, you probably assume your client relationships are pretty good. After all, you have enough clients to still be in business (which, in light of our recent economic death spiral, is saying something!). But it’s possible you’re merely surviving instead of thriving because you’re only scratching the surface of what it means to truly put the customer first. Consider conducting a “spring cleaning” to identify and purge the bad habits that are gumming up this crucial area of your business.
There’s something about springtime that makes you want to get your metaphorical house in order and start fresh. If you’re feeling that impulse but not sure where to start, zero in on client relationships. This is where you’ll get the most bang for your buck.
Most business owners are so concerned with paying the bills that we instinctively put ourselves first. It’s a behavior fueled by fear. But when you really put the customer first, and put your own needs second, a whole lot of other things naturally fall into place. Decisions will become easier, your business will flourish, and your relationships will be based on true transparency.
I should know. My wife, JoAnn, and I built our thriving business—Those Callaways—in a tough industry that’s had more than its share of challenges. To date, we’ve sold over a billion dollars’ worth of homes. Our book, Clients First: The Two Word Miracle, describes our late-in-life entry into the world of real estate, how we had our “clients first” revelation, and how it has impacted our professional and personal lives. It also gives readers step-by-step advice on how to put their own customers first, as well as why each one works.
Living and working this way is not easy. Putting your customers’ interests ahead of your own—every time—will seem counterintuitive, risky, and sometimes even frightening, especially at first. Eventually, though, keeping your commitment to “clients first” will start to feel more natural. And by that point, 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 ten bad habits (some fairly obvious, others much less so) that might be keeping you from putting clients first—and tactics to help you start sweeping them out with winter’s dust bunnies:
Bad Habit One: Making client interactions about you. Having a healthy ego can be a blessing and a curse. Yes, you need a strong sense of self in order to avoid being taken advantage of and marginalized by competitors and by clients. But when you start to believe that winning, recognition, and accolades are “the point” of what you do, you’ve veered off onto a destructive path. You become less likely to put the client’s best interests first if they interfere with reaching your own goals or with how others might see you. And while you may believe it’ll never happen to you, this is also the path that leads to moral ambiguity, cheating, and trampling others in the name of success.
Plus, no client likes working with someone who has a patronizing attitude or constantly sings his own praises. That’s why it’s crucial for you to redirect your ego and get out of your own way. Remember, your job is to be a champion for your clients, to solve their problems and find them satisfying solutions. Your job is not to be the most important person in the room or to put others down. Believe me, when you take care of your clients first and foremost, they will take care of you through their loyalty and appreciation.
SPRING CLEANING TACTIC: Notice how often you bring the story around to yourself. Stop doing that. Many people think building rapport is a matter of finding a common interest. They then dominate the common interest discussion by talking about themselves. Don’t. This is a form of arrogance and it takes your focus off the client.
Bad Habit Two: Worrying too much. If you’re like most people, you probably feel burdened with a myriad of worries, fears, and obligations. You assume that “it’s all up to me,” and you might even lie awake at night fretting over what isn’t right and what could go wrong. However, if you want to successfully care for your clients, you can’t expend the majority of your mental energy on worries and what-ifs. This puts you in the wrong frame of mind to think innovatively about how to meet customers’ needs. And taken to extremes, worries can effectively paralyze you and prevent you from moving forward at all. (Needless to say, in this state, you won’t be useful to clients or anyone else!)
No, I’m not saying that laying this burden down is an easy or instantaneous process—Far from it. It’s challenging to break what’s often a lifetime’s worth of mental habits. But here’s the beauty of “clients first”: Success is no longer about you; it’s about your customers. Your challenge is only to do the best for your clients. It’s a win-win situation, because the clients put their faith in you and you put your faith in doing your best for them. In our experience, everything else usually works out for the best.
SPRING CLEANING TACTIC: Every time you find yourself fretting, do something for a client. Spend an hour solving a client problem you’ve been avoiding. Connect one client to another who might be able to help him. Email him a link to an article you know would interest him. Worry thrives when you procrastinate and hand-wring. Action is the antidote… so do something (anything) to back up your commitment to your clients.
Bad Habit Three: Letting apathy creep in. In the real world (and especially in a tough economy), you can’t always follow the popular graduation day advice and “do what you love.” Unfortunately, that reality often leads to apathy, disengagement, and an “I just have to make it till five o’clock” mentality. If that describes you, it’s time for a wake-up call: You can’t coast through each workday and give 100 percent in service to your clients at the same time. That’s why, regardless of how you spend your nine-to-five hours, it’s imperative that you choose (yes, choose!) to take pride in your work.
When you consciously decide to put forth your best efforts, you’ll experience greater rewards, you’ll get better at what you do, and apathy will disappear as you begin to genuinely care about doing the job right for your clients. Whether you are a CEO or installing brake pads, you can learn to love what you do in that you feel pride in your work and strive to be better. Having any other attitude will only make you miserable and drive clients away.
