It’s been nearly 3 years since I left my job as a psychotherapist to build websites full time. For seven years before that, I spent most of my time listening to people’s problems and helping them find ways to cope, all while running my business on the side.
If you’re thinking that doesn’t sound too fun, you would be right. It’s hard to spend your whole day dealing with issues – often horrible, unfathomable issues – and then come home to face your own life. Add a side hustle on top of that and you’ve pretty much created a burnout cocktail.
By the time I made the decision to become self-employed, I was beyond ready to take a break (hopefully a permanent one) from the mental health field and the brain drain that came with it. That said, while I love what I do now, I’ve realized that running a service-based business really isn’t so different from what I used to do for a living.
Providing a service = customer service.
Anytime you provide a service to other human beings, you’ll need to develop great customer service skills. At the time that I left my last “real” job, I fooled myself into thinking I could put all my therapy training on a shelf. Man, was I wrong!
I might have traded patients for clients and a commute for a home office, but so much of what I do from day to day mimics my previous life – to the point that it’s a little frightening.
Here are five of the biggest lessons I learned about customer service that I use every day in my business.
Lesson #1: Everyone wants to be heard.
Imagine that a loved one just died and you see a therapist for some grief counseling. In the first session, you mention your loss and the therapist jumps up and says, “I’ve seen this before! Here’s a list of websites you can visit, here are a few books to read, and here’s a doctor who will prescribe you some antidepressants. Goodbye and good luck!”
Would you be upset? Angry? Maybe feel dumb or betrayed because you were treated like a number? I know I would!
When a client or customer reaches out to you, they don’t want a generic, cookie cutter response. You’ve probably seen the same issue a million times, but it may be completely new for the person you’re helping. If you want to facilitate the relationship, you need to respond in a way that lets the person know you “get it” – that you are paying attention and the problem matters to you.
How to hear your clients: Take a minute to imagine what the client may be thinking or feeling before you respond. Think to yourself, How can I convey to this person that I empathize with his/her frustration and I’m here to help?
Lesson #2: As the service provider, you’re intimidating.
When I started my first therapy job, I felt the need to prove to each patient that I was capable of providing the treatment s/he needed. I threw out a lot of medical terminology and buzzwords in sessions (yes, I am cringing as I write this), as if that would make the person feel more at ease. Instead, I made many patients kind of terrified – I was speaking a foreign language as far as they were concerned.
As I became more comfortable over the years, I didn’t feel the need to prove myself anymore. I learned to explain things in terms anyone could understand, and I climbed down off the little ivory tower I’d built for my ego. I learned to partner with my patients to work toward a goal instead of impressing them with how “qualified” I was. And you know what’s funny? People were still intimidated!
No matter how confident you are in your abilities or how easily you relate to your clients, remember that they still respect you (and maybe even fear you a little) in most cases. It is NOT easy to ask someone for help when you’re nervous and feel like s/he is a million times smarter than you, yet that’s what our clients do every time they send an email or pick up the phone.
How to be less intimidating: Take it from me – you don’t have to use a ton of jargon to help someone see that you’re an expert (or at least proficient) in your field. Instead, be yourself! Talk to your clients the same way you’d talk to a friend, but with a touch more professionalism. When clients feel comfortable with you, they’re far more likely to stick around long-term.
Lesson #3: People generally adhere to the boundaries you set for them.
At one of my therapy jobs, I had a coworker who was overly attached to some of his patients. As in, they had his personal cell phone number, he met up with them outside of work, and he eventually got fired due to violations of the code of ethics for our field. Because the provider/patient relationship was stressed so much in our graduate programs, it was an absolute scandal – how could he not know better?
I didn’t have difficulty with boundaries as a therapist. There were rules and I followed them. But what happens when you’re self-employed and no one brings you a policy manual explaining what’s acceptable?
If you’re me, you learn a lot of things the hard way. For example:
- If you don’t set strict work hours, you will work ALL THE HOURS.
