10 Important Customer Service Tips For Small Business

Small business owners often forget to make solid customer service goals when they are creating their plans.

As a small business owner, you work hard. It's likely that you put in over 60 hours per week and spend your own money to make your business dreams come true. With all that hard work and investment, why is it that some businesses fail while others succeed? The answer is one simple word: planning. What does planning have to do with customer service? Everything. We plan our financial projections, we plan our advertising, we plan for optimal location, overhead, insurance, and many other aspects of our business. What type of plan do you have for customer service?

We all know that customer service is important, but what does that really mean? How do we provide excellent customer service? We do it by being mindful of our goals to keep our customers coming back. We do it by creating a specific customer service plan, putting it in writing, and executing it the same way we execute all critical phases of our business. Below are some suggestions for your formal customer service plan:

1) Establish rapport. This may sound like a no-brainer, but it is the most commonly overlooked aspect of customer service today. Too often, customers feel anonymous when conducting transactions with businesses. Everyone wants to feel valued. Whenever you or your staff have dealings with clients, make sure that pleasantries are exchanged. A simple, "how are you today?" can make a world of difference in a client's experience with your company. This means eye contact if the transaction is in person, a smile or an upbeat voice, and perhaps a comment about what the customer is buying from you. If a person is purchasing birthday candles and children's party hats, for example, asking how old their child is or commenting that your niece picked out the same party hats can be all it takes to bring a customer back into your store. If you recognize the person, mention a tidbit from your previous conversation, if you can remember it. "I hope your son is feeling better, Mrs. Smith. Did he get over that nasty cold?" It may seem trite, but try it and see if it doesn't work.

2) Make personal phone calls whenever possible. This can be cumbersome, but the rewards are well worth it. Especially if you have a service-type business, personal phone calls can be a gold-mine of opportunity for you. For instance, my mechanic, Terry, owns two shops. He is a very busy man, supervising many full-time employees, doing all his own books, payroll, etc. Whenever possible, he answers the phone himself, and he makes personal follow-up calls to clients. A few days after I had my brakes done, he called me and asked how I felt about the quality of his work. He said he just wanted to make sure I was happy. I was so overwhelmed by his caring attitude that I kept coming back to see him and recommended his shop to countless friends. That was ten years ago, and I still see him for all my car repairs. Terry doesn't spend one cent on advertising. He doesn't need to, as all his customers come to him on referrals.

3) Distribute a newsletter. A newsletter is a wonderful way to stay in touch with clientele. It keeps your company name fresh in people's minds, provides a forum for you to announce specials, distribute coupons, and give helpful advice to people who need your services. Do you own a grocery store? Include recipes using items you sell. Do you run a beauty salon? Include make-up dos and don'ts with suggestions for different products you carry. Are you a massage therapist? Include a list of warning signs for muscle fatigue and suggest your new herbal heated body wrap. Another good component for a newsletter is an "advice column." Select one or two commonly asked questions that pertain to your services and provide solid answers about what your business can do to solve people's problems.

Today, it's easy to send out newsletters in the mail or by e-mail. E-mail is the most cost-effective means of distribution because it saves on postage, paper, and ink. Many office software suites offer simple newsletter templates. Acquire your customers' e-mail addresses by asking them if they'd like to receive your special e-mail coupons. When you have a couple of addresses, begin mailing your quarterly or monthly publication. Your website is an excellent tool for your newsletter mailing list. Simply set up a field on your guest book page that says something like, "I would like to receive a free newsletter with valuable coupons." Include a yes/no box. Now you have permission from your visitor to send e-mail correspondence.

4) Acknowledge birthdays and holidays. Do you own a business for which customers fill out paperwork, such as an application? If a birth date is not already included in the information they provide, include a line such as, "May we send you a birthday gift? Month/Day_______." Create a data base with Outlook or another similar data management system and generate a monthly list of birthdays. Send a discount coupon or a certificate redeemable for a small gift (a free cup of coffee, for example), along with a tasteful birthday card. People often make additional purchases when they redeem their coupons, and you have made someone's day!

The winter holidays are an excellent opportunity to remind people that you value their patronage. Plus, everyone is scurrying for gifts, and people are often too tired to think creatively about what to buy for Uncle Larry and Aunt Susan. Tasteful (and this means NOT religiously specific) cards are a great way to stimulate business. Sending a card that simply says, "Happy Holidays From Jill's Crafts" reminds folks that your business is a good place to buy holiday presents. You can also include a small gift, such as a key chain or discount coupon, or state in your card that you'll be serving cider and cookies at a special time in your place of business. Unlike newsletters and coupons, cards should always be sent by post.

5) Break your own rules occasionally. This means being willing to take a loss now and then in order to invest in a future relationship.

My husband and I had just moved into our new home. We retained our long-standing relationship with our cable television company. We arranged for a technician to come to our new residence to pick up the old cable box and install an upgraded system. When the tech arrived, the old box was sitting by our television. The technician told my husband, "You don't need that box any more." He left without it, and my husband threw it away. My husband didn't recognize the technician's mistake. When we were billed $500.00 for the box, I explained to the customer service people that the technician had been offered the box and did not fulfill his responsibility to take it with him. We had our DSL, our phone, and our cable with the company and had never been late on a payment in years. The company refused to budge on the $500.00 charge, and lost our business. This cost them $20,000.00 over an estimated 12 year period that we would have used their services, even if they never raised their prices once. It also cost them untold losses from bad word of mouth. Was that a stupid business decision? You bet it was.

6) Give your employees power to make good customer service decisions. Nothing is more frustrating for your customers than being bounced around from supervisor to supervisor when they are trying to resolve a dispute. If you're paying your customer service staff to sit in a chair and say, "no" to everyone who calls, you're spending a lot of money on losing your customer base. Give your staff latitude and training to make good decisions in order to keep your customers happy. Most calls will not make it to you, and if you're the only one with the power, you will lose many, many good clients. Never lose sight of the big picture.

7) Offer gift certificates. Your customers will appreciate the convenience of gift certificates. It allows them to give a customized present to their loved ones and it has the added bonus of acting as a free advertisement for you!

8) Give to your community. How is this related to customer service? Your potential customer base is very large. You and your company are members of a community, and that community is your target market. A local tanning bed facility which I frequent started a food shelf drive. The owner offered a 10% discount off one tanning session for anyone who would bring in a non-perishable food item for donation. All participants were entered into a drawing for a free session. The customers loved the feeling of giving to a good cause. The owner of the business raised her name recognition and contributed much-needed resources for hungry families. Everybody wins.

9) Create a network. Many of your clients and potential clients are business owners. The scope of your business is finite by nature. If you know of another business that can meet the specific needs of one of your clients, be sure to make a referral. This can work in your favor, even if the other business is a competitor. You can't be all things to all people, and if your customer has his problems solved by your referral, you can bet you will gain a fabulous reputation. Call ahead to make sure your customer is treated like a king. Your fellow business owner will appreciate you, too, and will likely return the favor. Good things have a way of coming back around.

10) Spy on yourself! Have an acquaintance or professional mystery shopper pose as a customer. It's the only way to be certain of the treatment your clients are receiving when they come to call. Arrange phone contact, in person contact (if appropriate), and follow-up. A good mystery shopper is worth whatever you pay him/her several times over.

As a small business owner, it's important to keep in mind that customer service is not an exact science. Your company is a living, breathing entity, as are all of your clients. Having a written guide for your customer service plan can help you make sure that your company maintains a delicate balance between uniformity and fluidity of service, which is the best insurance for your investment in your financial future!

© High Speed Ventures 2011