When you’re running a small business, each and every customer or client is important to the long-term success of your business. In other words, stellar customer service should be a top priority. Especially in today’s digital world, real-time poor reviews can spread like wildfire and impact your customer traffic and sales. Likewise, real-time excellent reviews can lead to more customers, increased business, and a greater number of sales.
Certain common-sense basics of customer service are simple and free. For example, friendly employees, a well-laid out store, and responding quickly and appropriately to complaints online cost nothing and are easy to implement. In contrast, other customer service musts may cost money, but will pay off over the long-term. Refunding money, employee training programs, and not cutting corners to make the best quality products may not be free, but these steps can vastly improve your overall customer service.
We need to think of customer service not as one thing, but rather as a long-range aggregate of goals. Excellent customer service is not just about those few minutes a potential customer spends in your store or on your site but about their long-range long-term perception of your business as a positive place to shop, dine, or otherwise spend their hard-earned money.
So, what goes into a well-rounded customer service policy?
Start With a Great Product or Service
Customer service is, at its core, simply about ways you can strive to make your customers happy. It seems obvious, but we should state it: if you have a great product or service, your customers will be happier. Trying your best to make sure your customers are pleased means that they should rarely deal with product defects or quality issues.
This also means you should listen when customers offer feedback or complaints – those are opportunities to make your products or services better.
Don’t Underestimate Common Courtesy
It should come as no surprise that friendliness is a key component of excellent customer service. If you have a brick-and-mortar store, your employees’ attitudes go a long way toward influencing your customers’ experience in your store. You want your customers to have a positive association each and every time they visit. We’ve all walked into stores and been faced with surly, unhelpful employees – and we never want to go back.
The positive experience should begin as soon your customer enters your store. The simple act of training your employees to greet each customer (and always with a smile) will help boost your customers’ positive experience with your shop.
In fact, research shows that the first minutes a customer spends with a shop can color how the customer will later recount their entire experience there. Psychological data on human memory suggests that a negative first impression can tank the whole interaction, whereas getting off to a positive start can cause a rose-colored glasses effect.
This “first impression” also applies to online business. Make sure that your online shoppers are greeted with a friendly, well-laid out website to set the tone for an overall positive experience.
Just as the friendliness of your store employees sets a positive tone for your shoppers, the ambiance of your shop can boost your customers’ shopping pleasure. A well-organized, clean, and pleasantly-scented store will help show off your products and entice buyers.
You may not have a million dollar budget to renovate your shop, but you don’t need it! A few simple changes can have a big impact. Strive to declutter so that your products are easy to see and to touch. Provide warm lighting and inviting scents so your customer wants to linger and shop. Keep things clean and well-maintained – you don’t want the overall impression to be shabby.
“Time is money!” That credo is especially important when you’re dealing with customer service. There are few things more frustrating than waiting on somebody to complete a simple task when you’re in a rush. Wasting your customers’ valuable time is a surefire way to ruin their shopping experience.
A simple way to show that you respect your customers’ time is by making sure all of your employees are competent and well-trained, so each one can assist customers in their unique needs. This is a great way to streamline the shopping and transaction process for your shoppers.
At a minimum, you should make sure all of your employees know the products or services offered, that they can process payments, and that they know the return or exchange policies. If you have a new hire, having them shadow a seasoned employee can help them learn the ropes quickly.
Remember that ongoing training is key! Customer service is a skill that takes regular practice. It’s easy to fall into bad habits, especially for employees that have to deal with difficult customers. It’s also important to keep employees updated on your latest products, services, and policies so they always have the information a customers needs.
Take Advantage of Complaints
The adage “The Customer is Always Right” should be your mantra for excellent customer service. While it’s true that you cannot please each and every person, you can take steps to rectify problems and make up for any perceived wrongs. Your goal to achieve top-notch customer service is to fix any experiences that aren’t satisfactory for your customer – whether you agree with them or not.
As the owner, you have free rein to get creative on making your customers happy when a problem arises. That may mean removing an improperly cooked item from a restaurant tab, offering a discount coupon for future use, or amending your return policy to deal with a problem after the designated return period has lapsed.
Sometimes, simply listening to the customer’s complaint will be enough to make them feel validated. It may benefit you to ask the customer, “What can I do to fix this for you?” Then do it!
There’s another benefit to paying close attention to complaints – they give you opportunities to make your products better. If you hear more than one customer complaining about similar issues, that may be a signal that there’s a problem with your product or service. Make adjustments and reach out to customers to see if that makes their experience better. They get a better experience and the sense that you really care about their satisfaction.
The Internet Is King
Everyone is online these days, so you should be, too. It used to be that customer reviews spread via word-of-mouth. Now, online review sites mean that customers can share a negative experience and have it go viral within minutes. And unfortunately, people are often more likely to share negative experiences than positive ones. It’s easy to bang out a bad review in anger but if you’re happy, you’re probably not that motivated to get online and talk about it.
Long story short, you can’t afford to ignore online review sites. Check them frequently and interact with your customers regularly. When you get good reviews, thank the customers for their feedback. When you get bad ones, promptly reach out to them to offer to make it right (and show them and everyone else that you respond quickly to complaints). Customers like to know they’re being heard and that’s a great (and free!) way to show it.
Remember The Long Term
Sometimes, great customer service isn’t free. Consider Apple, for example. If you bring in a defective product, they’ll often simply replace it on the spot. That’s not cheap, but it makes their customers really happy and really loyal. Everlane, the online clothing store, is another example of a company that goes above and beyond to make customers happy – they often give customers both a refund and a replacement for products that are damaged, defective, or that didn’t arrive.
Of course, these larger companies have deeper pockets and it may not be feasible to offer your customers free replacements. But remember that your immediate bottom line is not your only concern – taking a small hit now with a coupon or a free product can pay off in the long term in customer loyalty.
The Customer Always Comes First
Without customers, your company will fail. That seems obvious, but many companies forget that simple truth (have you tried your cable provider’s customer service lately?). So whatever you do, keep your customer front and center in your mind. Designing a new product? Design it around them. Creating a store experience? It’s all about the customer. Training your employees? Their training should focus on making customers happy.
The most important thing you can do is listen to your customers – take information straight from the source! Keep in touch both in person (where possible) and via surveys and reviews to learn what’s working for your customers and what you can do better. And when you make improvements, let the world know! Your customers (and potential customers) want to know that you’re putting them first.