chapter 7

Customer Service | The Key to Winning Work

As web designers, we like to talk about the importance of providing an amazing user experience. Yet we often fail to apply these high standards to our own users: our clients.

Neglecting the experience of our customers is a mistake. Our sector is being squeezed with everybody forced into the middle. At the bottom end of the market, automated tools such as Squarespace are forcing web designers to look for larger clients. At the top end of the market, companies are bringing the web in-house. This is forcing larger agencies to take smaller projects.

Providing great customer service is one of the best ways of differentiat- ing yourself in a busy marketplace.

Why customer service matters

When a market becomes oversaturated, as we are seeing in web design, it is not the best that survive. Instead, it is those who have the best reputation. Providing outstanding customer service builds that reputation.

If your customers have a good experience working with you, they’re more likely to recommend you to others. This word-of-mouth recommendation is invaluable because it lowers your marketing costs and increases profitability.

They won’t just recommend you to colleagues and acquaintances, they will become excellent references. They will also be willing to provide testimonials you can use in promotional material.

Happy customers also lead to more repeat business. Repeat business is important because it is easier to win and that lowers your cost of sale. Again, this increases your profitability and allows you to remain competitive.

Providing excellent customer service also establishes a better working relationship with your customers. This means they are easier to work with, thus increasing your profit margin on design and development work.

In short, customer service matters because it brings in new work and makes you more profitable as a company. The question then becomes: how do you provide outstanding customer service? It begins by understanding which parts of the experience could do with improvement.

Identifying points of improvement

Fortunately, as web designers, we are familiar with improving the experience of our users. We even have a range of tools and techniques to help us achieve this aim. One such tool is the customer journey map. As the name implies, a customer journey map seeks to understand the customer’s interactions with a company. It is a timeline of these interactions which reveals what the user is trying to do and how they are feeling through the process.

We can use this technique to map the experience of our customers and look for opportunities to make things better.

Our customer journey map starts with our client researching web designers, and ends with a post-project debrief. Along the way, they have many interactions with us. Each one is an opportunity to create a better experience. But to achieve that we need to understand at each touchpoint what the user is thinking, feeling, and doing.

Let’s begin by looking at the customer’s experience of finding and selecting a web designer.

Impressing in the sales process

The customer’s experience begins with the realization that they need to hire a web designer. Customer service comes into play even at this early stage. By providing good customer service to our existing clients, they may well recommend us to a new customer.

But our new customer will also be doing their own research. If we are giving away useful advice and information, we immediately make a good impression. Use your blog, newsletter and social media to help potential customers find the right web designer for them. We shouldn’t focus on promoting our products, but on answering their questions. Give them advice on running their website or support them in any other way you can think of. Don’t just see them as a cash cow you can make money from. Instead, be there to serve them from the beginning.

But don’t stop there. There is much you can do when they ask you to pitch for work as well. Don’t use the tendering process to do whatever it takes to win the work. Instead, be willing to challenge, give good advice and encourage them in the right direction. Tell them if you

are not a good fit, because they may well come back to you another day or recommend you to a colleague. Consider the challenges that they face in selecting a supplier. Think about how they feel and the questions that they have. Make sure you address these through your documentation and presentations.

Even once they have offered you the job, consider their needs as you negotiate the contract. If they need to spend their budget before the end of the financial year, arrange early payment terms. Equally, if they have a cash flow issue, talk to them about spreading the payment.

Examine every step of the sales process and look for ways to improve. This will go a long way to making a good first impression — an impression that will help shape the relationship through the production phase of the project.

Customer service in production

Once you have won the project and production is underway, we often forget the client’s needs as we focus on delivering. Unfortunately, this is where we can often damage the relationship. We need to once again look at each step and ask ourselves what questions the client may have and how they are feeling about the process.

Take for example the initial kick-off meeting. Many clients have not done a web design project before and do not know what to expect. Even if they have, they have not worked with you and so are unfamiliar with your approach.

They are nervous about the project and uncomfortable that they do not know what is going on. It is our job to reassure them and give them confidence in our ability to deliver. If we fail to do that, the client will start micromanaging and that will damage the relationship.

Another key touchpoint where customer service is crucial is when we come to the design sign-off. Unlike ourselves, clients are not experts in design and yet we ask them to approve work.

With no experience in design and the pressure to get it right, it is unsurprising that customers ask colleagues. That, or fall back on their personal opinions. Once again they are uncertain and nervous, yet too often we do nothing to reassure them. Instead we get frustrated because we do not like their feedback.

Once production is underway there are often extended periods of time when we have our heads down. Our minds are busy fighting with Internet Explorer or wrangling jQuery. At these moments, the furthest thing from our mind is customer service. We focus on delivering, but we cannot forget how the customer is feeling.

We need to keep communicating with our client throughout this production period. When they do not hear from us they can only presume we are not working on their project. They have no perception that progress is happening. As a result, they become more nervous about delivery. If we are going to prioritize the customer experience, we need to keep customers informed. We need to communicate at least weekly. We need to reassure them that the project is in hand and progressing.

There are many other touchpoints like these through the production process; points where we can provide a better customer experience, from helping the client with content to guiding them through launching the site. We need to always be aware of their needs and feelings. But customer service should not end when the project is complete. We should always be providing outstanding service.

Providing post-project support

How we end the project is as important as how we run it if we wish to provide a great customer experience. Even if we did a great job on the website, a client can go away unhappy if we abandon them. A project debrief meeting is a great way of drawing the project to a close. It’s an opportunity for the customer to express any questions or concerns they have. It’s also an opportunity for you to show that you value their feedback and wish to continue working with them over the long term. You can discuss ideas that both you and the client had during production that were outside the scope. You can also give them advice about managing their website over the long term.

But even after the debrief meeting, you need to continue to offer outstanding customer service. Their experience with you will fade over time if you do not continue to be there for them. This means they will be less likely to recommend you or act as a reference. Make sure you check in with them often. Let them know about any new innovations that may be applicable to them and ask how things are going. Keep them informed through email newsletters and blog posts. It is your job to make them feel they are up to date with the web. If this is sounding a bit touchy-feely to you, then you might be misunderstanding what it means to be a web designer.

More than building websites

Many web designers see their job as delivering a product. We build and launch websites. This would make us part of the manufacturing sector. But in truth, we are part of the service industry.

When you go to a restaurant, you are not just going for the food. You can make food at home. You go for the service and the atmosphere. The experience matters as much as the final deliverable (the food). That is how customers experience working with us. The final deliverable is important, but so is the experience that goes around it. We need to put as much attention into shaping the customer’s experience as we do into shaping the user’s experience on our websites.

By using tools and techniques such as customer journey maps, we can better understand our customers. This allows us to start enhancing their experience. Yes, this kind of planning takes time and effort. But it is still more cost-effective than having to deal with unhappy clients and being forced to seek out new ones. 

About the author

Paul Boag is the author of Digital Adaptation and a leader in digital strategy with over 20 years experience. Through consultancy, speaking, writing, training and mentoring, he passionately promotes digital best practice.

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