In professional services today, the bar for client and target interaction is so incredibly low it’s hard not to trip over it.  On the bright side, this provides huge opportunity for those who get it right.

As a business person, strategist, marketer, coach and consultant, I am shocked at how low the client service bar is within professional services industry.  When I’m considering working with a firm, I’ll often do some preliminary research by approaching them as if I were a potential client.  I start by viewing the firm’s website through a general search.   You’d be surprised by how many firms have what I call a first generation website – uninformative, hard to navigate.  I can usually find biographies, but they don’t always contain the professional’s contact information. Then I try to personally connect.  When I call a professional’s number, I am usually met by a series of gatekeepers.   The chance of actually speaking with the professional I was calling is 10 to 1 against.  If by chance my call is put through, in most instances I end up in a voice mail system.  Yet when I leave a voice mail or email message for a professional or a supplier, I find that over 50% of the time, I’m going to have to contact them again before I get a response, if ever.

As a client of professional services, I’ve had situations where it was almost impossible to speak with a live person; where my messages were taken poorly; or where I was passed from one person to the next without my information being transferred so that I had to repeat my story two or three times on the same call attempt.   I’m chagrined, after such an instance, when the last person I speak with asks me “is there anything else I can do for you today?”  I resist the urge to ask them what they think they could possibly do for me given how badly their company has handled our interaction up to that point. ..but that’s certainly what I’m thinking.

You’ve experienced these things, too.  And your clients might have, on occasion, experienced these things from you.  I get it: life is busy. But in an age when everyone is talking about the importance of client service, where did lack of responsiveness become acceptable?

The flip side is that it has never been easier to boldly differentiate yourself by being even adequately responsive.  Here’s how:

  • Be easy to find: Most people will look for you on the internet.  Do an internet search: type in your name, your firm name, your practice area and ensure you end up on the first page of search results.  If not, time to contact your web company and ask for some basic initial and then perhaps monthly search engine optimization;
  • Be easy to contact: Ensure your email and phone numbers are close to your photo, on your bio page.  Don’t make people go on a treasure hunt to figure out how to connect with you;
  • Be more accessible: stop hiding behind your receptionist, assistant and voice mail system.  Actually answer the phone when someone calls you.  It won’t make you look like your waiting by the phone – it will make it look like you care enough to be personable within your practice.  The alternative is that you look like you run a factory and can only spend 5.6 minutes with every client after a thorough triage process, which is probably not the image you want to project;
  • Promptly return phone calls and emails: If you’re  too busy to respond that day, have your assistant acknowledge the call or email, let the person know when you might be able to respond, and ask if there is anything she can be working on or do for them in the interim.  (Did you notice the part where I said “same day”?);
  • Promptly follow through with promised action items.  Client service means nothing slips through the cracks because you’re too busy. If you don’t’ know how to stay on top of your action items, work with a coach, but don’t drop the ball.  Follow through is a basic requirement of your job;
  • Stay true to your word:  If you said you would do something within a certain time period, do it.  Over promising and under-delivering is not the sign of a successful professional, it’s the sign of a disorganized one.

Do these things and you will be well above the vast majority of your competition – sad but true.   If you believe you are already doing all of these things very well, ask a selection of your clients and colleagues to ensure that’s true.  If it’s still the case, then consider moving to the next stage of client service, what I call the “WOW” stage.  Here’s how:

  • Increase your touch points with key clients and targets: Many professionals simply go to work each day, they have no marketing plan to guide their client service and business development efforts.  Have a plan.  Identify your top and target clients, and your top and target referral sources.  Then aim to connect with them every 90 days.  This could be as simple as sending them an email with a link to an article you thought they might appreciate.  Feel overwhelmed by the idea?  Embrace LinkedIn.  A recent guest post here by Kathleen Cummins talks about the efficiency value of this social media tool. Find it in the archives and consider using LinkedIn to your advantage;
  • Provide proactive suggestions to your clients: don’t just respond to client questions.  Get to know them so well that you can put great ideas into their head; help them to fix a problem before they know one existed; and identify opportunities they hadn’t thought of.  Frankly, that’s the kind of service lawyers and accountants used to give clients in the olden days.  They were the proactive business advisors to business owners. Now, service professionals too often act like short order cooks.  Don’t just hand them a sandwich; help them develop a menu plan that lowers their blood pressure;
  • Connect people: The reason that social networks are all the rage is that people value networks.  Understand that a tremendous part of your value to your client base is as a network participant.  Learn how to use it.  Think about who in your network might be of value to others in your network and make those introductions.  Invite them both to a firm event; connect them by email, etc.

Honestly, this stuff isn’t that hard – it just requires organization and determination.  The beauty of a low bar is that it doesn’t require a big jump to clear it.