Courting Your Clients: 9 Essential Skills and Traits You Need to Nourish Superior Client Relationships
by Cathleen Elise Rossiter
“Consumers are statistics. Customers are people.”
-Stanley Marcus, former Chairman of the Board of Neiman Marcus –
Last night I got together with some friends for dinner after work. All of us had had stressful days at work and were looking to wind down before heading home. Each of us deals with clients directly during the course of the day, which was the cause for the frustration and stress.
Amid the variety of scenarios that my friends vented (everywhere from well-worn returns at my friend’s clothing boutique to contentious parent-teacher conferences), the tie that binds these stories together is the understanding that my friends have of what it means to serve clients.
I posed the question, “What image comes to mind when you hear the term Customer Service?” The responses, like gunfire, punctuated the energy in the air,
“Scullery Maid!” retorted the corporate accounts department manager.
“Babysitter!” the coffee shop owner interjected.
“Door mat!” uttered the boutique owner.
“Pain-in-the-A.R.S.E.!” confirmed the head of the legal department at a local shopping mall. We had some fun recounting stories of our worst encounters with clients, transitioning to our best encounters to be certain that we ended on a positive note.
I must admit that the whole concept of seeing customers as an excruciating evil that must be endured as part of the cost of doing business has always been a foreign concept to me. Even during the most exasperating exchanges in my earliest days as an official member of the Working World, I always felt that a client was upset because I had failed to hear what the client truly was saying/asking/needing or that I failed in my ability to communicate the solution (or reasons for a lack thereof) effectively to a client who couldn’t hear me. I quickly developed a set of skills and nurtured a few personality traits to tap into in order to make sure I could eliminate every barrier to a great working relationship that I could.
These nine essentials have never failed me. I, on the other hand, have failed when I have chosen not to employ these nine essentials. I have listed them below in the order in which they naturally flow. This natural order is also useful in knowing how to prioritize your learning and training needs. The first two are personality traits that you may develop even if you do not possess them naturally. The remaining seven are skills that anyone can master with commitment.
A Contemplative Nature
– or the habit of analyzing situations with the aim of making improvements for the future. In order to improve the relationships you have with your customers or clients, you have to take some time each day to review each of your interactions with your customers or clients. If you do not look back, replaying the exchange in your mind, you will never see what worked well and what did not work at all. If you do not look for the strengths and weaknesses in your relationships, you cannot make anything better, stronger. Remember, the Bionic Man was the result of a complete disaster, a rebuilding and strengthening of an apparently hopeless case. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with the reference, I have included the opening sequence to the 1970’s television show.)
A Passion for Solving Puzzles
– or the habit of searching for the best solution rather than the easiest or the first solution that presents itself. I find, from my experiences on both sides of the customer service experience, that people respond well when they can see that you are working with them to solve their problem. By laying all the pieces of the solution on the table and working with the customer to put them together properly, the customer or client walks away certain that they have the full picture, that all the pieces are in place, and that this particular puzzle is complete. They also walk away confident that they have a companion, someone they can trust to champion their cause, someone they can rely on to help them through the difficult times rather than someone they have to fight with to get the help promised to them.
– or the habit of taking the lens off you and focusing on the people around you. There are many common sayings illustrating this concept – “Before you judge someone, walk a mile in his shoes”, “Wake up and smell the roses/coffee/manure”, “Everything is not about you” (Meryl Brooks in Two Weeks Notice). Once we stop thinking only of ourselves in any given situation, we open our eyes to the person in front of us. We begin asking questions that help us understand the sources of what a person feels, why they feel that way, and how it affects his or her behavior. Knowing the root cause of the behavior allows us to know what to do to change things, to be effective.
– or the habit of caring. The more conscious you become about the people around you, the more you begin to care about them. When a customer or client is involved, your compassion goes a long way to developing a healthy working relationship, that in turn develops a long-term, loyal client. Demonstrating compassion towards another person is far easier, takes less energy and effort, than treating him or her with annoyance or disdain. Increasing the level of compassion you have for your customers or clients actually increases your feelings of having contributed something positive to the world, which helps you enjoy more the work you do. At the end of the day, who doesn’t want to feel better about the work they do?
Effective Communication Skills
– or the ability to receive a message correctly and to transmit clearly your message. You can never have too much training in this one area. The more effective you are in sending and receiving messages, the less chance there is that you will misunderstand or be misunderstood, which creates a deep connection with your customers, your clients. The more people on your team who consciously develop effective communication skills, the more superior your service level will be.
Highly-developed Listening Skills
– or the ability to get at the heart of the matter. Listening involves more than just sound reverberating against your eardrum. Listening effectively, involves interpreting correctly what a person says and does not say, choices of words and phrases, tone, and a host of other components. Again, you can never have too much training in this area.
Fluency in Non-verbal Communication
– or the ability to interpret and transmit clear, correct messages without uttering a word. Although this is an integral component of effective communication, it is a highly specialized component requiring special attention. I have found repeatedly that the non-verbal clues my clients send have been the key to getting at the core issue, therefore the key to the best solution. Once again, I say, “you can never have too much training in this area.”
Change Management Training
– or the ability to help a customer or client navigate the multiple changes involved in the current problem he or she is experiencing. Most people do not realize that when a problem arises, it necessitates change – be it the immediate change in how a task is completed via a Work-around or a complete shut-down of operations – because your customer or client is now missing a piece (or several pieces) to the puzzle. Whether a customer comes to us for a new dress for a friend’s wedding, or a client approaches us to overhaul their company culture, our customers and clients come to us to provide a solution to their problem. We need to understand how this change effects the client – what emotions it triggers, what the client is afraid of, what natural stages a person goes through when faced with change – in order to be able to guide the client, as a human being, through the process in as stress-free and effective manner as possible. A great book to start with is Our Iceberg is Melting by John Kotter.
– or the ability to lead the customer or client through the communication process to a mutually beneficial end. Of the multitude of people I encounter, a rare few understand that it is the job of the business owner, Customer Service Representative, Sales Representative, or anyone who deals with internal or external clients in the course of the workday to take the lead in the customer experience. Clients look to us as the expert, the professional, the parental figure who will make everything better. It is our job to make sure we can be that figure for our customers and clients. (This is a great video to spotlight basic difficulties and misconceptions about leadership.)
Each of these skills is powerful by themselves. Think about how super-charged your customer and client relationships will be when you develop all of them and use them together every time you work with each customer, each client. In the words of Robert Half, “When the customer comes first, the customer will last.”