I received a letter today that began with the following:

At MVP Health Care, we strive to provide you with the best customer service and the highest quality benefit plans.

Enclosed is a Notice of Discontinuance, effective January 1, 2010 for your group coverage with MVP Health Plan Inc (MVP).

Huh?

I won’t go into the details of how my customer service experience has been with this company, but suffice it to say, their aptitude on this front is clearly guided by the same ilk that had the brilliance to compose and send out this letter to all their members.

While it’s hard for me to believe that it didn’t occur to anyone in the chain of command how stupid this letter sounds in the way it’s presented, there are times when people do dumb things and just don’t get it. I see this a lot, not only with the horses that come in here (they’re pretty adept at tattling on their former handlers), but also with some of the customer service faux pas committed by good intentioned equine professionals. There seems to be a proclivity in most aspects of the horse world to nourish the “failure to communicate” monster.

Clear communication is customer service to horses
Take horse handling, for example. They’re honest and forthright – but their signals need to be seen and heard for them to be understood. That understanding isn’t just about accommodating their demands. Sometimes – make that often – horses are looking for a leader and they get immense relief when they finally find someone steadfast and gutsy enough to stand their ground and earn their respect. Of course this isn’t about domination or brutality – it’s merely developing an ability to read the horse and respond in ways that send a signal back that you are a confident, competent and trustworthy guide. A lot of people don’t get this. They acquiesce to the horse’s threats, or worse, conclude violence will teach a lesson; both ratchet up the stress for their equine project. With customer service, it’s not always possible – or appropriate – to give your horse or client (or student) exactly what they want. If you can understand their needs, though, and try to address them in their language, it goes a long way toward creating a win-win.

Professional – how so?
No matter how good you are as a horseman, if you don’t develop skills that enable you to communicate effectively with your people clients, you’re not going to make a living for long.

Even if your days are spent working with horses and rarely seeing another human being, you still have people you’ll need to answer to at the end of the day (unless you’re independently wealthy).

It’s the little things that get neglected that make a huge difference in customer satisfaction. Be pleasant to your trainer, student, owner, client, benefactor, etc. Send brief snail mail letters giving updates on your progress or achievements. Thank clients for trusting you. Listen to your customers and let them know you hear them (even if you don’t agree with what they are saying). Compliment their horse. Deliver when you say you will for the price quoted. If you need more time, warn the client prior to the due date and explain why. You’ll be amazed at how understanding most will be, particularly if you extend an offer to meet them halfway on the challenging cases. Don’t lie and don’t play anyone for a fool – some think they can get away with this but the truth will out.

Offer something extra for customer loyalty or referrals. It need not cost you a cent – free braiding for a show, an invitation for their friends to come watch you train or an extra lesson for every ten they sign up for are all easy ways to reward customers without digging into your pocket. It’s amazing how making people (and horses) feel they are being heard and appreciated can make all the difference in reaching a happy understanding. This isn’t rocket science, but so many neglect the little things, then throw up their arms in disgust at their difficult clients (or horses). If you’re going to call yourself a professional, you need communication skills to back it up.

Brand yourself
As in any industry, people (and horses, for that matter) are going to ultimately judge your business by how you behave and communicate. Sure, there are always cases of idiots and jerks who become acclaimed, but how good can they feel about themselves even amidst international kudos? Want to bolster you business in an instant? Focus on ways you can be a champion at customer service. Not the dumb, ironic lip service that MVP has so kindly illustrated, but serious attention to seeing things from the mind’s eye of your customer (or your horses) and answering their concerns in a empathetic way. Five minutes first thing in the morning reflecting on this can have huge dividends on your success and profits.

Nanette Levin

P.S. We’ll initiate our blog summary feature next Thursday. Please send in your favorite equine blog picks and we’ll consider them for review and inclusion.