How To Deliver Exceptional Client Service

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We often hear companies, including Web agencies, boast about how they provide exceptional client service. But how do they define exceptional?

Consider this scenario. You are hired to design and develop a new website for a retail client. The client loves the design, and the pages you develop use the latest in HTML5, CSS3 and responsive design, resulting in a website that works wonderfully across browsers and devices. The e-commerce features of the new website help the client significantly increase their online sales, and the entire project is delivered on time and on budget. Now, is this “exceptional” client service? I don’t think it is.

When the client hired you, they expected that you would design and develop a great website. They also expected it would be done according to the timeline and budget set during the planning stages of the project. As successful as this project may have been for both you and the client, in the end, you did exactly what you were hired to do. You did your job.

Just Doing Your Job Vs. Delivering Exceptional Service

Nothing is wrong with “just doing your job.” In many cases, that alone is a tall order. So, while doing what you were hired to do is nothing to be ashamed of, it is also not exceptional — nor will it set you apart. There will always be other agencies or designers that will be able to do the work as well as you can — and there will certainly be someone willing to do it cheaper! The service you provide is how you can truly differentiate yourself.

Exceptional client service is about going beyond what is realistically expected of you. It is about surprising, and often delighting, customers, turning them into enthusiastic referral sources and lifelong clients who stick with you not only because you do great work at a fair price, but because the value you bring to them goes far beyond just your products.

In this article, I’ll detail a few of the ways that I have tried to take my own client service to the next level and deliver a better experience, starting with the most important aspect: the relationships that you establish with the clients who hire you.

Superhero racing to help1
There is a difference between doing what you were hired to do and delivering a superheroic level of service. (Image: JD Hancock2)

Creating Real Relationships

Here’s a quick exercise. Write down your five most important clients (how you define “important” is up to you). Then, write down as many things you know about those clients that have nothing to do with their business or the work you have done for them. What are their hobbies or passions? How many kids do they have? How old are those kids, and what are their names? Where do they like to vacation? Things like that.

So, how long is your list? If you’re like most people I speak with, probably not very long at all. We learn everything we can about a client’s business, but we often fail to discover anything substantial about our clients as people. If we do not engage with our clients in a real, personal way, then we are just another vendor — and vendors are easily replaceable with better cheaper options. However, clients are much less likely to consider replacing people with whom they have real relationships.

So, how do you start learning more about your clients? Simple: ask them questions about themselves and their lives, not just about their business.

Asking Real Questions

When I give this advice to others, it is often met with some apprehension. Asking someone about their business goals is easy. Asking them about their life outside of the office is harder. We often avoid getting personal for fear of offending the person or saying the wrong thing; but by being overly cautious, we miss the chance to create a real relationship.

Whenever I get nervous about getting too personal with a client, I remind myself of a story. A few years ago, I had the privilege to work on the website for the Tori Lynn Andreozzi Foundation3. This non-profit foundation was named after a young girl who, walking home from school one afternoon, was struck by a drunk driver. Tori survived but was forever changed. Today, she is in a minimally conscious state, unable to walk, speak or eat.

In one of my first meetings with this client, I sat down with the head of the foundation, Tori’s mother, Cathy. I began the conversation simply by asking her, “How is Tori doing today?”

Cathy smiled and answered that Tori was doing well. We had our meeting and discussed the website and the project. As we were wrapping up, Cathy thanked me for asking her about Tori. She explained that so many people avoid asking about her daughter, fearing the news would be bad or that Cathy would be upset by the question. The truth is that, even though Tori has bad days, Cathy always enjoys talking about her daughter and was very happy to be asked about her. By asking Cathy how her daughter was doing, I showed her that I cared about more than just the project.

Website for the Tori Lynn Andreozzi Foundation4
The website for the Tori Lynn Andreozzi Foundation

Today, Cathy is one of my favorite people to speak with, and we begin every conversation by asking how each other’s children are doing. We have much more than a great client-vendor relationship, all because I asked a real question, honestly cared about the answer, and created a real, human connection in the process. Had I been too afraid to ask that question, I might never have been able to build the relationship that I have now.

Don’t be afraid to ask your clients real questions. If they don’t want to answer you, they won’t. But for those who do (and you will find that most, if not all, of your clients will be happy to have a real conversation that has nothing to do with business), you will be well on your way to building real relationships.

