Clear as Mud

At A-Train, we have a saying around the office: The only thing worse than a disappointed client is a confused client.


Nobody wants to disappoint a client or customer. Last month, the world witnessed some seriously disappointed Toyota customers. We want our cars to run, but we also want them to stop on our command. Certainly, Toyota drivers were dissatisfied when their car did not. The recall is not good for the brand.


But arguably the most frustrating thing about the whole affair was the lead up to the car company admitting there was a problem. Drivers knew something was wrong, but the company would not offer clarity on what that the problem was exactly – until they had to. As disappointing as the recall was, there was some relief in understanding why it happened and seeing the action to resolve the issue.


For many of us in the service industry, with less tangible products than a car, it can be especially easy for clients and customers to fall into a fog of confusion. But the effect could be similar: Clients and customers distrust your brand.


At A-Train, we take the “comforting clarity” approach. Here are three major points that can be applied to any service-based industry:


What did you expect? To be disappointed is to not have something live up to your expectations. Hence the common phrase “under promise over deliver.” It’s common for businesses to raise customer expectations in marketing: The burger never looks as fresh, large and inviting as it does in the photo. And Axe Body Spray will not cause women to be uncontrollably attracted to you. Confusion over why you didn’t get what you expected is unnerving. Why there is not an outright revolt against companies that over promise and under deliver, we don’t know.


We suggest building realistic expectations with clients. You are the professional; you’ve offered this service to dozens of other clients and have a fair idea what the results will be. Express that honestly. For instance, we offer PR services where we develop angles for local media, then solicit coverage for your organization. But unlike advertising, there is no guaranteed placement. It is all in the hands of the media folks. So, we let clients know that upfront, but we also say that there are benefits to pitching angles to the media beyond placement. You may get a call when your organization fits into a story they are working on. A chance you may not win gold doesn’t mean you don’t go to the Olympics.


You can see right through us. To maintain a level of transparency is an operating principle here at A-Train. There is no wizard behind a curtain; there is no smoke or mirrors. Many service providers name an estimate up front, but then when you get the invoice it is quite different. Confusion over why you are being charged more than the estimate – and what exactly are you being charged for? – means that client goes elsewhere next time.


Billing is only one example. Professional services, and the jargon associated with it, can leave a customer’s head spinning. A mechanic that takes a moment to briefly explain what they are going to do, why they are doing it, and why it costs as much as it does in a transparent manner that eliminates any suspicions that the customer is being taken advantage of will have repeat customers.


Surely, sometimes unexpected things come up, and expenses must be added to the invoice. But an itemized, transparent invoice will leave a customer mildly disappointed yet trusting, not confused and frustrated. Trust us, the former is better.


Pick up the phone. Most of us can talk. But there is an art to communicating well. If you are going to be late to meet a friend for dinner, do you call first to let them know so they are not sitting there wondering? Clients deserve the same.


Make yourself available for questions. Keep them abreast on progress. Explain to them your process. Don’t try to impress with industry speak, but communicate in terms they can understand.


And remember, sometimes it’s best to leave email alone and pick up the phone.