Sherman Tate remembers a time without smartphones and email – when business deals were cut with eye-to-eye engagement and sealed with a handshake.
Though technology continues to shape how business operates – the fundamentals of relationships remain constant, Tate explains.
Now president and chief executive officer of Tate & Associates Management Consulting, the former executive for Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co. and Alltell Corp. advises clients to strive to understand customer needs.
“It is important that we understand our customers,” Tate says. “Understand their desires. There is no way we can always say ‘yes,’ but there is always the opportunity to treat the customer with respect.”
Tate shared insights from more than three decades of energy, utility and entrepreneurial experience at a recent gathering of the Arkansas Chapter of the American Association of Blacks in Energy at the MISO South offices in Little Rock.
Tate vividly described a situation from his ARKLA Gas days in which a customer showed up to the front desk – his service cut and facing a reconnection fee.
It was one of many learning moments in good customer relations. Tate was able to intervene to manage a successful outcome.
“He was angry,” Tate recalls. “We had to identify and understand his situation. We listened to him.”
After learning the real issue was the customer’s work schedule, Tate’s team worked with the man on a solution for payment.
“When you stand toe to toe with someone, you have to use care in your communication,” Tate shares. “How you communicate determines how you walk away. It is important to be able to speak what needs speaking without alienating those with whom you are speaking.
In his consulting business, Tate now trains senior and mid-level executives on effective customer interaction.
Listening is indispensable for success, he emphasizes.
“The best leaders are the best listeners,” he says. “That is key, whether you are engaging with customers or employees.
“I learned that even on the top floor, you don’t have all the answers,” Tate explains. “We are never too important to stop listening.”
And while Tate himself now depends on his mobile device for instant communication – nothing replaces the human touch, he says.
“Sometimes you need to put the phone down,” Tate says with a chuckle. “Learn to make a personal connection.”