As far as customers are concerned you are the company. This is not a burden, but the core of your job. You hold in your hands the power to keep customers coming back – perhaps even to make or break the company.
Nothing Up My Sleeve…
As funds to purchase services have become more and more scarce, customers with dollars to spend expect to receive a high level of service from the companies they hire and the individuals they deal with. Whether you are involved in direct sales, skilled trade services, or professional services, your ability to develop relationships and retain customers is critical to your personal success as well as the success of your company. If you are a service provider, you know that a great deal of work occurs behind the scenes, or “below the radar“, to adequately prepare yourself and your team for interactions with your customers.
My perspective on this topic is in the context of an Architectural design firm. A lot happens in the time between client meetings to make an extremely complex process appear effortless. It is not uncommon to spend hundreds of hours preparing for a 30 minute presentation to a client. A successful design presentation must be inspiring, address a client’s immediate issues, acknowledge his or her previously expressed concerns and anticipate potential future challenges. Preparation for a relatively brief customer interaction often involves weeks of analysis, research, creative problem solving and coordination with other design professionals.
In an Architecture firm, as is the case with many service providers, it is typical that a leader will be responsible for multiple projects with multiple clients.
Regardless of how many customers you have, each one should receive the quality of service that you would provide if he or she was your only customer.
This does not require a leader to be a superhero or a magician. However, leaders in service industries must work to develop their “juggling” skills. Multi-tasking and efficiency is key. Organization and time management skills combined with the ability to instantly switch from one project to another at any point in the process are all critical to successful leadership below the radar.
I’m Just A Bill…
When I was a boy, my brothers and I would watch cartoons every Saturday morning. During commercial breaks the station would occasionally broadcast short educational cartoons set to music called Schoolhouse Rock. One of these songs described the process that occurs for a Bill to become a Law. While I was too young to understand exactly what the song was about, I recall that it sounded very complicated. Starting out as an idea introduced in congress, Bill gets reviewed, modified, reviewed again, passed from one committee to another, voted on several times and eventually becomes a Law.
This is very similar to the design process that Architects and Engineers go through. Clients hire us to manage a very complicated process so that it progresses seamlessly toward a desired outcome. Sometimes we do such a good job of not exposing our clients to “how the sausage is made” that they question if we’ve actually done enough work to be paid our fee. However, this is the exception to the rule. Most clients understand the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes and are fine with not knowing all of the details of the process. As one client told me not too long ago while we were leaving a meeting together,
I don’t need to know about transformers, voltages, circuits and wire gauges, that’s why I hired you. I just want to flip the switch and have the lights come on.
Doctors, Attorneys, Accountants and other service providers all “lead below the radar” most of the time as well. The end result is what is important to the customer and is typically what determines if the feedback will be negative or positive. Did my Doctor help me get better, did my Attorney keep me out of prison, and did my Accountant show me how to pay less taxes? At the end of the process, as long as the switch turns on the lights, everyone is generally satisfied.
Recalling the quote that I opened with, if you are the primary customer contact for your company, to the customer you are the company. The quality of service you provide to your customers can often determine their opinion of your entire company. It is a great responsibility to be entrusted with serving a customer and should be approached as such. Every interaction will strengthen or weaken your relationship. Peter Drucker said that “the purpose of business is to create and keep the customer.” The work we do “below the radar” is the preparation that will determine if we succeed at accomplishing this objective.
How do you prepare prior to meeting a customer? Do you anticipate questions and issues that will come up at the meeting and arrive ready to provide solutions? Do you communicate to your team the importance of the work they do “below the radar” and how it relates to strengthening the company’s relationship with the customer? Have you ever been in a meeting where someone was completely unprepared? If so, what was the result? How can you reinforce to your team the need to be thoroughly prepared before interacting with a customer?
Ken Jones, AIA, LEED AP is a Vice President at Grimm + Parker Architects in MD
A service-focused leader, Ken helps create meaningful architecture + client success
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