When your clients speak, do you listen…really?

It’s a well-known fact that men and women communicate in entirely different ways. In marriage, for example, when a wife starts to pour out her feelings about a recent situation that deeply bothered her, her husband’s natural (and quite instinctive) response is to immediately go into the problem solver mode and offer an obvious solution to the “problem.” Poor fool. Without realizing it he’s just stepped on a communication landmine. After “solving his wife’s problem” which results in a rather smug smile indicative of personal satisfaction he quickly finds that his all-wise, guru-seal-certified, wisdom-of-Solomon-like solution has as much value as the used coffee grounds his wife tossed into the trash that morning. More than that, he suddenly and mysteriously became the bad guy. What the &%*# just happened!?! He blew it! In fact, his all-wise method of communication not only missed, it actually missed by a mile—again. When will we men ever learn?!?!

What we have here is a failure to communicate—effectively. Given a different, more testosterone-based audience, his “solution” would probably have been regarded as of the highest caliber. Unfortunately for him, his wife really only wanted him to validate her feelings. She just wanted to be heard by an active, caring listener. Often, a simple “Oh, that’s terrible! I’m so sorry, Honey. I can only imagine how that must have made you feel,” will suffice. That’s it, nothing more. What could be simpler? When we husbands finally learn that active listening coupled with validation is what our wives want, we will all be happier and most husbands will come away smelling like roses.

My confession: I’m an idiot. I’ve known the aforementioned “secret” of spousal communication for about twenty of our thirty years together and I still blow it–frequently. It’s just not easy to break certain genetically induced communication instincts and habits. What’s this got to do with the cleaning industry? The example only serves to illustrate the potential communication landmines that exist and how easy it is to step on one when dealing with unhappy clients—male or female.

It’s critical that we understand how to communicate with clients when they communicate issues with us. We need to know how to effectively respond (and how NOT to respond) so as to avoid having our cleaning company thrown out like that morning’s used coffee grounds.

What are some of the common communication blunders we BSC’s make? When a client brings an issue to our attention, some of us—rather instinctively—want to justify ourselves or our employees, or our company. It’s human nature to want to save face, and in an effort to do so, we frequently tend to rationalize our actions, or even minimize the issue(s). Even worse, we may even respond angrily at times as a result of mounting frustration. So what’s a conscientious BSC to do when confronted with an unhappy building manager?

I wish I could give you a one-size-fits-all, 100% guaranteed solution. I can’t. Sorry! You well know that each situation we confront is different, as is each building manager. However, even with the aforementioned disclaimer out of the way, there are some guiding principles and suggestions that can help us to come off smelling like roses. They are:

1. Establish and maintain your common ground.

When you started that cleaning account, you likely sold your client on the principle that you’re not just a vendor, you’re a partner. Your interests should be in common. Your flags are the same color as it were. Having said that, when issues arise, you’re not adversaries, your still team players, so act like a team player. Put the client at ease. It’s not easy to have to point out deficiencies (read complain). Reassure her that you welcome their observations—no matter how small they may seem. Something like, “I’m glad you called, we’re happy when our clients bring matters to our attention so we can correct them quickly—nip them in the bud—before they become larger problems”.

2. LISTEN and VALIDATE for heaven’s sake!

When I talk about listening, I’m NOT talking about the physical sense of hearing. I’m talking about the art of listening—active listening. According to the authors of the book “Understanding Interpersonal Communication: Making Choices in Changing Times, non-verbal communication represents at least 65 percent of all communication. In other words, your lips may easily say one thing (thank you for bringing this to my attention), while your body is communicating something entirely different (Jeez this is a waste of my time, why don’t you get a life!) Make sure your posture and facial expressions convey the right message to your client. Furthermore, if you appear distracted while the building manager is speaking (imagining, for example, seeing her staked to an ant hill), you’re either missing some very important opportunities to solidify your relationship, or your irreparably damaging it. Don’t underestimate your client’s powers of observation. It’s not that difficult to discern sincere interest, or a lack of it.

Active listening also involves asking direct, specific questions in order to clarify. “Mrs. Building manager, It’s important for me to fully understand your concerns. When you say “it doesn’t look like the cleaning crew is mopping the floors,” is it that you’re still seeing debris, do they feel sticky or is it that they’re not as shiny as you’d like to see?” According to the ancient wise man, “Counsel in the heart of a man is as deep waters, but the man of discernment is one that will draw it up” (Proverbs 20:5). In other words, draw out the unspoken, un-clarified message, or you’ll be back the next day addressing the same issue again, only this time it’ll be with an angrier building manager.

Once you’ve listened to both the verbal message as well as the often unspoken message, you must validate! While listening, you’ve been nodding in agreement. You’ll also punctuate some of her statements with verbal nods i.e. “right,” “absolutely,” “I see,” and the like. However, don’t forget to verbally acknowledge what’s being said. While taking BRIEF notes during the conversation is an excellent non-verbal way to validate her concerns, be sure to maintain sufficient eye contact while giving the appropriate response: “I can see where that would be a problem.” Or, “You’re absolutely right, that is important.” Or perhaps, “Well, we sure dropped the ball with there.”

Acknowledge what you’re hearing. VALIDATE her feelings and avoid minimizing the issue! The complaint may seem gnit-picky, miniscule or even ridiculous to you, but it’s obviously important to the building manager (or his superiors). Maybe she thinks the matter is ridiculous too, but she’s obligated by a superior to relay the matter whether she thinks it’s ludicrous or not.

3. Quit making excuses!

One other communication landmine to avoid at all costs is the self-justification, or excuse-making. We all want to look good and being on the receiving end of a list of complaints isn’t easy. Whatever you do, don’t take complaints personally. I know you’re a great person. You know you’re a great person. Your dog absolutely adores you, but that’s not the issue here, so don’t make it one. It’s only business. Deal with client’s complaints like a true professional.

The bottom line here is that clients aren’t interested in excuses, rationalizations and self-justification. They’re interested in quick, efficient results. They really don’t care about how short-handed you are during the flu season or that the company vehicle broke down last night and you couldn’t get it fixed, or that the ice is making it difficult for your employees to get to work. Some BSC’s are tempted to use these excuses like a trump card hoping that it will get the building manager off their back a little. Don’t do it. All they really want to hear is that you validate their concern and that you’ll fix the issue starting yesterday.

Good communication is the lifeblood of any successful relationship, both personal and professional. As the wise man says, “There is a frustrating of plans where there is no confidential talk, but in the multitude of counselors there is accomplishment” (Proverbs 15:22). Let the professional consultant inside really shine when you address quality issues with your clients. Remember to put them at ease. Reaffirm that you’re on the same team and welcome their comments. Listen actively and validate their concerns while avoiding the pitfalls of making excuses, trying to save face, or justifying your mistakes. Good communication habits will undoubtedly lead to great accomplishment in your cleaning business. The wise man stated another truism that history confirms, “Have you beheld a man skillful in his work? Before kings is where he will station himself; he will not station himself before commonplace men”. —Proverbs 22:29