When It Rains
Last week was a wet one. As you may have heard, the month of March 2010 brought unprecedented rainfall to the state of Rhode Island, culminating in last week's historic flooding throughout this small state. Rivers overflowed their banks, streets were submerged (including RI's major highway, Rt. 95, parts of which were closed for 3 days due to the flooding) and homes across the state saw their basements slowly fill with water as rain fell relentlessly from the sky. My basement was one of those that suffered this fate.
Before the Storm
My basement troubles really began a few weeks ago, during the first of the three storms that hit our state this month. We had been experiencing some minor water seepage in one area of my basement since the summer and we had begun to repair this leak, as well as the damage done to my finished basement, when the first of these storms hit.
The water, which until now had been a small puddle near the far wall of the basement, began to grow worse. We originally thought the cause of the water to be a rotted window frame and improperly draining downspout, but this storm made us look deeper and as we tore more of our basement apart, we found some small cracks in the area where our foundation floor meets the walls. Water was seeping in from those cracks.
Bad to Worse
As the second storm of the month approached, we patched the cracks in the wall with hydraulic cement and hoped that it would stop the flow of water into the basement. The good news was that no more water came in from those, now sealed, cracks. The bad news was that the water found other ways in.
In the span of a week, we went from a wonderfully finished basement with a minor water problem to a completely torn apart, unfinished dungeon that was leaking water from multiple locations – and the worst of the three storms was still on the way.
By the time the final storm of the month came through, my basement was already submerged in five inches of water, and it was getting worse. The rain poured down and the already soaked ground had nowhere to store it. As the water table rose and the pressure on our foundation grew, we counted no less than 20 cracks and holes where water was now entering our home.
One of the most terrifying aspects of this ordeal was the sense of powerlessness we felt as the water level rose. The finished flooring and walls were long gone by this time, but we began to wonder what was next? How much worse would it get and who could help us?
As anyone who regularly visits my site knows, I tend to take the events in my life and find lessons in them that I then apply to my web design work and blog about. As I stood in a pair of rubber boots in my basement, I looked around and thought about how the rising waters under my home were similar to some of the crisis management issues we face as web developers.
Oftentimes, we are called in at a client's panic stage to diagnose, and hopefully remedy, a major issue on their site. These issues may be due to some legacy code (oftentimes left over from a previous web developer's work on the site) or poorly thought out decisions that should've been resolved long ago, but suddenly something has broken and we are asked to fix it. Not only are we asked to fix it, we are asked how long it will take and how much will it cost to do so.
In situations like this, we often have no idea what to tell our client. We can't give them a definitive answer on what is wrong or a guarantee on how long or how expensive it will be to resolve the issue because we don't yet know the full extent of the problem. This is how it was with my basement. We wanted someone to tell us exactly what was wrong and how they could fix it for us, but it wasn't that easy.
This experience has reminded me of a few key points to keep in mind when I am dealing with client issues and they are the ones in crisis mode.
Lend a Sympathetic Ear
The contractor who finally helped bail us out (Troy Hall of Halls Masonry) was great at not only looking into our foundation leaks and doing what he could to stop the flow of water, but also at trying to help calm us. He listened to us as we vented and let our emotions out and he lent a sympathetic ear. Sometimes, when a client is going through a particularly difficult situation, one of the best things you can do it to take a few minutes to let them talk and assure them that you sympathize with their problem and will do what you can to make it right.
Be Responsive and Keep Clients in the Loop
Every minute you spend lending a sympathetic ear to your client or explaining to them what you are doing is time that you are not working on fixing their actual problem, so you must balance the actual repair work with client communications, but remember that the situation is more than just the leaky basement or broken web site. Calming your client by responding to their questions or concerns and keeping them appraised as to what is happening at relevant intervals in the project will help them combat the sense of powerlessness that they may be feeling. Our contractor let us know what was happening and what he was doing regularly, which helped us feel like we were in control in some small way, rather than simply along for the ride.
When Possible, Be Definitive
Often, in situations like this, we avoid giving definitive answers because we do not know the full scope of the problem and do not want to make promises we cannot keep. Our clients, however, are looking to us to lead them out of this situation - to take charge and be in control. Do not give your clients false hope or make claims you cannot live up to, but when you can be definitive, do so! Take charge and be the leader who helps fix your client's problems – they will appreciate not only the solution you provided, but the guidance and stability you gave them along the way.
Know When to Ask For Help
There is no shame in asking for help or for a second opinion. You may have a plan in mind, but bringing in a colleague to review your plan or offer another opinion can only help your client in the end – and they'll appreciate the fact that you left your ego at the door in order to find the best solution to solve their problem.
Sometimes, It's Alright to Leave Some Money on the Table
When the contractor first came to my home, he recommended we have a sump pump installed immediately to start pumping the water out from under the house and to relieve the pressure on the foundation. We agreed on a price for this work, but while he was at my home installing the pump (over the course of three days), he also patched numerous holes and leaks, cleaned up hundreds of gallons of water, and much more. When it came time to write him a check for the work, we asked how much extra we owed him for the additional services. He said we didn’t owe him anything else at all. He could easily have tacked on a few hundred bucks for the extra work he did, but he left some money on the table. As this ordeal got more and more expensive for me, that simple gesture spoke volumes about his dedication to customer service and to helping us out.
Similarly, I remember when I first started with Envision being told by Todd Knapp (the company’s CEO/CTO) that Envision didn't have higher rates for emergency service on nights or weekends. This surprised me, simply because it was so different than what I was used to. His explanation was that when clients have an emergency during the night or over the weekend is when they need us the most. Why should we hike their rate simply because they are desperate and we can get more money out of them? When our client's need is the greatest is when we want to be there for them doing whatever we can to help out.
Follow Up After the Problem is Solved
A few days after the rain had stopped and our pump was in place, Troy called us to see how we were doing. He didn't ask if there was any more work he could do for us, he simply asked how we were holding up. That was nice.
After we resolve a client's issues, we are often so busy moving onto the next job that we fail to take 5-minutes to reach out to see how our client is doing now that the situation is behind them. Being responsive and definitive during the worst of the crisis is critical, but taking the time to follow up once it is over is something that your clients will appreciate long after this ordeal is a distant memory.
The True Measure of Great Customer Service
We want to give our customers great service at all times, but the truest measure of our dedication to our clients is how we respond and react when they need us most. As the flood waters rise in their basement or their sales plummet due to their site being offline, that is when we have the opportunity to provide not only excellent service and solutions, but to be good people doing whatever we can to help someone out of a bad situation – to be a ray of light in otherwise stormy weather.