What It Takes to Put Clients First

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Joseph Callaway and JoAnn Callaway

We put the customer first. We’ve heard it (and probably said it) so many times it’s become a cliché. Yet, while many pay lip service to the idea, few companies truly put it into practice. Here’s why: we’re so concerned with bottom lines, profit margins, and paying the bills (at work and at home) that we instinctively put ourselves first. However, when you truly put the customer first—and put your own needs second— a lot of other things naturally fall into place. Since you’re no longer pitting the client’s needs against your own, relationships are based on transparency and honesty. People like and trust you, and referrals flow freely.

If there is a magic bullet, putting clients first is it. It has the power to change your life, to transform your business, and to bring about financial security.

What does putting clients first really look like? We’ve come up with an 11-step strategy:

Step 1: Make the commitment. For many people, commitment is a scary word—and for good reason. It implies that you have accepted responsibility, that you are “locked in,” and (sometimes) that you have given up an aspect of your freedom. For all of those reasons and many more, most commitments should not be taken lightly. But here’s the good news: Because sincere commitments require you to step up and take a stand, they often lead to great things.

How-to-hint: Give yourself a week to think it through before you decide. A no is better than a quick yes and a shallow commitment. Ask yourself, “What will my life really look like when I put customers first? Will I have to work late more often? Take client calls at home? Have conversations that veer away from business and into ‘personal’ territory?” If you don’t like what you envision, don’t make the commitment.

Step 2: Speak the commitment. Step 1 won’t ultimately mean much if you don’t share your intentions with others. If you say nothing, your commitment will begin to wither like an unwatered flower. Speaking your commitment gives you strength, and it’s instrumental in affirming (and reaffirming) to yourself what your goals are and why.

How-to-hint: If you get a negative reaction when you speak your commitment, channel David Letterman. The late-night TV host often reads jokes from index cards. If one happens to fall flat, he simply flicks the card away. This flicking gesture protects him from rejection. If someone dismisses your spoken commitment (or worse, mocks it), make a flicking gesture and move on.

Step 3: Keep the commitment. Some days, you’ll want to say, “To heck with this difficult person! He can fend for himself from now on!” Or you might just be so tired and overwhelmed that you’re tempted to cut some corners and let some non-priorities slide. You must try as hard as you can to resist that temptation.

How-to-hint: Remember the Napoleon Hill story from his classic Think and Grow Rich. A miner worked a claim for years before eventually giving up and going back home. A few years later an amateur visiting the area found a pickax and gave a promising wall a try. In less than an hour, he discovered one of the West’s richest strikes. Don’t stop three feet from gold!

Step 4: Get out of the way. When it comes to being successful, having a healthy ego can be a blessing and a curse. Yes, you need a strong sense of self in order to avoid being trampled on and marginalized by competitors and by clients. But when you start to believe that winning, recognition, and accolades are the point of what you do, you’ve veered off onto a destructive path.

How-to-hint: Many people think building rapport is a matter of finding a common interest. They then dominate the common interest discussion by talking about themselves. Don’t. This is a form of arrogance and it takes your focus off the client.

Step 5: Set the monkey down. The monkey that’s riding your back in the form of responsibility and pressure, that is! If you’re like most people, you probably feel burdened with a myriad of worries, fears, and obligations. You assume that “it’s all up to me” and you might even lie awake at night fretting over what isn’t right and what could go wrong. However, if you want to successfully care for your clients, you can’t expend the majority of your mental energy on yourself.

How-to-hint: Every time you find yourself fretting, do something for a client. Spend an hour solving a client problem you’ve been avoiding. Connect one client to another who might be able to help him. Email him a link to an article you know would interest him. Worry thrives when you procrastinate and wring your hands. Action is the antidote—so do something (anything) to back up your commitment to your clients.

Step 6: Put your faith in others. This has two meanings: serving others and letting others serve you. Serving others means separating the service you render from the paycheck you receive. No, don’t give your services away for free; just make sure that padding your bank account isn’t your primary motivation. Do your job because you genuinely want to help your clients, and don’t worry about what you’ll get in return. (When you have this mindset, you’ll probably find that your clients feel just as strongly about compensating you fairly!)

