We hope you have come ready to dive into client experience and learn from one of our talented friend, Alex of Prairie Letter Shop. We met Alex in 2015 at our first two day retreat-style workshop, Bloom Bash Seattle. Alex was successful in her business even then, and in the past two years has grown even more. We consider her to be a true expert on creating a meaningful client experience and today in part one of this series, she is defining what that means and what it can look like for you, regardless of your industry. Join us in this 3 part series as we take a closer look at the client experience!
PART ONE: Defining Client Experience
If you had interviewed me two years ago and asked what my client experience was, I would have given you a blank stare. My hand-lettering business grew rapidly in its first year, and I was eager to expand my services and offerings. I had a “yes, of course!” mentality when it came to accepting new projects. On one hand, this was a positive thing: I learned so much, and I was able to transition to full-time within about a year and a half of starting my business. On the other hand, the rapid change and my propensity to take on too much meant that I had little time to reflect on my client experience. I was constantly in execution mode, which meant that I was typically meeting but not exceeding my client's expectations, and usually doing so frantically.
I’m a former teacher and “Learner” is my top StrengthsFinder strength. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that over the last few years, I’ve invested heavily in professional development. I’ve attended conferences (like Bloom Bash!), participated in online masterminds, and listened to hundreds of hours of podcasts and free trainings. Somewhere along the way, I made the decision that I would learn from the best of the best in every creative industry and draw the connections to my own business. One of my favorite communities to draw from is the world of photography. I started listening to educators in the photography world, and kept hearing these buzzwords: client experience. I transitioned from a product-based business to a largely service-based business, and learning from photography educators opened my eyes to a gaping hole in the way that I thought about my business. In this three part series, I’ll share what I’ve learned about client experience: what it is, why it’s a struggle for new entrepreneurs, how to diagnose where you are, and how to create a plan for growth. After the final installment, I’ll share a full PDF plan, so be sure to stay with me!
What is Client Experience?
Every business owner provides a client experience. Consider the difference between eating dinner at a greasy roadside diner and eating dinner a Michelin-rated fine dining establishment. As consumers, we subconsciously make judgments about client experience all the time. Here’s an example: When I lived in New York, I found it very challenging to find a good dentist. I ended up choosing one of the first places that took my insurance and was close to my school in Brooklyn. When I entered the office, I was struck by the number of people in a poorly-lit, uncomfortable waiting room. I signed in on a tattered paper clipped to a board and waited more than an hour past my appointment time. While the hygienist was kind and the dentist did a seemingly fine job during the appointment, I wasn’t going to refer this dentist because my overall experience wasn’t positive. The actual service was fine—but the way I felt about the experience was negative.
When I moved to a new city and had to find a new dentist, I had an entirely different experience. The office texted me a friendly appointment reminder. When I arrived for my appointment, a Keurig offered a range of free coffee selections. There was an enticing array of up-to-date magazines and the office was spotless. I waited approximately two minutes to be seen. The dental service was fairly similar—the hygienist and dentist both did a good job. I left with a treat bag full of toothpaste samples a new toothbrush that I could use for travel. It goes without saying that if anyone asks for a dentist recommendation, I will refer the second place up and down, and I would have never done so for the NYC dentist, even though the technical care was fairly similar. Though this example is involved, it illustrates a central takeaway about client experience: meeting basic expectations for a product or service is rarely enough to establish strong referrals and generate loyal fans of your business. While clients expect that you will deliver on the basic product or service they are paying you for, the way they feel throughout the process of working with you is much more important in establishing a stellar client experience.
Who Is This For?
So let’s get straight to it: client experience is typically not a strength for a new business owner. If you have ever started a business, you know how exasperating it can be. In the earliest stages, you are so eager to make the first sale or land the first client. But once you do, and once your business starts to pick up a little, the avalanche of “all the things” hits. All of a sudden, you’re learning how to be a bookkeeper, a blogger, a social media expert, a customer service representative—all on top of performing the basic functions of your service/product.
