By Cathy Tingle
Customer service matters in business, everyone knows that. And in editing it’s important, too. We have clients, after all. But, for us, giving too much to customers can be counterproductive. Overwork and we make mistakes. Give too much time to a project and our per-hour fee will reduce such that we question whether it’s worth being in business. I’ve worked in marketing, so I know about the value of customer service; however, moving across to editing this ‘how much is too much?’ question muddied for me what were previously clear waters.
To remind myself of what is important in customer service, and see if it applies to the editorial world as much as to larger business, I headed over to the Institute of Customer Service website.
Which customer service principles apply?
The website’s home page was a big surprise, not so much because of its message but because it shows a video that features my former boss, Jo Causon, who, it turns out, is now the CEO of the Institute of Customer Service. The video seems geared towards big organisations, so I contacted Jo to say ‘hello’ and ask if its ideas about customer service apply to sole traders and small businesses in the editorial field. Jo confirmed they do, saying:
‘Customer service is something that, if done well, is a clear differentiator for an individual or organisation and a clear way of marketing yourself.’
Where might we stand out, then, in terms of customer service? Jo names ‘quality and attention to detail’ as marks of customer service that editorial professionals know all about, plus ‘genuine interest’ and a ‘service ethos’. So far, so good – I don’t know any editors or proofreaders that don’t display these characteristics in spades.
But how relevant to us are the more formal customer service indicators? According to the video, businesses should think about the following five points:
- How professional and competent staff are, and how relevant is their knowledge.
- How easy they are to do business with.
- Whether their product or service does what it says it will.
- How they deal with complaints.
- Their timeliness and responsiveness.
Let’s look at each in turn.
Competence, knowledge and professionalism
This is a good start. As editing professionals our competence and relevant knowledge is inseparable from our offer, and the fact that we’re SfEP members is a mark of professionalism. Next!
Being easy to do business with
Are we easy to find online (and elsewhere if that’s where our clients will look), and are our services and terms easily understandable? When we’re into an edit, do we make the process easier for others by explaining why we are suggesting a change, or giving useful options to choose from? Are we as clear as possible at all times when communicating with our clients?
These are some questions that could be relevant. You can probably think of more.
This third point is what you might call ‘hygiene’ (basic stuff – you’ll certainly notice if it’s absent) but actually it’s quite a difficult area. Here we have to do our best to be realistic – firstly, in what we promise to clients. Make sure, in publicity or correspondence, that you never offer more than you can give. Secondly, we must be practical about what’s possible throughout a project. A recent tweet by Christian Wilkie (@CWWilkie), a Minneapolis-based writer and editor, gives an insight into the sort of hard decision we occasionally need to make.
‘Just had to cancel a freelance assignment I’d agreed to, because the materials weren’t supplied to give me enough time before deadline. Sounds clear-cut, but I wanted a good relationship with this agency. The fact is, I can’t do a good job without enough time.’
It’s tricky to know what to do in these situations. However, Christian wisely realised that if he didn’t complete the job to a high standard because of a lack of time his relationship with his client would have suffered in any case.
Dealing with complaints
No matter how hard we try, things can sometimes go wrong. How we react if and when this happens is important. When I worked in marketing (with Jo) the big idea was that a complaining customer can be turned into a loyal ambassador for your business if dealt with correctly.
As with the rest of editing, the key thing is to really listen to your customer – in this case, to their concerns. It’s important to keep calm and share any relevant information, including about how the problem may have occurred. The SfEP receives very few complaints about its members because they sign up to its Code of Practice, but what happens if your client threatens to complain to the SfEP? Over to our standards director, Hugh Jackson:
‘If someone threatens to raise a complaint against you to the SfEP, the first thing to do is not to panic. It can be really unpleasant to have the relationship with your client break down to that extent, but behaving calmly and professionally will go a long way towards defusing a tense situation and making it easier for everyone involved. Signpost your client to the complaints page on the website, where they can read about the process and what’s required of them if they do decide to go in that direction.’
‘As a society, we would always encourage editors and their clients to work together to resolve any disputes by compromise, but we appreciate, inevitably, that sometimes just isn’t possible. The complaints process is specially designed to be even-handed and independent. It’s also strictly confidential: even if the complaint is upheld, in the vast majority of cases your name won’t be broadcast to the membership or in public.’
So, don’t panic. Give your client all the information they need, and have faith in our complaints procedure.
Being timely and responsive
Many of us start our editing careers relying on this differentiator, perhaps in the absence of experience or confidence in our professional abilities. For example, you could make yourself available all day and night and at weekends, and promise to respond to any queries within an hour. However, you then might realise that this involves a cost to you and affects the quality of your work.
Managing expectation is probably a better route. Make clear to your clients the times when you respond to queries and when you don’t. You could do this with a combination of wording in your terms and conditions and an out-of-office response in the evenings and at weekends. During working hours you could send a quick acknowledgement to show you have received an email and are thinking about it, with a general idea of when the customer might hear back more fully.
The central relationship
Those are the five points. What struck me is how they reflect our Code of Practice, which emphasises high standards and clear communication plus the setting of sensible boundaries and rules that serve our clients, and us as suppliers. So the good news is that if you’re an SfEP member you already have a head start in terms of customer service.
But there is one overarching customer service principle at which we editorial professionals excel. In the video, Jo explains that we have moved from a transaction-based economy to a relationship-based one. The word ‘relationship’ is oft used in marketing but as editors it’s our bread and butter. Editing can be very personal – you are handling your author’s strongly held ideas, often the result of years of research and thought, or the fruits of their imagination and experience, and their work is bound up with their ambitions and fears. You need to tread softly in order to make sure you’re giving the author due respect and bringing the best out of their text.
And if we’re thinking of differentiators, the best you can do is to be you, with all your differences as an individual. Work out what you’re great at and make the most of it. Train to fill any gaps and market yourself in an area where you stand out. It will then be you, as you are, that your clients need, trust and return to. Surely there’s no better model of customer service than that.
Cathy Tingle, an Advanced Professional Member, came to freelance copy-editing after a PhD in English, a decade in marketing communications and four years as editor of a parents’ guidebook. Her business, DocEditor, specialises in non-fiction, especially academic, copy-editing. Follow her on Twitter: @thedoceditor
Proofread by Joanne Heath, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.