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Conducting Your Orchestra: Customer Service for the HOA Audience
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Minnesota Community Living January/February 2010

Conducting Your Orchestra: Customer Service for the HOA Audience

By Tony Poetz, Production Supervisor, New Exteriors by SMA, Inc.

Managing a property is a lot like conducting an orchestra. Landscapers, exterior maintenance and insurance specialists, etc., are the strings, woodwinds and percussion in your symphony of coordination. They are each specialized in their own respects, but achieve their finest output when harmonized under your direction. The most important part of this multi-part movement is you, the conductor.

(pause...or "rest”)

"Isn’t the audience the most important piece?”, you ask. Sure, if the audience doesn’t buy tickets to your concert, you don’t really need your baton. But, once the audience is seated, you are in charge.

From a customer service standpoint, this flies in the face of "the customer is always right.” It’s meant to. When Harry Selfridge coined that phrase in his 1909 London department store, he wasn’t in your shoes — trying to get rid of the carpenter ants chewing the rafter tails while two homeowners stand behind you insisting on their grandmother’s homemade, insecticide recipe (grape juice, red pepper and gasoline NEVER belong in the same spray bottle). "The customer is always right” speaks to an end result and the manner in which you deal with the customer. It’s okay to say, "I’ve been conducting this orchestra a long time, Mrs. Smith. I think it’s best if we give the exterminator a shot at those ants.”

Businesses such as airlines and IT services that deal with upset customers on a frequent basis are constantly working on the most effective way to let the customer know they’re not always right. With reference to business consultant Alexander Kjerulf, here are a few reasons why "the customer is always right” is wrong and, a little dangerous:

1) It makes employees unhappy.
Some customers will be unreasonable, irrational and unwilling to be reeled in no matter what the extent of your attention. If an employee believes you won’t support them when a customer is out of line, the employee finds resentment and becomes less effective.

2) It gives abrasive customers an unfair advantage.
"The customer is always right” is most often quoted by the most abrasive customer. They feel they have carte blanche because of their status and "there will be consequences” if their blanche isn’t carted. Rewarding this bad behavior with automatic submission leads to more bad behavior. Second, the longer you attend to the one or two abrasive customers, the longer your attention is diverted from the great majority who are pleasant and genuinely interested in working toward common goals.

3) It results in worse customer service.
If you automatically side with unruly customers, employees:
• lose loyalty
• lose confidence
• lose respect for other customers as they label all customers as "irrational” 

When employees know they can count on you to make a fair call in the midst of customer irrationality, they:
• gain loyalty
• care more about other customers
• are motivated.

4) Some customers are just plain wrong.
This is why you’re the conductor and they are the audience. You’ll do everything you can to appease an upset customer, but when they’re wrong; you don’t have a choice. You know very well not to spray the gasoline-based insecticide on the rafter tails. Conductors take requests, but arrange according to expertise. There may be pride involved when a customer suggests a different kind of cymbal/insecticide, but ultimately, they just want the song to sound good/ants gone.

In a recent poll conducted by customer service expert Kevin Stirtz, customers were asked "What do customers really want?” The answers were as you can imagine. Here are some of them ranked:

  1. Listen to me: Most customers have a legitimate reason for coming to you. Even if it’s not legitimate, your attention may be enough.
  2. Blank for now.
  3. Give me what I came for: They’re less interested in "how” you get it, just so you’ve got it.
  4. Show me you care: In the customer’s eyes, anyone can do what you do to some degree. It’s your passion that sets you apart.
  5. Be honest: The customer knows quality costs more. Tell them the truth and let them weigh the consequences.
  6. Offer alternatives if I can’t get what I want: If red fescue won’t grow in your area to match Mrs. Mandery’s landscaping, maybe you can get something comparable.
  7. Do what you say: Trust is crucial and though you may not think so, the customer is absolutely paying attention.
  8. Keep me informed: Even if they don’t actually read the newsletter detailing the new 40-year shingles, they’ll at least have peace of mind that you’re on top of it.

#2 was purposely left blank because it’s the most pertinent. It’s also striking in its honesty.

The second most common request is: "Know more than I do.”

This humble request from your customer speaks volumes. It says "I want to trust you,” "I can have faith in your abilities,” and "I will agree with you (even when we disagree) because of your expertise.”

#2 says, "I know something about how the orchestra should sound. Please make it sound that way.” The customer is saying, "I’m not always right. That’s why you’re here.”

We’ve spoken of irrational customers and extraordinary circumstances. We know those are the minority, yet they tend to command the lion’s share of our attention. The essence is that you’ve worked hard to become an expert and need to have faith in your property management abilities. Putting together your ensemble of snow removers, pool cleaners and window installers has taken dedication and time — much more than your audience has committed. They’re busy being expert store managers, expert teachers and expert truck drivers. At the end of their day they want to come home to beautiful music...conducted by you.

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