My formative experiences in the working world were Osco Drug, where I worked as a clerk through high school and college, and the Walt Disney World Resort, where I worked in a variety of positions until my early 30s. Both environments put a strong emphasis on customer service–meeting the needs of the people ultimately paying the bills. Since not everyone in my line of work has that sort of training, I thought I’d pass on some of the things I learned in service-oriented companies which helped me as a technical communicator.
Make the Customer Happy
One reason I no longer work in the service or hospitality industries is that I had a stubborn resistance to the notion that “The Customer is Always Right.” I did learn to restrain my attitude over the years, but what this means, essentially, is that the person paying the bills has the ultimate say in what the outcome should be. You can offer to make suggestions on how to make a product or service better, but if the suggestions are not to the customer’s taste or within their budget, you had best keep quiet and let them have their way. Otherwise, they will take their business elsewhere. You might know that you could do better given your own way, but sometimes it’s not worth the arguments with the customer–that can prevent them from coming to you in the future.
[Related, but not based on my service industry experience: a NASA Public Affairs Office executive who previously served in the Army gave me an excellent guideline for voicing objections: “Two ‘But sirs’ and then a ‘Yes, sir.'” Basically, you try twice to make a suggestion or objection to your customer or superior, then you salute, do it their way, and move on.]
Another important lesson I learned from the service industry was that the more money people pay for something–product or service–the more they expect from it. This affects everyone from the friend you’re helping with a resume to large multinational corporations and government agencies. Short version: slacking off or doing a less-than-stellar job is a bad idea, particularly when the customer is paying a lot of money for your services.
If You Don’t Know, You Can Find Out
If I learned one critical lesson from Disney, it was this: it’s okay to say you don’t know something when a customer asks as long as you follow it with, “…but I will find out for you.” And then–here’s the important part–you go out and find out the answer–in a timely manner, the sooner the better. This helps establish two important behaviors with your customer: honesty and reliability (follow-up).
Solve Problems & Offer Alternatives
Sometimes the thing that the customer is asking for is just not available or doesn’t exist (reminder from above: the customer is not always right) within the staff or budget you or they have available. That doesn’t mean you can’t get creative and create a document (or other product/service) that meets their original need or intent…within their budget. The goal is to help the customers solve their problems, which is why they came to you in the first place, right?
Under-Promise & Over-Deliver
This sounds straightforward, but to put it my way, focus on meeting your customer’s basic business needs. After that, try to satisfy some of the other things they would like to see (wants), ideally without busting your budget or theirs. Another way to do this is to deliver the requested goods/services on time or early. Some call that being a “miracle worker.”
Never Let Them See You Sweat
I haven’t always been particularly great at concealing my emotions. However, this is one skill set that’s worth learning, especially if a customer is being particularly difficult. By keeping your cool, smiling, and remaining pleasant during a difficult negotiation or task, you can help the process move a lot more smoothly. It’s also worth doing if your customer is asking for something and you haven’t done it yet. You can put on your best poker face and let them know that you’ll get it done as soon as possible…then go back to your office and sweat about how to actually deliver.
Practice Service, Not Servitude
I’m a person who likes to do things for others. I didn’t end up at Disney by accident, after all. However, where I drew (and still draw) the line is when someone translates “service” into “servant.” There are some things you should not have to do to meet your customer’s needs, including giving up your self respect, breaking the law, or accepting unacceptable attacks, improper requests, or outright abuse. You might be able to shrug off brusque or rude behavior, but if your customer is making you outright uncomfortable, it might be time to take it up with their superior (if they have one), change the working relationship, or walk away.
You can learn a lot of important human relations skills in the hospitality industry (try facing a hotel lobby crowded with several hundred impatient guests with a smile!). As you’re learning to provide products or services for your customers, you can also learn the best personal approach for interacting with them. It’s an ethic that can prove a differentiator for you, both on and off the job.