When I transitioned from hand-lettered envelopes to full invitation suites, I was overwhelmed. I was constantly learning as I was going—and I felt like emails were flying at me from every corner. My clients were perfectly nice—often, they were just curious. When will I see those proofs? When can I expect your response? Do I get to choose an envelope color? In the back of my mind, I was laser-focused on meeting the expectations of my clients. In my head, I was working tirelessly—doing a million things and bending over backwards to make sure their invitations were beautiful. In my own head, I knew everything that I was doing to take care of my client, and I knew that I would deliver by their deadline. In my own mind, I planned to meet my clients’ expectations, but I didn’t have a clear client experience to set my clients’ minds at ease. This resulted in unclear timelines, longer email response times, and lots of questions to answer. I may have provided a great service or offering, but my client experience was lacking.
Myths About Client Experience:
At that time, I thought that client experience was for “those people” with huge invoices: photographers, caterers, and web designers, and creative people who could afford to dazzle their clients with surprises. Somewhere along the way, in the endless scroll of social media, I started to feel like client experience was only possible with the stereotypical artisan welcome box. Don’t get me wrong—a gorgeous artisan welcome box is something that we would all love. But as an Etsy seller with smaller invoices, I struggled to understand how I could define a beautiful client experience when my client was purchasing a $5 greeting card. And in my early days of invitations, my margins were too small to “dazzle” anyone with any small surprises. I didn’t have the budget for fancy gifts. This brings me to some myths about client experience:
- Myth 1: Client experience requires fancy and expensive gifts.
Actually, no. A client experience can include a sweetly worded email, a thank you note, a free sticker, or a $5 Starbucks gift card. If you don’t have the budget for fancy and expensive gifts, be practical: it doesn’t cost anything to make people feel genuinely appreciated.
- Myth 2: There’s nothing I can do to course correct once I’ve gone off the path with a client.
While we all aspire to satisfy every client, tricky situations with clients are a (hopefully infrequent) part of business. Surely you need to do some serious reflection and rebooting if every sale ends in disaster, but when minor challenges arise, you can turn a negative into a positive and provide excellent customer service in response. It’s never too late to reach out to your clients on a deeper level, remedy a mistake, and go above and beyond on their behalf. I think about an interaction with one of our wedding vendors who had less-than-stellar communication in the weeks leading up to our wedding. Once I voiced my concern, this particular vendor stepped up in a huge way—going above and beyond at our wedding and ultimately winning my positive review and genuine admiration.
- Myth 3: I’m too busy to provide excellent service. I’m struggling to keep my head above water.
This is where I need to be blunt: If you are too busy to provide excellent service, you are taking too much on—and there’s a good chance that you are not charging enough for your work. In the early years of my business, I did what any green business owner does: I offered my services at a discount. This was a terrible strategy for so many reasons, but it meant that I juggled way too many orders and was often emailing clients in the middle of the night as I chugged coffee and provided the bare minimum of attention to each one. If you are too busy to provide good service, you need to seriously assess how you account for each minute in your business.
So, what exactly is client experience?
We’ve established some myths about client experience and why it’s important, and to summarize, we’ll unpack a basic definition that will help us in Parts 2 and 3.
An excellent client experience:
- meets the client’s basic expectations for the product/service as a baseline
- front-loads those basic expectations so your client knows what to expect at any given point (timeline, FAQ, etc.)
- exceeds those expectations in at least a small way, in tangibly and intangibly
- as a result of the above, makes the client feel special, successful, competent, and loved.
- establishes an enduring personal connection that makes your client feel genuine appreciation
In Part 2, I’ll discuss in depth how to diagnose your own client experience, and in Part 3, I’ll share some practical strategies for establishing/refining your client experience.
Here are some reflection questions for Part 1, and be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the next installment of this series!
1) What is the best experience you’ve ever had as a consumer? What made this experience stellar?
2) In contrast, think about an interaction you’ve had as a consumer that was less than excellent. What would have made a difference?
3) Think about the service you currently provide to your clients and/or customers. Is client experience a strength? If so, why? If not, what are some of your roadblocks?