Once upon a time, when the Internet was dialed-up and 36,600 KBPS was like lightning, I was living in a small town working for a computer retailer and Internet service provider. My boss at the time was… well, let’s just say that customer service was not his priority. Not only would he berate and verbally assault almost every customer who happened to cross his path when he was frustrated by a computer repair, but his relentless tirades caused customers to leave either in tears or on the verge of them.
I wondered during my four-year stint, attempting to clean up the customer service messes he left in his wake, how he managed to stay in business in the years before and since my employment. And the answer was simple: he was a big fish in a tiny pond.
In a town of 18,000 residents, there were only three computer retailers that had qualified technicians who could handle in-house repairs. He was one of them. But as web freelancers, we are swimming in an ocean that is teeming with qualified fish, all waiting for a hook from clients. So, we have to pay special attention to the customer-relations part of our business if we want to build and maintain our client list. The problem is that many of us have spent most of our time throughout the years working for someone else, possibly far from the reach of our employer’s customers. So, our customer service skills may be rusty, or even non-existent.
Also consider our previous articles:
- Freelance Contracts: Do’s And Don’ts
- How To Persuade Your Users, Boss Or Clients
- 8 Strategies For Successful Client Relations
Does It Really Matter?
Meager people skills and miniscule patience make some of us a business hazard when interacting with clients. Some people may not believe that this could be explosive to a freelancer’s reputation, but according to a 2009 online survey by Tealeaf, there is cause for concern:
The survey results also show that online adults are increasingly turning to social media to share their online experiences with others, while simultaneously becoming less likely to alert a company directly—a shift in consumer behavior which extends the business impact of customer experience issues beyond any single transaction.
Given this trend among consumers, we can assume that the same would hold true for our freelance clients, and that the impact of the customer’s experience will be felt long after the experience concludes. This makes it evermore critical for us to maintain as much control as possible over what that impact is, negative or positive.
This is important for freelancers adrift in the design and development ocean, where even the biggest among us still look small compared to the agency sharks that we compete with for work. If a client leaves with a bad taste in their mouth and decides to portray our business in an unflattering light, we have fewer resources than those sharks to seek out and address these word-of-mouth reviews in social media. Bigger businesses have more time, tools and employees to scour social media outlets for mentions of their companies and to rectify complaints.
This was demonstrated to me recently when we awoke to find our Internet access down. After the standard panic and resetting of system, router and modem, we determined that the problem did not stem from our end but rather from our provider’s. Suddenly, we realized that, without a phone book in the building or access to the Internet or to our invoices (which we receive by email, doing what we can to be as paperless as possible), we did not have the phone number of our provider anywhere in the house. After a frustrating hour, we were finally back online and a bit steamed from our time off from being connected. Did we then contact the provider to vent or inquire about the problem? No. We did what Tealeaf’s survey predicted we’d do: we turned to Twitter.
Having mentioned the company by name on Twitter, we were easy to find. Almost immediately, our provider read what we had to say and responded to us on this social media outlet, making sure we were not experiencing any more problems with connectivity. Overall, it made for an interesting lesson in customer service, and it showed where we as small fish might be missing opportunities to nip bad word of mouth in the bud before it spreads into viral gospel. As freelancers who wear every hat in the business ourselves, our time is limited, so we cannot stay on top of every mention of our business out there.
“The number of consumers who contact a company directly in response to online transaction issues declined:
- 26% of online adults who experience problems conducting online transactions then posted complaints on a company’s Website in 2009, versus 32% in 2008.
- 38% of all online adults contacted a company’s call center after encountering problems using the Website in 2009, versus 47% in 2008.”
(Excerpt from Tealeaf survey)
The survey also reports that more than half of adults who spend time online have been influenced by social media in their consumer choices, which reinforces the importance of customer service to the health and growth of our freelancing businesses. A first impression no longer carries as much weight as it once did; each interaction with our clients bears as much on our business as another. We may think that as long as our business dealings end on a high note, that the rocky road that led there will not play a factor in the success of our freelancing career. A 2007 study released by Harris Interactive says different, suggesting that each dealing with our clients needs to be handled with care:
The study reported that 80% of 2,049 US adults surveyed decided never to go back to a business/organization after a bad customer service experience. The study clearly indicates that an organization’s customer service level is a defining factor that will make or break a company… Consumers have increasingly higher expectations of businesses and are willing to walk away quickly from a majority of businesses if those expectations are not met.
