Everything We Do Is Service
How do you manage client relationships and expectations? At an Oct. 20 session at the 2015 ASPPA Annual Conference, Norman Levinrad, President and Chief Actuary of Summit Benefit and Actuarial Services, offered practical tips and insights. The core of his message: It’s all about service.
What does it mean to serve? At its most basic, it means making and keeping commitments. That means delivering good service on time. But is also means more than that.
An important part of that is managing expectations.
To wit: consider whether you really want to offer service by the next day. Doing so can build an expectation that you can provide that level of service regularly. Remember, said Levinrad, “Just because you are not able to provide a service by the next day does not mean that you’re not being of service.” And doing so accomplishes more than controlling the expectations of a single client — it also serves one’s other clients by better enabling one to balance effort on multiple projects and meet other commitments.
One way to manage expectations: entering into a service agreement. To that end, Levinrad suggests that a service agreement can specify:
- the length of time it will take to complete a project or provide a service;
- the days an office will be closed; and
- timing requirements and additional fees for late work.
Setting boundaries in communication is another aspect of managing expectations. “Service does not mean responding to email 24/7,” he said, suggesting that clients can wait for office hours to receive a response. “The first time you respond to a client’s email on a weekend or at night, you have set an expectation and are doomed,” he said.
Be Open, Direct and Clear
Another underlying theme: there is great value in being open, direct and clear in interactions with clients. That means being honest and forthright about the amount of time it will take to get something done and provide service. But it means more than that.
Make sure clients know how much they will be paying. “Clients don’t like surprises and like knowing what they will be paying,” Levinrad noted.
Acknowledge mistakes and pay for them when necessary or appropriate. “Clients respect you” when you do so, Levinrad said, adding that is especially true if one acknowledges a mistake after identifying it oneself.
Deliver bad news in person, not in a letter or mail. Doing so will build respect, Levinrad argues, while the converse will breed disrespect.
Remember that email communication with clients is still business communication and a vehicle that should be professional and employ varying degrees of familiarity and formality, as appropriate. And be careful with email — it can be as harmful for one’s business as a business letter could be, and therefore deserves the review such a letter would receive.
And while email has its place, it can be used in a way that wastes time — and one should remember that a phone conversation can be a faster and more efficient way to communicate.
To help establish and maintain clarity, follow up every meeting and conference call with a letter or email to a client summarizing the discussion and any conclusions reached and actions decided upon. “If you don’t, clients will have forgotten what was discussed and what was agreed to and there will be misunderstandings,” he warned. And send an email to yourself for the same purpose.
Well-Being of Your Business and Staff
But being of service, and care in handling commitments, entails more than service to clients. It also means being mindful of the needs of one’s business, and personnel. “Don’t ever make commitments for someone else in your office,’ said Levinrad, adding it is wise to avoid making promises regarding the activity of those who report to you and also of those to whom you report. “It works down the chain and up the chain,” he said.
Not only that, one should consider commitments to one’s personnel and the others in one’s life. “You will not lose clients because you take a vacation. You will not lose clients because you take a weekend off,” he reminded attendees.
This extends to communication as well. Levinrad advised not spending time off reading email. “No good ever comes from it,” he argued. “Connectivity leads to stress,” he added, suggesting “disconnect totally when you leave the office.”
Protect your employees. Don’t assume that if there is a mistake or a problem, it must be the employee involved who is at fault.
And be willing to fire difficult clients. “Remember that no amount of money is worth stress and misery,” Levinrad said, adding, “there are enough pleasant clients to fill your time.”
The Bottom Line
Don’t work for free. Ever. Free, Levinrad argued, suggests that a service has no value. Rather, he suggested, “fix a price that covers everything you can anticipate, increase it by 50% and quote it as a guaranteed price. Bill an amount that makes you happy to handle a project without any resentment.”
Remember that “every single interaction with a client” and its personnel “can get us fired.” And don’t burn bridges. “Our best clients and employees are those who return,” he observed.
Finally, embrace change. “Change is good. Don’t be discouraged by change,” Levinrad said. And he went further than that, arguing that change, and challenges, are opportunities, positing, “A problem is what makes you do your best.”