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Passion, People and Principles

How to be a Customer

post # 438 — September 26, 2007 — a Client Relations post

In the latest online issue of Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge professor John Quelch (an old friend of mine) argues that, as a customer, it is possible to get preferential (or at least better) service from your vendors, suppliers, etc, if you know the right approach.

He lists the following as the keys:

  1. Be Demanding
  2. Be Respectful
  3. Be Reliable
  4. Be Surprising (eg reward a job well done)
  5. Be Engaging.

You can join John’s discussion, or we can start one here.

We’ve had discussions here before about what we providers seek in an ideal client, but would you agree with John’s starting list? Do you agree that these are the keys to eliciting better reactions from providers?


Duncan said:

How about:

Be understanding (about mistakes);

Be nice

Be polite

It never ceases to amaze me how amazed people are if you just be nice to them when you’re the customer. It’s actually rare.

posted on September 26, 2007

amit said:

Prompt payments work very well – especially when dealing with small vendors.

posted on September 26, 2007

Susie Wee said:

Be appreciative.

Be thankful.

Give feedback.


posted on September 26, 2007

david (maister) said:

Yes, yes, yes ….BUT! As one of my other friends asked, do these approaches REALLY work? As he asked, would you actually get better (or preferential) service from an airline if you did these things. Maybe, maybe not. What say you?

posted on September 27, 2007

Duncan said:

I do all the time – seriously. I’m not saying that Professor Quelch’s list is inaccurate, only that I would add one or two things – perhaps Susie’s way of expressing it is even better. Susie – I just checked out your blog by the way – it looks great.

Aren’t these just the normal rules of interpersonal relationships. Treat someone with respect rather than as though you are somehow in an exalted position because in this transaction you happen to have the ‘customer’ label.

The really demanding, ill behaved customer who makes an enormous fuss over something is immediately disliked by everyone else, and even if they get their way this time, (a) they won’t next time, (b) they will get poor service in lots of little ways which will continue to create frustration, and (c) other customers who witnessed the behaviour will go out of their way to make life difficult in lots of little ways for the ill behaved one.

posted on September 27, 2007

Brad Farris said:

One that John Quelch mentioned that others didn’t was to Be Demanding.

As a service provider I give better service to clients who ask more of me. I’m not proud of that, but I know it’s true. It is like other relationships where clear expectations are always better, and clear performance expectations are the best.

Additionally, John Gottman (How Marriages Succeed or Fail) sets the ideal ratio of good to bad feedback in a relationship at roughly 5:1. Five positive experiences for every one negative one. He points out that too much positive (say 10:1) means that real issues aren’t being discussed, whereas too much negative is just disheartening.

I want feedback from my clients, I want them to be polite, respectful and pay their bills, but I also want them to set clear expectations, and tell me when I need to be better.

posted on September 27, 2007

Tom Nixon said:

I would add: Act on our advice.

The clients who get the most value out of my company are the ones who are prepared to ‘go for it’. They trust us as the experts and reap the rewards.

posted on September 27, 2007

Susie Wee said:

Perhaps I would also add:

  • If you like their service, be a repeat customer and bring new customers.
  • Be a teammate and coach. Ensure joint success.

To answer David’s question, I would say: Yes, these approaches and the ones I listed above work in practice. And, let me turn the question back to all of you professional service consultants to explain why.

The main reason is because you’re human. Every day and every hour you make choices about what to work on, who to give “perks” to, and who to prioritize when you have to make choices. Who do you choose? I would guess that at some level you give preference to the clients who you have the closest relationships with- including those who you “like” and “enjoy being with”, those who are appreciative and thankful of your work, and those who care about you enough to try to make you better by giving feedback.

I have to say that I get the best service at restaurants where I let the staff know how much I like their food and where I treat the staff like “humans”, since so many people treat them like “staff”. I treat them this way because I am truly thankful and appreciative of the fact that they are feeding me good food and I realize how hard their work is. I never thought about it in terms of trying to get service, but good and even preferential service has almost always resulted.

On a business level, I feel that I’ve also benefited the same way from professional service firms such as patent law firms and executive coaching consultants who I’ve worked with regularly.

Professional Service Consultants: Does this seem right or wrong? Do these softer side factors play a role in the preferential service that you give?

(Duncan: Thanks for your kind words about my blog!)

posted on September 27, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Susie – I accept completely your analysis. I’d also point out something that I’m suspect you’d agree with: that these behaviors do elicit the desired response. But then there’s that old problem of sincerity: as a client, I can detect (and resent) “false politeness.”

Or am I wrong about that? Are “polite manners” effective even if there is no particular special sincerity behind them?

posted on September 27, 2007

Susie Wee said:

David- Yes, I agree with you that there is probably a cause and effect relationship, though I’ve never used this as a “technique” myself. I just saw preferential treatment occur after I genuinely did those things. I’m not sure if I could pull it off as a technique.

As you point out, “sincerity” was an underlying assumption in my comment above. I appreciate politeness, but I resent “false politeness” and I think I can spot it easily. If someone was falsely polite to me, I would probably end up being so resentful that I might end up giving unpreferential service! Hmmm, I guess I wouldn’t make a very good professional services consultant- I’ll keep my day job. :)

posted on September 27, 2007

Duncan said:

Humans take in a lot of information besides the words that are actually used. If you’re being falsely polite, or insincere – you should be 100% sure that the other person will pick it up.

Back to David’s original question – when it’s the customer being falsely polite – does the person serving them care as much as when the situation is reversed? They are really choosing between giving excellent service and standard service – right?

Whereas, when the professional / sales person / whoever, is falsely polite – they risk losing the customer altogether.


By the way Tom – no advertising please, in the nicest way possible, it detracts from the excellent conversations that go on at this blog.

posted on September 27, 2007

Tom Nixon said:

Sorry if my comment caused offense, Duncan. I’m a big fan of this blog too and hadn’t intended to detract from the conversation. I was trying to make a serious point that professional services people get a kick out of working with clients who really embrace their recommendations, and work extra hard to give these clients great service. Sorry you thought I was trying to advertise, that completely wasn’t the case.

posted on September 28, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Tom, I didn’t interpret your comment as self-promoting, but I also know Duncan’s intentions were purely honorable.

posted on September 28, 2007

Duncan said:

Hey Tom – no offence taken at all!

Sorry for misinterpreting your post. And forgive me because I should have also said that I really agree with the point you were making.

Hey – but isn’t my mistake a nice illustration of the amount of information that humans need beyond just the words used?

best regards


posted on September 28, 2007

Maria Marik said:

I agree with John Quelch’s conclusions but that only works in developed democracys. In real life, here in Bosnia, costumers don’t have many benefits. No one asks you nothing, corporates are exploiting as much as they can.

posted on December 14, 2007