SPRING CLEANING TACTIC: Make plans to do something this year that will help you get better at your job. Maybe it’s going to a seminar. Maybe it’s asking the client how you can serve him better. Maybe it’s shutting down your email so you can better concentrate on the task at hand. The better you get at what you do, the more rewarding it will be.
Bad Habit Four: Fudging the truth. You may think you’re always honest with your clients, but do a little soul-searching and you might be shocked at the number of little white lies, exaggerations, misdirections, and lies of omission you’re guilty of. For example, “I’m not going to meet my deadline so I’ll tell him I’m sick to buy myself a couple more days.” Or, “This is probably not the best vendor for this particular client, but since she (the vendor) sends us a lot of business, I’m going to recommend her anyway.” Sound familiar?
When you cultivate a reputation for rock-solid honesty—for laying out all your cards even when it doesn’t benefit you, for telling the whole truth, for never holding back or sugarcoating—you’ll gain customer loyalty that money can’t buy. Clients will trust, respect, and refer you, and your own life will become easier. When you have only the truth, you wave goodbye to moral dilemmas and sleepless nights. 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.
SPRING CLEANING TACTIC: You know that thing you’ve been wanting to say for a long time? Go ahead and say it. Don’t worry about the fallout. Bravely take the leap. You’ll find that most people want the truth. Give it to them and you’ll be joined together in a bond that never betrays.
Bad Habit Five: Being too professional. Yes, there is such a thing! Think about it: Do you see your clients as business opportunities and sources of income, or do you see them as actual human beings with likes, preferences, quirks, and stories? To truly put clients first, your number one goal at each meeting and during each phone call should be to invite them within arm’s length and make them less of a stranger.
People want to do business with individuals they like—and they like people who like them! Sure, it’s important not to cross certain boundaries, but there’s no reason you can’t strive to make a deeper connection with your clients by asking about their kids, their pets, their hobbies, and their jobs or businesses.
Now I’ll admit—sometimes it’s not easy to like people. But if you get out there and engage, you’ll find that most of them are just like you: filled with worries, hopes, and dreams. I can tell you from experience, once you become familiar with and invested in these things, you’ll work that much harder on each client’s behalf. Plus, a client who is thrilled that you remembered her upcoming anniversary or the fact that she recently became a grandmother will be more loyal and more likely to refer you to others.
SPRING CLEANING TACTIC: Every time you meet with a client, ask at least one question that has nothing to do with business. Ask about their kids. Ask about their pets. Ask about their favorite food, or movie, or vintage car. The conversation will likely develop in a surprising direction. As you hear their stories and get to know their joys and sorrows, you’ll start liking them. And you’ll find it more natural to put them first as clients.
Bad Habit Six: Thinking that you know best. It’s true that you, not the customer, are the expert on your business. You are the one who knows how to sell real estate or market a product or properly install a heat pump. But does that mean that yours is the only opinion that matters? Of course not. No matter what industry you’re in, you need to turn your viewpoint around and make a sincere effort to see yourself and your business as your client does.
I once worked with a vendor who asked me to help him develop advertisements for his home-cleaning business. The problem was, he would consider only ads modeled after his favorite sports team’s branding. He didn’t care that not all potential customers were sports fans, or that they might root for a different team. And as a result, his business hasn’t grown much. Don’t make this man’s mistake. Don’t make your business all about you. Think about what your clients want and figure out how to give it to them. Bottom line: When you turn it around and put yourself in the client’s shoes, you put the client first.
SPRING CLEANING TACTIC: Call up an ex-client and ask her how she sees your business. Assure her upfront that your goal is not to win her back. You just want the truth about how she perceives you and the truth about what she as a customer really wanted from you. If you are willing to do this (and make no mistake, it’s hard), you’ll learn a lot about what needs to change.
Bad Habit Seven: Being stingy with time and money. We’ve all heard the expression “The more you give, the more you get.” And we understand its meaning when it comes to things like love, smiles, and kindness. But how does it relate to business? Well, you can give your clients honesty, competence, and care, and hope to get those things back. But if you give away your expertise, time, energy, and (gasp!) money, won’t you just go broke?
Not necessarily. I remember being very apprehensive about donating a large sum of money to build a Habitat for Humanity house as a Christmas gift for our clients. I thought I’d never see that money again. But in the years since, I’ve learned that new clients chose us—and even that a bank gave us all of their foreclosures to sell—because they had learned of that donation. Now, you might not always give and get on such a large scale. But the principle works for all amounts of money, and it also works when you’re giving over-and-beyond service.
Understand that giving to get isn’t like a financial transaction where you give and get right there and then. There is no upfront agreement on what you’ll receive or when you’ll receive it. It may take time. But rest assured, whatever you give will come back to you with interest.
