Customer Service: If waiters can do it, why can’t web developers?
Building a cross-browser compatible web interface that integrates with your client’s existing accounting and inventory packages in order to sell their product online? No problem.
Interacting with your client during the project and making sure they’re happy with what they get? Problem!
It’s common knowledge that web development and customer service rarely go hand in hand. The chasm between the technical details of software development and the social niceties of customer management is wide.
But it needn’t be.
When you’re talking about customer service, building a web site is as easy as serving a meal in a restaurant.
OK, for some web developers, serving a meal in a restaurant isn’t that easy either, but we can assume that most of us have at least been served a meal in a restaurant, so we’ve got some understanding of the concepts involved.
Now let’s just suspend our disbelief and watch this elaborate analogy unfold…
We’ll assume that the project has already been scoped, the clients have agreed to commence work, and it’s time to write the functional specifications and start building.
Sort of like when the customers have decided to eat at a restaurant, and have already made a booking.
There are several steps that a waiter needs to follow in order to serve his or her customers a meal. If we follow these steps when building our clients a web site, customer service can be as easy as, well, pie.
Step One: Meet and Greet
The first thing that a waiter does when her (I’m using a female waiter for my analogy, but under no circumstances do I mean to stereotype here) customers arrive is introduce herself. Often this happens at the same time as the customers are seated, made comfortable and provided with a menu. This is the point at which the waiter establishes herself as the one person who is going to be looking after the customers for the duration of the meal. The customers should be made to feel that if they want anything, she’s the one to ask.
Same goes for your first contact with clients needing a web site. The very first thing that you should do when starting a new project is set up a meeting with your clients, with the sole purpose of introducing yourself and letting them know that you will be looking after the development of their site. Spend time explaining to the clients how the project is going to work, that you are going to be their point of contact, and that if there is anything they need to know or get done during the project, you will be the one to help them.
Step Two: Provide a Menu
Usually at the same time the waiter seats her customers, she provides them with a menu. This gives them an idea of the choices on offer and offers a general sense of the flavours of foods that are going to be served.
When you’re meeting and greeting your clients, you should also have some sort of base document to work with. Sometimes this may be a proposal that your sales people have prepared. Sometimes it may be something you’ve prepared yourself. At any rate, this document should give a very broad overview of the type of website you are able to provide your clients.
Step Three: Explain the Specials
A good waiter in a good restaurant will explain the specials of the day to her customers. Ideally, she will know them by heart and understand how they are prepared. At this point her customers should be able to ask any questions about things they don’t understand. Now the waiter has a chance to prove she knows what she’s talking about. She can explain to her customers that a coulis is just a fancy name for a fruit sauce.
You should be able to explain to your clients the specific functionality you can provide to help them with their business. You should have a good idea of what technologies support this functionality, and how you would go about providing it. You should also be able to translate technical speak into everyday language. You can explain to your clients that html is just a fancy name for the language used to write web pages.
Step Four: Take the Order
In order to give her customers a meal they will enjoy, a waiter has first to find out what they want. She can’t rush this part of the process, because it’s important that she gets it right. There’s nothing worse than bringing out the wrong meal. It’s important that she writes down her customers’ orders, in a way that will explain to the chefs exactly what her customers have asked for.
Documentation of requirements is one of the most important parts of successful web site development. It is vital that someone spends time with the clients establishing exactly what it is they are after. Equally important is that these requests are written down in clear and simple terms, in a way that allows no misinterpretation by developers.
Step Five: Change Cutlery
Part of the job of a waiter is to know what cutlery to serve for what meals. If a customer has ordered soup, she’ll need a soup spoon. If he orders fish, he’ll need a fish knife. The waiter needs to make sure that the customer has the equipment necessary to eat their meal.
A good web development house should be able to advise their clients of the hardware and software they will need to be able to run and use their site effectively. There’s no point building a killer site that the clients can’t see because they haven’t the browsers that support it. Or one that can’t handle the traffic it’s getting because nobody told the clients they’d need a scaleable system architecture.
Tell the clients what they’ll need for their site and, if possible, get it for them.
