I recently had the opportunity to visit Japan, a country that I had the good fortune to spend 4 great years of my life during the early 1990s. Many things had changed of course, especially with the advancement of technology and the ease at which a traveler can book flights, hotels and sightseeing excursions. But so much hadn't changed. Tokyo was still the crazy, frenetic city that I remembered, the people as polite and helpful to a tourist as ever and there remains an infinite number of ways to entertain yourself. Something else hadn't changed and, in fact, stood out even more than I remembered; customer service is alive and well in Japan and it didn't matter the product, service or industry.
The fanatical desire to make sure that the customer's experience was positive extended from the bullet train staff who bowed to their passengers each and every time they entered and left a car to the security staff at ANA Airways who made us feel that they were in possession of valuable merchandise every time they handled or touched our carry-on items. Employees perform their duties with pride and the consequence is that the customer is willingly conducted into a process of cooperation with a mutual desire to achieve harmony. Well maybe that last part is a bit much but the experience still lives with me and so I want to remind everyone just how good it feels to receive... and give great customer service.
So, what does this mean to you as an independent consultant? Once rates are negotiated and term fixed, make it a primary focus to make your client's experience with you a positive one. How do you provide customer service as an independent IT contractor? Here are just a few ways:
Anticipate your client's needs -- In Japan, I never, ever had the feeling that I was imposing. If I needed something, it was like my thoughts were being read and magically, someone would appear, once with a plastic bag for my wet umbrella. While situations can get complex in the work world, the Japanese taught me that if you pay attention (or listen) you can often anticipate problems and challenges your client is facing. And if you are there to try and help without them even asking, think what a powerful message that sends about your commitment.
Show appreciation -- I was thanked more times by Japanese staff for just walking into or leaving their place of business than I can remember. At first it felt excessive, but by the end of my trip, I understood how integral it was for them to establish that they "saw" me when I came in and equally when I left. How often do we forget to "see" our clients? Really establish that you are paying attention, listening and are there to help.
Go the extra mile -- If anyone reading this has ever been to Japan, you will probably remember a time when you innocently asked for directions from someone on the street, and then watched in embarrassment as that individual made it their life's mission to get you to your destination, including personally escorting you there. Buying a gift for a Japanese friend in a department store, I watched in amazement as the item was wrapped with care until it was a thing of beauty, something I would be proud to give. Professionally, there are limits to how much you can and should do above and beyond what is expected, but where possible, going the extra mile for your client will leave a lasting impression.
Politeness -- If you thought Canadians were polite, Japanese take it to the next level. Much of it revolves around a historically, rigid hierarchy that determined an individual's place in society but a lot of it is also associated with the desire to cause no discomfort to your fellow citizens, especially in a country with very little personal space. Politeness is just one more way of acknowledging others, seeing them and establishing a connection. I know my parents raised me to open doors for others, to say please and thank you, to respond to a correspondence in a timely manner and it is a nod to civilized society that you extend that to your relationship with the client.
Many businesses today talk about customer service but it often feels like they are paying lip service to a crucially important concept. The Japanese demonstrate that good customer service stands out and differentiates the consumer's experience in a very positive way. As an independent contractor, you too can demonstrate good customer service with both clients and recruiters, simply by anticipating needs, showing appreciation, going the extra mile and always being polite.