Any small consultants, integrators, and others who provide IT services have a mistaken notion that customer service consists of answering the phone on the first ring and being immediately available anytime, day or night. As it turns out, that is not something clients expect. It's something we think they expect. IT business owners also believe they have to do everything themselves, and do it right away.
I know, because in the early years of my company, I had the same worries as everyone else in the IT consulting business'keeping clients happy, getting all of the work done in a timely manner, watching the budget, and figuring out how to pay my only employee every two weeks.
I was overwhelmed. I was also interrupt-driven. I turned my attention to whoever tapped me on the shoulder or called with a problem, and I addressed whatever issue they brought to my attention. I was constantly putting out fires without looking up to see the big picture.
Then one day I decided to take a small vacation. For three business days my clients would not be able to get in touch with me. So they left messages, and my employee checked my voicemail every hour. As it turned out, nobody needed my attention immediately. I learned that it's OK for a client to leave a voicemail and get a call back.
SETTING THE GROUND RULES
That experience opened my eyes to other ways in which I was operating inefficiently. So I adopted some ground rules that grew into a framework for how the company operates today.
When we go into client meetings, for example, we turn off our cell phones. I usually leave mine in the car so I can give the client my full attention. Because our jobs usually break into the hour or the half hour, if something urgent comes up, a client gets a call back in half an hour 99 percent of the time.
We have also made a commitment to not be interrupt-driven. We prioritize everything we do, from highest priority to lowest priority, and from oldest to newest. So when clients say something can wait, we take them at their word and prioritize their requests accordingly. Not everything is an emergency, and you don't have to pretend that everything is an emergency.
People are afraid that, if they let the client set the priority level for the work, everything will be a high priority. But that's not the case. Most clients actually say something like, "Oh no, take care of this the next time you're out here." And that's exactly what we do.
Sometimes that's tough. New technicians who have learned a different way of doing business want to pick up the phone when it rings. So we made a rule that technicians do not answer their cell phones if a customer calls, unless they are expecting the call. Again, we don't want them to be interrupt-driven. When customers try calling around the company to various cell phones and get only voicemail, they quickly learn that it's best to call the main number and press 1 to be connected to tech support, where there's a live person who is ready to do something about their problem. It's in the customers' best interest, and it's in our best interest as well.
The result of following these simple principles has been success. We're a little more relaxed, and we're a lot more focused. Whether you follow these rules or come up with some of your own, consider ways that you can slow the pace a little. It will lower stress and increase profits.
MULTITASKING IS A FALLACY
When I want to help my technicians lower their stress level, I remind them that they only have one job in front of them at any given moment. They don't have to worry about the backlog, or the service board full of hundreds of requests, or answering the phone. If you take a deep breath, focus on the moment, and gather all the resources you need to be successful, you get more done.
Humans can't multitask. We like to think we can, but we can't. Like computers, we can time-slice, and we can sometimes time-slice very quickly, but that still requires that you take your attention off the job in front of you to work on another job. Then you stop doing that second job and start doing the first job again. You are dividing your focus between two jobs, so you are less effective at both.
Talking on the phone is a good example. Many people get into the habit of checking their email or doing other things while they are on the phone. They do the verbal form of nodding--''uh-huh, uh-huh"--but they don't hear the entire conversation because they aren't focused. They're just checking one more task off their list.
Profile: Karl Palachuk
Founder and President
KPEnterprises Business Consulting Inc. and Great Little Book Publishing Co. Inc.
Location: Sacramento, Calif.
Number of employees: 9
Favorite part of my job: I like interacting with clients and employees—working with people I like and for people I like. It goes a long way toward relieving stress.
Least favorite part of my job: Finding out that some people don't pay their bills
Words of wisdom: Slow down. Try taking 15 minutes a day for 30 days as quiet time. At the end of 30 days, your life will be different.