Turning Around Tough Problems For Your Customers – Part 1

How can I help a disgruntled customer?

When I started as Chief Operating Officer at an Algonquin-sister company almost seven years ago, upset customers scared me. By the time the customer called me, he or she had already exhausted any patience with my customer service team or production manager so now, not only would they bring me their original problem, which usually caught me off guard, but somehow the unsatisfactory treatment from my team compounded thing. Those calls always felt like discovering a car accident at the end of my driveway when I was already late for a vacation flight. The need for escalation stretched their trust in the rest of my staff and the delay caused by working multiple channels in order to get resolution usually meant that they’d been waiting a long time to feel “taken care of.”

Those calls also always left me wondering, how had this happened? Where did all the policies we put in place fail us and our customers? How could we have prevented this?

What does a disgruntled customer want when he or she calls?

In my experience, they’re looking for understanding, an advocate to partner with, a way to make their own customer whole, a way to save their investment and still make money, an opportunity to vent, and, sometimes, just guidance to solve the problem. By the time a problem lands on my desk, my firm has already failed the customer in some way. But, when times get tough, you have to prove your value as a partner. It’s the relationship that matters. Every problem needs to become an opportunity to improve and earn your customer’s continued trust. It’s an honor to serve your customers, even when your firm has failed them, and remember, they could have already moved on to another vendor. Take this to heart because if you don’t learn to address both your customer’s original problem and the way that your firm failed to resolve it, it will follow you to every job. Now is a good time to get better!

When I started my tenure as COO, two mentors shared advice with me. The first introduced me to an acronym “LEAP,” which stands for Listen, Empathize, Ask, and Produce. Listen means to be quiet, take notes, and let the customer tell you everything that’s on their mind. Don’t prejudge, don’t respond prematurely, and wait until the customer has finished. Then empathize, reflecting back how, given their evidence, you would feel similarly. Ask questions, to both clarify and check your facts. Then produce, telling the customer how you’ll handle the problem and follow through with them. Sounds simple, right? I found I could remember this list even when a customer jarred me. But, unfortunately, it didn’t solve all of my customer’s problems.

I found LEAP worked great at calming customers down and returning to a reasonable tone within the scope of a call. It helped my customers feel like “something” would be done after our phone call ended. But the vagueness of that “something” just set me up to fall short of expectations again. Produce was the tricky part. What if I discovered something after the call that changed my perception of the issue? What if my team or I to do exactly what I’d promised on the phone? What if it took me more time to understand the issue? LEAP leaves the resolution to one step and it fails to guide customer service. Should I deviate from our Terms and Conditions? Is this issue worth going “above and beyond?” What if there’s something I didn’t think of on the phone? How do I protect my customer and my job at the same time? What’s fair? Who’s right?

Exhale and relax. I’ll share more soon, in my next post on expanding the “P” in LEAP.

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Making a Good “First” Impression

There’s nothing like the old cliché, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” In the software development business, this quote definitely holds true. Earning a client’s trust will hopefully happen the first time you meet with them to discuss their problem and work to identify a business solution, but once you gain that trust and come to an agreement to help them achieve their business solution, it doesn’t stop there. There are other points during a project that provide an opportunity to make a good impression, to ensure a successful project, and a great client relationship in the future:

Project Kickoff Meeting

At the start of the project we usually conduct a project kick-off meeting. Sometimes this meeting is with your initial contact, on whom you’ve already made a good first impression (or you wouldn’t have the job), but often this meeting will introduce you to the client contact who you’ll work with throughout the course of the project. It’s important to convey, during this meeting, that you understand the company’s needs and that you’re willing to listen to their ideas, suggestions, and pain points. Here are a few examples of what I do in these meetings to help ensure I’m making a good impression:

  1. Come organized and be prepared. Make sure the client knows that you understand their problem.
  2. Ask questions and don’t assume you know any answers. You’ve got questions for a reason; assuming the answers will ultimately leave you lacking vital information you’ll need later on.
  3. Listen to what the client wants and, if what they explain doesn’t make sense, see if you exlpore new ways of “explaining it” with them. I often have clients draw what they want on a whiteboard. While the drawing might not be an accurate representation of what will be needed in the long haul, having the client take control and talk things out while sketching is a good way to get them to focus on the goals of the project and gives you a great opportunity to gather requirements.
  4. Be sure someone from your team is taking diligent notes that you can refer to after the meeting and throughout the course of the project, making sure nothing gets missed.
  5. After the meeting, send the client an email, summarizing all the details and plans that were discussed.

First Client Demo

One of my favorite things about the software development process is seeing the client’s reaction when you first show off the solution you’ll be providing. Depending on the size of the project, and how many meetings it took to fully gather the requirements, the amount of time between kick-off to the first demo could be months-a lot of hard work goes into the requirements and construction, so you don’t want this first demo to go poorly. Having a bad demo might strip their confidence in you and what you’ve been striving to achieve with them. Here are some suggestions that have helped me ensure a great initial demo:

  1. Manage the client’s expectations about what they’ll see in the demo prior to arriving for your meeting. If you don’t know what to expect, they might be disappointed when that “cool feature” they’re all waiting for isn’t quite done.
  2. Try not to demo something that isn’t believed to be fully developed. Works-in-progress will probably throw errors and not perform to expectation, so save them for next time, when they are done!
  3. Try to populate the demonstration to utilize data that the client will understand. This may seem subtle to the developers, but having the client understand exactly what they are looking at will generate more productive questions and weed out unnecessary ones. If the client is fixated on “Why do all the fields say ‘Testing A’?” they won’t be focusing on whether you’ve accomplished the task at hand.
  4. For each screen or process you review, be sure to ask if it makes sense and take note of the reaction of the customers. It is usually pretty easy to tell from their expressions whether or not they “get” what you just showed them. Don’t underestimate this step-if you go through an entire demo without offering an opportunity for questions you’ve probably lost them.

As you can see, there are at least three different times where you need to make a good “first impression” throughout a project. This idea has been hammered home to me recently in my personal life, as well, as I’ve interacted with two separate businesses where my first impression of them was less than impressive. I thought to myself “Why would I spend my money on a product when I don’t have confidence that my best interests aren’t being considered?” Make sure you’re considering your clients’ best interests when working on projects for them and make sure the impression you’re providing leaves them confident you’re doing just that-putting them first!