Participate In More Than Just Projects

Another way to build a relationship with a client that goes beyond the project is to participate in their events. If the client runs a non-profit organization, they might have fundraisers or similar events that offer you an opportunity to support their cause and nurture the relationship. Go to these events and participate. As a bonus, you will also be helping a worthwhile cause.

Not all of your clients will have fundraising events, but they might invite you to holiday parties and other gatherings. Take advantage of these opportunities to interact with your clients outside of a normal business setting. It will go a long way to reinforcing those real relationships that you are trying to create and show that you are more than just another vendor.

Similarly, consider inviting clients to some of your events to show that you view them as more than just a source of business. When they arrive, greet them warmly and enjoy their company, leaving business talk for another day.

Help Them With Services That You Do Not Provide

Clients may hire you to design and develop a Web presence for them, but in the course of the project you will often discover that they need other services that you do not provide. By listening to their needs, you might learn that they have issues with their payroll company or their accountants or some other aspect of their business.

Look to your own business and the vendors you use. There may be a service or company that you have had success with that you could recommend. Also look to your other clients to see whether they offer services that fit. If appropriate, set up a lunch meeting between you, the client with the need and the client that might be able to fill that need. Not only will you be taking two clients out for lunch, you will hopefully be helping them both by making a valuable connection between the two companies.

When a client can say, “I hired this company to design our website and they ended up helping us revamp our entire payroll system!” you position yourself as much more than just their “Web team” — you show that you are a valued business resource and a trusted advisor.

Pick Up The Phone

Good communication is key to any relationship. Still, judging from the number of clients I speak with who are unhappy with their current Web team — not because they do a poor job, but because they are unresponsive — quality communication is not always a given.

Regularly updating your clients by email is important, but also pick up the phone every now and then, so that you become more than just that distant person behind those electronic updates. By hearing your voice, clients will feel more connected to you and the project. It also shows them that you value them enough to take the time to make a personal call, and it gives you a chance to talk about something other than business.

Conversations bubbles in an office5
Regular phone calls allow you to have real conversations with clients, communicating at a personal level that email and other electronic updates do not allow for. (Image: opensourceway6)

Face The Bad Times Head On

Have you ever had to share bad news with a client, but rather than pick up the phone to discuss the issue, you waited and sent an email at 5:15 pm on a Friday? By doing this, you may have bought yourself a few more days before having to face the client’s worried questions, but you also damage the relationship by hiding behind an email. It also means that the client will read the bad news first thing on Monday morning; definitely not a good start to their week, and definitely not the way to treat a valued relationship.

Here’s a secret: clients do not expect you to be perfect. They do, however, expect you to be honest. When something goes wrong, let them know quickly so that they are not blindsided by the issue later on. And never deliver bad news by email. Picking up the phone to discuss the news lets you reassure the client and answer any questions they may have. An after-hours email certainly won’t do that for them.

If the matter is handled correctly, the client will not remember that something went wrong. They will remember that you were honest and kept them apprised of the state of the project, even when it did not go according to plan.

Be Thankful And Show Appreciation

When was the last time you thanked a client for working with you? How did you do it? Did you send a basket of cookies or chocolate with a generic “thank you” message, or did you do something more personal?

Too often, we fail to even thank our clients for their business. We are so keen to finish a project and move on to the next one that we forget to properly show our appreciation.

While a basket of sweets and a generic message is better than nothing, consider sending a personal, handwritten thank-you note.

Handwritten letters have become all but extinct these days. With the rise of electronic communication such as email, social networks and text messaging, so few people take the time and effort to actually write a letter. The gesture of a personal letter will delight and surprise your client, not only because you have thanked them, but because the way you did so was personal, memorable and the perfect cap to a successful project.

Handwritten thank you message7
A thankful, personal handwritten card is a great way to cap off a successful project. (Image: irrezolut8)

How About You? Do You Deliver Exceptional Client Service?

I hope this article starts a conversation. How do you deliver exceptional client service? What tips can you share so that others can delight their own clients and offer them value beyond just products?

In this industry, we are always eager to share the latest tips and tricks on CSS, HTML, JavaScript, PHP or some other Web technology. Let’s also start to share tips on how to deliver exceptional client service, because success in this industry is about much more than developing great websites — it’s about developing great relationships.

