Picture this: You’re relaxing on your couch and watching your favorite crime drama after a long day at work. You’ve halfway tuned out during a commercial break when something catches your attention. “Come see what we have to offer. We’re proud to be second in area sales and customer satisfaction since 1992!” an announcer enthuses while a giant yellow “2” flashes on the screen.
Sure, it sounds absurd. But, while most of us pay lip service to our desire to be our customers’ first choice, our actions may say otherwise.
Any time you don’t make the client your top priority, you’re tacitly agreeing not to be their top priority. You cannot truly be number one until your clients are. Being number one really is a two-way street, and it’s not an easy street. You can’t coast your way to number one—and when you settle for doing so, you soon fall to number two or even lower.
Especially in an uncertain economy, you can’t settle for being number two—or three, or four—because that puts you on the road to eventual failure. Sooner or later, your vulnerability will catch up with you. The best job security is being the best.
Here are eight signs that your business is aiming lower than you may have thought, as well as advice on how to finally start hitting the bull’s-eye:
1. Your number one business goal is to make money. Ummm…isn’t that the point of running a company? you might be asking. Well, it’s a point, says Callaway, but it’s not thepoint. You see, a too-acute focus on improving the bottom line takes your attention off of the people who are going to enable you to raise it: your customers. Your clients can always tell when they’re not your first priority. (If you’re skeptical, just consider the backlash that often occurs when small businesses are bought out and transformed by larger, more impersonal corporations.)
Yes, taking your focus away from the bottom line may feel uncomfortable at first. But you’ll soon find that when you focus on how best to serve clients, tough decisions make themselves. If it serves the client, you do it. If it doesn’t, you don’t. This neutralizes moral dilemmas and really simplifies your life. And it almost always has a miracle effect on your growth and success.
2. You let the little things slide. So…what’s the problem? Rushing through paperwork so you can get home early, failing to spellcheck an email or two, and running late to a meeting probably won’t matter that much six months from now. It’s the “big” things like growing your company, expanding your client base, hiring more employees, and making a profit that are most important, right? Not necessarily.
So often in life, it’s the small details that differentiate ‘good’ from ‘great. So be careful not to become so fixated on the forest that you fail to see the trees.
3. You habitually let certain clients go to voicemail. It’s happened to everyone: When you see that name flash on your phone’s caller ID, you slowly pull your hand back from the receiver and let the ringing continue. You just don’t want to deal with the drama, or the whining, or the accusations, or the belligerence just now. Yes, we all have “problem” clients. But to avoid them or just go through the motions for them is a mistake. They will notice and remember your behavior. (And be honest: Would you want to give your business to someone who might write you off when the going got tough?)
4. You find yourself telling white lies. It’s true that telling clients white lies, or exaggerating, misdirecting, or omitting, might make life easier temporarily. It’s also true that we can often justify such behavior to ourselves (She’ll never know, and it’ll save me hours of work, for example). But these “little” lies are just as bad as the whoppers.
5. You spend more time trying to get off the phone than really hearing what the customer has to say. Chances are, you roll out the red carpet in order to get prospective clients on board. And you’re probably willing to bear with the whims, questions, and requests of fairly new customers whose business isn’t yet cemented. But what about older, more established clients? Do you take the same amount of time and care with them, or do you assume they’ll stick with you out of habit and convenience?
6. You don’t know your client’s daughter’s name or what he likes to do on the weekends. In your eyes you’re being professional when every question in your meeting is about the client’s financial preferences, for example, and not his family, pastimes, and interests. But in his eyes, you’re cold and impersonal. Remember, to truly serve, you have to care. When you keep yourself at arm’s length, you can’t give your clients 100 percent…and you give them an incentive to take their business elsewhere.
7. You feel your main obligation to employees is writing their paycheck. While (of course) you don’t treat employees like dirt, you may feel that you don’t owe them any special favors, either. After all, you’re paying them—isn’t that enough? Well, no, says Callaway. The way your people treat customers reflects the way you treat them. Are you courteous? Kind? Enthusiastic? Do you listen when they talk to you and try to accommodate their needs? Or are you short, perfunctory, and even (sometimes) rude?
8. You’re not above badmouthing the competition. Some leaders don’t hesitate to casually say things like, “Sure, Outlet X is cheap, but the quality of their merchandise leaves a lot to be desired,” or, “I’d think twice before I took my business to Firm Y—didn’t you hear they had to lay off half of their staff last year?” But look at what happens in the political arena: When you sling mud at your opponent, some of it is likely to get on you, too. Besides, wouldn’t you rather rise to the number one spot solely on your organization’s merit, not because you took cheap(ish) shots?
In fact, you can—and should—strive to win the approval, goodwill, and admiration of your competitors. If possible, get to know their leaders and employees and help them when you can. You don’t have to give away trade secrets, but you can offer advice, for example, or refer a customer whose needs are better matched to what another business has to offer.
Don’t put the cart (being number one) before the horse (serving your clients).
A customer isn’t focused on where you stand in the big picture so much as on how well you treat and serve him or her individually. And that’s the beauty of how this whole thing works: By keeping your commitment to Clients First, you’ll win enough loyal supporters to put you squarely in the lead position after all.