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Get the Customer Service Edge

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Get the Customer Service Edge

By Rieva Lesonsky, Guest Blogger
Published: September 3, 2009
As a small business, you can't compete with the big companies of the world on price. But there is one area where you can compete-and win: customer service.

Service is more important than ever these days. During the recent economic boom, customers got used to high standards of service as all types of businesses 'luxury-ized' and 'premium-ized' themselves. At the same time, customers became increasingly cynical about service as outsourced call centers, frustrating voice-mail mazes and sales staff cutbacks led to declining customer service at many major corporations. What's more, the Internet has made it possible for customers to instantly review products, share stories of good (and bad) customer service and expose companies that fail to meet their expectations.

How can you ensure your customer service standards surpass expectations? First, assess your current level of service. It's easy to assume all systems are running smoothly--but are they? Look at your business as a customer would. If your business is run from a retail location or office, have friends or relatives visit and report back to you. What is their first impression? Does the place look inviting, or shabby? Was it easy to find parking? Is the salesperson or receptionist gabbing to friends on the phone, or do they greet the customer? How knowledgeable and helpful are the people on the front lines?

Don't stop with your physical location. Also call your company and see how easy (or complex) it is to get what you want. Can you reach a live person if you want to? Finally, check out your Web site. Is it easy to navigate? Can shoppers check out quickly? Can potential clients find out what they need to know about your product or service? Everyone from your tech-savvy teenage nephew to your 75-year-old mother should be able to use your Web site with the same ease.

If you don't think you can assess these factors objectively, there are 'mystery shopping' companies that you can pay to do so. If that's beyond your budget, enlist various friends and relatives to do the job. You can create a form for them to fill out to standardize responses.

With this information now in hand, make a list of the areas that need improvement. Some fixes may be technical, such as revamping your Web site so customers can find what they need more easily. Others may be physical, such as redecorating your store to make it more inviting. But the biggest factor in improving your customer service is people. The personal touch that you and your employees provide is what differentiates you from the big-box retailer down the street. What does this mean to you?

First, make sure you'.re featured as the 'face' of your business. Do clients know you? Does your Web site feature you? Do you deal directly with customers? Are you known in the community and involved in local organizations and events? Customers get really steamed about poor customer service when they feel they're being ignored or mistreated by some faceless bureaucrat. If they 'see' the real person behind a company, they're more likely to feel they'll be taken care of personally.

Of course, they also need to get personalized service. And that comes down to the second factor in customer satisfaction: your staff. One rule I live by as an employer is that it's a lot easier to hire nice people and teach them the skills you need than it is to hire grumpy people who have the skills you need and try to teach them to be nice. So if you've got grumpy people on your staff, they either need to shape up or ship out. And keep in mind, customer service these days is no longer limited to those on the front lines. Especially for small companies with limited staff, everyone on board needs to understand they're expected to go the extra mile to make and keep the customers happy.

To get that attitude, you need to treat your employees well. Unhappy employees lead to unhappy customers. You may not have a lot of money, but money isn't what it takes to make your employees feel respected and valued. Be open and honest. Give feedback-both good and bad-as soon as you can so good service can be rewarded and bad can be nipped in the bud. Ask your employees for ideas on how to improve customer service-and act on what they say. Figure out what rewards motivate them. For a staff of twenty-somethings, it might be a Friday afternoon bash at the beach; for older workers, it might be flexible time off to attend their kids' events.

Today's customers expect to be able to contact your company at any time, day or night. Whether by phone, e-mail or in person, make sure there's a way customers can contact you and get their issues resolved within a reasonable time. Empower your employees to use their discretion to deal with complaints or problems. It's a good idea to create written guidelines and options-for instance, can salespeople offer a discount or freebie to make up for a problem? Your staff needs to be able to go beyond 'That's not our policy' and give customers what they want.

Customer service doesn't stop when the sale is complete. Always follow up after a sale. The level of follow-up will vary depending on your business. You may want to follow up via phone call, a card or letter, or an e-mail. Whichever method you use, provide a way for customers to let you know if there are any problems with the purchase, and alert them about additional products or services they might want to consider.

Collect customer feedback on an ongoing basis. You can actively solicit feedback by talking to or calling customers, by sending e-mails, or by creating quick surveys for customers to fill out. (Surveymonkey.com is a good site for doing free surveys.) Also keep tabs on other types of feedback. If your products are sold online in any forum where they can be reviewed, be sure to check out what customers are saying. Also put a Google alert on your company name so that you'll be updated when something, whether good or bad, is said about your company online. Pay special attention to complaints-they're one of your best tools for improvement.

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Rieva Lesonsky is CEO of GrowBiz Media (www.growbizmedia.com), a content and consulting company that helps entrepreneurs
Message Edited by Rieva on 09-03-2009 03:33 PM

About the Author:

Rieva Lesonsky

Guest Blogger

Rieva Lesonsky is CEO and President of GrowBiz Media, a media company that helps entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses. Follow Rieva at Twitter.com/Rieva and visit SmallBizDaily.com to sign up for her free TrendCast reports. She's been covering small business and entrepreneurial issues for more than 30 years, is the author of several books about entrepreneurship and was the editorial director of Entrepreneur magazine for over two decades

Comments:

This is excellent advice, Rieva. I think business owners also have to separate out the business from themselves personally, so as to be brave enough to get and review the kind of feedback you talk about in the first few paragraphs. If as a business owner you identify with the business too personally, it could be way too painful to review such feedback. Remember what the good Don said in that mafia movie, 'It's business, not personal.'

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