Although a company's field staff has a huge influence on a customer's ultimate satisfaction, few companies provide customer service training to this critical group of employees. For David Merrill, president of Merrill Contracting, Arlington, Va., customer service is one of the most important aspects of his company's success.

“We have to understand that our clients are going through a traumatic event involving their largest lifetime investment,” Merrill says. “So we continually need to ask ourselves, ‘What can we do to make it easier for them?' This attitude is embedded throughout our company culture.”

Merrill feels that the most important skills his employees must possess fall in the customer service category. “Whenever we have a problem, we look backward to find out why it occurred,” he says. “So often it's an issue of communication. Someone didn't maintain a high enough level of communication with the client.

“We want our clients to be aware of what's going to happen in each phase of the project,” Merrill says. “For example, we're getting ready to start a large addition, and we've spent the last couple of weeks preparing the clients for what they'll be going through. We set expectations clearly and then repeat it over and over. The more we tell them, the less chance we have for problems to crop up.”

But problems inevitably do crop up, so Merrill teaches his employees a system he learned managing the service department for a large automobile dealership:

  • First, listen and acknowledge the issue. Don't just stand there silently; let the client know you are listening.
  • Next, apologize. This doesn't mean that you're apologizing for doing something wrong or admitting guilt about something. It simply means apologizing for the fact that they are upset or for the situation.
  • Make a commitment to address or investigate the issue and a time to revisit this with the client.
  • Ask the client how you might rectify the situation. “We've found that they often suggest solutions that are much less complicated or expensive than our first inclination,” Merrill says. “Recently our plumber was installing faucets in two of a client's bathrooms and got them mixed up. When we discovered the mistake, we were all ready to call the plumber back, take out both faucets, and reinstall them in the correct locations.

    “But we followed our system and asked the client what they would like us to do to fix the problem. She said that if we simply switched the already installed towel bars to match the faucets, she'd be happy. We were more than delighted with this low-cost, easy solution.”

    Finally, whatever you do, follow up on your commitment. Even if you don't have an answer for them by the meeting date, keep the meeting and tell your client where the situation stands.

    “We've discovered that handling a problem in the right way can turn a moderately happy client into a raving fan.”

    Victoria Downing is president of Remodelers Advantage, Laurel, Md. 301.490.5620.