The Pleasing Paradox
I recently worked with a group that was trying hard to make their customers happy. Their customers were, likewise, also focused upon making their customers happy. The whole place felt self-sacrificial, as if the key to success could be found in doing whatever it takes to please others. No one seemed terribly happy with the results.
They were playing into The Pleasing Paradox. Studies have shown that the most satisfied customers have had one or more disappointing experience with their service provider. Recovery creates more satisfied customers than flawless delivery ever does.
The challenge is to be of service without becoming servile. We shouldn’t elevate any customer to the role of superior being, but treat each with human respect.
Human respect does not involve treating others as if they were superior or defining your self through their expectations just because they're paying the bill. Human respect means being responsible, not overly responsible— a curious form of irresponsibility. Don’t cut others' meat for them.
Human respect demands that I respect myself so that I can respect others. Whenever I take that humbling step down and backwards, I can lose my own self respect, and thereby forfeit my ability to really respect—or be of real service—to anyone else. When I can engage with my customer as a peer, we both seem more satisfied with the result.
Requiem for Requirements
Basing any project's success upon merely satisfying customer "requirements" encourages servile engagement. No customer knows best. You can’t know best, either. Best will be discovered lurking in the relationship between both perspectives. Requiring transforms juicy opportunity into musty obligation.
Engage more responsibly by interpreting requests as preferences. A preference tags a choice while a requirement creates a duty to deliver. What first seems an obvious necessity can become an absolute absurdity. To be of real service, we must balance the whole, not just deliver the sum of the initially preferred parts.
Can we satisfy our customers without also satisfying ourselves? The customer might not understand that, by engaging our services, they are agreeing to participate in a conversation that neither of us could possibly know how it will turn out. We've all been in conversations before, and we already know that if anyone knew at the beginning where a conversation would meander, there’d really be no reason to engage.
Make this implicit understanding more explicit. Every service interaction is a conversation. Engage with an inquiring mind. Set your certainties aside and encourage your customer to set theirs aside, too.
Two Little Letters, One Little Word
The key to becoming a stellar service provider lies in making only responsible commitments. This “requires” not simply being knowledgeable about what must be done but “no-legible” about how preferences resolve into satisfying results. We must know how and when to say, “No!” because no one can know what will finally emerge as best. Client and service provider will have to discover what constitutes best, and this always, always, always means stumbling through some uncomfortable territory together.
The noes learn what no nose could ever know. I offer my prospective clients a little taste of my best medicine by offering them a dedication test in our first conversation. I invite them to agree to something a little unusual. Odd payment terms. An inconvenient meeting time. I don’t do this to be contrary, but to help forge a real relationship between us, one where disagreement is embraced and satisfaction is forged, rather than simply expected. Whether they respond with “No!” or “Yes,” we can continue the conversation. As peers. Not simply as compliant consultant to commanding client.
The feeling that we might not be able to make our customer happy is an important sense, one we should acknowledge early in the relationship. Could it really be your job to "make the customer happy?" Let the customer be responsible for their own happiness! Should they mistake you for the source of their happiness, they’re sunk. Should you mistake yourself as the source of their happiness, you're both doomed to a particularly virulent, possibly permanent form of disappointment. A most pleasing paradox!
©2007 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved