I have a story to tell you about customer service. The older and (hopefully) wiser I get, the more I realize that most every one of us, no matter what we do to earn our living, is in the customer service business. I know it’s a cliché, but clichés are told and retold for a reason. I think this story might help you improve your business. Why? Because your clients won’t always know what they need or if they do, they won’t always be able to ask for it clearly and succinctly. If you can guide them through the process and solve their problems honestly and efficiently, you will have no problem making clients happy and growing your business.
First, let’s stipulate that there are two key ingredients for the success of your business and mine: competency and customer service. We have to be competent at what we do first but we also are dealing with people, who make buying decisions based on how they feel about us.
Why is this important for appraisers? Many of you are wisely expanding your practices beyond lending work and into a realm where interaction with the general public is required—such as for divorce, expert witness and consulting work. Even if you deal exclusively with the same AMC or bank personnel over and over, you still need to make them feel good about working with you, or else they won’t.
What makes a client happy? Is it being polite—a good listener, friendly, honoring commitments, “going the extra mile”? Yes, all of those things are important. It is proven that people are more likely to buy from people they like, and studies show, also less likely to sue someone they like! (That study was done with doctors.) Consider that for a moment! Is the customer always right? Certainly not.
Good customer service is more than simply answering a customer’s questions competently: it’s solving their problem. It’s understanding what they are asking, even if they can’t articulate what they need—even if they don’t know what they need! Good customer service is using your expertise and the trust your clients give you, to provide them with complete and honest answers, even if they don’t know the right questions to ask. I think most of us who have been in business any length of time understand this intuitively—be it doctors, lawyers, real estate appraisers or insurance agents. The more proficient you are at solving your client’s problems, the more valuable you are. Which brings me to my customer service story.
I had an important meeting at 9 a.m. in my office and it was my 13-year-old daughter’s first day of summer camp. Sounds like a movie pitch right?
Knowing I have to be at work at 9 a.m. or a little before to prepare, I move mountains to get my daughter out the door early and in plenty of time. As we exit the car at the YMCA, I ask a young employee walking by where the “LIT” camp is (Leaders in Training). They point to a grassy field with trailers about 50 yards away, where I remember the summer camps were last year. Great—we head over. As we turn the corner, I see about 20 sets of parents and children in line ahead of us. No problem, we’re early but it doesn’t take long to realize that, while it may be fun to stay at the YMCA (according to the “Village People” at least), it’s not so much fun waiting in line at one; things are not moving very quickly or efficiently—at least not at this YMCA.
After a few minutes, I notice that the kids in line are all about half my daughter’s age, and I wonder if perhaps we’re in the wrong place for LIT. So I direct my daughter to hold our place in line and head off for a set of trailers behind a gate that serve as camp offices. Standing at the gate is a young employee, obviously there to screen questions. I ask, “Is this where we should be for LIT?” They leave for a few (very long) minutes and return saying that we need to register at the facility. It doesn’t dawn on me to ask any other questions such as: what if she’s already registered? Is she registered? (My wife handles this stuff. I’m just the chauffeur.) No, I’m not sharp enough to ask any questions – probably because I’m preoccupied with my upcoming meeting. So, we embark on the five-minute walk up to the YMCA facility. There is a greeter/screener at the door who asks how they can help. I tell them the entire story and as I do, I can see that within earshot is someone listening, who I later learn is a “manager” and could have solved the problem right then and there in a minute or two. They say nothing.
After going through the whole story with the greeter, we are told to stand in line, which we do, and believe me when I tell you that things don’t move any quicker inside the YMCA than outside. When our turn comes, I recount the entire tale again. They ask whether my daughter is registered—I say I think so but I’m not sure. We give them the spelling (B-R-A-U-N-E-R) but they can’t find her. After some back and forth, the manager I mentioned previously is called over to help. Now I’ve been in the facility probably 10 minutes and at the YMCA probably 25. The manager finds my daughter almost instantly as registered and pronounces, “You just have to go down to the field to sign in.” This is the field I just came from. Maybe it’s my body language—I’m told I should never play poker, but the manager somehow intuits my frustration and graciously offers to walk us down to the field to get it straightened out.
As we arrive back where we started, there are now about 25 sets of parents and kiddos in line in front of us. Yes, I’m checking the time, but I assure you, I’m calm and friendly, if only to set a good example for my daughter. The manager who walked us down tries to confirm with the folks at the signup table but they don’t know anything. Then the manager heads over to the trailer/offices to double check for me while my daughter and I stay in line. About five (long) minutes later, they return with the good news, “Yes, you can just sign in at the table.” Now, again, it must be my body language as I look up at the 15 or so sets of parents and kiddos ahead of us in line, because the manager almost immediately leads us out of the line and straight up to the front of the table where I sign in my daughter in about 30 seconds. In case you’re wondering, I made the 9 A.M. meeting.
Here’s what happened as best I can figure: when I asked if I was in the right place for LIT, the first person at the trailer should have asked: “Is your daughter registered?” If yes, sign up here (in minutes). If no, go up to the facility to register. If I wasn’t sure, they could have checked right there. But unfortunately, I didn’t know the right question to ask and neither did they. They didn’t know how to answer my question completely or solve my problem so they sent me “up to the facility to register.” They passed me along, got me off their plate. To be fair, the big picture process was probably never explained to them or if it was, they were thinking about lunch. They probably only know their one small function.
So, am I happy about my experience at the Y-M-C-A? I think you can figure that out. But here’s why the story matters to you and me: if I want my daughter to go to this camp, this is what I have to endure because this YMCA is the only one offering this type of experience. But you and I don’t have that luxury when it comes to our businesses. If only our competition was so sparse! Our customers, yours and mine, have lots of choices and we must do better if we want our businesses to flourish.
Be someone who can solve your customer’s problems rather than just answering their questions and you will be very valuable indeed. I have preached this to the folks at OREP for the 15 years we’ve been serving appraisers and it seems to work pretty well.