- If you provide your personal phone number to clients, they will call it. At incredibly inconvenient times.
- If you don’t spell out what your services do and don’t include, people will ask for extra things for free.
Once I learned those lessons, I figured out a few new things:
- When you set strict work hours, you don’t feel guilty letting things wait until tomorrow. It’s just the way it is.
- When you use a business phone service, you can set it to go to voicemail outside of those strict work hours.
- When you spell out all the details, your clients don’t ask for extra things because they already know the cost.
Sure, sometimes you’ll have a client who ignores every limit and pushes every button. But most of the time, I’ve found that my most frustrating clients were only doing what I trained them to do by failing to set boundaries upfront.
How to set good boundaries: Find a mentor with a lot of experience who can help you develop your own set of rules for your business. (If you work with WordPress, try WPMentor.) Join a mastermind group or a local meetup group. Subscribe to blog posts from people in your niche. Self-employment is no different from anything else – you’ll grow much faster when you have people helping you along.
Lesson #4: When people know better, they do better.
In my time as a therapist, I encountered many, many people who were “lifers” in the mental health system, meaning they had been in therapy for years and would likely be in therapy for the rest of their lives. (Often, this happened due to an intellectual disability; those patients were literally incapable of applying coping skills or changing their behaviors without support.)
Sometimes it was easy to forget that not all of my patients were lifers. Some of them simply needed to talk out a specific issue or learn some basic ways to deal with stress, then they were happy to move on with their lives.
I run into the exact same thing now in my web development business. Some clients are never going to be “techy” or learn to code – that’s the whole reason my business exists. Other clients truly want to learn to do things themselves and will put in a ton of effort to attain certain skills.
It’s up to me to see the difference and provide services accordingly. If someone doesn’t want to learn to code and prefers to outsource, I shouldn’t waste their time with a bunch of teaching or training. Likewise, if someone does want to learn, I need to teach them instead of doing everything for them.
strong>How to start where the client is: Don’t hurt yourself trying to get people to buy a product they don’t need or sign up for a service they don’t want. Instead, ask yourself, What problem is this person facing and how can I help them solve it? Don’t seek to change the client; seek to help them achieve their goals, no matter what those goals may be, or refer them to someone who can better help them.
How to start where the client is: Don’t hurt yourself trying to get people to buy a product they don’t need or sign up for a service they don’t want. Instead, ask yourself, What problem is this person facing and how can I help them solve it? Don’t seek to change the client; seek to help them achieve their goals, no matter what those goals may be, or refer them to someone who can better help them.
Lesson #5: Behind every action, there’s a need.
One theory of human behavior says that everything we do serves one of two purposes: To get something we want, or to avoid something we don’t want. Knowing why we do certain things is a big part of changing behavior – if we can identify the need, we can find other ways to meet that same need.
When your clients or customers come to you for help, they are engaging in that behavior because they need something. Maybe it’s advice or information or education. Maybe it’s a service you offer. What they are not doing is deliberately trying to annoy you. Each email, support ticket, phone call, or tweet represents an unmet need, and that person is doing what seems logical – contacting the person who can help him or her.
I’m the first to admit that I get overwhelmed by a full inbox. I get frustrated when I answer the same question or fix the same issue more than once for a single person. And sometimes I’m downright pissy when voicemails pile up over the weekend, even if I’m not hearing them until Monday morning. But all I have to do is think about my former career and I know exactly what I should do (regardless of how I feel) to provide the best experience possible for my clients.
How to provide great customer service:
- Let the person know you understand their issue and want to help.
- Use informal language to help the person feel comfortable.
- Set good boundaries in the beginning to avoid awkward moments later.
- Identify the problem and what you offer that can help the person solve it.
- Remember that there’s a human being behind every request, and treat them as such.
There you have it – my best advice for providing the best customer service experience you can. What would you add to this list?