If you work with business customers – as an account manager, an owner, a consultant or a customer happiness representative – you know that great service doesn’t mean that friendliness fixes the problem. Results trump even the most friendly interactions. For business-to-business client relationships especially, customer satisfaction isn’t driven by a one-time issue resolution. Instead, it’s about forming and maintaining real, long-term relationships.
So what do the best account managers in businesses like marketing agencies, SaaS startups and professional services businesses do? My company did some research, spoke to a number of client services experts, and thought through some of our own practices.
The result: Four habits that sharp, successful account managers do regularly.
Empathize instead of patronize
How often has someone in a customer service role talked to you as though you were a child? When you don’t empathize with your customer you come off as fake and condescending, even though you don’t mean to.
So how do you become more empathetic? Start by not being too vague or scripted.
According to Brandon Knight, VP of contact center optimization for Corvisa, it’s hard to convey empathy when every word is scripted. “Companies are actually more successful when they move away from the ‘stick-to the-scripts’ mentality.” In fact, 99 percent of customers surveyed by the company thought that customer service representatives sound too scripted, and 25 percent think training reps to be more natural should be a top priority.
John Burdett, CEO of Salesforce consulting firm Fast Slow Motion, says that like trust, empathy is earned and can change the relationship. “You have to care as much or more about a client’s business as they do. Once the client understands that you truly care, the relationship totally changes,” he says.
When you’re working with B2B clients, this means being less scripted in your emails. Templates are useful for key phrases but don’t use a template for a full email. Be specific and say things unique to that customer so they know the email was truly for them.
Know what can and can’t be changed
It’s not unusual for a client to bring up policies, pricing and other decisions that are outside of your control. Even if it’s your company, if you’re managing day-to-day client relationships, you’re not in a position to simply make large changes to how things are run.
To effectively handle these situations, know in depth how things work and what you can and cannot do. You should also know the channels for making changes, like escalations to the product development team.
Additionally, stay on the client’s side for things outside of your control. This way, you don’t seem like part of the problem. Instead of a “client vs. me” mentality, work together to deal with the unfavorable situation.
At my company Bolton Remote, we are often in the crosshairs of cross-cultural communication. When it comes to working with people around the world, for example, we have to read between the lines and try to understand if there is something cultural at play with a client’s concern. For example, “bad communication skills” may just be a cultural misunderstanding.
Realize the symptom may not be the cause of the problem
Often, the root cause of a problem is different from the customer‘s issue. Make sure you try to understand what the customer is telling you. Maybe you have found a problem, but is it their problem?
Listen intently and ask clarifying questions to ensure you fully understand the customer before figuring out what is actually wrong. They are often just describing a symptom of the real problem.
Karl Staib, a conversion specialist at Domino Connection, says that one of the most important skills to practice is listening: “Many times we aren’t answering the problem. We think we are, but we end up just confusing the client.”
He goes on to explain how to truly listen: “It starts by asking great questions and not just listening to the answers, but really listening. What is their tone of voice, are they pausing a lot because they are trying to understanding what is going on, do they smile when you bring up a certain idea, etc. As you get answers you can dig deeper to get to the root cause of their issue.”
Make decisions for the client
An adult makes around 35,000 decisions per day, so it’s easy to get worn out. To avoid decision paralysis, or in fear of being wrong, people in client management have a natural urge to confirm everything with the client. Try to suppress this, as it can slow things down and frustrate the client.
Burdett says, “Everyone is wrapped up in decision making, but instead they should focus more attention on decision management. I think it’s more important to make a quick decision and then make sure you have great processes in place to manage and measure those decisions.”
This is where strong client relationships come into play. Blame for bad decisions is not assigned; instead, the team comes together to support a decision, and the processes are already in place to measure and manage the outcomes.
Staib’s practical advice is to always have two solutions ready to go, and pick the one you think is best. He says, “Be clear in why you are picking this solution. I think it’s very important to take action on the client’s behalf, but I think it’s just as important that they play a role in actions you are taking. Make sure that you make it easy for them to make a choice and that you will follow through and let them know the results.”
Another example is scheduling meetings. When a client says they can chat sometime this afternoon, instead of asking when they’re available or making them choose when, assume they’re open and schedule something. They will either be happy you’ve made the call, or they’ll let you know the specific time they’re available.
Customer happiness isn’t easy. Most people think great personality and a smile makes great service, but there’s more to it. Above all, it’s your job to ensure the client is happy with the results. As Staib says, “In the end it comes down to emotion. If they aren’t happy then they aren’t coming back again or telling their friends about your amazing products and services.”
This article first appeared at BusinessCollective. Launched in partnership with Citi, BusinessCollective is a virtual mentorship program powered by North America’s most ambitious young thought leaders, entrepreneurs, executives and small business owners.