Thursday, October 14, 2010

love your customer, even when you don't

I worked a few jobs in high school that required constant interaction with the public, and I learned-- as did my supervisors-- that customer service was not my forte. People would get on my nerves with their foolish expectation that I should serve them quickly and politely. I would shake with indignation if a customer gave me attitude. Of course I was young and untrained, and I had little idea what the word "customer service" meant, only that it sounded like somebody else's job.

I thought being an artist and escaping into my studio every day was a great way to avoid having too many encounters with the general public. I have learned over the past 14 years that the best way to guarantee that you will be interacting with the public all the time is to be an artist who actually sells their work directly to people who want it.

The great thing about being totally wrong is that I've been given the opportunity to learn to be a person who can gracefully manage all kinds of encounters with clients and give great customer service. It's been a long learning curve, because inside I still have a piece of that teenager that gets very upset when people complain, or want something from me that I'm not prepared to give. I've alienated customers with snappy responses, defensiveness, and irritable behavior. I've learned that just makes me feel just as bad as the customer does, while not solving the problem I've been presented with.

If someone like me-- impatient, snappy, sarcastic, and easily irritated-- can learn how to give great customer service, well, anyone can. Here are some of my personal tips that may help you out:
  • People are going to ask you for unreasonable things: Discounts, supersized, faster turnaround, insane glaze colors put together on one piece, ridiculous ideas for pieces that I have no desire to make. Don't waste your time getting irritated with people when they ask you for something you usually don't deliver. The customer probably doesn't understand your business, don't expect them to. I approach "unreasonable" requests with a mind set that while I may not be able to give the customer exactly what they are asking for, I'm going to give them something, a counteroffer, if you will. And I always frame it in the most positive way possible-- I never use words like "can't", "never", "won't", "no", or "are you crazy, Do I look like a freakin' machine?!"
  • Don't take dissatisfied customers personally: No matter how good you are at what you do, some people are not going to be happy with what they receive from you. When I get customer complaints, I never get into a debate about how they feel or if they are right or wrong. I just apologize, replace the item if I can or refund their money, no questions asked. I don't get huffy about it, in fact I am relentlessly cheerful because I realize that most people do not want to complain, they are just so unhappy with my work that they have to. They already feel lousy. I don't need to feel lousy too, I need to make them feel better about buying from me.
  • Don't be afraid to educate: In the same vein, there are times when a customer is complaining because their expectations exceed what I can actually deliver. A lot of my customers are first-time handmade ceramic buyers, and are used to the "perfection" of factory-made items. If I think a customer is lacking important information about why their piece looks the way it does, I cheerfully and without judgment take the time to educate them about my process. 99% of the time the customer walks away happy, a tad smarter, and with a new appreciation for the "flaws" their piece has.
  • Never make excuses: There is nothing more boring than listening to people's excuses, especially when the listener is already annoyed with your fuck-up. Excuses are a roundabout way of asking for forgiveness and understanding, but get in the way of accomplishing the actual business at hand. Take responsibility for your lapse with an apology, and if necessary, a brief outline on the way you will avoid mistakes in the future. That's the way to earn forgiveness and respect from your clients.
  • Lying is childish, don't ever make stuff up so your customer won't be mad at you: In the pottery biz, there are a thousand things that can go wrong, some of it out of your control: kilns misfire, glazes turn crazy colors, stuff cracks. I also make mistakes: I make things the wrong color or size, I forget orders, I drop things, sometimes pieces just look like crap. It's my policy to always tell customers the truth about anything that is going on with their order, I never try to shift blame by lying about the cause. Infusing any relationship with dishonesty is a way of trying to escape responsibility, and it always bites you eventually. It's pottery, not a heart transplant. It's not worth my own integrity to lie about it.
  • Lack of gratitude ruins relationships: Always show gratitude to your customer by acknowledging their business and saying "thank you." Think that's obvious? It's not. Frankly, I'm disappointed by many independent sellers who don't take the time to acknowledge my order or thank me for my business. I never order from them again because it seems obvious to me that they don't really need my money. Every customer is precious, they are part of the framework that enables you to do what you want while many in the world do what they have to.
  • Final tip- if a customer is being difficult, never answer them until you've given yourself time to think: Even when you think you have a handle on how to deal with a pain-in-the-ass customer, a period of consideration on how to respond never hurts. I had a difficult customer last week who I responded to immediately. A few hours later I thought of a better way I could have handled her, but since I broke my own rule about not responding immediately, it was too late to go back.
Giving great customer service is not just about serving your client, it's about spreading the love, making people happy, making their lives better and easier so your life can be better and easier. Do you have any advice, questions, or problems around customer service? Post about it right here.