Customer Service: Being ‘professional’ isn’t always the answer
When I was a kid, I remember going to the library and having the librarian greet us; talking to my mother as an old friend, and to me like I was a favorite niece. When my mother took me to the store in the center of town, she would tell me about the cashier and her life, having had years to learn about her. Sure enough, once we got there, Mom gabbed away with her about anything and everything. Mom enjoyed those trips to the store, and as I’ve grown older, I see why.
I was raised to believe that’s what service was, so imagine my shock after I grew up, started my business and experienced something else. I went to the store, and nobody knew who I was (nor did they care). I’d hire service providers that ensured “professional boundaries” were in place, which was just code for treating me impersonally. And my personal favorite (sarcasm intended): buying something over the phone and with their idea of “customer service,” some weird human-sounding robot. Yuck!
As I started my business, I was mistakenly led to believe through advice and observation that “professional” was defined by a stiff and cold but polite, efficient manner; one where you were always on your best behavior. So, of course, I embodied that idea. I had many clients, but nobody knew who I actually was, and I didn’t know them. It wasn’t fun for either party; it was just business. And at the end of the day, even having had some success, I just wanted to walk away and get a job where I didn’t have to talk to anyone.
Being an entrepreneur will always have its challenges, but I have to say I’ve found my greatest successes through following my intuition, and ignoring these notions of being “strictly professional.” My gut always told me to be myself, and to get to know the people I do business with. It told me to work with people that would welcome my idea of service, and to work with people that would engage with me on a meaningful level. It also told me I didn’t have to be a simpering sycophant — that there was value in telling people the ugly truth when necessary.
Breaking Down Barriers
So skip ahead to present day, after several years of listening to my gut. I have real relationships with my clients, knowing who they are as individuals, and having them know me. I don’t mean that we hang out and have beers on Saturday nights (though it has happened). It’s a matter of openness, acceptance and being genuine. With that perspective, we can bluntly tell the truth, engage in a lively debate, and overall have a much better experience. Awkward conversations no longer exist and I can sincerely tell you I love my job.
I’ve learned along the way that real service is what I experienced when I was a kid. Anything less is a sham and completely unacceptable for a lasting, viable endeavor. I refuse to believe that real relationships are only for friends, and business is an acceptable barrier we can impose on one another. Business is a concept that, like money, exists in the mind (and the IRS, of course). It has power and mystique because we believe it does. But, like most things, the people behind that concept are what really matter.
Remember, excellent customer service isn’t something offered, it’s a way of being, knowing that every customer is worth your interest beyond the transaction at hand.
After all — finding customers is important, but KEEPING your customers is the best way to find success.
Originally published in the Worcester Business Journal on 10/11/10