The second aspect of putting your faith in others is allowing them to help you by delegating tasks or leveraging others’ talents. No matter how good you are, you can’t do it all. And when you trust others and give them the freedom they need to do their jobs, you’ll usually be pleased with the results.

How-to-hint: Practice going first. The next time you find yourself in a position to serve someone—a boss, an employee, a client—take the leap. Don’t wait for them to do something for you and don’t think about what you’ll get in return.

Step 7: Trust the truth. If someone accused you of not being honest, you’d probably protest, “How can you even ask that? Of course I’m honest!” And by most people’s standards, you probably are. But it’s also likely that you aren’t being totally, completely authentic in the way you handle relationships and do business.

How-to-hint: You know that thing you’ve been wanting to say for a long time? Go ahead and say it. Don’t worry about the fallout. You’ll find that most people want the truth. Give it to them and you’ll strengthen the bond between you.

Step 8: Let the work be the reward. In the real world (especially in a tough economy), you can’t always follow the popular graduation day advice, “do what you love.” But what you can do, regardless of how you spend your nine-to-five hours, is choose to take pride in your work. When you consciously decide to put forth your best efforts, you’ll experience greater rewards and you’ll get better at what you do.

How-to-hint: At least once a year, do something that will help you get better at your job. Maybe it’s going to a seminar. Maybe it’s asking the client how you can serve him better. Maybe it’s shutting down your email so you can better concentrate on the task at hand. The better you get at what you do, the more rewarding it will be.

Step 9: Learn to like people. Think about it: Do you see your clients as business opportunities and sources of income, or as actual human beings with likes, preferences, quirks, and stories? To truly put clients first, your number one goal at each meeting should be to invite them within arms’ length and make them less of a stranger.

How-to-hint: Every time you meet with a client, ask at least one question that has nothing to do with business. Ask about their kids. Ask about their pets. Ask about their favorite food, or movie, or vintage car. The conversation will likely develop in a surprising direction. As you hear their stories and get to know their joys and sorrows, you’ll start liking them. And you’ll find it more natural to put them first as clients.

Step 10: Turn it around. You, not the customer, are the expert on your business. But does that mean yours is the only opinion that matters? Of course not. No matter what industry you’re in, you need to turn your viewpoint around and make a sincere effort to see yourself and your business as your client does. Think about what your clients want and figure out how to give it to them. Bottom line: When you turn it around and put yourself in the client’s shoes, you put the client first.”

How-to-hint: Call up an ex-client and ask her how she sees your business. Assure her up-front that your goal is not to win her back. You just want the truth about how she perceives you and the truth about what she as a customer really wanted from you. If you are willing to do this (and make no mistake, it’s hard), you’ll learn a lot about what needs to change.

Step 11: Give to get. We’ve all heard the expression, “The more you give, the more you get.” But how does it relate to business? I remember being very apprehensive about donating a large sum of money to build a Habitat for Humanity house as a Christmas gift for our clients. I thought I’d never see that money again. But in the years since, I’ve learned that new clients chose us—and even that a bank gave us all of their foreclosures to sell—because they had learned of that donation. Now, you might not always give and get on such a large scale. But the principle works for all amounts of money, and it also works when you’re giving over-and-beyond service.

How-to-hint: Look for something to give away (and don’t be cheap about it). Whether you give free popcorn to moviegoers or a gorgeous framed print to your interior design clients, you make them feel special. This will keep them coming back.

If you commit to the Clients First strategy, it will fill you with pride, clarify your perspective, and promote your business’s prosperity. Most of all, your clients will love you for it—and you will love them!

About the Author(s)

Joseph Callaway and JoAnn Callaway are founders of the real estate company Those Callaways. They are coauthors of the New York Times bestseller Clients First: The Two Word Miracle. For more information, visit www.clientsfirstbook.com