Provide great customer service by paying attention to nontechnical needs

Solve the problem, don't solve the problem. It won't matter if you can't make the customer feel good about doing business with you. Learn the subtle art of customer service.

For many technical consultants, fully comprehending the customer service aspect of their career is a tricky issue. These consultants have a passion for accomplishing projects and solving problems, but sometimes their customers don't feel like they have been well taken care of. Here are techniques for improving your customer service skills, whether you're an old hand or just starting out.

Intent is a key component of customer service. If you truly intend to assist and serve the customer, the customer will appreciate it, even if you're uncomfortable and feel awkward in your dealings with them. Intend to solve their problems—not just fix whatever they say is broken—and the customer will know how hard you're trying.

Active listening
One of the skills essential in any kind of customer service environment is the ability to actively listen to the customer. I don't mean just presenting an outward appearance to the customer that you're listening. I mean having the inner resolve to shut out the other noise that's competing with the customer for your attention.

The outward appearance is relatively simple. Make and maintain eye contact. Use confirming utterances, such as "ok" and "I see." When the customer has finished speaking, repeat what you've heard. This confirms to the customer that you were listening and did understand what was being said—or at least you made an effort. And it also clears up any misinterpretations you may have made.

Don't look at your watch or shuffle around like you have somewhere else to be. If you truly need to go, because, say, the building is on fire, tell the customer politely that you'll have to return to fix his problem; otherwise, make it clear that you're focused on him.

The inward resolve is harder—at least for me. It's harder because you have to put out of your mind the 1,001 things that need your attention after you take care of this customer. You have to forget the status reports that are due tomorrow, picking up milk on your way home, and all the other details of your daily life. I do this by focusing on my breathing. As I'm listening to the customer, I consciously take very deep, long breaths. (I try not to be obvious about it.) It helps me to slow down and focus on whatever it is that the customer needs my help with.

Listening for feeling
In a recent sales training workshop, I was presented with a set of interactive exercises by the facilitators. I was playing the role of a consultant and one of my peers was playing the customer. The opening line from the customer was, "I've got real problems with our ERP implementation, but you probably can't help with that." I was supposed to ask what was wrong with the ERP implementation, but instead I asked how the "customer" felt about the ERP system being off-track. The facilitators got me back "on track"” but did acknowledge that there is a personality component to every interaction we have.

People do business with people, plain and simple. We don't do business with companies. If you don't believe me, watch what happens when a salesperson leaves one VAR and goes to another. How many clients go with him or her is dependent on the relationship the salesperson had with the clients and how many others in the organization had developed relationships with them. We all want to feel as if there are others who want what's in our best interest. We want to believe that the people we do business with are concerned about our well-being. As technical consultants, we sometimes get caught up in the details of the problem and the potential solutions and forget about all that. Sometimes we forget that our customers are human too.

I’m not advocating that you go up and hug everybody. We can, and should, however, listen to what they're saying and hear them talk about how they feel. Learning how someone else feels is a slow process and shouldn't be approached as a check box in a process. You should explore it when the customer is comfortable discussing it and you should move away from it quickly when the customer indicates that you're intruding on his personal space.

People have internal clocks that control how quickly or how slowly they'll move through their day, and we all have paces that are the most comfortable for us. As the consultant, it's your job to identify the pace that your customers want to move at and move at that pace—or at least at a pace that is compatible with it.

If they're slow-moving, methodical customers who make decisions in a very deliberate way, you must be slow and deliberate. Similarly, if the customer is "go-go-go" and tends to make decisions quickly, you'll need to adapt accordingly.

You don't have to totally surrender your own pace, but you must find a balance.

Volume and tone
Just as your pace should match the customer's, you'll need to determine the right volume and tone for the customer's personality and current mood.

Volume is the first component and is easier to pick up on. If you're in a quiet office that reminds you of a library, a low, steady volume will work well. Conversely, if you're in an outdoor amusement park, your volume may need to match the exuberance that's all around.

Tone is a bit harder to determine since it's not directly visible from the surroundings of the customer. Some customers want a warm, helpful tone that reinforces the message that you're there to help. Other customers want your tone to convey an air of authority. Still others may be looking for a friendly conversational tone.

Determining the tone to use is harder because it's about the inner needs of the person that you're helping. Pick up on cues about the person from his or her surroundings. If you see lots of pictures of friends, you may want to take a friendly, conversational tone. If you see lots of plants and greenery, you might want to use a warm, helpful tone. If you see that the client is very organized, you may need to convey an air of confidence.

Technical consulting is not just about technical know-how. If you want your client base to be satisfied and to grow, you need to develop sensitivity to the customers' emotional needs and wants.

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