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what great service providers do

Over the last few months I’ve had the opportunity to hire and partner with other service providers.  It’s been interesting because I’m usually the one service-providing.

These have been great learning experiences for me, as I’ve gotten to enjoy first-hand the benefits of working with really good service providers — as well as feel the frustration and disappointment resulting from working with some not so good ones.  I thought I’d share my observations from the other side of the table.

To clarify, I’m talking about professional service providers like research firms, designers, transcription services, etc., although personal service providers may share the same qualities.   I also should explain that I am writing this as much for myself as for my readers, because I know I need to be vigilant about these things.  So this isn’t meant as a judgmental or arrogant rant — consider it more of a call to arms.

So let’s get on with it!  Here’s my list of the 7 things great service providers do:

1.  Understand you – Great service providers do whatever it takes to really understand their clients and what they want and need. This may seem like a no-brainer, but I can’t tell you how many service providers seem more concerned about the project and the process than about the client.

Perhaps it’s because they assume the client only cares about results – or that they need to prove their competency and value.  The thing is, these are outcomes of understanding the client – they only happen after you’ve taken the time to focus on what’s really going on, what the real problem is, what the unstated — and perhaps even unknown – needs and outcomes really are.

2.  Stay true – Great service providers stay true to themselves – they don’t offer up their services (or try to actually provide them) as something other than what they really are. I don’t know if people who try to take on work outside their bailiwick do it out of good intentions, you know a desire to do whatever it takes to serve the client; or if they just really need the work or the money.  Regardless, they do a disservice to themselves and their clients.

Case in point:  I asked the partner of a firm which works on large projects and clients for his recommendation for firms which provide the same services but on a scale that would be more appropriate for a sole proprietor like me.  He responded by saying he and his firm would actually be interested in submitting a proposal.   I hesitantly sent him the RFP and wasn’t surprised when the proposal came back way beyond the scope and budget I had wanted.  We went another round, with me explaining even more clearly what I was looking for and letting his team know it was OK if they wanted to drop out of the process.  Their second proposal was still off and so I finally had to tell them it didn’t make sense to proceed.  The experience wasted time and energy on both our parts, and the firm lost a lot of credibility with me.

I believe clients have much more respect for service providers who are clear about what they do and who will turn down even the most seemingly desirable gigs in order to stay focused on it.

3.  Specialize – I’ve found the best service providers are specialists, not generalists.   Whether their specialty is an industry or a type of service, specialization enables them to serve as experts in the field.  Their expertise gives them instant credibility and they instill confidence immediately.  Specialists usually identify the issues faster and anticipate problems better, and bring a wealth of knowledge they’ve gleaned from similar clients.

4.  Listen – Great service providers listen first, listen more, and listen well.  They make sure they really hear what clients are saying before responding – and they’re wise enough (and perhaps humble enough too) to let other people including other service providers in the room talk first.  They don’t need to have all the answers, nor do they need to prove they’re smart, so they’re more apt to listen than to talk.  And they “listen between the lines” and usually ask more questions than they answer, all so they can understand what someone is really asking or saying.

5.  Flex – Flexibility and adaptability are some of the greatest qualities in a service provider.  I’m not talking about them moving off their core (see #2 above); rather I mean they match the working style and preferences of their clients.

If a client is more relationally-oriented, great service providers will invest more time and energy in developing the relationship.  If a client is more results oriented, they get down to business right away.  They figure out how best to communicate with their clients – not simply making the right choice between email vs. phone, but also between stories vs. facts, bad news first vs. good news first, etc.

Bottom line, great service providers understand one approach doesn’t fit all.

6.  Make it fun – Great service providers make it fun to work with them.  They recognize that their clients are stressed out enough by everything else they have going on, so they work hard to make interactions with them something their clients look forward to.  Of course, fun means different things to different people so how they inject fun into the work depends on the client (see #5 above.)

7.  Deliver — Above all else, great service providers get the work done.  They don’t make excuses or miss deadlines – they just do it.  Because when it comes down to it, you can’t even be a service provider if you don’t provide the service.

I’m really eager to hear reactions to this post – what other things do you think great service providers do?

Also, I’m considering writing a follow-up on what great clients do – if you think this is a good idea, please let me know some items I should include on my list.  And if you think this is a bad idea and something that could get me into trouble, please be sure to tell me!

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