Customer service is the key to repeat business

Customer service is the key to building your business without constantly chasing new clients.

There’s plenty of evidence that proves keeping customers is far cheaper than getting new ones. It makes sense and I’ve found that delivering what my clients want has lead me to being able build my freelance practice without constantly hustling for work.

So, what is good customer service?

20110701-220709.jpgA little while ago, guest contributor David Hague recounted a story of great service he received. Great service was what brought him back to a specific motel and it’s what can bring your clients back to you.

Today, I experienced perhaps the best customer service I’ve ever received.

A couple of weeks ago my new iPad 2 met with an unfortunate combination of concrete and gravity. The screen was shattered and one side had a couple of small indentations. This morning I made an appointment at the local Apple store to see what I could do.

The appointment was fulfilled on time and I was attended to by a guy called Alex. I explained what had happened. He informed me that as the iPad is a sealed unit a repair wouldn’t be possible. However, Apple allow the purchase of a replacement at a reduced price – about half the full retail price. I decided to pay the replacement cost as Alex had a unit in stock and the transaction could be completed straight away.

Alex returned with the replacement iPad and told me that he had decided to waive the replacement cost. My smashed iPad – damaged by carelessness and not any defect that could be attributed to Apple – would be replaced at NO COST.

This has me thinking what I’d be prepared to do for my clients to keep them coming back. Aside from the delivering on time, on spec services what would you do?

My Elevator Pitch – Extended Version

What do I do? It’s a question I’m often asked and had a chance to recently answer

Most business advice guides suggest that you need an “elevator pitch”. This is a short statement that descsribes your job, your business or whatever you are known for in just a couple of minutes. In the online world, this can be the sort of brief description that appears on an “About Me” page or widget but it’s named for the sort of description you can deliver to somene during an elevator ride. It’s short and direct.

Last night I had the privelege of talking about my work as a freelance journalist to students from my daughter’s school as part of their annual career’s fair. I thought I’d share my notes with you so you can get an idea of how I describe my work. It’s a bit longer than an elevator pitch but I was asked to address some specific questions.

What your job involves, what a typical day might be like

  • A typical work day starts at about 9.00 AM. I work from home and have a dedicated home office with all the stuff I need. It’s not part of the house so I can separate work from home (important if you’re self-employed)
  • I have a workflow system so I can track work that I have coming up so that I can prioritise what’s coming up. At any one time I may have up to 20 tasks in the queue. 
  • Depending on the day I might spend the day writing, interviewing people either on phone or in person or putting some time into boring stuff like office admin (accounts, etc)
  • I usually finish working between 5 and 6 but take time out to pick up kids from school or meet with friends to break things up

 Your journey into your career (some take interesting and unusual paths)

  • I got my job sort of by accident – it was never planned
  • A friend was freelancing for APC and was too busy to hit a deadline so I subbed in (I’d been doing some work for free on a couple of websites to build a reputation)
  • Then I started to pitch my own work
  • Made contact with other freelancers and expanded my network 
  • Some of my friends in the business came to the job through traditional university/cadetship paths. That works well and equips you with the skills you need. I had to learn on the job.
  • For the first few years I had a full-time job and freelanced on the side

 What you like about your job, what attracted you to into the area

  • I meet interesting people
  • I write about stuff I’m interested in
  • Because I write about technology I get lots of cool toys to play with
  • I have a lot of freedom
  • I get to travel

 What the challenges are

  • Cash-flow: you don’t always know where your next job is coming from
  • Prioritizing and time management: when you’re on your own schedule you need a lot of self discipline (and that takes time and practice)
  • Loneliness; although that might depend on your personality type
  • In some niches, pay rates are falling (the global economy is a huge factor) 

The types of skills/personal attributes you think are important for you to be effective in your role

  • You have to like writing. There’s no point doing a job where you’re not going to enjoy the main activity
  • Motivation and self-confidence: if you can’t sell yourself you’ll starve
  • Organization so that you don’t miss tasks or deadline
  • As a freelancer, if you can’t solve your editor’s problem then you’re not doing your job

Any advice you would give to someone considering this career

  • It’s not for everyone.
  • It can take a while to establish your reputation 
  • Listen to all that stuff your english teacher tells you about grammar, construction, spelling and language
  • Read a lot so you expand your vocabulary

 Career opportunities available

  •  Lots but go in your eyes open

Learning from Henry Ford

Sometimes clients ask for things that we know are wrong or not suitable. Or they can’t see the bigger picture and miss the potential benefit of something. And one of the best sources of wisdom about delivering what your customers wants is the great Herny Ford. Here are five Henry Ford quotes and what freelancers can learn from them.