SPRING CLEANING TACTIC: Look for something to give away. (And don’t be cheap about it!) Whether you give free popcorn to moviegoers or a free grooming to pet boarding clients or a gorgeous framed print to your interior design clients, you make them feel special. This will keep them coming back.
Bad Habit Eight: Not expressing genuine gratitude. Sure, you may close each interaction with a “thank you for your business” or some variation thereof. But that doesn’t mean that your clients walk away feeling the warm fuzzies that accompany being truly appreciated. People can usually tell when you’re just mouthing a catchphrase as opposed to really meaning it, and if they don’t feel valued, they’re more apt to take their business elsewhere. Plus, if you don’t tap into an attitude of gratitude, you’re more likely to take your clients for granted, which only exacerbates the problem.
Clients, like anyone else, want to feel valued and appreciated—not just as sources of income but as individuals. JoAnn and I have realized that there are many ways to say “thank you” to clients, and not all of them are verbal. In addition to heartfelt words of thanks, you can show clients just how much you appreciate them by getting to know them personally, forgiving occasional bad behavior, and staying up-to-date in your field so that you can give them the highest level of service.
Overall, strive to make politeness, consideration, and friendliness things your company is known for, and never justify treating customers with rudeness. And, of course, when it’s financially possible, give loyal customers a freebie, discount, or gift to show them you’re thankful for their business.
SPRING CLEANING TACTIC: List the reasons why you’re grateful for your clients. Obviously you’re grateful for the fact that they allow you to make a living. But chances are, they bring more to the table than financial rewards, such as their loyalty, their referrals, the lessons they’ve taught you, and the relationships you’ve built together. With this list fresh on your mind, any expression of thanks—whether overt or implied—will be delivered with a ring of truth that money can’t buy.
Bad Habit Nine: Doing it all yourself. When you truly care about the success of your business—and about the wellbeing of your clients—it can be hard to let go of any aspect of your work. The thought of allowing someone else to take over any area of responsibility is extremely worrisome; after all, what if they mess it up? What if, because of another person’s mistakes, you end up letting a client down or delivering subpar results? Out of those questions, as you’re probably aware, many micromanagers and I’ll-do-it-myselfers have been born. What ends up happening in both scenarios is that you become stretched too thin, feel overwhelmed, and (ironically) become less effective.
I used to be a huge proponent of the phrase “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” I couldn’t let go of anything, and as a result, I ran myself into the ground and was very limited in what I could accomplish. In trying to make sure everything was just-so for clients, I was actually letting them down.
I have since discovered the power of putting my faith in others. Today, I do three times the work with one-third of the effort. Yes, giving part of your responsibility to someone else is always a leap of faith at first. But if you refuse to believe that anyone else can do what you do, then your efforts to grow and serve are doomed.
SPRING CLEANING TACTIC: Delegate one responsibility to someone else. It’s okay to start with something small. The point is to pick something that another person can duplicate and get it off your plate so that you can devote more of your time and energy to the things that no one else can do. Yes, sometimes you will be left holding the bag, and there’s nothing you can do about it. But more often, you’ll have opened yourself up to winning in a situation where reluctance might have caused you to fail.
Bad Habit Ten: Writing off difficult clients. Sometimes, it seems that your job—and life in general—would be so much easier without that one client. You know the type: Maybe he just can’t be satisfied. Or she asks for way more of your time than she’s actually paying you for. Or perhaps every meeting and conference call is an ordeal featuring hostility, accusations, and very selective listening. Whatever the case, you’ve mentally written off this client. Perhaps you can’t actually fire him (in a bad economy, many businesses can’t afford this “luxury”), but you’ve gone into endurance mode. You’re just going through the motions required to get your monthly retainer check rather than truly looking for ways to meet the client’s needs. (And guess what? In many cases, this type of disengagement will lead to the client—and his money—leaving anyway.)
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. Even when clients make your life a lot more difficult than it theoretically should be, your job—your professional reason for being—is to serve them. If you cannot or will not do so, it’s the client’s job to fire you, not the other way around. And 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 receive referrals as a result!
SPRING CLEANING TACTIC: The next time a client makes you want to pull your hair out, get to the bottom of why he’s being so difficult. When you know that a client is throwing a fit because he has to lower his hourly rate to compete, for example, or is facing laying off an employee who’s been with him for years, you’ll be much less inclined to fire him. Instead, you’ll be inspired to go to greater lengths on his behalf!
Yes, this list may seem overwhelming at first, but trust me, it isn’t. If you commit yourself to your clients’ best interests, your bad relationship habits will begin to dissipate on their own. And over time, your clients will begin to take care of you just as you have taken care of them. By this time next year, I hope you’ll report that this year’s “spring cleaning” was the longest-lasting, most effective, and most beneficial you’ve ever done!
Joseph Callaway and JoAnn Callaway are coauthors of the New York Times bestseller Clients First: The Two Word Miracle and founders of the real estate company Those Callaways. To learn more, visit clientsfirstbook.com.