Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Customer relationship lesson: For want of a penny

I've been a loyal customer of a local credit union for nearly 20 years now. In light of the government-funded shenanigans at the Too Big To Fail banks, I'm even more committed to keeping my money local in my own quixotic attempt to starve The Beast. And an experience yesterday underscored my beliefs that you get better service from a bank you have a relationship with.

In addition to our primary checking account, I keep a small emergency business fund at this bank, right at the limit which avoids the monthly service fee. A few months ago, they raised the limit by $500, and dutifully, I added $500 to my account.
The problem was that my average account balance still came just under the limit for the month—and by deducting the $10, it put me under the limit for the following month by $0.01. Yes, a penny. That, of course, resulted in another $10 charge that put me further under the limit. You can see where this was headed.

So, I called and pleaded my case that it seemed pretty cruel for a 1-penny shortfall to result in a cascade of $10 charges, and reminded him that we've been long-term customers and keep a fairly large overall sum at their bank. The customer service agent stuck to his guns at first, and there was a bit of back-and-forth.

Ultimately he asked what I wanted as a solution; I said I didn't even care about the original charge, that all I was interested in was the $10.01 which would put me back above the line. He put me on hold and came back with more than I asked for: They wiped both charges. Based on past experience, I am confident that there's no way in hell Wells Fargo or Citi would have done that.

The customer service lesson here is that asking your client what they want is often the fastest route to resolving a problem. The fact that the credit union actually gave me more than I asked for, well, that was just icing on the relationship cake.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

"Poor planning on your part..."

Say it with me: "...doesn't constitute an emergency on my part."

If you've spent any time in a corporate environment, you've known someone with that saying tacked to their office wall. It's usually (though not always) a signal of a person who's out the door at 5 p.m. on the spot, and not likely to pitch in when things go sideways.

The successful freelancer can't afford to adopt such a poisonous customer service attitude, unless you don't want to eat and/or have any client loyalty. The key is to de-escalate whatever you can. For the past week, I've dealt with a number of emergency projects; my general guiding principles can be summarized thusly:
  • Find out what the true problem and key components are—sometimes the client is not communicating clearly in the panic.
  • Uncover what the client thinks he or she needs—right now, you're just listening; don't talk solutions yet.
  • What's the timeline and deadline?—ask for specifics, don't settle for "OMG ASAP!!!!"
  • If the solution is easy, present your idea immediately. 
  • If the solution requires more thought, say you'll get back to them in a half-hour with a couple of ideas.
Now it's time to consider your own situation: Is this a long-term client or a client with long-term potential? Do you have any pressing deadlines that you need to manage? Do you have a couple of different ideas on how to accomplish what the client needs? Are there other resources you could draw upon to help you out? What is the simplest, fastest way to put out the fire?

Ultimately, if you feel the need to tape a sign to your wall, it should be "My loyal clients are worth my 100% support in a crisis. It will pay off in the future." 

All that said, if you have...
  • a task that is truly, objectively impossible given the time and resources, say so as soon as you realize it; i.e., don't start something that you know has no way of succeeding.
  • a Client Who Cried Emergency on your hands, i.e., someone who *never, ever* has a plan, you need to do a better job of guiding them...or you might be better off parting ways.
  • a client whose *first* job is a five-alarm emergency, the universe has kindly given you a glimpse into the future. Plan accordingly.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

New contributor at Freelance-Zone.com

Hey all, it's been a crazybusy couple of weeks, hence the intermittent posting regimen. Wanted to let everyone in on some great news, which is that I've made the leap from regular commenter to regular contributor at Freelance-Zone.com. They're one of Writer's Digest's Top 100 Blogs for Writers, so I am thrilled to become a part of their crew. My first post, "The 411 on new 1099-MISC rules for freelance writers," addresses a scary accounting change that comes to us self-employeds as a result of the new healthcare law. If it stands, it will mean a LOT more paperwork and research during tax time.

I'll still be posting my ruminations here, as well as at my Dr. Freelance blog--so please don't delete any bookmarks! In fact, you can make life easier for yourself by subscribing to the RSS feeds...and that way you'll be notified any time a new post comes up.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Are you attracting the clients from hell?

Legendary stock investor Benjamin Graham (a hero of Warren Buffett), once said something to the effect that, in the short run, stocks are a voting machine; in the long run, they are a weighing machine. In other words, the true underlying value will eventually emerge.

This connection to client-freelancers relationships was made in my brain by a recent post on Freelance Folder, "Clients Are Not Demons From Hell."  I appreciated the fact that the author attributed a challenging client's ill behavior to lack of understanding rather than malice. Hey, we all love sharing a client horror story or too (and I posted a Dr. Freelance anecdote in the comments that I won't take the space to repeat here), and there is plenty to learn from songs sung blue.

And I'm not saying that there aren't bad clients out there.

What I *am* saying, however, is that if you find yourself with a glut of clients who take you to the brink of insanity, you need to take a long, hard look at what you're doing:
  • Are you attracting clients who aren't a good philosophical, emotional, or technical fit?
  • Are you establishing a positive, professional rapport from the outset, with clear expectations on both sides?
  • Are you completing the assignments with every ounce of your skill and attention...or are you withholding that last little bit because you don't want to waste it or risk it?
Some day, when you look back at the sum total of your career, you'll get a pretty good view of what the market's "weighing machine" had to say about your skills, abilities and approach. You can take responsibility for that whenever you like.