Communication Requires Clarity

How often have you said or heard someone say, "I called them and they never called me back." Or, "If I had only known, I could have." What about "I didn't expect to be charged for that work," "I thought you told me," "I just didn't understand it that way," "Why didn't you tell me?" or "Who is responsible for that?" These statements are all too common, and are a sign that the salesperson involved has weak communication skills, or has done a poor job communicating with the customer.'

Dealing with these statements will, most likely, end up costing you in two specific areas. First, you'll have customer service issues to deal with and, in most of these cases, you'll have to start solving the issues with the customer taking an adversary position. In addition, trying to solve issues from this position will probably cost you money, because you'll need to reduce your expected profits.

The good news is that you can do something about the communication situation before problems arise. Take the time to examine your staff's communication with prospects and customers, and work on bringing it to a higher level. It will result in a lot less frustration.'

In this month's column, I've divided communication into focus areas. There's no particular sequence; the important areas are the ones where your staff is weak where they can use improvement. I believe the premise that salespeople generally feel they are good communicators is correct. However, anyone selling and designing in our industry can find areas for improvement.

telephone etiquette
With regard to telephone calls, the first rule to remember is to return all calls, and to do so in a timely manner. Generally, these calls come from commitments we make. It's very easy for us to make commitments about calling a customer. For example, saying "I'll call you tomorrow" means just that, and unless you put it on your calendar to do so, it may fall through the cracks and not get done.'

Too often, the reminder about a missed return phone call comes from the customer, who will call and say, "I thought you were going call. Is there a problem?" A reply of "Oh, I forgot," or "I've been too busy" just doesn't cut it. Frankly, those answers portray an attitude that the customer isn't important.

Voice mail is different type of trap, a potential black hole for important messages. For example, you may leave a voice mail message letting a client know about the arrival of a product he or she ordered. Thinking the message has been delivered, you go about with your routine. Time passes and you hear nothing. When contact finally does take place, the customer claims he or she never got the message. The kids, the spouse or anyone using the phone could have inadvertently erased the message, or deleted the message, having intented to notify the client, but then having forgotten to do so.'

So, while voice mail is a wonderful tool, it may fail to complete the circle of communication, and may cause you problems down the road. Be sensitive to the fact that when you leave a voice mail message, you may have to follow up on it.

When you receive a voice mail message, be sure to act on it promptly. I suggest you follow up with the sender to assure him or her that you received the message and have taken the proper action.

detailed explanations
Just as you wouldn't want to start on a trip without an itinerary and a map, your customer wants information when embarking on a trip down the road of remodeling or building. Be sure to communicate with your client by creating a map and itinerary of expectancy. Communicate the process your company uses to create successful projects.

When we explain to prospects that it can take six weeks to get a product, it's easy for them to not count the two weeks they spend procrastinating in making the decisions. Somehow, they don't see themselves as slowing down the process.'

I believe the customer needs to be informed as early as possible any time the outlined expectations cannot be met. No one likes for the project to drag on, but when time commitments can't be made, adjustments in timing must be shared early and accurately. It won't be comfortable, but it's the best way.'

I have to remind myself how sensitive the consumer is about the accuracy of timing. We, as salespeople/designers, work with the industry challenges of timing all the time, and are somewhat conditioned to those challenges.'

However, when it affects the customer, and his or her expectancy is not being met, expect challenging attitudes to surface. Do the best you can to avoid this by providing communication that is timely, accurate and straightforward.

Both wrapping up a project and working through concerns have similar characteristics, and the communication needed to handle them properly is also similar. First, get a handle on the situation. Make sure an accurate list of the details of concern are documented. Without this complete list and agreement by all concerned parties, closure will be, at best, evasive.'

Without documentation, it's easy for people to work off of inferences. These inferences, once framed by an individual's perspective, will vary greatly, and will likely create and heighten negative emotions when trying to bring a project to a successful conclusion or a concern to the best resolution. If your list is incomplete, the consumer will keep it open and continue to add to it, taking you out'
of control.

To ensure you have fulfilled the expectation you defined in the selling/design process, I suggest sending a follow-up thank you letter that asks for the customer's opinion. If there are harbored concerns, it's best that you have the opportunity to respond to them.

While you may not hear about underlying issues without a follow-up, you can bet the customer's family, friends and co-workers will.
I've always found that communication problems in our industry far outweigh product problems.'

I believe one of the best ways to improve your bottom line and have more fun with your business is to improve communication. Clients will be more satisfied, and that will make life a lot easier for you.