25 Aug

Seek understanding for great customer service

“Quality in a service or product is not what you put into it. It is what the client or customer gets out of it.”  – Peter Drucker

The first step to great customer service is to truly understand the customer’s perspective and needs (this is important whether the customer is internal or external to your business). But how easy is it to assume that we know what the customer needs? How often do we take one look at someone and make a judgement about what they are looking for? How often do we see an internal customer and think “I know what they’ll be asking me for!” Making assumptions and judgements is not effective customer service. At best you make a lucky guess; at worst you risk under servicing, annoying  or losing the customer.

[You might argue “isn’t it good service to anticipate needs?” We could debate this for days, however one opinion is that anticipation of needs is different to making assumptions about needs. In this case, effective anticipation comes when we have already sought to understand the customer and generally are adding value to services already suggested or provided. For example, “Given you said you were busy this week – would it help if I sent these reports directly to your clients?” or “As you liked this newsletter so much, would you like me to send it to you regularly?”]

Integral to our customer understanding is effective questioning. Questions can be used to help understand and then manage customer expectations, to clarify and calm a tense discussion or to confirm mutual understanding of information delivered. Using questions, we can avoid making assumptions, reduce the need for multiple checking of facts, improve our understanding of an issue or concern and enable us to deliver the most appropriate solution. We can then match our services to these needs and communicate them with relevance to the customer. If the product, message or service is tailored to the end-user, it will have more meaning and therefore be better understood, accepted and remembered.

But how do you ask the right questions? This takes practice of course, and is dependent on the industry, the customer and your relationship with them. A general rule is to make sure your questions are aimed at finding out more about the customer and their situation. The questions should lead you to know exactly how your product or service might help the customer and what they are expecting of you. In a tense or difficult situation, the questions should aim to understand the customer’s perspective or experience.

Some general suggestions are listed below – you will need to adapt for your situation. (notice that questions about cost are not listed – this is not a recommended starting point as despite what people may say,  it is not always the most important factor in decision-making).

  • What (or how) will you use the product / service for?
  • What has been your past experience with a similar product / service?
  • What are the expectations you have for the product / service?
  • Which criteria about the product / service are most important to you?
  • What would help you make the decision?
  • How do you see the product / service helping you?
  • What do you need from me in this situation?
  • What are the specific challenges you have faced using the product / service? (used for understanding complaints)
  • How can we help rectify the situation? (complaints)

These are just a few ideas, but what is most effective is if you develop some questions that work for you. Try to keep the questions mainly ‘open’ (i.e. questions that require more than ‘yes ‘, ‘no’ or a one word answer) for creating initial discussion, and ‘closed’ (i.e. they do require a short answer or ‘yes’ or ‘no’) only when you need to clarify or confirm something.

Why not start by thinking of three general questions you could ask your customers or clients to better understand their needs? Having a few questions ‘up your sleeve’ will definitely help you get started.

So, no more assumptions and happy customer understanding!

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