Have you made your New Year's resolutions? Let me suggest one: Raise the bar on how well you serve your clients in 2011. For most firms, substantial improvement doesn't require doing anything extravagant. It's taking care of the basics, like communicating with your clients regularly and proactively. Good communication is arguably priority number one in delivering superior client service.
That includes being readily accessible. With today's communications technologies, there's no excuse for being out of touch. Yet stories of inaccessibility abound. Consider the case of Gene, a seasoned engineer and senior project manager. His client calls his direct line with an urgent project matter.
"Hi, this is Gene," his voicemail greeting responds, "I'm either on the phone or away from my desk. Please leave a message and I'll get back to you as soon as possible." The client is aware that this is the same message that Gene has had on his phone for the last five years. For all the client knows, Gene could simply be in the bathroom or on one of his beloved overnight fishing trips (out of cell phone range).
Earlier the client had tried Gene's cell phone with similar results. The client can't wait so he punches "O" to talk with the receptionist. "I don't know where Gene is today," she answers. "The Meridian project? I don't know who else is working on that. I can check in the back and see."
Sound familiar? Offering advice on how to be accessible to your clients might seem like stating the obvious if people like Gene weren't so common in our industry. This is one area where I probably can't suggest anything you don't already know. But some of you, I suspect, could use the gentle reminder:
Make a promise to return calls within a certain time frame. This obviously is reassuring to clients. It's also good general practice in the pursuit of service excellence. Making specific promises to clients yields better results than simply relying on your good intentions. My suggestion? Promise to return all calls within three hours. Next you have to figure out how to make that happen!
Regularly update your voicemail greeting to include your whereabouts. The best do this daily. If that seems a bit ambitious for you, then commit to doing it at least weekly. The goal is to let callers know where you are that day and, if not in the office, whether you can be reached at another phone number.
Always let the receptionist know where you are and whether you can be reached. With direct phone numbers and voicemail, receptionists are less the gatekeepers than they once were. But some clients still prefer talking to a live person. It helps, of course, if that person knows what's going on. Never leave the office without informing the receptionist of your whereabouts and where to direct clients who call for you.
By the way, if your firm insists on having one of those automated receptionists (which is a poor choice from a client service perspective), be sure you present an option to connect with a live person.
Better still, give active clients advance notice when you're going to be inaccessible. That's characteristic of proactive communication.
Assign a backup to field questions when you're going to be unavailable. The best project managers keep their team informed and engaged so that familiarity with the overall project is shared. Plus it's a good idea, especially on larger projects, to formally designate a second in command. That makes it easier to offer the client an alternative when you're not available.
Offer 24/7 accessibility where appropriate. With cell phones, Blackberries, and the like, such around-the-clock availability is hardly extraordinary these days. But it helps to explicitly invite the client to call you anytime. That's added service even if you never have to answer a call at night or on the weekend.
Bottom line, don't take your accessibility to the client for granted. Despite the technological advantages we have today, there are still many communication gaps to be found from the perspective of A/E firm clients (I know, I've been talking to them). The fact that being accessible is so readily, well, accessible makes it all the more frustrating to clients when it's not.