As a teen, one of my first jobs was at a small business where the owner taught us “the customer always comes first.” He demonstrated this daily and his retail store was known for its customer service. Many an evening, we would have the doors locked and car keys in hand when a potential customer came to the locked door. The owner would quickly let them in and assure them we were in no rush.
I took note of how pleased this made people and carried that mindset with me through jobs in college and beyond. As a young professional, I stayed late and worked weekends. Performance reviews mentioned my good attitude, and willingness to take on new tasks. My “customers” were my superiors and I aimed to please. It got a little trickier as life became busier though.
One Halloween a few years ago, I had two of my kids dressed and ready to go trick-or-treating. I was doing freelance work and a physician called me on his commute home to offer insight on a piece I was writing. I’d been waiting on his call for two days, so I took the call and made my kiddos wait. And wait. I had a pretty grumpy ninja and an angry bumblebee by the time I wrapped up the call, but I happily finished the piece late that night and emailed it to the client.
A week later, the client asked me if I’d had a chance to finish the article. She had overlooked my email and did not seem to be in a huge rush for the draft. I instantly regretted taking evening time away from my family to put the client’s needs first.
Recently though I was tempted to repeat that scenario. A source informed me he could do a phone interview with me on a day when my schedule was chaotic due to my teen’s birthday plans. It was technically my fault for implying earlier in the week that any day would work for me. So, when he asked about chatting over the phone that afternoon, I was about to have a car full of teenagers and was heading to an early dinner. Clearly a phone interview and a timely departure could not both happen, but I was struggling to ask the source if a different time was possible, especially considering the client’s needs and a looming deadline.
So, I waffled a bit on what to do. I decided to “phone a friend,” and texted a colleague for advice. She suggested I do the obvious: be honest with the source and ask for an alternate day to talk.
Of course that’s what I needed to do, but I didn’t want to seem difficult or unprofessional. It all worked out in the end. I explained the situation. The source was understanding and happily agreed to a phone call the next day.
As I completed the draft the following day, I realized the interview was better because I was at my desk in work mode, as opposed to juggling my phone while taking notes on the legal pad I keep in my car. So, in essence, I was putting the customer’s needs first by having a quality conversation with the source and ultimately submitting a better draft to the client as a result. It’s not rocket science, but it was a lightbulb moment for me.
So, while I certainly plan to still prioritize the needs and goals of clients, I am trying to think of it differently now. I have started asking myself, “how can I best serve the client?” Being realistic about expectations and timing is a good starting point, and occasionally that means the customer can’t always come first.