When I graduated in 2010, jobs were hard to come by.
After working for free for over a year, I landed a role in a digital agency.
At the time, the agency was minute — I was one of three very young employees. We were all relatively inexperienced, but willing to work hard.
The workload was immense, the learning curve steep, but in hindsight this job — my first-ever foray into the startup world — proved invaluable in more ways than one.
Here’s what I learned about customer service.
You need to be quick
Now, I’m not going to lie, there were times when I wanted to run away and cry (I eventually I did) but one of the most valuable skills this job taught me was to think on my feet.
I often found myself leading client meetings, pitching to very senior roles in huge multinational companies, and was confronted with countless questions and problems that required on-the-spot thinking.
The issue here was that clients typically wanted to do things in a certain way — design and deploy an app within a very tight turnaround, or build, localize, and launch a website in weeks — and quite frankly, we didn’t always have the resource to fulfill their requirements nor were these realistic.
Pushing back wasn’t always an option — or at least not one the customer would be willing to accept — so it was a matter of getting creative, breaking the deliverables into manageable time chunks, and offering alternatives.
I soon learned that the best strategy was to listen, ask all the necessary questions, take notes, and offer plausible solutions. If the client was seemingly apathetic to these, the best thing you could do was tell them you’d go away and look into it further.
You’re not always wrong
How many times have you heard the phrase “the customer is always right” and nodded in agreement? Well, let me let you into a little secret: it’s not true.
I wholeheartedly agree that every business should seek to offer the best customer service possible — especially if word of mouth and repeat business are key parts of your growth strategy — but customers aren’t always right, nor should you make them think they are.
Once I got over the overwhelming fear of saying the wrong thing and figured out how to say ‘no’ without sounding dismissive, I learned to be consultative and collaborative.
Your best bet is to listen. Figure out what a customer wants, find ways of making the process easier for them, and of course be courteous and polite.
But whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of making them think they hold all the power. If you do, they’ll start to behave like your time is theirs to encroach. Finding balance is not easy but it’s not impossible.
My motto is ‘treat others as you would like to be treated.’ It’s a massive cliché but it’s foolproof.
All customers are equal
You should treat every single customer with the same respect and devotion — regardless of how much they are spending with you.
It doesn’t matter if a client has hired you to work on a $10,000 or a $100,000 project. Your dedication to the work and the way you treat them should meet the same standards.
Often customers expect a lot in exchange for very little and even though the amount they’re spending may seem relatively insignificant to you (in comparison to others) it could represent a huge chunk of that customer‘s profits or revenues.
You don’t need to brown-nose customers just because they are spending a huge amount of money — if you do, I assure you they’ll see straight through you.
By the same token, don’t be dismissive of those spending less than five figures. You catch my drift…
Don’t let customers bully you
When you work at a startup, it’s easy to get carried away if you land a particularly exciting or lucrative project, but it’s important to remember that customers don’t own you or your time.
You need to be pleasant and willing to cooperate but you also need to assert yourself.
When I first started out, I literally thought I was hired to meet every customer‘s wish and demand. It took me a while to realize that although that was true, to an extent, there are limits and boundaries.
Clients will often try and push your buttons — both when it comes to time and money — so it’s really up to you to let them know way before they’ve crossed a line.
If you don’t, you’ll run the risk of being at their beck and call — and it’s so difficult to get out of this dynamic once you’re in it.
You can lie — kind of
Of course, you should strive to be honest and transparent but you don’t have to reveal the whole truth.
There were times when I was really pushed against the wall to lower cost estimates or to do things that didn’t quite sit right with our creatives. I was, by all accounts, the middlewoman, the messenger between our third-party suppliers and in-house talent.
This is exhausting and you will, on occasion, have to lie to make your life easier.
I remember one particular instance when I was asked to deliver an app to the client so they could roll it out across the UK on a particular date.
This launch date clashed with several other projects I was running, so I told the developer and designers that their deadline was the week before.
This gave me plenty of time to check everything worked properly prior to delivery and it meant I stayed in the customer‘s good graces.
Was it a little cheeky? Yes. Did it work? Also yes. Have I done it again? You bet!