Most business owners and other entrepreneurs know that customer service is important, but they may not realize just how important. Building your business's reputation starts with customer service and ends with an amazing product or service. But, you have to get through step one before you can show your customer how great your product or service really is. Take a few lessons from one of the worst customer service experiences of my life (so far) to avoid angry customers and acquire repeat customers.

Shortly after I moved into my house a few years ago I hired a painter. Everything he told me upfront sounded great, but as the job progressed, I realized that this painter was awful--rude, inconsiderate, unreliable, and terrible at managing his company. He promised me amazing results (hence we hired him) but then didn't deliver. His explanation? It was his busy season. When I found him cutting corners, I held him to his word that I would be 100% satisfied, so I'm sure he lost money and time on my job. (He convinced me to paint over the existing wallpaper because he didn't want to take the time to remove it and swore that his guys would do such a good job that I couldn't see the seams. I saw the seams--they were as clear as the nose on my face.)

By the end of the project, things were so bad that while we wanted his crew to finish the job, we asked him not to come back. To this, he asked "I can't come to MY jobsite?" and we responded, "No, you can't come into OUR home." He was disruptive of the entire process, and did not respect our requests. Not only was his crew more skilled at painting than he was (we have several complicated finishes that require an artist's eye/touch), they worked better and faster without him present.

It's much easier to see customer service deficiencies when you are the customer. Next time you think you're too busy to be fully focused and present with your clients, consider these critical (basic?) customer service techniques.

  1. Stand by your word. One of the worst things about this painter was that he promised me the sun and moon, and then gave me rocks.

When you promise a customer great results, you better deliver. Customers rely on you to provide the results you have promised, particularly when you are supposed to be the expert in a given area. You want your customers to be able to trust you. So, when you tell them that you will have the project done by a certain date or that it can be done a certain way, be sure that you have given your customer realistic expectations. Along the same lines, be sure that if anything changes in your estimation, you communicate that to your client as soon as possible. Explain why this happened and what kind of impact this will have on the project as a whole. Ultimately, you want the customer to be completely satisfied so that your trustworthy reputation can grow (and you can get referrals).

  1. Remain professional in every circumstance. This painter actually sat on my toilet in the powder room while we discussed paint colors for that room. That is not professional. I don't care how tired or busy you are--please don't sit on my toilet while we discuss business.

Regardless of your business model, your customers expect to be met with professionalism. Running your own business can be crazy, hectic, and downright stressful, but that is never an excuse to become unprofessional with a client. Your customer has very little sympathy for your other projects and obligations. To them, they are the only obligation that matters, and most customers want to be treated that way. You must make every effort to meet this expectation.

  1. Take ownership of your mistakes. When I confronted this painter about his sloppy work, he made excuses instead of fixing it.

Most customers realize that everyone is human, and everyone makes mistakes. While we want to avoid mistakes as much as possible, the truth is that eventually something will go wrong. When that happens, don't make excuses, make improvements. Own your mistakes. Admit that it happened, apologize when you are wrong, and take steps to correct the oversight. Explain to your customer what you plan to do to address the mistake. If the mistake sets the project back, be sure that the customer knows that as well. Effective communication is extremely important in any client relationship.

These tips may seem straightforward, but that might be why they are so often overlooked. Keep the basics in mind during every client interaction, and your business will be well on its way to a great reputation. Make it easy for your customers to do business with you, and they will keep coming back.

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