The Golden Rule(s): 4 Keys to Five-Star Customer Service
In the book “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” author Robert Fulghum explains that we learn just about every vital lesson in navigating relationships, self-sufficiency, accountability, self care and maintaining a positive outlook when we’re 5-years-old. There’s certainly some truth there.
Think about some of the biggest lessons you learned in kindergarten, or maybe the lessons your own children came home from school and told you about Play fair. Don’t lie. Treat everyone with respect. Share your stuff. Apologize when you do something wrong. Look both ways before you cross the street. Don’t eat the glue. The list goes on, and that’s because Fulghum’s thesis statement might just be true. Obviously, handling customer service issues as a business professional with countless clients or prospects can be a lot more difficult than de-escalating an argument over a toy dinosaur with another 5-year-old. (Maybe.)
To speak on the topic of what works when it comes to managing sometimes demanding customers, turning challenges into successful sales, and customer service do’s and don’ts, we spoke with Jeff Bourland, owner of Proforma Southwest, Gilbert, Ariz. Bourland has been in the promotional products industry for more than 20 years and does more than $1 million in annual sales volume. So, it’s safe to say that he knows a thing or two about how promo distributors can successfully handle customers. Here, Bourland helps explain why good customer service is easier than you think.
1. Be Respectful and Honest
If you ask Bourland, the most important lesson he’s learned about customer service is straight out of the kindergarten playbook. “Similar to the Golden Rule, treat others how you would want to be treated,” he said. “Try to put yourself in your customer’s shoes and respond in a timely manner with kindness. Works every time!”
That might seem overly simplified. But it really does boil down to that central idea. In the promotional products industry, we’ve donated about a million words to the importance of knowing what your client is looking for, filling that need and understanding where you are valuable to them. That’s basically a non-emotional version of the Golden Rule as laid out by Bourland. It seems simple, but sales professionals know damn well that clients aren’t always on the same page when it comes to cordiality. Just like in elementary school, sometimes you have to deal with kids (colleagues and clients) who can be downright difficult. And, when that happens, you need to know how to handle that without hitting anyone in the face with a dodgeball.
“All distributors are going to have problems to face—issues with jobs, deadlines and so forth,” Bourland said. “We all try to minimize those by good order entry and allowing enough time for each order, but issues will still arise. The thing to remember is that the client will remember how you dealt with the problem more than the problem itself. Be upfront and handle issues straight on. Customers will appreciate that.”
Like we said before: Don’t lie, and apologize when you’ve made a mistake. It’s amazing how simple some problems can be to solve when you don’t muddy things up by making promises you know you can’t fulfill or telling half-truths.
2. Keep Lines of Communication Open
With high-speed internet living in everyone’s pocket these days, there’s no excuse to be off the grid. Yes, you can still go on vacation and let all your calls go to voicemail. Heck, you should do that every now and then. But, now, everyone has full access to everyone they know just about all the time. Because of that, the way distributors interact with customers and supplier alike has changed. Bourland has certainly noticed that over his long career.
“Everything has changed since I started,” he said. “It used to be that faxes and pagers were the best way to reach people. Now we have cellphones that are computers, email on those cellphones, texting, social media messages and more. Email seems to be the preferred method of communication now instead of phones. I try to make myself available as much as possible within reason. You have to set your own guidelines there. I look at it as a positive, though, that I can work away from home or at home just with my cellphone if I need to.”
It’s certainly a luxury when you want it to be. Just be sure to use that empathy we talked about earlier, and try to learn the communication preferences of customers you’re working with. Some people might prefer good old-fashioned phone calls. Others, like millennials, tend to choose email, text messages or web-based support over phone calls. According to Forbes, a study by European telecom company O2 found that the actual “telephone” app on smartphones is only the fifth-most used app. As millennials become more prevalent in the workplace, it’s vital to think about how they want to be approached and communicated with.
3. Cooperation is Key
Everyone’s heard the old adage that the customer is always right. Anyone who has worked in sales, retail or hospitality knows that it is absolutely not true. The customer is not always right, and it’s not your responsibility to become a promotional doormat when they go on an ego trip or throw a tantrum. Sometimes, it’s worth cutting loose a problem client if it’s clear the relationship is no longer working for them—or you. But that shouldn’t be the first option.
There’s a middle ground here that Bourland says is key to maintaining customer relationships. Sometimes you give and they take, and vice versa. If you focus too much on what you see as “winning” a moral victory, you might miss out on future success. “Sometimes you have to take less profit on a job to get in the door, offer a credit for a mistake or match a competitor’s price,” Bourland said. “Don’t be too stubborn to look at the big picture, and miss out on a great client.”
Again, you can still stick to your principles and know when you’ve given everything you can give to a client. Sometimes it just doesn’t work. “As my wife and business partner Teresa always says, kill them with kindness,” Bourland said. “However, we are also upfront and set boundaries with them. Sometimes it’s not worth your time and energy when the client is never satisfied. We have found that these are usually smaller or inexperienced clients. In those cases, we choose to go our separate ways.”
It really is that simple. Treat others with respect, tell the truth, be accountable and resolve conflicts peacefully. Those sound like things you’d learn in kindergarten, don’t they?
4. It’s Science
Obviously, there’s a lot more to customer service than just being a nice person. Things like respect, empathy and cooperation are the intangibles that distributors use to grow their business. But what about the tangibles? These are the facts and figures that you crunch to make educated decisions. Think of it like a left brain/right brain thing. You need those abstract concepts, but numbers are helpful, too.
In a column that ran in the February issue of Promo Marketing, Alex Morin, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Debco, Concord, Ontario, wrote about the data-heavy approach some of the most successful companies in the world (think Amazon, Apple and Google) use to craft their customer experience. These companies focus on data accumulation to make informed decisions about what their customers and prospective customers are looking for. When you take the guesswork out of it, you’ll know exactly what they need and what you can do to make it happen.
“Today, I’m using your precious data to fulfill the needs you already have, and I’m using it to broaden your horizons (and my own as well),” Morin wrote. “What our company is attempting to do with data is to create opportunity. We can do that by showing you the evolutionary patterns your customers are exhibiting, which results in new roads, which lead to new destinations hitherto uncharted. We’re using data to learn what we don’t already know—and I find that exhilarating and exciting. Soon, we’ll be able to move into new products categories that we’d never imagined getting into, catering to the needs of our customers.”
While we’re on the subject of science, it’s important to note that communication is a science in itself. Your word choices and body language are things our own little computers in our heads are analyzing at eye-crossing speed. In an April article on this site, Matt Wagner, vice president of sales for Fields Manufacturing, St. Cloud, Minn., gave some tips about how you can study your customers’ body language and speech patterns, and how you can perfect your own for further success.
“In your everyday conversations with customers and prospects alike, it’s imperative that you’re paying attention to the type of language they’re using and assimilate by incorporating similar verbiage into your own responses and storytelling,” Wagner wrote. “That integration supports the connection between you and your client by building a bridge from your message to their interpretation of what you’re communicating. This form of language assimilation also creates a sense of familiarity to your customer and serves to build a level of comfort, confidence and likability."
This can mean understanding that your conversation is on the informal side, so maybe ease up on the fancy industry jargon and confusing acronyms. Just talk like friends would. Wagner added that going overboard with formality “will only alienate your customer, create an uncomfortable buying experience and likely result in an abandoned sale or lost opportunity.”