How to Manage Customer Expectations and Provide 'Predictable Success' to Your Clients

When I help owner/managers build a culture of 'predictable success,' one of the most important final steps after working with their management teams, is to ensure that the same 'predictably successful' experience is extended to their customers and clients - after all, if your customer doesn't have a consistent, predictable experience with you, nothing else can rescue your business (just ask anyone in the auto industry). Here are the three most important steps in delivering predictable success to your customers and clients, plus a bonus for those of you who sell to consumers:

1. Rediscover what your customers want
It may seem a 'duh' question, but how sure are you that you know exactly what your customer wants?

Most owner/managers I know rankle at this question, because one of the reasons they start their own business is precisely because of their knowledge of the market. What I have found, however, is that over time your 'closeness to the customer' can turn from a significant competitive advantage into a dangerous blind spot. I know - I've been there!

It works like this: I start my business, knowing intimately what my customer wants. Because I know what s/he wants so well, and deliver it the way s/he wants it and my business thrives and grows. The growth of my business confirms to me that I really know my customer well. As the business grows, I talk to my customer less (because I have a bigger business to run, and because I don't think I need to - because I know my customer so well...).

The net result? Two to three years later, you don't know your customer's needs so well, but you still have a belief that you do - but like a 'ghost memory' of a severed limb, it isn't really there.

Thankfully, it's easy to rectify this - simply get out and reconnect with your customer. Set aside one day a week for two months to do only that. Go see your customers - on their turf, and without any filters (the best way is just to pick 'em at random from your customer list and, more importantly, from your 'lost opportunities' list - the potential customers who didn't buy from you will give you the best feedback on what you're missing).

Ask blunt, simple questions - the same questions you think you know the answer to: What are you buying? From whom? Why? What makes you buy from us? Why don't you buy from us? What needs are we fulfilling for you? What needs are we not fulfilling?

Repeat the process once a year to stay in touch and rediscover what your customers really want.

2. Set minimum standards for customer interaction
Based on what you (re-)learn, set clear, minimum standards for customer interaction, including sales scripts, service guidelines, dress code and follow-up routines. Set reasonable, achievable goals for each area in which your company interacts with the customer.

Here's a tip: before distributing them, give a copy of your new customer guidelines to your spouse (or a good friend who doesn't work for your company), and ask for a 'reality test' - do they sound 'normal'? Are they in plain english, or 'corporate-speak'? Above all, are they about the customer, or about your company?

3. Don't set 'maximum' standards for customer interaction
This is where many organizations fail in delivering predictable success to their customers: they produce excellent guidelines, but then implement them in such a way that they actually get between the customer and the company.

It's vital that the customer guidelines are used solely as a starting point for your people when they are interacting with customers, not as the end point (if you've ever had an experience with a surly airline representative who will barely look you in the eye as he quotes 'company policy, you'll know exactly what I mean). This means communicating clearly and frequently to everyone in the organization that you expect them to use their personality, initiative and creativity to enhance customer actions beyond - way beyond - what your guidelines lay down. Oh, - and if you have problems with your people using their personality, initiative and creativity - then you have a deeper issue than customer interaction - you need to retool your hiring process.

Bonus point: If you sell to consumers (as opposed to business-to-business), get familiar with social media. Your customers are talking everyday on Twitter, Facebook, blogs and countless other online locations. That conversation is going on, with or without you. If you don't know how to effectively participate in those areas, ask your teenage nephew or niece to help you - you'll be amazed what it will do to extend your 'line of sight' into your customers needs.

Les McKeown is a writer, speaker, consultant and President & CEO of Predictable Success(R), an organizational development consulting firm based in Marblehead, MA. He is the author of Retaining Top Employees, The Complete Guide to Mentoring and Coaching, The Complete Guide to Orientation & Re-Orientation. For more on employee retention, visit Les' Retention Secrets website.

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