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4 Lessons Being a Camp Counselor Taught Me about Good Client Services

Published: January 3, 2019

Author: Dave Johnson

Before becoming a full-time digital marketer, I spent five summers working at a summer camp in the North Carolina mountains. What I knew at the time was that I had the most fun job in the world – I was at camp all summer, and they even paid me to be there! What I didn’t know is how many of the skills I learned at camp would be applicable to my eventual career in client services. I could turn this topic into a literal book, but for now, here are my top 4:

1. Expect the unexpected

Search & Social Media Marketing is an agile space. Not that I’m throwing names around (Google), but certain channels will jump changes on you, like removing ad rotation options (Google), changing bid automation strategies (still Google), or even changing the literal definition of “Exact” (why Google, why?). A necessary skill for a digital marketer is being able to take these changes in stride and adjust our own behaviors and strategies accordingly.
This skill becomes even more necessary when providing good client services. Some clients have stable goals and priorities; many others do not. If during our normal weekly meeting, my client announces that the company is shifting focus from top-funnel conversions to bottom-funnel sales and that they also would like a comprehensive plan for tripling their Facebook budget, I can’t just start wheezing uncontrollably. I have to be able to keep calm and begin working through a plan.
Luckily, a summer camp is the best possible training for dealing with the unexpected. Because summer camps are populated mostly by kids, and when a lot of kids are around, weird stuff just happens. One year, a camper terrified his cabin mates – and me – at 2am because he gave a barbarian scream and threw his backpack into the bathroom during a nightmare. That same year, I was awakened in the middle of the night during a camping trip by a camper who was terrified that badgers would drag him out of his tent and eat him. I told him that badgers did not live in North Carolina. This did not satisfy him, so I spent the next 2 hours quietly talking to him about how peaceful and badger-less the woods were.

Vicious? Maybe. Native to NC? Firm no.

In short, working at camp told me how to keep my footing during unexpected situations. I’d have no idea what to do if a badger showed up in the office though.

2. Everything you say should have a reason

My years as a counselor left me with a funny vocal reflex: I now permanently speak in essay format. I make a statement, then I say why I’m making then statement, then I give proof behind the reasoning of my statement. At this point, it’s an innate behavior that I’m literally powerless to stop. It also makes me great “fun” when deciding where to go to lunch, as anyone who’s endured my 5 point thesis on the superiority of the Moe’s burrito will tell you.

To be fair, there’s a good reason for my learned pedantry, and it’s that it was absolutely critical to my success as a camp counselor. I learned very quickly that directions without reasoning attached is just an order that my campers would uniformly choose to not follow.

For example, if I only told a camper “Don’t wad your wet towel in your trunk and leave it there” without any additional reasoning to it, then it looks like I’m just another faceless authority figure stomping on his good time. Instead, if I say “Don’t wad your wet towel in your trunk and leave it there because if you do, it’ll turn into a pile of mold and will make the cabin smell like doom,” then he’ll understand why I’m telling him that and he’ll understand that I’m giving him directions in his own best interest. As a bonus, it will also make him much more likely to actually remove his towel from his trunk.
Working in client services, I found that this same habit greatly improved my client relationships. Whenever I make a recommendation for an optimization or a project, I always follow up with my reasoning for why I’m recommending it. That way, I’m not just rattling on about bid modifiers or Alpha/Beta methodology, but I’m tying it back to our actual account, demonstrating that I’m acting in the best interest of that account.
If I don’t provide that reasoning, then it’s entirely reasonable for a client to ask, “Why are you talking about bid modifiers, and what does it have to do with us?” Pre-empting the question with reasoning shows forethought and shows that I’m thinking and making decisions with the account in mind.

3. Is the client really mad at you?

It’s the worst-case scenario for any meeting: you’re sharing bad news and the client starts shouting. They yell, they curse, and most of all, they let you know in the loudest possible tones how angry they are that this situation has happened.

At this point, you have two options:

  1. Run
  2. Respond in a reasonable, considered way.

The first option, tempting as it might be, is fundamentally bad client services. The second option is the correct one, but it can be VERY difficult to follow through on while in the heat of the moment. It’s natural; no one likes being yelled at, and it’s very tempting to either respond in kind or to just not respond at all.
So how do you manage to keep your cool when a phone call threatens to turn into a shouting match? One trick that’s helped me a lot: take a step back and just consider, “What are they really yelling about?” Is it really you they’re mad at, or is there some other cause festering behind the scenes?
As a camp counselor, this mental exercise was critical in dealing with the high-flying emotions of children because it was almost always the case that an external cause was at play. So Timmy’s shouting and throwing his shoes at his cabinmates? I could write him off as a bad kid, but that’s not fair and it doesn’t solve the immediate problem that someone’s about to get a size 6 Nike to the face. Instead, by remembering that there’s likely some other factor at play, I can approach Timmy calmly and defuse the situation.
With campers, the typical causes of angry behavior are bullying, homesickness, and hunger. With clients, I’ve typically found that additional stresses of their job that I can’t see, such as a heavy workload or a difficult boss, are the most likely origins. As a side note, with my girlfriend, hunger is nearly exclusively the cause, and realizing this ended 99% of our arguments.

It’s a “true” “fact” that 98% of all arguments in relationship come from hunger.

So, if a client starts to yell, take a moment to step back and remember that they are almost certainly not really mad at you. Then approach the situation calmly and with your head held high – this is just another problem that you both will solve together.

4. Don’t make promises that you can’t keep

We all want to provide the best client services possible. When our clients say jump, we want to jump higher than they ever thought we could. We’re a group of professional overachievers; it’s why we all work here.
Given our endemic type-A qualities, it can be all too easy to start making promises we can’t keep. Maybe a client says that they would like a large, detailed report by EOD Friday, and you respond that we’ll get it to him by EOD today (Monday). The client seems pleased by your response, so this was a good thing, right?
Maybe! But only if it makes sense in the confines of your schedule and if it’s actually in the best interest of the client. If you have the time on Monday to ensure the report is the quality it deserves, without pushing aside other important tasks, then go for it.
However, what if you don’t have time to complete the report on Monday, or what if you’ll have to rush to turn in a substandard report, pushing aside important tasks along the way? You might have pleased the client in the short term, but in the long term you burned yourself: either the client will be disappointed in the quality of your work, or will be disappointed that you pushed aside the important optimizations to unnecessarily finish a task early, and that’s assuming you were even able to finish the task on time.
I burned myself several times at camp by making promises that I couldn’t keep. I meant well when, on the first day of camp, I told a nervous camper named Ben that I’d walk him to each activity area, even though I knew that I wouldn’t be able to. It perked him up on that first day, but he was heartbroken the next day when he found out that I couldn’t keep my promise. He was even sadder than before, and he also didn’t trust me to keep promises after that.
The impulse to over-promise comes from a good place – we all just want to give our clients the best – but it leads to disaster in the end. Give the best to your client, but only make realistic promises. Otherwise, you’ll end up giving worse client services. Irony is a cruel mistress.

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