The Secret to Keeping Your Sanity in Customer Service
October 26, 2016
This post is a piece I originally wrote for Entrepreneur.com, where it was published first.
Years ago, when my design agency was young I used to go to sleep of an evening worried about the first hour of the next morning.
Being a growing and increasingly busy agency whilst trying to manage safe team growth and internal admin meant that we were so very focused on a) giving our clients the very best service and b) getting their projects delivered on time, every time.
Doing these things was standard operating procedure.
After all, those are the things you just have to do to continue trading successfully over the long term as a service provider.
It’s why we have an agency today at all.
These weren’t the reasons that I couldn’t sleep at night. Nor were they the reasons that I dreaded the first hour of every single morning.
No, the reason that I worried about that first hour was simple: I was anxious beyond belief about the customer service requests that would inevitably have filled my inbox overnight.
Each morning I would turn up to around 90 new emails, compounded by around 30 more arriving between 8am and 10am each day.
Thinking back, the emails weren’t actually anything to be concerned about – they were just follow on requests, bug fixes and additions to project scope following a launch, perhaps.
The problem was that I’d placed upon myself unreasonable sanctions for dealing with customer service requests like these.
I assumed that if I didn’t get them done instantly, then customers would look elsewhere or be unhappy with the “service”.
Honestly, I ran myself into a burnout largely because of it in 2012.
Since then, I’ve gone on to build other businesses outside of the agency as well as host a globally successful podcast aimed at early stage entrepreneurs – all without having the same kind of burnout and whilst sleeping better than I ever have.
So, what changed?
I didn’t realise it but for a long time, I was just like the business people that I didn’t understand at the time.
I was the guy staying late at the studio “getting things done”. I was the one doing favours for clients because I was afraid of them leaving.
And you guessed it, I was the one frustrating family and loved ones by not being able to switch off.
Yet the demands kept rolling in. I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t stop – I was staying on top of them and barely treading water!
The impact that had on my business was that I didn’t have the time to work on the development of it, instead I was simply allowing clients to dictate how my days were run and what I worked on at any given time.
But then one day something changed.
For the first time in a long time, I came across the famous Albert Einstein quote:
“The definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result.”
After that, I starting measuring my time more closely and realised that sure enough, I was spending all of my time “firefighting” and it was the fear of what I was going to have to “deal with” the next day that caused me to dread showing up to my own business.
After that, something startling happened to me: I realised what I was missing.
Pure and simple. And unbelievable, really.
I was treating contact from my valued clients, the very same clients that I was so afraid of losing, as “issues” that I simply had to “get through”.
But worse, I was blaming those clients for my inability to empathise with them and look at these requests for what they were: people asking for help.
Customer service 101 and I was failing at it, despite being so worried about failing at it!
The secret to sanity in customer service
If my new approach to empathising and of putting myself in the shoes of a client to really understand their problems & their knowledge levels were the catalyst for change, the tactics that I implemented were equally simplistic in their approach.
What I realised was that if I was reaching out to a company for support myself, it was because I was frustrated.
I was either frustrated about not knowing something, frustrated about not being able to do something or frustrated about a perceived mistreatment at the hands of this company.
Either way, I was purely and simply frustrated in that moment.
Taking that a step further, I looked inwards and realised that a lot of the dread around facing all of these customer service enquiries each and every morning stemmed from me assuming that everyone has the same level of knowledge as I do in my field.
I was being so naive and the more I looked at it, the more I began to identify that the never ending customer service emails were actually all grouped into a very small number of categories: support, new work, perceived complaints.
And usually, the latter category of perceived complaints were rarely actually that, they were actually just a frustrated customer looking for support and firing off that email in a fit of desperation.
I think we’ve all done that…
At this point I had another realisation: I was assuming that unless I reacted or responded immediately to someone with a resolution, they would be unhappy or even angry at me and my company, causing them to look elsewhere.
Forcing myself to think like a customer, I began to understand how irrational I was being.
After all, when was the last time that I left a company because they didn’t instantly respond to me and more so, respond to me instantly with a resolution.
What we all actually value as customers is acknowledgement and being heard.
These days, when discussing customer service with my teams, I often use the analogy of a team member taking their car into to the repair shop for some work carrying out:
“If I take my car to the repair shop and I’m told that the car will be back to me today, I expect it to be back today. But the unexpected happens and often, a part isn’t available immediately, resulting in my car being in the shop overnight.”
“Consider, if the mechanic ignored this, chose to close up for the day and head home for the evening without telling me, well then I’d be extremely frustrated. I’d then call up saying that I needed my car and that this wasn’t acceptable.”
“But, imagine that the mechanic puts himself in my position and calls me up ahead of time. He explains that the part required isn’t available until the next day and asks whether it is alright for my car be ready by the following lunchtime.”
“Would I still need the car? Would I still be frustrated? No, it’s highly doubtful that I would.”
Customer service is about the customer maintaining a level of control.
In the mechanic example, by ignoring and not informing about the delays to the repair, the implied control lies with the mechanic – which will frustrate any customer (“It’s my car, isn’t it!”).
In the example where the mechanic puts his or herself in the customer’s position, and even though the outcome is the same, the implied control is with the customer.
After all, the mechanic asked whether it’d be ok or not, even though the part isn’t available, regardless.
By understanding that control factor, I was able to begin to place a focus on the right kind of communications to remove the dread of turning up to support requests every morning.
Applying the control factor logic and being über clear with communications, specifically that very first response to a customer request resulted in me being able to plan customer service into my schedule.
The best part? Both myself and my customers are happier.
Remember, we all just want to be heard and to know that we’re being cared for.
People rarely need a resolution immediately.
As a solo entrepreneur or founder, you will inevitably need to deal with some kind of customer support – after all, it’s what keeps the relationship alive – but equally, you need to make sure that it doesn’t rule your day or dictate your week.
Take control by giving your customers the control that they want; be clear, empathetic, timely and set realistic expectations within your first response.
And get some sleep.
Don't forget, the more you expect from yourself the more you WILL excel!