5 lessons about customer engagement learnt from the other side of the table
When one is working in IT services industry, issues arising due to poor customer engagement and weak customer relationship are very common. Managers often spent most of their time in fighting customer escalation, providing defensive data points or bridging the holes created due to lack of trust. In most cases, once the downhill spiral of escalation starts, it is very hard to rebuild the relationship and bring a complete turnaround. Over the years, I have gone through number escalations and been on the battlefield fighting them.
Recently, I was part of organizing committee for VLDB 2016 conference. Very Large Data Bases (VLDB) is a premier annual international conference which features research talks, tutorials, demonstrations and workshops in areas like data management, database and information systems research. It was held in New Delhi in first week of September.
Being part of organizing committee was a very different experience, something I had never done earlier. I dealt with lot of vendors such as our event partner, conference venue hotel staff, internet provider and so on. So it was a 360⁰ degree experience for me to be on the other side of the table and getting services from these vendors.
And that’s when I learnt few precious lesson about customer engagement.
1. Building trust is surprisingly very easy!
While dealing with our event partners, I realized how the norms of services differ in hospitality vs. IT industry. Every email that I sent to them, I received an acknowledgement almost immediately. Sometimes, it would be as simple as ‘noted’ or ‘acknowledged’ or ‘will get back’. But the response was almost immediate. And yes, they got back as promised with answers to my queries. This pattern continued even when there were tons of emails getting exchanged as the event came closer.
This helped building trust and I was assured that these folks are working on the tasks or queries I have been requesting or asking. Over the period, if I did not receive an immediate response, I would assume that my point-of-contact is probably not keeping well and he would respond.
That made me think – how many times we acknowledge our customers so promptly? Sometimes, answers of technical queries are complex and we cannot replay immediately. However, many customers complain that he/she did not even receive an acknowledgement.
Wouldn’t a simple acknowledgement help in building that trust with customer and assuring her that the team is working to resolve her request? It’s a simple 2-minute effort worth taking, but ignored many times.
4. Ownership comes from owning the mistakes as well.
Any event would be incomplete without last-minute glitches and surprise factors. Things do go wrong in spite of all preparations and readiness. In our case, one of things that got screwed up was wifi connectivity at the conference. It was a complete mess on day 1 of the conference (well, I won’t name the internet provider, but it’s the one launched recently and has been pouring insane amount of money in marketing it!)
When things go wrong, what matters is how you deal with it – do you start blaming others and try to save your own neck or do you own the mistake and work towards fixing it. Not surprisingly, I encountered the first type – people who just wouldn’t admit their mistake and start defending that via emails, contract clauses and so on. Well, none of those things matter when things are broken. We do this mistake in crisis times with our customers as well. Fighting over SOW clauses won’t help when the all hell has broken lose! Owning and fixing the situation is of utmost importance.
(Eventually, we managed to salvage the situation – but, more about that in next point.)
3. There is always a “workaround” or “Plan B”
When our internet connectivity started behaving shaky, we pulled all string with the ISP team to fix it. We gave them ample time (relative to conference timeline) to work on it. But we also started working on ‘plan B’ almost immediately. Since the conference reputation was at stake. Unfortunately, the ISP teams could not fix the issue, nor did they take any efforts of owning up the situation and simply washed of their hands! So we switched to Plan ‘B’ by day 3. Today I find it easy to say that we switched, but in reality it was the most difficult thing to pull off in 2-days’ time! We negotiated an alternate contract with conference venue hotel, got a separate bandwidth deal from them, tested it and rolled it out on day 3!
My main learning from this episode was: time is always relative when fixing any situation! The lesser the time, the better the negotiations and outcome!! And most importantly, there is always a workaround – within time, budget and resource limit. Once just has to be positive and creative to architect that.
4. Customer empathy goes a long way…
The internet service provider did not show any empathy when things went wrong. A simple call from their top management would have helped, would have assured me that they will take care of the situation. That call never came…
It is never easy for a customer to snap ties and look for alternate vendor when the clock is ticking. Even though Plan ‘B’ is made, customer never actually switches to it unless forced by situation. After facing issues with Plan ‘A’, what is the guarantee that ‘B’ will succeed? – This thought is always on forefront while making that difficult situation.
So when things go wrong, it is important to make that difficult call and empathize with the customer, assure and give confidence. Empathy goes long way in winning difficult situations.
5. Do the business of relationship and not the business of operations
Over the period of time, I may not recall the operational details of the event but I’ll surely remember great working relationship with various folks. The next time someone asks me for a recommendation for hosting a conference, I’ll surely refer our event partners. That’s the recall value due to great relationship building.
In the IT services industry, our day-to-day rigmaroles of service delivery take toll on this important aspect. We get swamped with transactional and tactical matters so much that we lose the sight of the forest. And start seeing trees. So while operational details are important, we need to invest in relationship building exercise with our customers.
These 5 lessons of Trust, Ownership, Workaround, Empathy and Relationship form the “TOWER” principle of Customer engagement. A term that was coined by Persistent CEO, Anand – I truly realized its importance when I was on the other side of the table!
(VLDB was held at the Leela Ambience, Gurgaon. Attitude Events Pvt. Ltd. was the event partner for the same.)