[Customer Service] Communication with No Regrets

Features - Customer Service & Relations

We all leave a lasting impression with our clients so choose your words and actions carefully.

May 28, 2010
Scott Robbins

If you had 30 days advance warning before a client cancelled, what, if anything, would you do differently? What if the client is one you rarely, if ever, see? Assuming you’ve done your best for that client, does that client have a clear picture of all your efforts? We leave a lasting impression with clients and, though that opinion may be good, bad or indifferent, we owe it to ourselves to provide effective communication to our clients with no regrets.

I know there are two topics you are not to speak of in customer service: politics and religion. But, please bear with me. I promise no sermon is to follow. My church recently had a month-long message series based on the book "One Month to Live: Thirty Days to a No-Regrets Life" by Kerry and Chris Shook. Hearing these messages and later reading the book, my mind began to draw parallels from the principles in the pages to our service industry.

The book’s introduction, "Living the Dash," considers the image of a tombstone. Beyond some simple inscriptions of being a good spouse, parent, friend, etc., military service, or a few words about a beloved’s hobby or favorite poem, there is little to describe the full contents of an individual’s achievements. Simply a dash between the date of birth and life’s ending — cold and impersonal. If I someday invent the best mouse trap in history, few visitors to my final resting place would probably know.

RETHINKING SERVICE. This example reminds me of the laser-generated service ticket some companies, mine included, leave behind after service is performed without the client or primary contact present having interacted with the service technician. A generated ticket format or online report does contain many benefits. For one, the information is presented in a clean, legible, organized manner. (I sometimes can barely read my own handwriting.) This promotes consistency, which is always desirable in documentation. Secondly, data collection software means less time can be spent on reports and more time on the actual inspection and service. What client would not appreciate that? In the case of online reports, far less paper is used and no filing is required. These are all good things, yet they are all somewhat impersonal in nature.

What might get one into trouble are those drop-down menus for service comments that cover items like conducive conditions. Care must be taken to provide clients with enough detail for the information to be beneficial. It is not enough to comment on poorly sealed doors; why not tie that comment card to a nearby piece of equipment so it gains specificity? Informing a restaurant owner from a remote location that there is food debris on the floor that could contribute to pest activity may not elicit much of a response. After all, spills will happen. Add detail and explain exactly what needs to be cleaned and why. Many clients, such as YUM Brands, and third-party auditors require such a level of detail in service documentation for these reasons.

BEYOND THE PEN. Detailed documentation goes beyond reporting conducive conditions. How is your client going to know you found and treated five odorous house ant nests in their yard unless you tell them? Unless you tell them, how will they know that two of those nests were under accumulated grass clippings along their foundation and the ants were foraging on spilled dog food? Simply documenting the amount of pesticide used and the application site does nothing to promote the benefit of your ongoing service. It’s the proverbial "if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" In today’s fast-paced, "Generation Me" society, it is perfectly acceptable to toot your own horn.

"The Dash" should also serve to remind us that our time, whether it’s life in general or specific to a client, is limited. We always will be up against another set of appointments or under the challenges of oncoming weather or changing seasons. We must make the most of this limited opportunity to leave a lasting impact on our client so they will choose to continue the relationship with our business. Do you ever wonder what your clients would say about you? Would they say something like: "Well, I’m never around when he’s here, but I’m not having any problems right now so I guess everything is OK;" or, "Scott is the best technician I have ever seen. Our family and our neighbors all love him and think he is fantastic. Even when we have a problem, we know all we have to do is call and it is as good as done." Neither client is having any problems but which would you rather hear? More importantly, have you ever taken the time to ask? Sadly, many of our clients simply don’t understand, or it’s never been explained to them, the potential difficulties we face and they cancel without even giving us an opportunity to fix a problem. My employer chooses to solicit customer feedback via multiple avenues. Our technicians are required to solicit a required number of completed customer surveys each month. These surveys are completed by a phone and Web-based service on GetYourDataNow.com. Poor survey scores are transmitted immediately to management, who can respond to the customer in minutes. Too high tech? We also perform quality control calls to all new clients and any callback services. If this still doesn’t fit your business, how about a self-addressed postcard campaign or after-hours calls to random clients?

LASTING IMPRESSIONS. The book referenced a quote by Carl Buechner: "They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel." My coworkers will attest to the fact that I am at times among the worst communicators via e-mail. Even though my intentions may be good, my direct manner of communication can result in ruffling feathers. It’s easy to take the written word out of context. Add to this some emotions fueling the flame and bad feelings ignite.

I read an article recently written by Dan Ariely in the Harvard Business Review titled, "The Long-Term Effects of Short-Term Emotions." It was a fascinating piece on how our emotional state impacts our decision-making process and how these decisions — good or bad — become imprinted on those related decisions in the future regardless of the future emotional state. Since pest problems rarely evoke happy thoughts to anyone, we are already walking on "broken glass" when we arrive. It is therefore very important for us to choose our words wisely to avoid imprinting a bad emotion to future interactions with our client. We must project an attitude of caring and understanding and avoid any misinterpretations of blame or indifference.

Perhaps the most important principle to our industry from the book is "Learn Humbly." While it is important for us to play the role of the expert, we must accept the customer’s role in the success of their service as well. If we would take the time to listen a little more to our clients rather than projecting our own cause-and-effect conclusions, we would be more effective at problem solving. As Motel 6 Spokesperson Tom Bodett said, "The difference between school and life: In school, you’re taught a lesson and given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches a lesson."

It is very hard for PMPs to recognize these lessons with few opportunities to communicate to their client and it is frustrating for both parties when our efforts fall short. If we do not see our clients, how do we communicate about an important pest issue? Does your company collect work phone numbers or e-mail addresses of your clients? Are you attempting to communicate with homeowners when they come home from work? An after-hours phone call or weekend in-person visit might be in your best interest and will go a long way in showing you care and wish to resolve their pest issues.

If some of these points seem to ring true, when will you get around to addressing them? Are you a victim of what the book refers to as "Someday Syndrome?" Someday, I will improve my customer service habits. As soon as I get done with this, I’ll get right on that. If only… If you don’t mind me asking, what are you waiting for? Remember, you only have 30 days.

The author is technical director, Action Pest Control, Evansville, Ind. E-mail him at srobbins@