The data shows that each and every interaction we have with a client is an opportunity to improve our business standing. because consumers are quicker to go elsewhere after a negative interaction. Even if our strengths do not lie in customer service, we need to ensure that each experience, whenever it occurs during the course of a project, is an agreeable one. Again, as freelancers, we have to deal with our clients at every stage of the project, and so we have to address not only the requirements of the project, but also any customer service issues that may arise in the process.
What We Can Do?
We can do several things to improve our chances of getting positive results from all of our customer interactions. Of course, no one is guaranteed to satisfy all of their clients’ needs and expectations 100% of the time, but we can take steps in the right direction. It starts with taking as much responsibility as we can for the impressions we leave with our customers.
This one almost goes without saying, but it should be considered from another perspective. Given that the majority of our interactions with our clients might be online, we need to remember that tone and intent does not always translate well to this medium. So, read through your communications to catch anything that may come off negatively. We always want to be aware of the impression we’re making in these seemingly minor moments. As shown before, the weight of an experience is felt long after the moment has passed.
Remember that your client probably does not share your level of expertise in your field. Their questions may not be clear and their feedback not as constructive as it needs to be. Put yourself in their position and be as patient as you would want someone else to be with you. Even if patience is not your strong suit, your customers want to feel that you are listening to and considering their opinions. If you switch off because they cannot communicate with you in your mode of parlance or you dismiss their feedback because they don’t know as much as you do, you will be hurting your business more than your client.
Another thing that frustrates clients is lacking access to you when they need it most. As freelancers, we pride ourselves on our flexibility and being able to set our own hours. But we have to respect the hours during which our clients work, too, and make ourselves available at those times, so that they are able to share ideas and discuss progress in a back-and-forth conversation. One-sided conversations can easily be misinterpreted without further explanation and just delay the client from achieving their goal.
One of the things Aaron Irizarry said in a recent videocast stuck out. He advised us to mind the skill gap between us and clients and to bridge these informational gaps whenever possible. Help them understand our processes and the reasons for the decisions we make. This gives them more faith in following our advice and increases the chances that they will return as clients.
Keep Track and Get Back
When I mentioned that larger firms have more resources to invest in the customer service outlets that are available to all of us, I didn’t mean that we shouldn’t use those outlets at all. Take advantage of them to track what is said about your skills, or lack thereof, and respond accordingly. You may not be able to respond immediately, but do it when you can. If you find a criticism, consider the points they raise and address them thoughtfully, not dismissively. If they praise you, be gracious and return the gesture in kind.
Be Proactive With Mistakes
As I said in Critical Mistakes Freelancers Make, we are all human, and mistakes happen. Don’t shy away from them or, worse, neglect to acknowledge them at all. Own up to them. This is a time to shine by proactively addressing mistakes before they become an issue that the client feels compelled to bring to your (and other people’s) attention. You’ll show your commitment to the client and project, and it will speak volumes about your character. By owning up to our mistakes, we show pride in our work, and more often than not the client will understand and forgive us.
Go Above and Beyond
Doing all of the above usually puts you in the “above and beyond” category, but you could always push your freelancing business over the top by over-delivering. By giving your client more than they have asked for, you further demonstrate your commitment to making them happy and your pride in your performance. This can be as simple as addressing customer service concerns positively and proactively. It also encourages your clients to come back to you time and again.
Thanks for taking the time to read through the post! Below are a few links to further the discussion of the importance of customer service to your freelancing career. Check them out for a more thorough look at what this topic means for freelancers.
- How to Handle a Missed Deadline
This wonderful post on Freelance Switch offers some really useful advice to freelancers on how to deal with missing a deadline.
- How To Keep Mistakes From Ruining Your Freelance Career
This is a great post from Freelance Folder that tells you how to keep mistakes from ruining your business.
- 6 Ways to Kickstart Your Customer Service
Here is a fantastic post from Webdesigner Depot that looks at a few ways that small businesses can make customer service work for them.
- The Art of Great Customer Service as a Freelance Web Designer
Dustin Brewer offers some wonderful advice on the subject of customer service for freelancers.
- How to Set Business Boundaries with Your Clients
Another post from Freelance Switch that looks at a few areas where freelancers need to set boundaries with their clients.
- Tealeaf 2009 Online Consumer Survey
This full press release discusses the survey about online customer experience.
- Studies Reveal Consumer Reaction to Bad Customer Service
An article covering the study released by Harris Interactive that discusses the reactions consumers are having to bad customer service.