As leaders in the service provider industry who are working hard to fulfill customers needs and take care of problems for them, we frequently become trapped on the see-saw of a customers expectations or wants, weighed strongly against the reality of their needs – and the harsh limits of their resources.
This can be a great place to be – poised as the facilitator, standing between someone who has a dream kitchen they have been working towards their entire adult life and being the skilled trade person empowered to turn that fantasy into a reality. This can also be a painful place to perch – people come to you because they need your experience, skill, knowledge, and expertise; what they may offer in return might not have as much value to the receiver as it does to the giver. Customers need our help – they might ask, demand, or expect it; sometimes people need help and don’t know it or can’t recognize their own limitations. Working in a service industry means our duty is to serve our customers, to give them something we possess that they don’t, in exchange for something we mutually acknowledge as having value. Traditionally, this item of value is money; sometimes there is an exchange of something else – respect, knowledge, influence, or direct barter; trade at its simplest. As a service provider we want people to ‘take advantage’ of our abilities – and we want to help them. But once we get there, we don’t want to actually be taken advantage of; we want to receive something of equal value in return.
One of the hardest and most painful positions we get cornered in to by customers is that dangerous, delicate cliff where customers want something as ‘affordable’ as possible that gives them the biggest return with the least bit of investment on their part – and lots of time, effort, and work from us. Can we produce? Absolutely. Can the client offer something in return that we want? Of course. Are they willing to offer something of equal value in return for the time, effort, and ability it will take to produce what they want? Sometimes. What most frequently ends up happening is something like the image below: a customer imagines something’s value to be X, and in their mind what they see as its worth doesn’t always line up with the fact of what it does cost a business to produce X (which is really X+Y+Z). In the short term we can of course sell ourselves short to make a customer happy, to move our product, to get our name out there, and make a reputation for ourselves, yes – but in the long run, businesses who do that run themselves out of business altogether.
As service providers, how do we take the customer with the laundry list of ‘I want’ as long as their arm with a project budget sized to start a lemonade stand and bring them together? We want our customers to be happy, and to have everything that they dream of – but we also need to pay our employees, keep the lights at our office on, provide project materials, vehicles plus insurance and fuel; where is the common ground? It is not a sustainable business practice to please customers while selling ourselves short; indeed, as business provides, job creators and industry leaders, it is important that people see us doing the exact opposite – we should talk our service history up, point out our value at every opportunity, and not be ashamed to charge for world class service when we can fulfill those expectations, go above and beyond, with every single customer we have interaction with.
Cheaper is rarely ever better; cutting corners, trimming materials costs or trying to cut back on labor for a project usually ends up producing some very undesirable results. Don’t do yourself the harm of ‘helping’ a customer who isn’t interested in paying a fair price. If their expectations are too high, it is ok to talk them down from their tower of lofty expectations. We don’t have to be rude or mean, but we can be informative – and try to offer alternative plans or options to suit their limited budget. Sometimes, we have to be the bluntly honest person who says, ‘I think this is worth waiting three months for – save up a little more money, and then do it the right way instead of the least expensive.’ If you encounter a customer who doesn’t appreciate the fact that you are a) truthful and not just trying to take their money and b) hurt by your honest assessment of the situation, don’t feel bad if you have to leave that project or business behind. It is entirely appropriate to build relationships with good customers. In the long run, setting out to do right and be honest will put you head and shoulders above your industry, period.
If a customer is smart enough to come to you for help, do them the kindness of educating them on the process so that they become better informed. Not only that, but walk your customer through some solid project planning steps, such as:
- Isolating what their end goal is.
- Identifying what tools they have to get to that point with – their tools might not just be money, but friends, time and/or labor they can invest, people they know in the industry, materials, etc.
- Offer professional advice (coached in the terms of an estimate or a bid, if need be) on possible solutions and what kind of financial choices they have.
- Have an honest conversation with them about committing to their long term outcome – whatever it is – and what kind of a timeline their project will involve, as well as what kind of resources they need to be prepared to provide. This could mean reaching out to friends, family, coworkers and church members; it could mean mentally preparing themselves for three months of not having a kitchen while everything familiar and comfortable to them is torn away, every surface coated in dust, holes cut in their walls, wires and pipes pulled through those holes, etc.
- Close your sale by pointing out the value and effort you are bringing in to play – what you and your teams role is, how you will fulfill your responsibility in filling their needs, and just exactly what steps you will eliminate or take over in order to make their part in the process easier.
The best thing we can do for ourselves and others is to be honest – to speak with virtue, with integrity, and truthfulness to customers. If we educate them, not just on what it is we do but what the value of that thing is – what it costs us in terms of time, skills, materials, effort – then we do both of us a service. By proving to a customer that a thing has value, we empower them to make a fair assessment. This means they will treat others in similar positions with fairness, make educated decisions, and (hopefully) perceive that the other professionals they encounter have value and knowledge and skills that also carry value; hopefully, they will appreciate that in more than just monetary ways. Ideally, we could approach every new customer as an opportunity not just to network but to educate and empower the casual consumer.
Will a customer always hear what you have to say? Probably not – but that is quite alright. If you keep doing the right thing long enough and to enough people then surrounding yourself with educated, honest people of integrity will be its own reward. There are few things better than having customers who trust you and have faith in your ability – and hopefully those people will generate business with more like-minded individuals. This is one step – of many – that we can take as businesses to build a solid, educated, reliable customer base who have built a relationship with professionals based on trust and not ‘the almighty dollar’ or the least common denominator.
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This is an original article written by Mai Bjorklund for Swartz Electric. This article may not be copied whole or in part without the express permission of Swartz Electric, LLC.
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