CWB December 2002

What's Your Mindset?

Your mental approach to customer relationships has a profound impact on every job you do — and on your chances of achieving long-term profitability.

By Anthony Noel

If you were asked to describe your average customer relationship, what would you say? One-word answers, like, "good" or "difficult" are not what I am looking for. Instead, I would like you to step outside yourself and think about what you feel your responsibilities are in terms of the customer.

Do you see yourself as the person who bears the full and singular responsibility for making the project work to the client's satisfaction? Or maybe you are at the other end of the spectrum, believing that it is up to the client (be it a designer, architect or retail customer) to ensure that you have the information, financial freedom and time necessary to bring the job to fruition.

Hopefully, you are somewhere in between these extremes.

Practitioners of all three of these relationship types will find their market, to be sure. The first type tends to find clients who have little clue what they want or, more to the point, what they want their project to do for them. They essentially tell their clients what is best for them and hope their clients agree when the job is done. If they don't, these woodworkers comfort themselves by saying, "Hey, they hired me for my expertise, and that is exactly what I gave them. In a few months, they will love that piece." Maybe, maybe not. But either way, what are the chances of that customer giving them a hearty referral?

The second type of relationship has the same effect in the end, though for entirely different reasons. Allowing the client to manage a project without any accountability is dangerous on a number of levels. It is especially unwise when you consider the potential for shortfalls in terms of the project's functionality. The bottom-line truth, whether they want to hear it or not, is that most designers, architects and certainly most retail clients have no clue about what works in the real world. And whether they admit it or not, they are counting on you to bring perceived or real problems to their attention.

If you build something that you suspect won't work as intended, no matter who specified what, you can rest assured that it will be all your fault in the end and that your name won't be getting passed on to other clients.

It is sad but true: Many woodworkers know little about customer service. It is not about administering expertise and letting the chips fall where they may. Neither does it mean kowtowing to every cockamamie notion that comes into a designer's or customer's head and winds up on a blueprint.

Real customer service, as the words imply, means serving your customer's best interests. It means advocating on behalf of just two things - the project and the client. Specifically, it means staying focused on the project's functional objectives while satisfying a design aspect. This requires that the client - the end user, NOT the designer — be very clear about what the functional objectives are. Questioning design professionals can be an intimidating notion at first, but ultimately, designers and their clients will respect and appreciate your care for the ultimate success of the project.

There is another aspect of customer relations, one even more important than accommodating the end user's functional concerns. It is the ability to put yourself in your customer's position, to imagine what he is thinking, and to communicate with him based upon those considerations.

Just as designers and architects may refute some of what I say here, you will probably dislike hearing what I'm about to say next: Customers hire you. You work at their pleasure, and remembering that is crucial in terms of establishing mutually beneficial relationships with them. Just as your mental approach to the relationship sets the tone of the relationship, the simple truth is that most clients view you as their employee.

Yes, you own your company. Yes, you can walk away from any job that is not working out as you would expected it to — and there are even cases where I would recommend doing so. But by and large, once that contract is signed, you have an obligation to this person, and part-and-parcel with that obligation is treating him or her as a partner in the project at hand.

Doing that successfully comes down to communication. If you adopt the mindset of "Woodworker A" — that you are heaven's gift to the trade, and customers should question your ideas and opinions only at their peril — your interactions will very quickly alienate your customers.

"Woodworker B"'s mindset is no better. You cannot just build what is on the print (or worse, in the client's head) without questioning it simply because someone is wagging a big check in your face. After you've built that piece and it does not work, no amount of money will undo the damage to your reputation and potential for referrals from that client.

So view yourself and your client as partners in the process. Make it clear from the start that this is the approach you take. Tell your clients that you do it because it ensures a happy ending. Tell them you want to be sure they understand their project and want them to enjoy it for years. Stress to them the importance of returning your phone calls promptly, and promise them that you will do the same with theirs. Let them know that you will keep them apprised of your progress. And if their delivery date is delayed for some reason beyond your control, be sure to tell them the minute you find out about it.

Beyond the long-term benefits you will derive from this kind of proactive customer service, there are practical (read: financial) ones as well. For example, it is much easier to get more money for major changes to a design from a client who understands the design in the first place.

By advocating for functionality and carefully treading the line between managing a customer and allowing the customer to manage you, you provide the best kind of customer service: The kind that wins customer confidence and referrals, two keys to long-term profitability.

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