(al)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.flickr.com/photos/jdhancock/4303131832/
  2. 2 http://www.flickr.com/photos/jdhancock/4303131832/
  3. 3 http://www.torilynnfoundation.org
  4. 4 http://www.torilynnfoundation.org
  5. 5 http://www.flickr.com/photos/opensourceway/4371000846/
  6. 6 http://www.flickr.com/photos/opensourceway/4371000846/
  7. 7 http://www.flickr.com/photos/irrezolut/6081838156/
  8. 8 http://www.flickr.com/photos/irrezolut/6081838156/

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Jeremy was born with six toes on each foot. The extra toes were removed before he was a year old, robbing him of any super-powers and ending his crime-fighting career before it even began. Unable to battle the forces of evil, he instead works as the Director of Web Development for the Providence, Rhode Island based Envision Technology Advisors and teaches website design at the University of Rhode Island. His portfolio and blog, at Pumpkin-King.com, is where he writes about all things Web design.

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  1. 1

    Great stuff.

    I often find when I invite clients to work in a workspace within Podio, it exceeds their expectations to be part of the design process and seeing the project progress, as well as be able to communicate with me (and get that response) rapidly. Perhaps it’s because any other designers they had previously used exchanged a few emails and calls, and the rest of the process was silent.

    It goes a long way to be human, and nice messages, hand written notes and some free stuff always goes a long way in bringing some smiles.

    At the end of the day, these are the clients talking about me to other people, and thus brining in more work.

    Pete.

    • 2

      Wow, just checked out PODIO. It’s pretty awesome and I’ve tried a lot of project management apps out there. I’m really loving the customizable workspace options. Thanks for the heads up!

    • 3

      I’ve been using Podio for a while now too but mainly for my own business management. I have a couple of clients who I’ve used it with but they’re all other designers and agencies. I’ve tried to use it with a couple of clients who would just revert back to using emails when they wanted to communicate, so I’ve stuck to just using it with people who already use the web a lot.

  2. 4

    One of the thing I have been doing to provide a good customer service is to quote my job making sure I’m fair to myself, even adding a confortable margin for extras. I also make sure I don’t overload myself with work.
    This way, not only I take the time to make amendments as often as requested but I also feel good about it (instead of whining about yet another round of amendments).
    My customers love my patience and I love my job ——> win-win!

    • 5

      Excellent. Making sure you have not overloaded yourself, so you be be sure that you have the time to properly commit to your client to make sure they are a priority, will certainly help create a better overall experience. Thanks for sharing your tip!

  3. 6

    Fantastic Read! One of my favourite parts was of course the hand-written thank you letter. I agree how hand-written letters are so outdated the gesture of doing so portrays the effort and care you put into the recipient!

    I had a young female singer as a client once, I would consistently maintain a conversation with her as well as spend time with the managers outside of the media projects. My involvement indeed helped their approach to me as a designer :-)

  4. 7

    Excellent points. Need to remember this every time, whenever a project/client deviated due to our own mistakes.

  5. 8

    I agree that responding to emails promptly is important, but I don’t think it is the only “communication currency” in our industry. Updates via email or project management software is important – but it is also expected. To be exceptional, I think we need to do more – which is why I continually advocate for more personal forms of communication like the phone call.

    I maintain that you can communicate with a person in a much stronger way with a call, even if it is a quick one, than a “one sentence acknowledgement” in an email.

  6. 9

    Great article, one I will share with my design students.

  7. 10

    I make a point of always presenting designs in person. I have found that most clients do not know where to start when it comes to giving design feedback so I like to be there in person to help them think through and articulate their feelings for the design option(s) that are presented. I usually start out by listing as subjectively as possible all of the features of the design (i.e. warm colors make visitors comfortable, portraits make the business more personable, etc.) and I also ask open ended questions to help the client to open up and get a conversation going about how the design in question works and fits with their business goals.

    This is hardly possible when presenting a design through email or posting in a project management app.

