Nick Lane: “Listen to your customers and really understand their underlying needs”

Make things as simple and clear as possible. Invest in real-time with your marketing, sales and customer service teams to understand how information can be delivered easiest to the customer or prospect at any stage in their journey. The more joined-up thinking you apply from the outset, the better the experience for the customer. As […]

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Make things as simple and clear as possible. Invest in real-time with your marketing, sales and customer service teams to understand how information can be delivered easiest to the customer or prospect at any stage in their journey. The more joined-up thinking you apply from the outset, the better the experience for the customer.

As part of my customer service interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nick Lane, Commercial Director and Co-Owner, Synergist. Nick has been Commercial Director and Co-Owner of Synergist for 12 years. In this time, he has been instrumental in growing the company from a start-up piece of software to the UK’s leading project management and job costing solution for agencies and other project-based businesses. Synergist is the go-to software for businesses of 10 to 600 people who manage multiple projects simultaneously and are looking to take control. 1000s of people, and growing, use Synergist on a daily basis. Nick’s unique skills combine a technical understanding of software and a deep commercial understanding of our clients’ businesses as well as our own with a human approach to client service and honesty in business.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I’ve always had an interest in computers and technology. Since I was young, I’ve been curious about how the technology works. I like things to be black and white and technology gives you this. Some people find it complex and of course on many levels it is, but for me, there’s a simplicity in the certainty of it, there are no grey areas.

This naturally led me to a career in technology and software. I worked for numerous companies taking me to Scotland and then Canada and the US.

I found Synergist because I wanted to expand my knowledge of general business management and how technology can help businesses succeed. I felt business software was a great area to develop these skills. The role involved exploring prospects and customers’ challenges and finding solutions, using either the existing product or if appropriate specifying new features to meet their needs.

Three years in, I and some other key employees had the chance to acquire the company through a management buy-out. I had great confidence in the product so I grabbed it with both hands and I’ve now been a co-owner here for 12 years.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

Well, one that springs to mind in relation to a customer service article is when I was very early on in my career, working for a PC building and repairing business.

We made it clear that all PCs should be backed up before they’re brought to us as we might need to replace some components that could result in data loss.

We had one such situation, the hard drive had developed a fault and needed replacing. When the PC was picked up, I quickly realized, in part due to the uniformed police driver that accompanied the PC’s owner, that it was indeed owned by a very senior police officer. He was working on a thesis at the time, which he hadn’t backed up. It was an extremely fractious conversation in which he was insinuating we are at fault.

This was a real lesson for me. With things as serious as this, you have to spell out the facts to the customer clearly and logically whoever they are. The best customer experiences I’ve had have always been when someone has gone above and beyond to make things crystal clear and this is my guide going forward. When it doubt, make it clear.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

The biggest influence on my career is my dad. Growing up my dad had his own engineering company. Every school holiday I would work with him which I’m sure was more about me learning a hard work ethic than earning my keep.

I saw first-hand the responsibilities of running a business and the commitment you have to your employees and customers.

Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?

To achieve long term success you need to be delivering a great experience to customers. With the shift to subscription models that we’re seeing across many industries, they are replicating what we’ve been doing in the cloud computing world for many years. In a subscription model if you’re not delivering this great overall experience you will lose clients (churn). Minimizing client churn is the key to business success as the cost of acquiring new customers means they often aren’t profitable for quite some time. So just chasing more new business is pointless if you have client retention problems, as you won’t keep them long enough to make any reasonable profit.

The other area where great customer experience is key is in the word of mouth recommendations and referrals. With the complexity of modern marketing options, it’s easy to end up spending huge amounts to effectively buy a new business. This has its place in certain phases of a company’s growth, but ultimately you need your customers to be doing much of your marketing for you as a result of them telling their network of contacts what a great job you do for them.

Great customer service and experience have a massive positive effect on two of the biggest levers you have to determine the success of your business.

We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?

There can obviously be many reasons for poor customer service, but I feel the main cause is companies not focusing on the true underlying need or desire that the customer has. One manifestation of this is businesses that develop processes to meet their needs and not those of their customers. You see this in automation projects where a business decides to use technology to improve its operating efficiency. The initial focus should be on reducing the effort the customer has to make, not just reducing the workload of the business staff. As a provider of business systems if you don’t challenge people in their thinking they can often end up trying to automate a few elements of laborious traditional ways of working, without really exploring if technology now offers a fundamentally smarter way of tackling the issue. We’ve all experienced this with Apps. Some provide a really slick and useful service, whereas others feel like they are based on the company’s internal requirements without much thought for the customer experience.

Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?

Absolutely. There are certain emotional benefits to producing happy customers, but we’re in business and from a business perspective it’s essential. The more industry-leading brands, across any industry, invest in customer experience and customer service, the more the customer’s expectations are raised. This means mediocre or poor service is now more likely to generate negative brand exposure and social media means this negative exposure can become viral very quickly. You see examples of this every week. For some companies, it may take one of these events to force them to improve the customer experience.

