Years ago, during a Barbara Walters interview of Katharine Hepburn, the discussion took a surprising turn: The broadcast journalist famously asked kind of tree the actress would be. You might find it refreshing to contemplate virtually the same question as you manage your startup and consider, What type of tree are your customers?
Truth is, many entrepreneurs think of customer service as being the damage control that happens after something goes wrong. Indeed when someone is running a startup, with looming deadlines, limited resources and barely enough bandwidth to meet deliverables, worrying about customer-service policy might sound like one more thorn in an already brambly bush.
But customer service is something that should be cultivated from the inception of any business-client relationship. In this way, it is most like caring a bonsai tree, which requires special planting, watering and sometimes a good prune.
Serve your employees to serve your customers. Proper soil composition is what allows a bonsai to flourish. The soil of your company is your employees. Happy employees are the best way to make sure that everyone stays motivated to keep your business thriving.
Having employees who take pride in their work, sense they are making a meaningful contribution and feel they have corporate support, can translate into higher quality service for your customers. Treat your team as your primary customer base. Let them know that you expect the best from them, but that they, in turn, deserve the best from you.
Help customers help you. I have only once uttered the following words, “Why yes, I’d be happy to stay on the line and take your survey.” It was one of those rare moments, like a Pegasus sighting. This happened during a call with my bank.
From the first time I called, the service was phenomenal. The automated menu was brief, I was connected to a person within the promised one-minute wait time and the representative who answered was charming, warm and genuinely seemed thrilled to be speaking with me. By the time we were done, I felt so taken care of, it seemed the least I could do to answer a couple questions.
The best part about this customer strategy is that it’s totally self-serving. If you take the time for your customers, they’ll be more than happy to take the time for you.
Be upfront. Upfront communication with clients is like watering a tree. It should be pure and trickle down to the roots. The worst PR disasters arise when policies or actions are not clearly communicated. When Netflix increased prices and separated its streaming video service from its mail DVD service in 2011, customers balked. It was a PR nightmare that resulted in an apology from CEO, Reed Hastings. While he stated that the price hike would remain in effect, he openly admitted, “We didn’t explain why we were doing it.”
Sometimes you will need to raise prices or change services. While it’s doubtful your customers will be overjoyed, there is a right way to break it to them. Amazon took a different approach when it announced a price increase for its Prime membership, earlier this year. I received an email like this:
“We are writing to provide you advance notice that the price of your Prime membership will be increasing.
"Even as fuel and transportation costs have increased, the price of Prime has remained the same for nine years. Since 2005, the number of items eligible for unlimited free Two-Day Shipping has grown from one million to over 20 million. We also added unlimited access to over 40,000 movies and TV episodes with Prime Instant Video and a selection of over 500,000 books to borrow from the Kindle Owners' Lending Library.”
It was short, sweet and to the point. Was I thrilled? No, but it was reasonable and I appreciated the heads-up, which gave me ample time to determine if Prime still made sense for me.
Learn when to let go. Some customers are just unreasonable. They will sap your time and energy and even if placated today will likely be a headache again tomorrow. These customers are a constant strain, even while still remaining a small fry in your client pool. Don’t automatically give in to a customer that is a Jerkasaurus of prehistoric proportions.
In this situation, the best solution is to clear the deadwood. Withdraw your services and express your sincerest regret that you were not able to meet their expectations. Wish these customers greater success elsewhere, and who knows, they may even come back with an appreciation for your honesty, and hopefully, an attitude adjustment.
As is the case for the skilled gardener who tends a plot, patient and attentive care of your customer relationships will yield a fruitful outcome for your business. The bonsai is said to be a symbol for harmony and peace. Does this accurately describe your current customer management? If not, it begs the question, What kind of tree wouldit be?
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