1. If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

This one is often used as justification for NOT listening to clients and deciding what’s best for them without consultation. This wasn’t really what Ford meant.

Henry Ford keenly understood his customers. He may not have run focus groups and engaged market research consultants but he paid attention to them.

Freelancers need to do the same.Look at the market, listen to all your clients and help guide them to what they need – particularly when what they need isn’t what they want.

2. Before everything else, getting ready is the secret of success.

Never show up for a meeting or make a client call without being ready. Enough said.

3. Competition is the keen cutting edge of business, always shaving away at costs.

The other day guest poster David Hague argued that cost containment is crucial for freelancers. Freelancers of all persuasions are under increasing competition. So, as the number of freelancers increases, the pool of potential work has to be spread wider. So, one way to ensure that we don’t run out of money when times are tight is to not overspend when times are good.

4. If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.

When your client is frustrated with you (and it will happen one day) a good thing to do is listen to yourself. And then imagine what it would be like to be your own client.

Are you speaking clearly? Are you using technical jargon when it’s not needed? Do you sound grumpy or short?

5. You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do.

Steve Jobs once said that “real artists ship”. In other words, your reputation will be built on results, not plans. Deliver what your clients want on time EVERY time. If you’re not sure how long a job will take, allow extra time.

Always under-promise and over-deliver – but keep it reasonable.

Who are your business role models? What are your favourite business quotes?


Business plans, setting goals and getting things done

Setting a business plan sounds smart. Perhaps it’s not.

When you’re planning to make the change to being your own boss it’s tempting to spend a lot of time working out how to make the shift without actually making the shift. There’s a name for that – paralysis by analysis. I thought long and hard about making the change last year. I was coming off a 10 year stint at the same company and really needed to find something new to do. After close to 20 years working for other people I figured that I could either try going solo or die wondering.

A post at Freelance Folder talks about how freelancers don’t need Business Plans. I’ve never seen a business plan that bore any resemblance to reality. It’s typically a mix between guesswork and telling someone (usually a bank manager) what they want to hear. I prefer a different approach.

1. Set some financial goals

I suggest that you need to set three different types of goals; a break even goal (what you need to survive), a comfort goal (what you need to have some fun) and the BHAG – a big hairy audacious goal. This is the one that lets you take an overseas holiday with the family or buy a nice car or indulge in some other luxury item.

Set the goals and write them somewhere you can see them. I have them on my whiteboard.

2. Work out how much you need to earn per day to hit the financial goal

If you need to earn $104,000 per year to reach a goal you might think that’s $2000 per week or $400 per day. You’d be wrong. In Australia, full time employees are entitled to 10 paid sick days per year and four weeks of annual leave. So, instead of having 52 weeks to make your money, you have 46.

That means you need $2260 per week or $450 per day.

3. Try not to start out with no money or clients

This is the tough one. If you’ve been working full-time, there’s not much chance that you’ll have  full client roster that can pay all your bills on day one. That means you’ll either need a partner who can cover the bills or some money in the bank. While you might not be able to plan what will happen to your business in the first few months, you should at least plan to be able to eat.

4. Don’t blindly accept every job that comes your way

This is one of the tough ones. It might be tempting to accept every job that comes your way no matter how much it pays. Remember your daily earning goals and work to them. If a $200 job comes in and it’s going to take three days – you’ll want to consider whether it really worth accepting. By accepting low value jobs you’ll establish yourself as a low value product. However, if the $200 job comes in and you can do it in a couple of hours then that might be a good option.

Remember – while your clients will measure your value in words or images, you need to charge yourself out by your time.

How do you plan? Let me know in your comments.

To be considered a professional – act like one

To be treated like a pro act like one. It’s tempting to play it casual but play it straight if you want to be taken seriously.

Have you ever been referred to someone that does a great job but when you first contact them you’re left feeling that they’ve been oversold? It’s happened to me. First impressions do matter and the team at Freelance Folder have come up with a great list of 15 things you can do to be taken seriously.

You can read the full list here. My favourite item in the list is

Detail # 6. Have a Promotional Kit Prepared
When potential clients contact you requesting information about what you do, do you have anything professional you can send them? Or do you just type up a short, plain text e-mail with a couple links?

How do you stack up against the list? What about me? My business site is at Gestalt Communications. Am I walking the talk?

Let me know in the comments.