I learned the most valuable lessons about client service during my college years, but not in the classroom. I was a waitress during summers at the Jersey Shore, and that experience provided me with the most useful knowledge I could apply throughout my PR career.
- Listen First
Something I learned from waiting tables was how to listen. I would never walk over to customers and begin a discussion without asking them how they were doing. I allowed them to tell me their needs and I gathered that information by asking questions. Think about the last time a client called you with a problem. As he or she began to explain, you may have quickly cut him or her off because you anticipated what the needs were, and it's likely that you realized you got it all wrong. Imagine how that could have been avoided if you took few minutes to listen. Spend the first 30 seconds of an interaction listening to the other person and you'll gain a better understanding of their needs and hopefully spare yourself any embarrassment.
- Provide Recommendations
Get to know everything you need about your industry. When I was waitressing, my industry was food. I knew every item on the menu so I was able to provide recommendations to my customers (after listening to them, of course). Having worked in many industries during my PR tenure, I have always trained to become an expert in those fields. When working on a consumer packaged goods product, I bought it and used it. When working with retailers, I shopped at their stores. I become my clients' biggest fan and was able to make smart and useful recommendations, while also telling their stories to others, including the media.
- Write Things Down
Let me guess…you hate it when a waiter or waitress comes to your table and does not write down what you've ordered, don't you? There is a sense that they will forget what you've said or inadvertently mess things up. I quickly learned that no one was impressed with my superhero-like memory. Write things down. It is as simple as that. When people speak, they want to know others consider their words important. It makes them feel comfortable to know that two days later you can recall the conversation.
- Be Attentive
When waitressing, there were always the little things that made my customers know I cared about their needs. If they ordered ribs, I made sure they had extra napkins. If they ordered appetizers, I brought small plates. When their glasses were empty, I filled them without being asked. They appreciated my attention to detail, which today translates into good client relations. I also learned that being attentive requires good listening skills (going back to the first lesson I learned). If my client asks for something formatted or styled in a certain way, I make sure all documents are delivered in that format. I also pay attention to my clients' habits. Do they like to work early morning hours or do they stay late at night? Do they prefer PowerPoint or Word? If you are able to anticipate needs, clients will value your relationship more.
As I grow older and more experienced, I begin to realize more how my life's lessons make me a better business person. This is not to discredit what I learned in school, which I also find very valuable; it just proves that the world is also your classroom. Don't take any experience, conversation or interaction for granted.
Denise Vitola is SVP and deputy director of Personal Care at MSLGroup New York.