    • 11

      Absolutely. When a client is “local” and you can get to their location (and have them come to yours), presenting in person is great. It not only allows you to get their first reaction to the work and answer any questions they may have, it allows allows you to continue building that real relationship by starting the meeting with some real conversation, or perhaps a continuation of conversations you had previously (“so how was that trip you took a few weeks ago?”). If you are going to them, you can also bring treats, maybe some donuts or bagels if it is in the morning or some cookies if it is in the afternoon, as a nice gesture.

      Even if a client isn’t local, I think presenting in person is critical. Using video conferencing software to get some face time with your client and present the work may not have the exact same impact as being in the same room with them does, but it still allows you to properly present the work and answer questions and have a conversation. This is a much better option than dropping some screenshots in project management software or sending an email – at least for this initial round of design presentations.

      Great tip – thanks for sharing!

    • 12

      That’s great advice that I think is often overlooked in this computer age – I telecommute, so meeting in person is virtually (ha – no pun intended) impossible. I find that discussing a design by screen-sharing (on Skype or GoToMeeting) helps clients make sense of the design much better, since I can explain elements and get real-time feedback. I think many business owners don’t realize that design has a purpose beyond aesthetics. It’s our job to defend our professional decisions or they will often get torn apart on the mere basis of personal taste.

  8. 13

    Some great tips here which I’ve added to a list of stuff to incorporate into my own practices.

    Another possible bonus of going to clients’ events is that you get to meet and network with new people. You don’t have to go there with the intention of selling you or your services but just in general conversation – “So what do you do?” – you might find you can help some new people out.

    • 14

      Very true. “Networking” doesn’t have to be a bad word. You don’t need to be that slimy guy who is only looking to collect lots of business cards and try to drum up business – meeting new people, learning about them, and letting them know a little about you is a great way to build connections that may, in time, lead to more business. I’ve often had people that I met at some event, client sponsored or otherwise, call me months or years later because they enjoyed meeting me and when they had a project need, they remembered our conversation. Getting to meet new people, having great conversations, and maybe finding some business in the process – looks like a win, win, win to me.

      Thanks for sharing your tip!

  9. 15

    These are the things i have been missing in my relationships with client, and will help me to add more value to it.

  10. 16

    I once teamed up with a Local Travel agency, and after the work was done for the client, I always sent them discount coupons of the company, which was a win-win situation for everyone.

    • 17

      Thanks for sharing! I love the idea of partnering with past clients to do something nice for new ones!

  11. 18

    Great article. We’ll be using some of the ideas to help make our client service better!

  12. 19

    GREAT, great, great article. Thank you for your service to this audience ;-).

  13. 20

    Great article – I shared it with my agency.

    It’s true that sometimes we forget: delivering a great product, on time and on budget is what’s EXPECTED and what you are paid to do.

    It’s actually HOW we deliver that makes all the difference:
    – OPEN communication throughout
    – having FUN in the process
    – adding value beyond the SOW
    – delivering the project EARLY
    – etc…

    Having said that, some large-scale web projects can be pretty complicated and delays can often occur due to issues that are outside of the agency’s (or the client’s) control, so actually delivering a great product on time can sometimes feel ‘exceptional’…

  14. 21

    It’s funny, yet entirely appropriate, that ‘good client service’ just boils down to be a human being that has a passion for their work and likes to communicate. Certainly there is a ‘technical’ aspect to good service, such as making sure clients get a timely and informed response to their needs, but ultimately it’s just about making sure you all connect, have a solid relationship and that you, personally, take an interest in their project. If you don’t care about what they’re trying to achieve and thus what you’re doing for them in turn, you will never be able to provide exceptional service.

  15. 23

    Great article that I’ve shared among the team here.

    Going the ‘extra mile’ is often overlooked in many businesses and can keep a customer coming back and making referrals.

    Something we do, that has been noticed by our clients, is the work that continues even after the project has finished. For example, a site is live and it needs a little amend made to it (or it’s something that the CMS can’t do) if it’s only going to take 10 mins to do then we’ll do it free of charge. This has surprised some clients as in the past they have always had to pay to make a change. If it’s quick it’s free!!

    Not only does it keep the client coming back for more chargeable work but they are very happy to refer you as a reputable company. Plus it would probably take more than 10 mins to raise an invoice and update records etc!!

