Over the last few months, I’ve been engaging a few tradespeople to carry out tasks about the house and garden. Some were excellent, others not so good. Most did a reasonable job but I’ll most remember the individuals I’ve employed for the quality of their customer-facing skills – or lack of them.
It’s set me thinking. As a freelance writer and communications consultant, how do I shape up? I’m still solvent 18 years after taking that scary step of starting my own business, but am I delighting my customers? What’s really important?
Here are five suggested ‘must-dos’ for the newbie in any service industry:
Under-promise and over-deliver
You know you can do a good job, but you need to be savvy. I like to please and can fall into the trap of outlining everything I can offer my potential client at the first meeting. Doh! That leaves little scope for happy surprises later.
Little things can mean a lot. Last month, a fencing contractor, who dropped by to give an estimate, impressed me by immediately fixing a wobbly panel and sorting out a dodgy lock and broken hinge, all for free and without being asked. OK, they were easy jobs and took him two minutes but I appreciated his help. And I asked him to come back to do the much bigger job.
Turn up on time, look smart and get cracking
Appearances matter. Sounds obvious but not everyone understands the importance. Always wear the right clothes for the job and be ultra-professional.
When I was Head of News at a radio station, one aspiring reporter turned up late on their first day of work experience, wearing old jeans and a t-shirt with offensive slogans. It didn’t matter how clever they were, they didn’t get a second day. Sorry, but grubby electricians don’t look right and it always helps if gardeners aren’t entirely covered with earth.
Be nice to work with
We’ve all invited tradespeople into our homes, then can’t wait to see the back of them after a few minutes. Sometimes people just don’t get on. But how can you quickly establish a good working relationship with a new client?
Tap into your emotional intelligence to get a feeling of how things are done in your new workplace. You can’t go wrong if you’re polite and courteous to everyone, greet them with a warm smile and don’t moan or chatter. Be aware of unspoken codes of behaviour – and be very careful about humour on your first day.
Work out what the customer actually wants – it may not be what he/she asks for
I’ve learned this one to my cost. You have to listen very carefully to understand people’s priorities. Often, the brief is too vague to be useful. They may really, really value something you consider absolutely ridiculous. If you work your socks off on something else that you judge far more important, it may be wasted effort and your professional relationship could be a short one.
Sometimes, it’s useful to produce a sample piece of work at the beginning, so we can both work out if I’m on the right track.
Have that tricky money conversation sooner rather than later
When you’re starting out in the freelance world, you’ll have no idea how long an assignment will take to complete, and what’s a reasonable fee to charge. If you don’t have a knowledgeable friend to advise you, try to analyse the amount of time and effort you think you’ll put into the first couple of jobs.
Bear in mind, if a potential client looks unusually happy at your estimate, it’s probably too low. If they look worried, I find it can be useful to explain the elements of the task – maybe it’s more complex than they first thought? You need to reassure them that you’re not trying to overcharge them and are, in fact, a great person to employ.