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Everyone talks about great customer service.  But what is it?  You know it when you get it and you know it even more so when you don’t!   How can you tell if you are giving it?

Repeat business is the short answer.  Clients are going to relate to you as a person first and will want to continue to do business with you if they like you.  Providing a great service is part of the process but really, everything you say or do for the client matters.

As a consumer, I am always very excited to find a great service that I can rely upon when I need it.  For example, San Francisco has many fine bike shops and I tried quite a few before I found my bike mechanic.  I have only an occasional need of his services but am always delighted when I bring a bike in for a tune-up or just to change a flat.  Every time, he takes the time to stop what he is doing and listen to what I need.  No matter how small or trivial my request, he gives it his attention, usually right then and there.  He’s up front about the cost and when the repair can be completed.  I have always been satisfied with the work and am always pleased by his manners.

Sadly, last time I took my bike to the shop, another mechanic was there.  He took in my son’s bike, gave me an estimate and a pick-up time and I thought all would be well.  The day I was supposed to pick up the bike, he called me.  Did I want repairs that would cost me more than the value of my cheap bike?  No, not really.  But what was a cheap bike to him was a very valuable story in our family lore.  You see, my son had “won” that bike in a raffle we had entered when he was only a year old.  We had held on to that bike for 5 years, just waiting until he was old enough to finally enjoy his prize.

So my son and I went to pick up the bike.  The mechanic had not tuned it up and in fact, reported that the rear brake had broken off when he adjusted it.  He returned it to us with no charge and advised us not to waste our money on this one but to get a good bike.  I know that he meant well but he had just violated rule #1 of good customer service.  Rule #1 should be that all problems that a customer or client brings up are important problems and should not be dismissed.  I’ve experienced such an attitude in bike shops before.  And, from quite a few tech support people too.  The “I know better than you do” attitude does not win repeat business from me, or from most people, I suspect.  Rule # 2 should be to do no harm (um, excuse me, you just broke my bike that I brought in to be fixed) if you can’t help.  When on the phone for tech support, the harm is often the time wasted waiting for the support person to figure out that the problem really is the one you called and reported, and not what he thought it must be.

If rules 1 and 2 come from a lesson learned at my expense, the following rules are from the far more enjoyable experiences with MY bike mechanic, the one I will use again and again.

#3.  Be a good listener.

#4. Deliver on time and on budget.

#5. Be courteous, no matter what kind of day you are having or how busy you are.

Anything else to add?

In a professional service business, it’s not so much what you know as how well you can share what you know with others.  As a former teacher, I am fluent in many learning and communication styles and know that good communication begins with listening carefully to clients to learn more about their needs.  As a consumer, I am sometimes frustrated by experts who can tell me what they think I need before really listening to my description of the problem and without really considering my questions.  I am more impressed by the expert who listens to me and responds to my questions and can ease me into a better understanding of the problem and some possible solutions.  Rather than impress someone with my expertise, my goal instead is to make the solution easy for the client to implement.

During my first month of business, I was mistakenly more concerned with demonstrating my expertise in the tools I was using to serve clients.  I had just upgraded my computer and installed QuickBooks and was ready to help small business owners with their bookkeeping needs if they used QuickBooks.  As I met small business owners, I discovered some gaps between their current methods of bookkeeping and what I was offering.  Some collected piles of expense receipts that they needed to organize and summarize for their taxes.  Some were relying on their bank and credit card statements for their business expense information.  Some tracked their accounts in Quicken.  At first, I was thinking how I could help them when they were ready to use QuickBooks and when that might be.  I soon realized that I could better serve their needs by helping them immediately with whatever tool they were already using.  It might mean totaling expenses with pen and paper.  Or summarizing their expenses in an Excel table.  I could also do bookkeeping in Quicken or QuickBooks.  It all works.  It wasn’t the tool and my expertise with it that was important, it was helping clients get the job done as simply and quickly as possible.