Step Six: Hand Over to the Chefs
In most restaurants the person who serves the food is not the same person that cooks it. The waiter has a particular people-friendly set of skills and the chef a particular knowledge of foods and how to prepare them to enhance their flavour. Once the waiter has taken the order, she hands over to the chef to make the customers the meals they’ve requested.
So it is with web sites. It is a good idea to leave the development to the techies and the people-pleasing to the producers, project managers, sales managers or business analysts. This isn’t always possible if you’re running a one-person show, but if you are, you should be able to separate the client interaction from the technical development. Just as the chef prefers to be in the kitchen to cook the meal, so do the developers prefer to be away from the clients in order to get their job done.
Step Seven: Keep the Customers Informed
If for some reason the chef is delayed in preparing the customers’ meals, it’s up to the waiter to let the customers know as soon as possible, and to make sure they are otherwise satisfied. If the chef is overwhelmed with orders and meals are taking longer to come out of the kitchen than usual, the waiter should let her table know that there has been a short delay. She should apologise and offer her customers something else to keep them happy – more bread, more water, another glass of wine?
Same for the web production house. It’s important to keep the clients informed of any delays. Ideally, they should know of any problems as soon as possible, so that they can decide what course of action to take.
Step Eight: Serve the Meal
When the meal is prepared, it’s the job of the waiter to present it to her customers. In fine dining restaurants, the meat portion of a main meal should be placed closest to customer. Slices of cake should be served with their pointed end facing inward. Presentation is all important. No matter how good the meal tastes, no one will want to eat it if it looks terrible.
When you deliver your web site to your clients, make sure the presentation is up to scratch. Check spelling, navigation and design consistency. Physically present the site to your clients, and show them how it works. Don’t just leave it with them to figure out for themselves.
Step Nine: Check How the Meal is Going
About 5 minutes after a meal is served, a waiter should check with the customers how they are enjoying it, and whether it meets their satisfaction. The same thing should happen for each course that is served. It’s no good finding out that the customer didn’t like the meal after they’ve eaten it. The chance to rectify things will have passed, and they won’t be back to eat at the restaurant again, and nor will their friends.
Make sure the clients are happy with what you are building. No one wants to deliver a site that nobody likes, so make sure you’re on the right track while you still have time to change it. It’s useless asking the clients if they like what you’ve done the day before launch, because there’s not much you can do at this point if the response is bad. Show the clients what you can when you can and gauge their response. If they’re not impressed, and they have reason not to be, consider options to improve the situation.
Step Ten: Offer More Courses
Once the main meal is over, it’s time for the waiter to offer her customers dessert, if they’re not too full already.
If you’ve delivered a great site and not managed to exhaust totally your clients’ software development budget, you can start talking about phase two. If your service has been good so far, they should be happy to commit.
Step Eleven: Deliver the Bill
When the meal is over and the waiter has provided her customers with everything they could possibly want, she must wait for them to ask for the bill. The bill should clearly state what the customers have received and how much each item cost. A good waiter can receive a generous tip if she’s done her job well.
Your invoice to your clients should also be a concise statement of what you have built for them. However, in web development it’s probably not advisable to wait for your clients to ask for the bill. I have to concede that this is one stage in which the whole restaurant/web site analogy doesn’t quite hold – in a restaurant you can not let your customers leave until they’ve paid, in the internet industry your hold on your clients is a little less tangible.
Financial generosity is also less common in web site development. But it’s not unheard of! Some businesses offer equity deals and incentives that can be lucrative. In all cases if you’ve served your customer well you can expect the rewards of referrals and repeat business, which last much longer than a once-off tip.
Step Twelve: Say Goodbye
An excellent waiter will end her service with a thank you, a goodbye and a final expression that she hoped the meal was to her customers’ satisfaction.
Excellent customer service in web development should end on the same note. The project should be formally closed, preferably with a review of its success, the clients should be thanked for their business relationship and there should be encouragement of the possibility of everyone working together again soon.
So there you have it – customer service in 12 easy steps. And if your clients aren’t completely happy with your service from now on, at least you’ll have the necessary skills for a career change!