For any sized business, customer service excellence is one of the most effective ways to build and sustain a competitive advantage. Yet when it comes to small business, there is, arguably, even more at stake. When you’re small, every disappointed customer is, potentially, a disaster, and every delighted customer has the potential to provide your business with the most important marketing you could ever receive.
So let’s dig in. Because I know you’re busy and likely have multiple fires to put out all around you, I’m going to limit this to a bullet-point format.
1. Great customer service depends on making a decision: You can’t have great customer service until you make this essential decision: Are you going to put the customer at the center of everything you do professionally, including how you schedule your time, how you design and refine your processes, how you select new employees and how you nurture the ones you have.
2. Make the most of a small business’s advantages when it comes to customer service: the fact that you’re close to the customer, that you inherently seem authentic, and so forth. Make the most of these, in part because you can, and in part because your customers expect you to. (While a customer may be fine with a corporation like Starbucks asking for their name to put on the cup, they expect you, the small businessperson, to know not only their own name but their personal interests and life details, such as the names, ages, and genders of their kids, or whether they prefer skeet shooting or golf, and the like.)
3. Emulate the customer service advantages that large businesses have (better processes and technology, particularly). Being small is no excuse to be slow, unorganized, or to have a website that’s clunky and mid-sized on mobile.
4. Talent management: People are the lifeblood of customer service for any size of business. But for a small business, a single employee who feels unappreciated or uninspired (and takes that out on a customer) or lacking in recent customer service training can be a catastrophe. More positively, a single employee who both has the spirit to serve and is well-trained to do exactly that can make all the difference.
5. Empowerment: It is your job as a leader to empower your employees in meaningful ways, so they can do their creative best for every customer in the many moments when you can’t be around to handle the situation yourself. Likewise, it is their job, as employees, to make the most of this empowerment. (Note: The way that your employees make use of their empowerment to handle customer situations will not, particularly at first, be as refined as it might have been had you taken care of the situation yourself. But it would help if you cheered them on so they will do better and better over time.)
6. Apologies: Learn to apologize, and train your employees in how to apologize as well. Make sure your apologies are real apologies, like “I’m so sorry we fell on the job this time.” Not fakey fake apologies like, “I’m sorry if you feel that way.” (Note: apologies and the overall concept of customer service recovery are essential to get right. So, if you’d like a copy of my 5-step AWARE methodology for customer service recovery [turning upset customers around], let me know, and I’ll send you a printable version for your office use.)
7. Customer service training is essential to improve customer service and to make it stick. Customer service training is essential for every employee (and I expect you to benefit from the training). In my experience, in-person training is best, but you can also supplement that live training with video/digital training after the live trainer visits you to keep it fresh.
8. A sustaining ritual is necessary to keep customer service alive. I suggest the approach that I call the Customer Service Minute: a very brief huddle at the start of every shift, where all employees go over a single customer service principle. Have a different employee lead it every time (the manager doesn’t need to) so that your employees not only learn the principles, they learn to share the principles, and they publicly commit to the principles.
9. Beware of the cliff of dissatisfaction. The cliff of dissatisfaction is the term I use for the moment when a customer loses patience with your company. For example, Starbucks knows exactly how long it takes until a customer is too frustrated to wait any longer contentedly. As soon as this happens regularly, they go ahead and open another Starbucks nearby.
This is a tricky issue for a small business because you can’t readily clone yourself and because you may not even know when your customers are getting frustrated by your slow service. Nonetheless, being aware of the concept of the cliff of dissatisfaction is an essential first step; it allows you to devise creative responses: perhaps adding “my account” functionality to your website so customers can check on their project 24/7, and/or offering callback technology so that they don’t have to wait on hold, and/or providing support via texting (messaging), an approach which most customers today very much appreciate, as it conforms almost perfectly to their own schedules.
10. Once you learn how to deliver superior customer service, you’ll have a competitive advantage that nobody—nobody—is going to be able to take away from you. I have 100% faith in your competitors on this: that even though they may copy your fontography choices, mimic your pricing, and so forth, they aren’t going to take the time and invest the passion and thoughtfulness that it takes to provide superior customer service truly. For one thing, they’re probably not reading this article. So, whatever you do, could you not share it with them?