Best Practices for Customer Interactions

12-02-2013
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As the world shrinks, one industry that is at the forefront of this shrinkage is the IT industry. People from one part of the world frequently travel to another part of the world, to meet their customers and execute projects from the client location. Client facing assignments are much sought after for the exposure they provide, and the difference they make to the resume. However, what is sometimes not understood and appreciated are the responsibilities associated with such assignments.

Over the years, based on my learning from executing projects, leading teams, meeting customers, and some common sense, I was able to put together a set of guidelines or Best Practices for Client Interactions, while executing projects at client locations. The context is the Indian IT industry; however some of the practices are likely to be applicable to other industries and possibly other countries as well. The best practices presented below may help avoid some pitfalls that are likely to be encounteredwhile executing a project at a client location. Of course, some of them could also apply to regular professional interactions as well within your team.

The target audience could be one of the following:

  • Professionals who are likely to be traveling for a client assignment for the first time
  • Professionals who have traveled for a client assignment earlier, and are looking for ways to polish their soft skills
  • People in leadership and managerial roles who want to share a framework with their team members who are likely to be traveling for client assignments
  • HR professionals who are looking to provide guidelines to team members for their upcoming client assignments

The best practices are listed below.

  1. Communicate
    Build up a good rapport with all colleagues at the client location. Speak out and express your opinions during team meetings.  Clients appreciate it when you have your opinions and confidently express them.
  2. You are not an employee
    You are with the customer on a temporary basis. Dont expect employee benefits such as training, workshops, and so on.
  3. You are a consultant
    You need to have an opinion and express it at the appropriate times. Your opinions make you stand out as an individual. Your opinions, and the manner in which you present and justify them, make you a good consultant and help establish your credibility.
  4. Implement and Deliver
    Dont just consult. The ability to implement and deliver is equally important. This is what will establish your credibility.
  5. You are the expert
    Never outline the problems or limitations of existing systems to the customer, without recommending solutions and alternatives. Never ask the customer for the solution: usually their response will be Why do you think I hired you in the first place?
  6. Keep them informed!
    The customer should never feel I dont know what my consultant(s) is (are) doing”. The best practice is to send across over email, a weekly status update with work items, time efforts, and closed/open issues.
  7. Dont be afraid to differ
    Your opinions and recommendations should be based only on business and technical problems and should have the sole objective of optimizing value to the customer even if you need to differ with the customer or with your own team.
  8. Be pro-active
    Dont wait for work to be assigned to you. The customer expects you to be able to identify work areas, submit proposals, and then implement the same.
  9. Build up the brand name
    You are representing an organization (and of course, your industry and your country). Build up the brand name constantly. Where possible, use “At my company, we  …” instead of “I”.  Build up your organization brand in such a way that the customer feels that anybody from the same organization will be able to do the same work equally well (of course allowing for some ramp-up time).
  10. Be particular about work hours
    Dont get into a habit of working late hours on a regular basis.
  11. Dont get personal
    Your personal likes/dislikes should not get in the way of your professional relationships with the customer. If you dont like someone, it is unlikely that they will like you. In that case it would be difficult to get work done. A better approach is to be completely professional and neutral.
  12. Dont use a language that the customer wont understand
    When you are at the customer site, even with colleagues from your company or country, do not converse in local languages and ensure that you use English.When people can follow what you are saying even when you are not addressing them, it helps build trust with respect to your words and actions.
  13. Be positive
    Avoid complaining about problems chances are that the customer already knows about them, or does not want to. Let the customer think of you as somebody who provides the solutions to problems.
  14. Documentation is important
    Professional, high quality documentation is often the differentiator between a satisfied and unsatisfied customer. Systematic and comprehensive documentation will give the customer the comfort feeling that she/he knows the system that you are implementing for them.
  15. Publish minutes of meetings
    It is a good idea to maintain and publish the minutes of important meetings with the client. This can be done with an email sent out to all participants of the meeting with a list of important points discussed and the action items for each person if any.
  16. Keep a record
    Each time you make a significant change to the system or modify some parameters make sure that you have a record of this activity along with the reason you did it.
  17. Ask for Feedback
    Monitor yourself continuously and try to set high standards and maintain them. In addition, speak to the customer regularly and ask for feedback about your performance (or that of your team).
  18. Use Facilities Judiciously
    At the customer site, you may be provided with facilities such as email, telephone, internet, etc. Use these judiciously. Avoid using the telephone to make personal calls. Use the internet and email for official purposes only.
  19. Email Etiquette
    Your emails to customer personnel the language you use, the style, and the manner in which you respond, will go a long way in creating a good / bad impression on the customer.
  20. Beware of Emails!
    You have to be careful about what you write in an email as they have a tendency to be around for a long time.
  21. Listening Skills
    Listening skills are as important (and usually, more important) than speaking skills since a person typically spends more time listening to others than speaking to them.
  22. Focus on the benefits
    The client is normally more interested in the benefits accrued from your solution therefore, designing any solution proposal with a focus on benefits makes it more persuasive.

Summary

Assignments at customer locations are great opportunities for career growth. However, succeeding and doing well depends on how you carry yourself in such assignments. This article presents some best practices which might help you make a success of your next assignment at the customer location. A detailed version of this article including a PDF for download and print is available at the following link: http://shantanupaknikar.wordpress.com/2013/02/06/best-practices-for-customer-interactions/ .



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