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I fired a vendor today. It broke my heart.

This vendor was a referral, comfortable they got the gig. I talked about requirements, about my goals and priorities for the job. I talked - they did not listen. Then I called, explained that it needs to be done differently. They agreed and stayed their course, following their process, leading to their result, not mine.

I tried to make it work. Finally, I had to pull the plug.

The reaction was a complete surprise. They did not see it coming. "Why didn't you say something if it was not done correctly?" they exclaimed. Well, I did, several times. Don't blame me. How unprofessional. I know, you are trying to excuse that you did not listen. Don't.

Didn't I talk about expectations and things not done right? Haven't I mentioned what I need done and what is important to me? Nothing changed. No concerns addressed. And in the end - shock at the fact that they lost a customer. They did not have to.

New customers require more work. You need to spend time understanding their needs. You have to deliver what they want, you have to understand their priorities and make sure your service can address them. It is not a done deal - it is a beginning of a relationship. It is time for you to prove you are the right solution for their problem, you are the man for the job.

How to handle a new customer

  1. Follow up. You sold the idea, you get the contract. Do not disappear on your customer. Call them (especially after the first encounter) and ask if everything was done to their expectations. You can learn a lot about your service and the customer needs in that first follow up. Did they get what they expected? Did you hear what they asked for? Do you need to adjust? Say you would address the issues and do it. You promised them the Moon - it's time to deliver.
  2. What does your customer actually want? Learn how to "hear between the words". If they tell you a horror story about a previous provider, make mental notes not to repeat the mistakes. If they gloss over some requirements and focus on others, you'd better be paying attention to the priorities. Try to find out what the deal breakers are, no matter how insignificant they seem to you. If you deliver on the important points, the rest will fall into place.
  3. Never blame the customer. Get comfortable with the idea that everything is your fault. Later, you can complain about what your customer did in private, but never lay blame on them to their face. They will not change their mind. Ever. You will put them on the defensive and that leads to no good. Decide right there if you want to continue working with the problem customer. If you would, try to save the day. If you don't, apologize and suggest someone else for the job. Sometimes, you are just a bad match. Surprisingly, you might still get a referral from that customer later.
  4. See for yourself. Do not trust anyone's opinion. Make sure you visit your new client, see the operations and, most importantly, the setup for your service. You will understand the situation better when questions or problems arise. Visit your established clients as well. Gather ideas on how to improve and evolve your service offering once you see how it is applied in real life. You knowing they lay of the land will help the people who work for you because you understand what they are dealing with.
  5. Learn from failures. Swallow the pride and ask the ultimate question, "What could we have done better?" Do not be defensive - it is too late for that. Instead, listen and learn. Ask questions, value the opinion. This is the best feedback you will ever get. Talk to your team and ask them the same question. Their perception could be different from your customer. If there is a disconnect - fix it quickly. Your team might need more training or you might need to be a better communicator. Whatever it is, it is up to you to make it right.
  6. Learn from corporate. Small or big business, you can always learn from the big guys. In my corporate days I ran an engineering department. I worked closely with sales and participated in customer meetings when they needed a technical person. Before each meeting I had a briefing with the sales guy who explained the customer background to me. When I went into the customer meeting, I understood the business-customer relationship. You do not have a contract, a job, or a duty to fulfill. You have a relationship to cultivate. Treat it that way and learn how to be better at it.
  7. Always look for a better customer. I start with the assumption that a new customer is great and I will deliver the best service they have ever had. Sometimes my assumption about the customer is wrong. When you get an unreasonable customer who drains your resources and impossible to work with, fire them. Your team will thank you for that. There is no need for suffering. You cannot improve and succeed if you have to deal with the unreasonable. You are there to help. Find those who actually want it.

Customer Service In The Nutshell

Your customer service is your business face. As a business, you cannot afford the time it takes to clean up your tarnished name. Your resources should be used to expand your business and provide the best service possible. Bad customer service cost you not only reputation, but money.

Good customer service is not rocket science. All you need to do is listen. Really listen. You need to adequately respond so the customer knows you heard them. "We do not have resources at this time to implement your request, but we put it on our list," is an acceptable answer too. Your goal is to provide help, not to make the customer go away. Your goal is to make it obvious that you care about their problem and you are there to fix it.

New customers require more work, but if you picked right, they will be delightful to work with. Spend time understanding what your service needs to fix for them, confirm often that you are on the right track. This initial time investment will pay off in the future when you will be reading each other's minds.

Do you have your own customer service tips? Please share!