As a small business owner, you cannot compete with the 100,000-square-foot mega-stores on price or variety. You can, however, blow their doors off by capitalizing on your greatest asset: customer service!
Quality customer service gives you an edge, a niche. Focus on it; maximize it. Be like the independent grocer who greets every customer by name; or the virtual company owner who replies to online inquiries with a personal e-mail.
Customer service is a flat-out necessity in today’s business environment. It’s also profitable. A study by the National Federation of Independent Business found that small businesses that emphasize customer service are more likely to succeed than competitors who stress lower prices or type of product.
“It’s what gives you the edge over competition,” says Rieva Lesonsky, Senior Vice President and Editorial Director of Entrepreneur.com.
“As a small business owner, you cannot compete on price,” Lesonsky said in an interview. “A lot of people will pay a few dollars more to know they’re being well served. Best of all, it doesn’t have to cost you money. Good customer service is common sense, easy and inexpensive. Kindness costs you nothing.”
The foundation of customer service is still the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. What keeps you returning to the same stores, vendors, websites? Is it convenience? Courtesy? Knowing you’re appreciated and that they respect your time? People who have the answers or know where to get them?
As a small business owner, you have an opportunity to build relationships with every customer. Here’s how:
Go the extra mile. Don’t point to the aisle where the product can be found; get it for the customer. Drop everything to find the answer to a question. Make it policy to provide satisfaction when you hear a complaint.
Make it personal. Get to know your customers – by name, face, tastes, interests. Asking, “Betty, how was your vacation?” says you know her, take an interest in her. When they come in or contact you, greet them by name with a big smile, and thank them for doing so.
Set the example and the standard for employees. Make everyone responsible for customer satisfaction, even that after-school stock boy.
Establish two-way communication. Ask for customer input; then listen to what they say. Use simple surveys (online and/or at the counter) that ask two simple questions: “What are we doing right? What can we do better?”
Also, if you can obtain access information, stay in touch with mailings, such as “thank you” cards, holiday greeting cards, notices of new products or services. Ask for their e-mail addresses and permission to send updates and information of interest. Finally, make sure they can reach you by phone, fax and e-mail.
Make the telephone a customer service tool. Train employees (and yourself) to answer the phone promptly, in a friendly, professional voice. Do not leave customers on hold more than 30 seconds. If necessary, get back on the line and take their number; then get back to them as soon as possible.
Don’t buy into the myth that online business must be impersonal. “If you have a website, the customer is different than in person,” says Entrepreneur.com’s Lesonsky. “Have a place where customers can e-mail you. Just as important, get back to them in a timely manner.” Plus, if you take orders on line, make it easy and quick. The best way to lose customers is to keep them waiting ten minutes for a download.
Make your site customer-friendly. Provide “contact us” information that includes not just an email, but address and phone numbers.
Customer service can make or break your business. Give customers poor service and they will never come back. Worse, they will tell others not to go to you. Give them great service, and you will build trust and get customers for life.
Work Hard. Make money. Have fun. — JR Ingrisano
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