Friday, October 14, 2011

SOP Friday: Clients Who Abuse the Phones

The client's always right, right? In a word, NO! For the most part, I'm a big fan of the concept that the client is always right. But there are times when the client is just plain wrong. One example of that is when they abuse your phones.

In two weeks I'll cover Phone Etiquette and Procedures, but for now let's lay some groundwork here.

Phone habits with clients are a very simple communication system with two components: You and Your Client. You each play a role in the behavior of the other.

Most clients only work during the work day, with few exceptions. Some clients work "all the time" and call whenever they feel like it. Most of the businesses they work with don't answer the phones after hours, so they're used to just leaving a message and getting a response in the morning. The same goes for weekends.

If by some chance you answer the phone, then the client knows that you're available evenings and weekends. And you might be. If you don't want to be available then, you need to practice the words "Just because you're reached me doesn't mean that I'm available."

It is much better to set policies about when you're available and spell them out on your voicemail message. Once you set your policies, it is very acceptable to expect clients to honor them. Luckily, 99% of all clients are professional and understand that people have normal lives. (Please remember that: Everything that follows is for a very tiny percent of all clients you'll have.)

So what constitutes abuse of the phones? There are three basic types of abuse:

1) Calling every possible extension and phone number in order to create a sense of urgency.

2) Use telephones to interrupt your work and push themselves to the top of your agenda, without regard to your processes.

3) Actual verbal abuse - or insulting - of your employees.

Number Three is the easiest abuse to deal with. Simply talk to the client. Depending on the client and circumstances, you might email, write a letter, or make a phone call. The message is plain and simple: "You must treat my employees in a civil manner."

In our case, this is a single warning situation. On the second offense, we inform the client that they must treat our employees with respect or we will terminate the contract. There is simply no reason that our employees must put up with abuse from within our organization, or from our clients.

In sixteen years we have warned three clients and fired one.

I've heard of cases where companies put up with abusive clients for long periods of time. In my opinion, this is inexcusable. Many of us go into business because of abusive and arrogant bosses. We owe it to our employees to avoid creating this kind of environment.

The other two kinds of phone abuse are less clear and easy to see. They consist of abusing your rules and processes.

Very often, we think we need to make ourselves available at all times to our clients. This simply is not true. Eventually, we begin to set up limits, processes, and procedures.

But some clients honestly believe they are "above the rules" and that they can get better support by forcing themselves upon you. I'm not sure how people get to be this way, but you need to enforce your rules and keep them from disrupting your business.

First, you need an official flow chart of how telephone calls and service requests are handled. Regarding service requests, see my post on How Do Service Requests Get Into Your System?. I recommend that you have a very clear system for getting service requests into your PSA (ticketing) system and communicate this to your clients.

Second, you should set up your PSA system so that clients can enter their own tickets by web or email. In addition, you should have a telephone process for creating service requests. In this manner, clients can enter tickets by a number of methods.

All new service tickets should trigger a text message/page to your service manager or the coordinator of the day. In this way, the service department will be aware of the new ticket in the fastest possible time frame and be able to start working the service ticket as quickly as possible.

It is critically important that you can honestly say to your clients: "The fastest way to get service is to enter a ticket in the system."

Once you have such a system in place, then phone calls to individual technicians are not the fastest way to get service.
- Phone calls to the service manager are not the fastest way to get service.
- Phone calls to the owner are not the fastest way to get service.
- Phone calls to every cell phone in your company are not the fastest way to get service.
- Phone calls to every extension in your company are not the fastest way to get service.
- Ten phone calls with ten messages are not the fastest way to get service.

In other words, simply abusing your processes and procedures will not get faster service. You need to be able to say this with complete honesty. In this way, Following your processes will always be the fastest way to get service.

Once you can say that, then you remind your clients that "urgency" is determined by the priority they set on the ticket (see the post Service Ticket Updates) and not by how many times they contact you by phone.

- Implementation Notes -

Putting this policy into action is pretty simple. First, you need those flow charts for phone calls and service tickets. Second, you need to educate your clients and your employees.

Third, you need to follow your own rules. That means you DON'T let clients interrupt you with the problem of the moment . . . even if you're between service requests. The system is designed so that you are always working from highest priority to lowest priority, and from oldest to newest ticket. Any time you violate this rule, you train your clients that they can call you whenever they want, that urgent phone calls get more attention than tickets entered into the system properly, and that breaking your processes is the way to get things done.

- Benefits -

In the long run, you have these processes for a reason. They're not just arbitrary things you do to piss people off.

If you believe that working from highest to lowest priority is important, and that you should not be interrupt-driven, then you need to create systems that make those things happen. Working from highest to lowest priority reduces the overall workload in your office, it reduces stress, and it keeps clients happy.

In our modern society, we all want everything right now. Everything's urgent. But when you tell people to stop and think, they realize that these policies are necessary so that you can stay profitable and stay in business. That serves them best in the long run.

- Forms -

There are no specific forms for implementing this SOP. You might write up a brief description of the procedure and put it into your SOP or binder.

This kind of policy requires that everyone on the team

1) Be aware of the policy

2) Practice the policy

3) Correct one another's errors

4) Support one another with reminders

Your Comments Welcome.

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About this Series

SOP Friday - or Standard Operating System Friday - is a series dedicated to helping small computer consulting firms develop the right processes and procedures to create a successful and profitable consulting business.

Find out more about the series, and view the complete "table of contents" for SOP Friday at

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Next week's topic: Time Tracking for Employees


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