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Sending Mixed Signals Can Send Your Clients Away

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I call it the "wave and roll."

You walk up to an intersection. You look both ways before you cross when you make eye contact with an oncoming vehicle. You meet the gaze of the driver. Politely and legally, he invites you to cross first. As you enter the crosswalk, you notice that he continues rolling toward the intersection with no reduction in speed.

How safe do you feel?

Your clients-remember those who you are supposed to protect-have a similar experience when you send them incongruous messages. Step into their shoes for a minute. Do you remember the last time you were frustrated with the service you received? Did they promise the moon and then delivery nothing but dust?

Recently, I ordered a new pair of prescription eyeglasses. The optician told me, "We will do anything to earn your business." At this point you might be saying to me, let the buyer beware. And if you did, you would have a good point. I was told the glasses would be ready in a week. They were not. I was told another week, but still no glasses.

"We will do anything to earn your business," was replaced with, "It is not our fault." Since they used outside vendors to perform the work, my optician asserted he had no control over the lab they outsourced the job to.

Rather than addressing the problem-and the broken promise-the optician offered me a new target for my ill will and disappointment, the lab.

Plausible deniability may work in presidential politics, but regardless of who was at "fault," I was out a pair of glasses and the words on the computer screen were getting mighty blurry. A client was unprotected. Coincidently, an acquaintance in another industry had recently shared his reason for outsourcing what was once an internal function. "So that my customers will not get mad at me." A sentiment apparently shared by my optician.

Shouldn't the emphasis be on keeping the client from getting mad as opposed to getting mad at you?

Eventually, I got my glasses. But, my optician lost a repeat customer. And now I am sharing their poor example of customer service with you to illustrate how you can better keep your clients happy, well served, and protected.

To ensure you do not send mixed signals, I will leave you with three considerations.

First, align yourself with your clients. Regard them as partners.

Your job is to meet your clients' needs, to protect them. If not, then what purpose does your business serve? Look for opportunities to advocate for your clients interests, especially those for which they contracted you.

Recall that my optician claimed they had no control; that the delay in getting my glasses was not their fault. Specialization-as in one business sells the glasses, another makes them-fosters interdependence. I imagine most of you rely on outsourcing relationships to serve your clients. Outsourcing does not abdicate you of your responsibility to your clients, certainly not in their eyes.

My optician may have had a lack of control, but in a business relationship no one is without influence. How likely do you think it is that some accommodation could have been made between parties to diminish the client's pain?

This is where you look for opportunities to demonstrate your care for the customer. Get creative! Find solutions and make them happen! Let the client know what you are doing on their behalf. Even if you are unsuccessful, or just moderately successful, your efforts will make a difference. It might not win the client over, but it will definitely improve your odds.

Second, welcome all feedback, especially complaints.

A complaining client is a wonderful thing to behold. Complaining to you means the client still maintains a vested interest in seeing the relationship improve. A complaint represents an opportunity to repair the service.

How do you react to complaints? What goes on emotionally for you when a customer complains? Do you empathize with their pain, marshaling your own resourcefulness to resolve the problem? Or, do you feel embarrassed or threatened, exposed or unsafe? If you regard complaints as threats, you position yourself against your client, rather than with them. Advocating for your client requires you to be open and vulnerable with them. There's no room for self-protection if you want to keep your clients happy.

Third and finally, align your policies and processes to support your clients.

Question the purpose and impact of the rules you work by. Do they support customers or do they provide for your convenience, profit, or protection. Convenience, profit, and protection are important. But if those purposes are cross with your clients needs, reevaluation is in order.

Align with your customers. Do what you say, say what you do. Be grateful and thankful for client complaints. Make sure your policies support your clients. When a service breakdown does occur, you will feel less like you are about to be hit by a car.

And more importantly, so will your client.

REPUBLISHING PERMISSION: You are welcome to download or reprint this article so long as you include my byline and copyright at the end of each piece with a live weblink. Please forward publication specifics to The attribution should read:

"By Jeff Simon of Jeff Simon Consulting, The Client Retention Specialists. Are you having trouble keeping your best clients? Please visit Jeff's website at for additional articles and resources for keeping your best clients."

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