Helping Customers Is a Risky Relationship Business!

September 16, 2014

Sure, you are a hard-working, dedicated professional; you give your best to your job, which often means dealing directly with a customer or client. Regardless of whether your role is in customer service, financial analysis, human resources, or technical support, most days you are providing something important to someone – a colleague, manager,  teammate, or outside customer.

Have you ever really paused to consider what it is like to be at the receiving end of your service? To be your client is to be in a complicated relationship with you, and you need to be the skilled guide to deliver effective services that satisfy the customer.

Here’s where relationship-building comes in and why it is complicated and risky: Clients are not your personal friends, but they require the same courtesy, patience, and respect on which personal friendships are built. They need to believe that you are focused on their needs and willing and able to deliver for them. They need to trust you! Why?

Letting themselves be helped means they have been watching to see if you are trustworthy – if you quickly “get” their need, if your knowledge and competence is adequate, and if you treat them with respect and prompt attention. Why?

Because, as Ed Schein describes in Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help, “when you ask for help you are putting yourself ‘one down.’ It is a temporary loss of status and self-esteem not to know what to do next or to be unable to do it. It is a loss of independence. . . .” People put themselves in this uncomfortable position only if they see proof that you will come through for them and minimize the discomfort of that “one down” position. It is a risky business to create a strong customer relationship; a lot is riding on it!

How to succeed? Here are three guidelines:

1. Really listen to what they are asking before you offer anything — or even agree to help them. They come to you with established needs, expectations, and wishes.

  • Sometimes they know and are able to tell you clearly what they expect, which makes it easier to decide if you can help them.
  • Sometimes they don’t know what they need, so you have to guide the conversation to discover what they need and whether you are able and willing to deliver.
  • Sometimes they ask for something that you know will not really be useful to them or something that you are unable to accomplish. Maybe it is beyond your expertise or outside your area of responsibility, so you have to find a diplomatic way to refocus them or to send them to someone else. Whichever it is, provide them a positive experience of receiving your attention.

2. Promise only what you can deliver. We have all experienced being over-promised and under-delivered – and we hate it! Don’t fall into that trap! Clients usually can accept being sent to someone else if you do it respectfully, showing that you are committed to their success.

3. Ask for feedback during and at the end. Make it very easy for the customer to let you know early on how you are doing with them. This conversation is practical and reduces the risk of failure in two ways:

  • First, it provides you important information about whether you are being effective in your helping role, and it gives you information with which to make adjustments, if needed, that hopefully will work better.
  • Second, it confirms that they and their situation matter to you and that you are respectful and committed to their success.

Based on this relationship, they are likely to be a repeat customer and to speak well about you. Pretty important outcomes!

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About The Author

Judy Vogel is President of Vogel/Glaser & Associates, Inc, that supports bold leadership for a changing world. We partner with clients to customize organization change initiatives including reorganization, fostering productivity and innovation, and developing cultures that engage staff to perform with excellence. Judy also specializes in helping HR professionals become effective internal business partners. She co-authored The Handbook for Strategic HR and has published many articles on leadership, communications, HR and organization change.

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