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Freelancers: Get Extra Business with Customer Service

So perhaps this is the post everyone has been waiting for – how freelancers can get additional business through customer service. Some people may be saying “Nah, that’s impossible.” Well, it is possible. There are plenty of companies that have done it, so why can’t individuals?

There were some items discussed in the previous post about tips for freelancers to improve their customer service. Some good ways to get additional business through customer service (mainly by the way of referrals):

  1. Getting to know the client.
  2. Go the extra mile.

By getting to know the client, you have a good chance at identifying what else they may need and you can gain referrals. By going the extra mile, you can introduce your client to additional services you provide and generate some great word of mouth advertising.

So how else can you use customer service to get additional business?

  1. Make yourself the go to guy or girl. Make yourself the go to guy or girl for everything. Build up a network of friends, partners, etc. that do things that your clients need. For example, if you do web design, have friends who do business card design or web hosting. This way, whenever a client needs something, he or she will ask you.You can either get a referral fee from your friends/partners and/or eventually you’ll be asked about something that you can do. Oh, and your friends/partners may very well send you business in return.
  2. Be honest. Be honest and don’t sell clients more than they need (no matter how gullible they may be or how rich they are). Sell them what they need and clients will respect that and continue to do business with you and refer their friends to you.
  3. Be the solution. A big problem with a lot of freelancers is they aren’t very reliable. Don’t make this the case with you. Give clients your cellphone number, your personal email address, or whatever – make it so that you are the solution and that your clients have no reason to go to a full service company. Furthermore, make sure that your friends and partners you refer your clients to are as reliable and as dependable.
  4. Follow-up. Read the posts on Service Untitled about following up. Following up is extremely important and something that you should do. When you are done with a project, follow-up with them. When a potential client says “We’ll need you in three months.” contact them in three months.
  5. Be nice. As always, be friendly and it will pay off. Make yourself easy to work with and keep the client in mind. It also doesn’t hurt if whatever work you produce is what the client wants (note: not good – what the client wants) as well.

Be sure to read other things on Service Untitled as well. The suggestions provided in topics like Little Things, Big Differences and Etiquette really make the difference between an acceptable and great customer service experience.

Monday will finish up this series. If you have any suggestions of things to cover, please do provide them. On Tuesday, I have a post in mind about a customer service call turned disguised as an (effective) sales call.

On an unrelated note, this is an interesting read. It is the manual that the people who prevent members from canceling their AOL subscriptions use (also known as Retention Specialists, I believe).

Customer Service Tips for Freelancers

So in yesterday’s post, I mentioned some of the customer service advantages freelancers have over companies. There were several advantages, some of which can make a big difference when utilized properly.

As long as the freelancer can handle his or her current workload, the customer service provided has the potential to be great. Here are some tips on how to utilize your advantages as a freelancer to make the customer service experience great.

  1. Get to know the client. Get to know the client as much as possible. Include lots of questions in the initial questionnaire to get a feel of who the client is, what they like, what they don’t like, etc. Don’t hesitate to put an “Interests” category. If the customer doesn’t want you to have the information, he or she won’t fill it out. If the customer does fill the form out, maybe you have a common interest and that’s something you can talk about.

    Pay attention to what the customer says whenever you correspond with him or her. Take notes about things the customer says and try and work them into future conversations. The customer will know you are paying attention and care, and it’ll pay off in the way of increased business from referrals.

  2. Provide frequent updates. Since you are a freelancer, you have no one to talk to for status updates – you know exactly what stage you are at and you should pass that information onto the client. Send the client an email every few days with short messages like “We just finished the visual layout for your new web site. Next step is coding.” In each correspondence, provide your contact information so the client can contact you if he or she has any further questions, comments, or concerns.

    If you don’t hear from a client as often as usual (say they email you once per day usually and you haven’t heard from them in four days), send an email, make a call, etc. and make sure everything is okay and on track. If they say “So and so” just happened, act accordingly. If someone in their family passed away, send a card, etc.

  3. Address concerns quickly. Address client concerns as quickly as possible. If they mention they didn’t like the color of something, change it, and then send it back to them. Chances are, it’ll be a few hours before you hear back from them again and you can then work on other things.

    Obviously, if you have a lot of work, you can’t do this all the time, but you should do your best to follow up on time. For example, if you say “OK, I’ll have the new draft to you in a day.” make sure you have to the client within that time period.

    Try to respond to emails quickly and make call backs whenever you get a message and have some time to respond. Freelancers have to do every part of the process (as opposed to just 1 or 2 parts that someone might do in a company), so things can get a bit more complicated when it comes to time management.

  4. Make decisions. Make decisions whenever you have the opportunity. If the customer asks “Can you do this at such and such a price?” don’t say “I’ll have to check and get back to you.”, you should try and say “Yes, we can do that.” or “No, unfortunately we cannot do that.” Less bureaucracy is something that freelancers should really utilize.
  5. Go the extra mile. Go the extra mile whenever you have the opportunity. If you aren’t too busy and are finishing up one client, throw something in (like business card designs, etc.) to add value to the package. The word of mouth will be worth the little bit of extra time and will likely get you some business.

