Are you Listening to Your Customers?

We often assume that we know what our customers want, and most often we are wrong. In business our job is to provide solutions to our customer’s problems. We are the medicine that cures their pain, or at least we should be. Too frequently to we take the single action that it really takes to understand their unique problems, and that is to actively listen to the customer.  

Many years ago, I received a call from a fellow division manager while working for a large international company. He had a contract with a major national company that wasn’t doing well. To make matters worse, we serviced many locations across the country for this customer and we were hoping to do even more business with this customer in the years to come. 

He had tried several remedies to the problem, but nothing seemed to work. The customer continued to be unhappy and my associate was at a loss as to what to do. I asked him how often he met with the customer. His answer was that they did a quarterly meeting, but it was rarely productive and was usually a three-month review of items that hadn’t been completed. 

I suggested that he schedule weekly meetings with the client. We talked about why this was so important, and how this would help improve the relationship with the customer. He felt sure that these meetings would just be another chance for the client to complain. Additionally, he just didn’t really want to sit down with an angry customer each week. As a result, the meetings never happened.

Not surprisingly, things got worse. Within the month this customer had put us on notice.  We were on a 90-day probation and would be judged every month on our performance. Desperate to do something the manager agreed to weekly meetings but sent his Operations Manager. I spoke to the operations manager before the first meeting, and I told him to do three things:

1.     Listen attentively to the customer. Look the customer in the eye, take notes and repeat back to the customer what he heard him say so that they would both know that the customer was understood.

2.     Don’t make excuses, instead take responsibility. When customers come to us with a problem, they don’t want a list of reasons why we couldn’t get the work done. They want us to take responsibility. Tell the customer you will get the work done and give them a timeframe for completion of the work promised.

3.     Report back to the customer. Let them know that the work is completed, and what you did to do the job. If appropriate, include pictures.

Using this simple framework for communication, the Operations Manager was able to turn the account around within just a few weeks. Within a month we were taken off probation and within three months the complaining customer was giving us additional work to perform and became one of our greatest references. 

The customer told us that we owed it all to the work of the Operations Manager, who came in and took responsibility and made things happen. The Operations Manager secretly told me that he changed very little. He didn’t add more people or make drastic changes. He just let the customer know what we were doing and addressed the small issues that were raised in the weekly meetings. 

What seemed like magic to the customer, and to the company I was working for, was really nothing more than basic communication. So, ask yourself these questions about how you communicate with your customers:

1.     Are you really listening to your customers? 

a.      Do you truly understand their needs? 

b.     Are you meeting with them frequently enough so that they understand how important their business is to your company?

2.     Are you taking responsibility, or making excuses?

a.      Customers want to know that you will fix their problems and they want to know only that you will fix their problems. They rarely want to know why you didn’t complete the work, they just want to get it done.

3.     Are you reporting back to your customers to let them know when the job is done?

a.      Letting your customer know that you have finished the work does two very important things. First, it lets the customer know that they can trust you.  Second, it let’s the customer know he can quit worrying about this issue.

In our industry we talk a lot about customer service. We have graphs that show inspection results, employee turnover, and adherence to a scope of work. These are all great tools, but none of them will ever replace the importance of a simple conversation where you really communicate with your client.

Effective client communication is a key element of the Seven Pillars of Success for Janitorial Companies, a program designed to help turn your business frustrations into renewed growth and profitability through commitment to principles and systems that encourage growth, increase employee morale and turn customers into your promoters.