Last week, I spent nearly an hour at a title company related to a real estate transaction. The lobby was nice enough — Keurig machine, water, and snacks for the waiting clients. Just after I arrived for an 11:00 closing, a realtor, and her well-dressed client walked in. At about 11:30, the realtor asked the office assistant how much longer it would be. The assistant disappeared behind the door for about five minutes and returned, “Her closing is going long, and she will be with you shortly. We only have one closing agent today, and we had you on the books for 11:30.” The realtor sighed and noted she was on a tight schedule, as was her client, and they needed to get their closing done. The receptionist again disappeared behind the door.

I stood and walked to the reception desk, engaging the realtor and her client in conversation. She noted that her email from the closing agent reflected an 11:00 appointment, not 11:30. She also stated that her client had flown in that morning from Mexico City to complete this transaction and that they had multiple places to be before he flew back to Mexico that evening. Given their tight schedule, I told them that I would take myself out of line and reschedule for another day. They appreciated the gesture.

When the assistant returned, now 45 minutes into my visit, she told me that staff members were trying to reach my realtor to find out what she had agreed upon with the closing agent. I asked her to stop their efforts and inquired about available closing times for Tuesday. We decided on a time, confirmed that she had everything needed to book the appointment, and as I started out the door, she apologized. I said to her, “It’s not your fault. When we ask good people to work in bad processes, we can only expect average results.” I wished her a good day, congratulated the gentleman from Mexico on his home purchase, and went on my way.

A few days later, my realtor, who was enjoying the long holiday weekend, sent me a text with her apologies although she had performed her part in exemplary fashion every step of the way. She noted that this was a rare event for the title company. She also relayed the news that the title agent had time for me at 9:00 on Tuesday, an appointment I had already set up with the title agent’s assistant. As for the rarity of the event, the realtor in the lobby offered that this experience was commonplace with this office. I only have a two-person sample, but believe this was not a rare event.

A rule of thumb is that satisfied customers tell two people and dissatisfied customers tell ten. If that is even half true, it’s a powerful incentive to connect with what’s working and what’s not in our client service models.

Invigorating the Processes

How can this company begin to remedy the client service shortfalls and stimulate their processes?

1. Decide it matters to them. It’s possible that this company doesn’t have to worry about client satisfaction. If competition is sparse, if they have too much money, if they believe clients are a captive audience, then perhaps doing nothing is the right action. If however, they compete with more than 20 other firms in the city, don’t have more profit than needed, and were not aware of the challenges until now, many things can be done to improve their client service.

2. Transaction-intensive vs. transactional. These terms aren’t the same. Even if your company’s service shows up as a transaction, you still get to choose how a one-time customer experiences your offering. We remember connections. We recall how a company made us feel. And that happens whether we work with an organization once or over a lifetime.

3. Measure what’s there and what’s not. Send client satisfaction surveys, compile the data, analyze the data, and adjust the processes as needed. Ask your employees if they have the tools necessary to do their jobs. Ask them what’s missing to do their best work. If they were the owner for the day, what would they do differently?

4. Create processes that set employees up for success. The frontline employee must have the tools and training to support the clients waiting for service. The preferred approach is to eliminate the bottlenecks and provide timely service. In those instances where that’s not possible, the tools may include a procedure that offers open offices (there were two within view) for people to use as a conference room and continue their workday while they wait. It may include a shared computer or television. It may be offering an espresso rather than a Folger’s K-cup. It may consist of a gift card to the excellent Italian restaurant located 250 yards from the front door if the wait time is longer than 30 minutes. After the service failure, an apology from the closing agent, office manager, or owner, via email or phone can also leave a lasting, more positive, impression on the client.

5. Schedule appointments that reflect available resources. If the office is running on a skeleton crew, it is not the responsibility of the client to manage that for the company. Anticipating that “We only have one closing agent today,” is a signal to management to adjust the schedule accordingly, making sure the clients don’t suffer due to a lack of planning and execution.

6. Communicate. Set standards. Change the model. With clients, keep them updated. With employees, keep them informed of progress. Consider cross-training to build employee value and engagement. Apologize, yes, but find ways to eliminate the need to manage clients who are getting less than they deserve by getting to the cause of your client service issues. What are the bottlenecks? How can you simplify the process? Set standards that leave your clients in awe, build the service model, then train and reward your team for delivering on those standards.

Takeaway: Leaders must decide the quality of service they wish to provide their customers. Expecting employees to make it up on their own leads to inconsistent service and experiences. If we provide the tools and employee training to handle client issues when things go awry, we have a chance to turn the experience into a positive one. The last thing the client experiences with us is the thing they will most remember — and share with two or ten people.