    You can take it a step further by throwing in something that you aren’t really well known for or that you are trying to get going (like business card design, for example). This way the customer can say “Did you know so and so the freelancer does excellent business card design?”

Tomorrow’s post is how freelancers can get additional business through customer service. Hopefully this post has provided freelancers with some ideas of how they use their freelancer-ship (a made-up word) to their advantage when it comes to customer service.

Customer Service & Freelancers

There is going to be a brief series on freelancers and customer service. Here is the schedule – the series will last four days.

Day 1 (Today): Introduction and advantages freelancers have when it comes to customer service
Day 2 (Thursday): How freelancers can utilize their advantages and improve customer service
Day 3 (Friday): How freelancers can get additional business through customer service
Day 4 (Monday): Conclusion and overflow day

Over the years, I’ve dealt with a lot of people who would be considered freelancers. Graphic designers, web designers, programmers, writers, builders/contractors – every type of freelancer one can imagine.

Some freelancers seem to think they are excused from giving customer service because they don’t work for a company per say. They work for themselves. However, these freelancers are wrong. The customer service freelancers provide should be as good, if not better, than the customer service their competition provides. A freelancer’s competition? Other freelancers and companies. They better get customer service right, because they have a lot of fields to compete on.

Freelancers do have some customer service advantages.

  1. There is only one person to mess up. It may be a cynical view, but the smaller the customer service department, the less people who can mess up. With freelancers, there is only one person who can mess up on anything, and that is obviously the freelancer.
  2. The customer service experience can be very personal. Since the freelancer knows every client, the customer service experience and all other freelancer-client interactions can be highly personalized.
  3. There are lots of opportunities to go the extra mile. With freelancers, there are lots of opportunities to go the extra mile. Since there isn’t very much corporate bureaucracy, the freelancer can make decisions.
  4. No bureaucracy. Enough said. The freelancer can make decisions.

There are plenty of other benefits that freelancers have over their competition (at least the companies), but these are the main ones that I can think of. Chances are, I’ll edit the post and include more.

Most of the tips in this series will be for freelancers who work on the Internet (graphic/web designers/developers, writers, programmers, etc.), but most of the tips can be applied to more “traditional” freelancers like contractors, plumbers, or anyone else.

Also, if there are any freelancers who read Service Untitled (which I would say is likely), feel free to provide your topic suggestions. I’ve scheduled for one overflow day, but if there are a few really great topic suggestions, they can definitely be covered.

Tomorrow’s post is how to use these advantages for better customer service and some other ways freelancers can improve the level of service they provide.

Thank you for calling. Please hold.

I am sure you have experienced it – you call a company and the receptionist picks up and says “Thank you for calling company XYZ. Please hold.” You barely get to mutter a word before you are put into the endless hold queue.

Unless it is something I need specifically from the company I’m calling (such as medical attention, etc.), I’ll normally hang up and deal with someone else if I’m told to “Please hold.” immediately after the phone is picked up.

This happens most frequently in relatively small offices like small doctor’s offices, law offices, local stores (florists, etc.), and organizations of that nature. It is something that such organizations really need to work on.

Ways to avoid the “Please hold” answer.

Have more receptionists. The easiest way to avoid the “Please hold” answer is to have more receptionists. This is also one of the more costly solutions. If you have more than 1 day per week where the receptionist picks up with a “Please hold” answer, it may be time to hire another one (at least for that day).

If the please hold days happens randomly, try and find any pattern you can. Do they happen in the afternoons? Mornings? Try and find some pattern and see if that helps.

What are the questions?
Are most people calling to ask for directions, make appointments, etc.? If they are calling for one particular purpose, see if you can make an “information only” extension in your PBX system that gives directions, states offices hours, etc.

Have others pitch in.
If the phones get busy at completely random times, make other people pitch in and help answer the phone. If the phones are busy enough, the doctor, lawyer, or head florist should be there and helping answer the phones.

Don’t be afraid of voicemail. Don’t be afraid to let your customers go to voicemail. Just state in the recording that if you aren’t available during normal business hours, it means that there is no one available to take your call and that you will call them back within 2 business hours. Remember, keep the time frames small.

Apologize. When the receptionist answers the phone and has to do the “Please hold” answer, instruct him or her to say “Company XYZ. Our phones are very busy right now, would you mind holding for a minute?” and give the customer time to answer. It’s better than just putting them on hold.

Have a hold queue. You can also have a wait queue. This won’t kill anybody. It won’t make anybody happy, but it won’t kill anyone. The phone will ring as representatives become available and is probably the second best (and more cost effective) way to deal with this problem. Before the hold queue, before to mention the company name.

And whatever you say, don’t say “Your call is important to us and we’ll be with you shortly.”

Interview with Joe Kraus of JotSpot

Joe Kraus is the co-founder and CEO of JotSpot, the application wiki company. In addition to JotSpot, he is also an angel investor and has invested in numerous Internet startups. Before JotSpot, Joe Kraus was the co-founder and the first president of Excite@Home.

In the interview, Joe and I discuss customer service, wikis, community building, and more.
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Customer Service at Restaurants

Restaurants are usually graded with two main criteria in mind – food and service. I am no where near qualified, experienced, or motivated enough to talk about the first, but I do have at least some qualifications, experience, and motivation to talk about the second. One would think for a company that is usually graded on one of two things – they’d really concentrate on the service as much (if not more) than the food. However, that doesn’t always seem to be the case.

For example, there is a restaurant near where I live that has some of the best food around. Their service, however, is nothing to admire. The staff is usually rude (they have the “I’m doing you a favor.” attitude), the place is normally quite slow, and to get in, depending on what time you go there, can take hours. I normally avoid this place, but sometimes I’m with friends or family who want some truly good food, and subsequently, have to put up with the frustrations caused from the lack of customer service.

If you own a restaurant (or more than one), please remember to value your service. Chances are customers will not continue to put up with bad service (despite how good the food is) unless your restaurant is one of those very few that can get away with that.

Here are some ideas:

Value service when hiring.
A very popular and very successful New York restaurant is the Union Square Café. I was looking at their web site earlier this evening and stumbled upon a job application form for someone interested in joining their wait staff. Judging from their application, they obviously care about customer service. Some questions related to customer service were:

  • Which one of the above restaurants taught you the most about Fine Service? Why?
  • How do you define “Great Service?”
  • A few other questions related to customer service and personality.

For a short job application with not too many questions, that’s probably two – three more questions than most restaurants ask. How hard is to ask potential candidates about what they think of customer service and its importance in the restaurant business? Not too hard – it doesn’t cost much (if anything) extra and customer service skills and values should certainly be considered when selecting applicants.
Move the phones.
Some companies just can’t seem to figure this out and I have absolutely no idea why. If your business has both a lot of foot and a lot of phone traffic (or just some and some), move the phones into a separate room. There is nothing more annoying than being a patron standing in a restaurant and the snotty hostess hears the phone ring and makes you wait while you are standing there, ready to sit down.

Have the phones be in a back office, a central reservation office (may save some money), or somewhere that customers who are there don’t have to be hassled by them. Let the front staff concentrate on the people who are there and the phone staff concentrate on the people who are calling. It works out best for both people. If your restaurant is a bit small to have a separate reservation center, put a phone in the office where you do purchasing, accounting, etc., and deal with reservations and other phones calls from there.

The front desk (hostess table, whatever it is called) should have a phone, but it should only ring in the management needs something, if the central reservation office has to check something, etc.

Have examples.
The same company that owns the Union Square Café owns several other very successful restaurants. A lot of New York restaurants (and those located elsewhere) can use this group of restaurants as a positive example and try and mimic what they do right and avoid doing what they do wrong.

Follow other customer service principles.
Follow some other principles of customer service like making a big difference through little things, making customer service part of the company’s culture, valuing frequent customers, hiring the right way, dealing with angry or upset customers correctly, and making the customer service experience a great one.

Don’t put up with the restaurants that don’t care about service.
Even if the food is really good, don’t put up with the restaurants that don’t care about service. There are likely plenty of other great places to eat that provide better service.

If anyone is interested in seeing more posts about restaurant customer service, feel free to say so in the comments section. I think it’s a very interesting topic, but if the readers aren’t really interested in it, there are plenty of other interesting topics to talk about.

Design & Customer Service

People who know about design insist that it can help with customer service, and I generally agree with them. There are a few days that design can assist with customer service and the customer service experience.

As a parallel to the experience.
If each step of the customer service experience is well designed (from a visual standpoint), then it may be a bit more enjoyable for the customer. For example, if the knowledge base is very well designed, easy to navigate, etc., looking through it will not be nearly as annoying. The same goes for tracking issues through a helpdesk and similar processes in the customer service experience.

Design removing the need for customer service.
Another instance where design can assist with customer service is good design removing the need for customer service all together. If a product is well designed, the amount of “How do I do –this-?” questions should be minimized if not eliminated completely. This is a very straight forward example of design removing at least some of the need for customer service.

Design features with customer service in mind.
A well placed “Hint” box on the side of a registration page is design with customer service in mind. It means the page was designed well enough that they thought about possible future customer service problems related to the page, and used design to avoid those and ensure they don’t happen.

Ease of navigation.
An important part of design is ease of navigation. If it is difficult to navigate something – whether it be a physical store or a web site, it may very well frustrate customers and even cause them to leave and do their business elsewhere. When designers think about ease of navigation, they are thinking of how to design the building, the site’s, etc. navigation so that it is easy to navigate and subsequently, make customers happy.

Customer service for design.
The design/customer service relationship can work the other way around as well. If there is a design problem, chances are that the customer service department will be one of the first to hear about it, so they can then pass what they have learned on to the design department.

Keep them linked.
If your company has two separate design and customer service departments, keep them as linked as possible. They both should collaborate on new projects and have a say in what each other is doing. Obviously, you can’t involve them too much or nothing will get done, but if the design team is working on a new product design, customer service should get to look at a draft before anything is produced.

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