Success in the web design business depends on delivering great-looking sites that delight your clients. But beyond the actual work, great customer service depends equally on your ability to effectively communicate with those folks who hired you in the first place.
Customer service = exceptional communication
Exceptional communication skills serve everyone, no matter their profession, and no matter what type of clients they support. You might assume that great communication skills are key to making the sale and closing the deal — and you’d be correct. However, in the web design world, optimizing communication and interaction with clients is one sure-fire way to also improve customer service.
In today’s crazy world entrenched in a multitude of communication channels — phone, email, texting, instant messaging and more — effective interaction skills are often overlooked.
3 customer service principles to live by
My approach to providing excellent customer service depends on a trio of communication principles:
Speak with precision.
Listen with forgiveness.
Ask with intention.
How do we convert these three principles into behaviors satisfying the specific intent of improving customer service to web clients?
1. Speak with precision
Identify your boundaries. One aspect of providing outstanding customer service in the web biz is availability to solve problems and answer questions. It’s up to you to establish boundaries for both yourself and your clients. This includes preferred communication methods and timeframes, time and schedule management and emergency policies.
Establish expectations around your process. Setting expectations is key to building relationships, maintaining your reputation, and ensuring satisfaction for both the client and the web pro. Having these expectations in place and then delivering to them goes a long way in keeping clients happy.
Get everything in writing. Documenting information helps avoid confusion, finger-pointing and misinterpretation. Whether it’s an estimate, quote, proposal or contract, I want to spell out the details of the partnership we’re about to enter into. Once we’re working, I confirm all changes by email, and even if a decision is made in person or by phone, I follow-up with email confirmation of details.
Err on the side of over-communicating. I’d rather tell clients something they already know, than leave out something they should know — but don’t. I may occasionally be guilty of over-sharing, but I prefer to leave nothing to chance.
Use specialized language with care. In a field chock-full of buzzwords, jargon and acronyms, it’s critical to clearly explain terms which might be unfamiliar or confusing to clients. Mine often hear me say “Stop me if you already know this …” and I try to stick to real words when interfacing with clients, rather than insider vocabulary or an alphabet soup of acronyms.
2. Listen with forgiveness
Give the benefit of the doubt. When possible, I’d rather assume an erroneous speaker is misinformed or lacking experience — as opposed to intentionally trying to mislead or cause trouble. If I can offer a graceful exit from an offense or faux pas, great. If I can turn misunderstanding into a teachable moment, even better.
Listening intently and taking your clients’ emotions into consideration can help you defuse a situation, giving them a chance to re-frame their thoughts or statements.
Keep an open mind. It’s a constant challenge to avoid forming an opinion until the speaker is done speaking. Defer immediate agreement or disagreement if you need more clarification. If you disagree, of course you’re anxious to jump in there and speak — who isn’t? But if you’re too anxious to voice your own thoughts and are preparing your response in your own head while they’re still taking, you might miss some of what is being said.
Don’t make assumptions. None of us are mind-readers, and it’s easy to jump to conclusions. Before rushing to judgment on what is said, consider asking relevant questions to make sure you understand their intent.
Is someone’s statement rooted in enthusiasm, boredom, irritation, anger, frustration or confusion? It’s possible that defusing the situation will allow them to re-frame their thoughts or statements.
Don’t interrupt. A conversation is not a contest: you can take turns! Interrupting a speaker gives the disrespectful message that you don’t value what they are saying. It implies that you think what you have to say is more relevant or interesting. Given that everyone thinks and speaks at the pace that works for them, it’s important to slow your own pace down to that of the other speaker.
3. Ask with intention
Focus your question. It’s OK to say, “I don’t know,” but know what it is you want to learn. Are you looking for missing information or agreement? Do you need a simple yes-or-no response, or something of more depth? Questions starting with who, what, where, when, how or why lead to more thoughtful answers, generally providing more information than a yes/no response. On the other hand, questions starting with would, should or do you think are more likely to lead to a yes/no response.
Understand your intent. Why are you asking the question at all, and what will you do with the answer?
Decide whether you’re looking for facts, an opinion, agreement. clarification, a best guess, a judgment call or an alternative perspective.
Is the question meant to help you determine next steps, resolve an argument, open a discussion, satisfy your curiosity, or vent your frustration? Of course in social situations, you may just be making conversation — but every interaction with clients should have intent around improving their experience.
Frame appropriately. Are you speaking at a level the client understands, especially when it comes to technical issues? You might frame questions differently depending on whether you’re looking to confirm your own opinion or supposition, as opposed to getting a truly unbiased response. Is the question combining multiple items or does it focus on one topic?
Have a follow-up game plan. Be at the ready with specific follow-up questions. I’ll often dig deeper with “Why do you think that?” or “What do you mean by … ” Have another way of asking the question if you don’t get the type of answer you were anticipating.
Using these three steps, you’ll be well on your way to having fruitful, constructive conversations with clients that yield real results.
These are the golden rules for client services
Consistent and effective communication is the cornerstone of any successful business’s efforts to provide exceptional customer service — especially a successful web design business.
Keep the three key principles in mind — speak with precision, listen with forgiveness, ask with intention — and maximize your ability to communicate with clients … and everyone else!