Profiting from our self-service world

Salim mentioned something in pass towards the end of today’s teleseminar that I’ve been chewing on ever since we wrapped up, and I wanted to express a few thoughts on that today.

Speaking of which, if you weren’t able to make the call today, Salim normally has the recording available within a few days — I’ll let you know when he sends me that. Also, if you want to take him up on the special offer he mentioned on the call, including the three bonus issues of his marketing newsletter and interview CDs, click here.

So during our conversation regarding how to differentiate yourself from your competition, rather than competing on price, Salim mentioned the customer service factor, and how important that really is to making yourself the dominant practitioner in your marketplace.

If you haven’t noticed, America is becoming more and more “self-service” oriented. From making bank deposits at the ATM instead of with a teller, to self-checkout at the grocery store, to the endless robo-phone systems when calling customer service numbers for just about any company, service is itself dying a pretty quick death.

Even where customer service does exist, with a real human being, the quality of that service is declining rapidly. Mediocre customer service is becoming the norm. It’s like a plague spreading across the country. From a waitress griping to me about a customer at another table, to software support reps being utterly clueless and unable to help, the problem really is getting worse.

The level of service you can offer your customers really is one of the things that you can use to make you stand out. Of course, you must actually offer your tax clients top notch service, and you can’t just say “service is #1” in your marketing. You must offer very particular specifics, and follow up on them.

When working with IRS tax debt clients, the single most important thing you can do to keep them at ease and committed to a resolution, is to actually call them no less than once per week. I personally used to be absolutely horrible about this, not understanding that even if there was no information to relay (or obtain) to or from a client, it makes them much, much more comfortable just hearing from you to tell them that nothing is going on. Letting them know that you’re waiting on an RO or SO, or a manager’s signature on something, etc., is better than not communicating at all.

This customer service mantra extends to actually working their case. Staying on top of things with the Revenue or Settlement Officer, for example. At times, it also means pressing on your client a bit to obtain financial information you need to complete a Form 433, or pushing them to make Federal Tax Deposits. These are very common, and very necessary, actions, and are actually part of delivering good customer service.

Note that this does NOT mean you need to be available 24/7, at any whim. Set very clear expectations ahead of time about this. You are a professional, and deserve to be treated like one. Aim to be seen more like a physician, rather than a real estate agent (real estate brokers in particular seem to create the expectation that they are available to their clients 24/7/365 – breaking them of this thought pattern is very hard).

When a client hires me, I am extremely up front with the fact that I do not answer unscheduled incoming phone calls. Ever. Period. From anybody. Not even my mother. With clients, this is seldom a problem, due to the great effort I make at positioning myself on the right side of the desk in relation to my clients. From a practical standpoint, it actually has to do with the fact that I don’t even own a phone. If my laptop isn’t open and connected to the Internet, I simply cannot make or receive Google Voice calls.

I let clients know that, in order to more effectively serve everybody, I work on tasks in specific batches. I am much more productive, and help everybody better, when I’m not interrupted by phone calls. This is how I’ve worked for about four years now, and it allows me to accomplish far more than I could otherwise.

But I do let clients know that I will return all voicemails no later than a certain time each business day. I set that expectation, and I meet it. Thus, practicing good customer service. Usually by the time I batch return phone calls, I’ve addressed the related IRS matter, and actually have something to communicate, which is even better.

Now, you may be thinking I’m a hypocrite, because I provide no telephone support at all for our tax lien database system. However, this fact is communicated from the get go, along with the fact that deposits may take a day or two to be credited. The system is both offered and priced as a self-service system (I’d have to charge far more for liens if I was more hands on with the system). The system is essentially offered as an affordable convenience for practitioners.

But also note that, if you ever run into a problem with the system, I pretty much drop what I’m doing as soon as I see your email about it and get it resolved. That’s the customer service pledge that I make for the tax lien system, and it’s the expectation that I strive to meet.

I’ll repeat: Always set service expectations. Always. When customer service standards are not properly communicated, then certain service standards are simply assumed, and this is where the problem comes from.

In America, there is an expectation that a restaurant staff will provide a certain level of service. I don’t mind filling my own plate or getting my own drink at a buffet. It’s a buffet, self-service is the expectation. However, I should not have to walk to the server station and grab a clean fork on my own at Olive Garden, or refill my own drink at Red Robin (both of which have recently occurred).

Think about the experience of your leads, prospects, and clients, through every stage of interacting with your firm. Do you set expectations? If not, is the service delivered at, above, or below unstated expectations?

Your clients come to you to solve problems. You are the expert they are entrusting with their financial life. Make sure you establish, communicate, and deliver a customer service standard that is worthy of that trust.