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March 26, 2007
Service, Thy Name Is Customer.

Hello to you, the service person.

Yes, sure, we are all about service. It’s a funny word that has had more than a few crazy meanings. When someone says “I’m servicing” another, I immediately think something dirty.

But what’s it mean to work in a service business? If you are like 75 percent of the country, you truly are there for the customer—your product is your intellect or your ability or something that you “do” for another. It’s complicated. This column has a mission, and that’s to help you (and I) sort through the morass of information out there telling us what’s right and wrong for those who toil daily for a demanding, yet we hope worthwhile, customer.

Oh yeah. What’s with customers?

Customers pay the bill. They are important but are not usually right unless they are educated or trained in precisely what the endgame is. Your job is to instruct your clientele on how you do it—although don’t give away any proprietary goodies—and why, since you’re The Expert, you need to be given the BOTD (benefit).

I work in PR and we’ve discovered that most clients don’t really know how PR works or how it’s successful. Let’s just say they haven’t got a clue how to judge our work or gauge success. We live on the theory that resolving to tell folks what’s right for them—whether they agree or not—is how to be a true service professional nowadays. Because, when you think about it, no matter how someone feels about you when you tell him he is dead-wrong, if you succeed, all the bad feelings go away quickly.

Keep in mind: Is this a popularity contest? Or are you there to get a job done?

The good news about being resolute is that people respect you for it even if they don’t admit it. Respect from those who buy your services is tough to get.

I’d like to tell you a little secret I learned about 10 years ago at the beginning of the tough-to-manage dot com revolution: Your clients like to be told what to do. They’re actually slightly submissive and want you to take charge, push them into a corner, stand proud, thump your chest and say, “This is me and this is what I’ve got to offer.”

Most of the people I know in various PR and marketing industries slap me down when I go there. “Gosh, Richard, I have to do what the client wants.” But that’s how you get in trouble. What makes you think someone who doesn’t have a clue about PR’s advice is right—because he reads David Pogue’s column once or twice a month?

Customers, I’ve decided, don't like being asked what they want—because they don’t know! Henry Ford said it many years ago, and it still holds true: “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have told me, ‘a faster horse.’ ” (Yes, I owned that horse in the form of a Fiesta.)

What’s the point of asking a question to someone who doesn’t know the answer? Tell them what they need to do! Get the buy-in from them by non-lazily and passionately explaining why you are the person they paid to do it. Yes, an expert. Sounds like common sense and still most folks will ask the client “Do you have the time to…,” which makes me shake my head feverishly. What’s time got to do with it? (Cue Tina Turner.)

Here’s what you need to tell them if you really find the idea/request/pattern/next step worthy: Tell them why. Tell them precisely why. Get them to see what they will get FOR doing it and what they will get FOR NOT doing it. If the former is better, then make ‘em DO IT.

Remember how I learned a lot about pushing people around in ‘97? See, back then there were so many minor players managing businesses who should have been selling shoes (funding was everywhere; “dumb money” we called it aptly). These little people had a fondness for telling PR pros that he or she “deserved to” be on the cover of Red Herring (circ. 50,000). We would point out, firmly and simply, that even if their self-importance were to spread in that direction, they’d most likely GET NOTHING from it. Why, Mom would be proud: the business they were growing would not get a lot of new business from The Cover since said company was too incomprehensible and without a fully developed message (or product).

Being on the cover of a magazine would in fact do a good turn toward confusing the readers!

We pushed back—again and again. They pushed back. And we eventually won. Because the piece we painstakingly placed in the quasi-reputable Silicon Alley Reporter (circ 10,000) got them more partnerships and wannabe customers than anything they thought they, uh, deserved. From that moment on, my intention was not to let anyone boss us around unless they did PR.

That’s enough of me yammering on, but in 2 weeks, I’ll be back with more Devil to Pay and a column called “You Are Not 24/7” on why giving too much of yourself as a service practitioner will end up screwing with your head. Comments and compliments—do you disagree with anything? Write me at Richard@punkmarketing.com. I promise to write back without biting off your head.

Scout’s honor.

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Richard Laermer is CEO of New York's RLM pr, representing, among others, e-Miles, Epic Advertising, Yodlee, Revolution Money, Group Commerce, Smith & Nephew, and HotChalk. He was host of TLC's cult program Taking Care of Business and speaks on trends and marketing for corporate groups. You can read Laermer on The Huffington Post and on the mischievous but all-too-necessary Bad Pitch Blog. For more like this, follow him on @laermer.

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