Reman U is a place for stories. This post is no exception, but I’m going to go slightly off-script and start by telling you the moral to this story: Most businesses hurt their relationships with customers because they don’t apply the same project management skills that they use in the shop when working with them.

Now the story…

Imagine with me for a moment that you and your team are working together to build a project vehicle. Because of scheduling challenges, each of you has to take separate turns doing the work. When your turn arrives, you enter the workspace to find all the parts you’ll need. It’s obvious something has been done, but it’s not at all clear how far and where your predecessor left off. You spend the first several minutes of your time figuring out what’s been done and then get to work.

A bit later your turn comes around again and, once more, work has been done but you need to figure out what and where so that you can begin. This time, it takes longer to figure out and you can do less actual work moving the project forward. In fact, each time you come back to the project you need to spend more time figuring where you should begin and less time actually working.

Sounds like a nightmare? At a recent staff meeting, I subjected my teammates to this very scenario.

Lego Lessons

Each small group was tasked with building Star Wars Lego vehicles. The catch? I had blacked out all the step numbers in their instructions and had each person close the booklet between turns to assemble. Suffice it to say, no projects got completed and very few even made it past the first third in the time allotted.

Then we did it all again.

This time, their instructions had clear step numbers, and they could leave the book open to their last page. In short, they could tell their teammates exactly where they left off. This time around, several projects were (very nearly) completed and everyone made it MUCH farther along.

These results aren’t shocking – the most basic elements of project management are to document what’s been done and what’s next to do. But here’s the thing: I’d be willing to bet that there is one crucial place where you ARE still running processes in the dark – customer relationship building.

Do any of these sound like your recent customer interactions?

You search among post-it notes and message slips to see if you’ve heard from them/what they’ve told you. Maybe you find something, or maybe …

Your customer has to be put on hold while you ask around to see who talked to them last. Hopefully that works, but perhaps …

You ask them the same question someone else (or even you) asked them before. Maybe you tell them you’ll call them back, but then …

Your customer contacts you to follow-up on a request that you were ready to answer hours before. Or, perhaps worse …

You tell your customer information that someone else (or even you) had already told them.

None of these are a big deal by themselves (everyone gets busy), but in a small, subtle way you are telling your customers that something/someone is more important than them. Even if every other part of your service is great, with enough interactions, these sorts of experiences can drive your customers to someone else – someone who cares enough about them to remember what’s been said and done before.

Process, software, notes

Speaking as someone with roughly the memory of a particularly forgetful petunia plant, I can tell you that the answer is very rarely to “just remember better.” Instead, a Relationship Management process is called for. You very likely already manage your customers through some sort of process (if not – stay tuned here because that’s my next article topic), so the next place to go is to a better tool.

CRM (Customer Relationship Management) Software certainly is the most sophisticated tool for the job. They range from complicated multi-use platforms like Salesforce to simpler tools like Highrise CRM. Many shop-management programs even come with some limited CRM functionality that you may already have. That said, even the easiest ones can be difficult to implement. It’s better to implement something than nothing, so if CRM software isn’t for you, you can try …

A note-taking program like OneNote, EverNote or SimpleNote. These tools allow you to create notes and categorize them in any number of categories. For customer relationship management, create a folder/category for each customer and then add notes with each interaction. It’s searchable, shareable, and even accessible from your mobile device. That said, software isn’t for everyone and internet connections aren’t always great, so there’s always…

A customer journal: Keep file folders, a book, or even just a notepad with a page/section for each customer. Take notes on each of your interactions with the customer and then you’ll have a single place where each person can look at what’s happened before. This more basic approach is easy to implement quickly, but could be hard to maintain as time passes.

Don’t forget the process: All of these suggestions are just tools. Without a defined process and discipline to follow it, the tools will not bring you success on their own.

No matter how you approach the challenge of customer relationship management, the crucial first step is realizing that it is a challenge and it’s one that needs to be changed. When your vehicle (or Lego) project isn’t managed well, the frustration is limited to you. When your customer relationships aren’t managed well, your customers go away.

Don’t let them think you don’t care about them, and you’ll never have to figure out how to get them to come back.