Any entrepreneur willing to endure the proverbial “blood, sweat, and tears” it takes to start a business knows how important clients are. They write the checks that pay the bills. So keeping them satisfied is rarely just lip service. In fact, most business owners believe they are putting their clients first. But according to Joseph Callaway — who, along with his wife, JoAnn, is the author of Clients First: The Two Word Miracle — what they don’t  realize is they’ve developed an array of bad habits that accomplish just the opposite.

“Most owners would be shocked to hear they’re putting clients last,” says Callaway. “But in reality they’re putting so many other things first — their own bank accounts, comfort, convenience, even their own pride — that the customer really does come last…or close to it, anyway.” 

Callaway shares 10 ways in which you may be inadvertently failing your customers.

1. You believe your number-one business goal is to make money.

A too-acute focus on improving the bottom line takes your attention off of the people who are going to enable you to raise it: your customers. Your clients can always tell when they’re not your first priority. 

“The difference between paying attention to service so that your clients will give you more business and doing so because serving the customer is your first priority may feel slight, but it’s significant,” says Callaway. “Taking your focus off the bottom line may feel uncomfortable at first. But you’ll soon find when you focus on how best to serve clients, tough decisions make themselves. If it serves the client, you do it. If it doesn’t, you don’t — even if you make less money. This neutralizes moral dilemmas and really simplifies your life.”

2. You let the little things slide.

As a business owner, there are a lot of “big” things you’d never neglect. However, you might not be such a stickler for what you believe are “smaller things.” Rushing through paperwork so you can get home early, failing to spellcheck an e-mail or two, and running late probably won’t matter that much six months from now, you think. But that’s not necessarily the case, says Callaway.

“So often in life, it’s the small details that differentiate good from great,” he says. “And make no mistake: If it impacts a customer’s happiness, best interests, comfort level, or anything else even the slightest bit, it’s not a ‘little’ thing.”

3. If it’s not “broke,” you don’t fix it.

Many business owners subscribe to the theory that if something’s not broken, they don’t need to fix it. If the check-in routine your receptionist uses has been in place for years and you’re not getting many complaints, why tinker with it? If your knowledge is sufficient to handle most of your clients’ problems, why spend valuable time learning more? According to Callaway, the answer is simple: If you don’t consistently strive to improve, you’re not putting your clients first.

He says, “You should make it a priority to stay familiar with the way your industry is growing and changing. You should also do everything possible to offer your customers the quality and value they deserve. Always question the status quo, and ask yourself how you can make it better.”

4. You downplay your mistakes.

Nobody likes the mishmash of negative feelings that accompanies making a mistake. That’s why many business owners (and their employees) resolve matters with clients as quickly as possible when a ball is dropped, and then try to never speak of the matter again. After all, there’s no sense wallowing in your slip-up — you need to move forward! Right?

“Wrong,” says Callaway. “When your company makes a mistake, no matter how big or small, it’s your responsibility to stare that mistake in the face and get to the very bottom of what went wrong. That’s not just so you can fix one particular error; it’s so you can figure out why it happened and make sure it doesn’t occur again.”

5. You subscribe to the idea that the customer is always right.

Callaway isn’t saying you should disregard a client’s preferences and desires — of course you should try to get to the bottom of what each customer wants, and then do whatever is in your power to deliver that product or service. However, when customers are simply wrong and their best interests are at stake, it’s your responsibility to say so. 

“Allowing a customer to be ‘right’ when you know she isn’t may pacify her temporarily, but in the end, it won’t be good for either of you,” Callaway says. “Putting clients first sometimes means politely but honestly disagreeing with or disappointing them.”

6. You habitually let certain clients go to voicemail.

It’s happened to everyone: When you see that name flash on your phone’s caller ID, you slowly pull your hand back from the receiver and let the ringing continue. You just don’t want to deal with the drama, or the whining, or the accusations, or the belligerence right now. Yes, we all have “problem” clients. But to avoid them or just go through the motions for them is a mistake. They will notice and remember your behavior.

“You may even become known in your company as the gal who can handle the toughest customers,” he says. “And chances are, your clients themselves will be grateful you didn’t give up on them and may even send others your way.”

7. You find yourself telling white lies.

Telling clients white lies, or exaggerating, misdirecting, or omitting, might make life easier temporarily. It’s easy to justify such behavior. But Callaway says these “little” lies are as bad as the whoppers. There is always a chance that customers will see through you and call you on the carpet. Even if they don’t, a willingness to play fast and loose with the truth suggests a broader attitude that relegates clients to second or third priority. 

“Honesty can be tough in the moment, but a reputation for trustworthiness — or untrustworthiness — can stick with you for life,” says Callaway. “Live by a policy of never holding back or sugarcoating and you’ll gain loyalty that money can’t buy.”

8. You spend more time trying to gain new clients than keep old ones.

Chances are, you roll out the red carpet in order to get prospective clients on board. And you’re probably willing to bear with the whims, questions, and requests of fairly new customers whose business isn’t yet cemented. But what about older, more established clients? Do you take the same amount of time and care with them, or do you assume they’ll stick with you out of habit and convenience? 

“If you wouldn’t hang up the phone at the first opportunity with a client you met last week, don’t do it with one you met 10 years ago,” advises Callaway. “Companies that become number-one don’t do so because they win customers over once, but because they do it every day.”

9. You don’t know your client’s daughter’s name or what she likes to do on the weekends.

Remember, to truly serve, you have to care. When you keep yourself at arm’s length, you can’t give your clients 100% and you give them an incentive to take their business elsewhere. “Do you see your clients as sources of income, or do you see them as actual human beings with likes, preferences, quirks, and stories?” Callaway asks. “People want to do business with individuals they like — and they like people who like them! Make a deeper connection with your clients by asking about their kids, their pets, their hobbies, and their jobs.”

10. You feel your main obligation to employees is writing their paycheck.

While (of course) you don’t treat employees like dirt, you may feel that you don’t owe them any special favors, either. After all, you’re paying them — isn’t that enough? Well, no, says Callaway. The way your people treat customers reflects the way you treat them. Are you courteous? Kind? Enthusiastic? Do you listen when they talk to you and try to accommodate their needs? Or are you short, perfunctory, and even sometimes rude?

“Your job is to serve others, period,” Callaway says. “You can’t do that by making distinctions between the people who work for you and the people to whom you provide a good or service. Realize that you set the tone for your company’s ‘personality,’ and that you’re creating a tribe of people who will beat the drum for your message. Try to see your employees through a client’s eyes and be honest: Would they win first or second place in a customer service competition? If you don’t like the answer, try adjusting your own attitude first.”


“After reading through all of these scenarios, the one way to put your customers first is probably pretty obvious: Put them first!” says Callaway. “There can be no excuses and no exceptions.”

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