Hello to you, the service person. It’s a service world out there. And, this essay will use the word service many times. But, it’s a curious word that has had more than a few vacillating meanings—when someone says “I’m servicing” another, I immediately think something dirty. Yeah … But what does it mean to work in a professional service business? If you’re like 75 percent of the country, you’re genuinely in it for the customer, and your product is your intellect or your ability or something that you “do” for another—a pretty abstract concept. The morass of information about service seems to show what’s right and wrong for those who toil daily for the demanding yet worthwhile customer; but it becomes more complicated when you need to figure out how to DO a service and RUN your own successful company—because you have so many people telling you how to do your job, including the customer.
So what’s with customers? Well, they pay the bill—they’re pretty much the key component to the business, right? But they’re not always right about the business. In fact, they’re usually not right unless they’re highly educated or expertly trained in precisely what the endgame is. And if they are, well, why would they need you? Your job is to instruct your clientele on how you do what they can’t on their own (while not giving away any proprietary goodies), and to show them why, since you’re The Expert, you need to be given the BOTD (benefit of the doubt).
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 a clue how to judge our work or gauge PR 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 the customer 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 won’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.” They just won’t admit it.
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 exactly how you get into trouble. What makes you think someone who doesn’t have a clue about PR has good advice? Because he reads David Pogue’s column once or twice a month?
Customers, I’ve decided, don’t really 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. So, 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’ll 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: 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 again and again. But 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, I resolved to never let anyone boss us around unless they did PR. Because otherwise, our service would just be … a disservice.