    Also having read Jason Fried “Rework” one of the points that he makes is sounding Human and that you care about clients. Like Gordon said above ‘being Human’. This can be achieved in all our communications and emails. Instead of writing an email that is full of corporate waffle and trying to sound bigger than you are, write as if you were talking to the person, a simple line like hope you are well, or did you have a good weekend?, maintain professionalism but make the reader think that your interested in them and not just their money.

  16. 24

    wonderful article, a lot of points noted.

  17. 25

    “If we take man as he is, we make him worse, but if we take him as he should be, we make him capable of becoming what he can be.”

    The secret in the best, fantastic results of your cooperation with others is to perceive them better than they really are – then you have the chance to get to the full potential of your interaction with them, and they have chance to become your exceptional partner and client in business.

  18. 26

    Darren Leighfield

    May 1, 2012 11:55 am

    I like this blog. Interesting reading. By coincidence I put on twiiter last night my thoughts on customer service. I believe, customer service is delivering a great product, to deadlines, at a fair price and dealing with any genuine issues that come up. That’s it! You are not a personal concierge to your clients, or there to bend to their every whim.

    Client’s do become friends, of course. Relationships build over time, naturally. However the endeavour to become pal’s with your clients, shouldn’t be the aim.

    I have had many dealings with web developers, 2 years ago I was almost driven to despair by the inability to deliver, talk themselves up and spend more time getting to know me, than getting the job done. Despite getting on well with these people, (I still see them for beers now), they failed to deliver and provide customer service.

    “Exceptional” is such a user defined word. Exceptional to me, is doing what you say you are going to do. if you miss a deadline, cost me money, however, are really lovely and we have a great laugh, I won’t refer work. Business is business, personal is personal.

    I refer work to a wonderful Bristol based designer. We get on, can chat. Unlikely I’ll be at her next summer BBQ, however we get on. She takes a project, does it, does it well and is a pleasure to deal with. The aforementioned person with regards the Beer. Well he will be first on my guest list for BBQ’s, the last person I’d refer work to.

    Delivery is everything! Added value, another grossly misused word and again user defined. To me “adding value” is being a valued member of a team that works together and gets the job done. Sending cakes or free gifts, lovely as it is, if a deadline is missed, that’s not adding value.

    “going that extra mile” – Complete the most important mile first, then worry about the next one.

  19. 27

    Lisa Duddington

    June 22, 2012 11:52 am

    We do many of these already. Just yesterday in fact, we hand delivered one of the directors of one of our clients a big box of Hotel Chocolat, handwritten birthday card (thoughtfully chosen, high quality) as well as lots of fresh cream cakes for the rest of the team. I just wish companies would treat me (as one of their clients) like this! ;)

    I could also tell you all their hobbies, where they go on holiday, details about their kids… but tbh I found out that information through genuine interest and rapport rather than thinking it would be good for keeping business. I just think you should treat people how you would like to be treated. I personally love surprises and gifts so I like to treat clients to surprise gifts, and they clearly love this. Our client yesterday was over the moon and it was lovely to see her so genuinely surprised and happy.

  20. 28

    I’ve found that threatening to work with their competitors has worked very well for me. That and sending funny dog & cat videos from youtube. Yep works a treat. I’m swamped with work.

  21. 29

    Great Article!

    Having worked in the customer service industry for nearly 20 years, and now up for an important interview to fill a Client Services Specialist position for a very successful Massachusetts company, the key points mentioned above serve as an effective and important refresher for any professional who wants to stand out against every other applicant and current employee.

    Providing good customer service is easy and trainable, however, providing exceptional customer service truly takes a special individual who elevates their desire to deliver such service on every interaction. Unfortunately, receiving just “good” customer service seems to be falling by the wayside in today’s society, so to receive “exceptional” service seems to only come from professionals who have posted comments on this blog, and that’s few and far between, how sad.

    Long story short, I want to thank you for bringing the necessary articulation forward to reinforce what I have been doing for nearly 20 years by providing the exceptional service that people are pleasantly surprised by when it happens to them. It feels good knowing there are others out there who care about the customer as much as I do.

    Have a great day! :)

  22. 30

    Carol Gold Star Services

    July 18, 2013 7:35 pm

    Fabulous advice. Keep it real. Keep connected and keep surprising your clients with exceptionally superior service. bravo!

  23. 31

    I find your message very interesting and a stepping stone to be more productive on the job and more client minded.

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