For us, as Synergist is a prolific piece of software that needs some initial guidance and support to get the most from it, customer service is an essential, if not the most essential part of our business. It’s imperative that customers have support to enable them to use our software properly. So we’ve gone to the extreme of having a helpdesk working 9–5.30 pm, Monday to Friday and the helpdesk is based in our office, working directly alongside the rest of the company.

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?

Customers are most wowed when we’re able to rectify a serious error of their own making. They appreciate that our support is there for them when they perhaps didn’t expect it, I think it’s a comfort and I this builds more than happy customers, it creates loyal fans.

For example, recently, one of our biggest clients had a situation where a user unintentionally deleted all the draft invoices in their company, and this was a few days before month-end. You can imagine the white-knuckle terror, almost 1000 draft invoices were gone.

Within 2 hours of them reporting the problem, our Support Director was able to restore a recent backup of the data and integrate our journal file up to the exact point at which the draft invoice deletion process started. In the end, all they lost was around 15 minutes of admin (the interval between the deletion event and them reporting it to us). It was a genuine delight to help our clients in this way, and save them hours, if not days of work trying to recreate all the missing draft invoices. As you’d imagine, the Finance Director was extremely relieved.

Did that Wow! experience have any long-term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

I am not sure that exact example had a ripple effect that we can measure, for example, we don’t know that, that client recommended us off the back of that. But we do know that we get a hell of a lot of referrals. Often someone will use our system in one company, move jobs and recommend us to their new company. Or companies recommend us to their network. I think when you combine this and low churn it has to add up to pretty happy customers. So this has to be the overall ripple effect of all our customer service efforts.

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.

1) Be Honest. This often comes out top when people write such lists, but so many of the companies saying this still aren’t taking this to heart. At Synergist, we want every touchpoint with our brand, for customers and prospects, to be honest and clear. This means that everything we write on our website, every conversation, every message we push is the plain truth. We don’t promote ourselves as something we’re not so customers get what they expect, and hopefully more. This is one huge benefit of believing so strongly in our product, we can focus on delivering information as clearly as possible, rather than trying to juggle smoke and mirrors.

2) Listen to your customers and really understand their underlying needs. As a prolific piece of software that touches and integrates information from across the business, we take a consultative approach with customers during implementation. We spend time understanding our customer’s needs so that we can pose ideas on the best way to approach set-up. We know that our customers might ask for X, but if we understand what they are trying to achieve rather than just what they’re asking for, then really, Y might give them many longer-term benefits. If we identify this, it benefits them immediately, but the long -term benefits of the system working for them are immeasurable to our business.

It’s not about trying to change a business or the unique processes that make up their DNA, it’s about having an honest relationship (there we go again with the honest) about what will work best. If we just did as asked, without discussion, a lot of value for the customer would be lost.

This approach can be applied to any customer experience. Someone might buy some bathroom tiles if the salesperson knows there are some similar, same-priced, but better-quality ones at the back of the store, why wouldn’t you tell them? They’ll leave delighted.

3) Don’t try to force a fit. As I touched on earlier, say no to opportunities that aren’t a great fit for your business otherwise both parties will be frustrated by the experience and they’’ never be commercially beneficial. It’s brave to do this, but a great customer experience sometimes involves giving someone advice that is true but ultimately costs a sale. Who knows, they might come back when it’s right and bring their friends.

4) Make things as simple and clear as possible. Invest real-time with your marketing, sales and customer service teams to understand how information can be delivered easiest to the customer or prospect at any stage in their journey. The more joined-up thinking you apply from the outset, the better the experience for the customer.

Think about their experience, how can they get in touch, how can they get information, who can help them, can this be done quicker, what do they want to know? Just make it all as transparent and easy as possible.

5) Work relentlessly on communication both internally and externally. Most issues of customer dissatisfaction stem from poor communication. Often the solution to the underlying issue is not that complex but poor communication results in the customer not receiving a great experience. Chinese whispers or having to go through multiple people explaining the same thing multiple times is extremely frustrating. Where possible, have the customer deal with one person. This might mean that a person has to go and speak to another person or department, but don’t just pass the customer on with no explanation of their journey. Having effective systems to record information on conversations and actions can be invaluable in this process too.

Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well? As a provider of business systems, there’s an element of this that happens naturally through word of mouth. We do ask a certain % of customers at random what their experience of contacting our support team was and we ask permission to publish some of the more interesting comments we receive. This question reminds me that this is an area we should be doing more with, so thanks for the prompt.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

A movement that promotes people’s own respect for themselves and their actions. The obsession with chasing praise and adulation from others via social media etc makes me uneasy for the mental health of many people growing up today. If we teach people to be proud of the intrinsic value of their actions, I’m sure we’ll be a healthier and happier bunch. Still working on how to achieve this!

How can our readers follow you on social media? I’m not especially active on social media myself but we tweet regularly from our company account @synerg1st

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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