If an economic slowdown is good for anything, it is good for making people reflect on their priorities. What seems important when the sun is shining may seem less vital when the storm clouds gather and the rain starts to pour. When money is short, there is one aspect of life we all turn to more: our relationships with other people. Whether it is with family, friends, neighbors or the local community, the quality of life is measured by the time spent enjoying the company of others, at least as much as it is measured in dollar bills. In the cynical world of business, it is easy to forget that making money and making friends can go hand-in-hand. Small businesses have one tremendous advantage that bigger businesses struggle, and often fail, to simulate. Small businesses have the opportunity for a genuinely personal relationship with the people who buy their products. Forget contact centres taking calls in far-off countries, scripts read out from screens and databases to keep a track of the customer’s previous purchases. With a small business, you can know the name of your customer’s daughter, what sports team they follow, and how they drink their coffee. Knowing your customers can be a source of pleasure for you and your staff, as well as a great way to improve business.
In business, the common goal is to make money, so it is tempting to focus on that. But the best generalization about making money in the long run is that it comes from building great relationships with customers so they keep coming back for more, during good times and bad. And the best generalization about building great relationships with customers is to avoid trying to fit them into pre-defined and artificial categories, but to satisfy them as individuals. That is what the big companies all try to do, but all the expensive research and all the clever systems only serve to deliver an extensive and well-designed range of pigeonholes to fit people in. Even the extraordinary algorithms of a Google can only offer second-rate experience to the genuinely personal touch of dealing with somebody who actually knows you.
Try not to think of learning about your customers as an exercise in customer service. If you focus too much on profit, then you will come across as a salesman and not as somebody who can be trusted. A business strategy based on customer service must be based on the value gained by retaining a customer for a lifetime. If you just want to boost your revenues for the next month, you are better off investing in marketing to bring in new customers. Customer service is for pleasing and increasing the custom from the people who have already decided to be your customer. Customer service is about creating the trust that you will deliver on your promises and their expectations. It takes time to build trust, though it can be destroyed in an instant. Think of improving customer service as an exercise in getting to know people in your community. All communities take time to grow and develop. The community of your business may be customers that live locally, or they may be part of a community in the sense they all need a similar kind of service even though they live in different places. Either way, find a few extra seconds to extend the relationship beyond taking an order and asking for payment. Speaking to somebody is the best way to communicate, but even in an email you can add an extra sentence or two to expand and personalize the message. When I email a customer, I always add an extra line or question talking or asking about something specific to that person. That line may have nothing to do with business. If I cannot think of anything to write, then I look up old emails and remind myself about what we talked about before. Instead of counting pennies on phone calls, starting a conversation by asking about a customer’s well being and family can be worth a lot of business in the long run. Your customer may not be talkative, or they may be busy, and this must be respected. However, you can try telling them a little bit of extra information, like about how your product is made, or letting them know if their order is unusual. This may encourage them to open up and engage in a conversation. If you think of this as a social activity, and not just as business, you and your staff will enjoy it more and it will come more naturally.
Put your business at the heart of your community. It may be good for business that people use your store as a meeting place. Encourage your customers to get to know each other, with your business as one of the things they have in common. This may start with sharing reviews or advice about your products, but it could end with you providing an introduction between two other small businesses who are both customers. Be open to the idea that your business can play a useful role in helping people exchange information and contacts, just because they are all friendly with you and your staff, and make this an aspect of your superior-grade customer service. It may be wise to recommend other businesses your customers can go to, when there are products and services they want but you do not offer. That positions you as a trusted advisor, meaning they will turn to you for advice in future, and more importantly that they will trust you to help them. There may not be an immediate profit to you, but that is the point - people will stay more loyal to your business because of the fringe benefits of being involved in the community you built around your business.
When thinking of customers, keep in mind who are your best customers, and also who are not such good customers. It is easy to say that every customer should get great service, but do you really want to go the extra mile for your worst customer, whilst potentially neglecting a better customer as a result? Give preferential treatment to the customers who really deserve it, but do not waste time and effort on schedules and schemes about who gets what - only big businesses need to do that. Look up your sales records, look at your payment records, think about who complains the most and who is always happy with your service, no matter what. In the end, rely on your gut instinct to give preferential treatment to those that really deserve it. A personal touch need not be costly, but it can make your customers feel appreciated. Like with a gift, it is the thought that counts. Maybe you have a long-standing customer who you do not know well, but you want to say thanks for their continued business. Look up the date of their first order, and drop them a line on the anniversary, or make a point of telling them how long they have been a customer the next time you see them. If you want to try offering a new range or new line of products, ask your top customers what they think first. Send them a letter describing the new range and offering them to an exclusive presentation. Even if they do not want what you offer, they will like being treated as a special customer whose opinion matters more than most, though some will make that extra purchase just because they got the extra attention. As well as having rewards for the best employee of the month, why not have a thank you for the best customers that month? So long as the gift is not too serious or financial in nature, and do not violate any ethics rules for business to business transactions, your best customers will feel recognized without expecting to turn it into an ongoing discount. Examples might be a gift voucher for the coffee shop next door, or a demo product from a new line. The very best customers are the ones who are motivated by a range of factors and not just price, so make a point of giving rewards that they might like because of who they are, and not just because it saves them money.
Depending on how many people are employed in the business, it makes sense to try to allocate specific representatives to deal with specific customers, so when Mr. Jones telephones, try to put him through to someone who is building a relationship with him and not somebody who takes his order just like he was Mr. Smith, Mr. Johnson or Mr. XYZ. Make customers feel special by giving them the telephone numbers or email addresses of specific individuals in your business, so they have the confidence that they can get in touch with someone who knows them on a personal level, and understands their priorities. It is human nature that a message for a specific person will be dealt with promptly, but a message which goes into a general enquiries box will languish there for a long time. Turn that to your advantage by giving specific employees responsibility for specific customers, irrespective of what the employee’s main job is. Spread around the customer-facing responsibility to as many people in the business as you can. Maybe there is a guy in the back room who you do not think of as having the best skills for dealing with customers, but if he is asked to do it every now and then, he will improve and will learn to care more about customer service in everything else he does. There may be specific customers who he knows personally outside of work, or where his knowledge of the product may be especially relevant. Many businesses have also learned that their older staff, although they may lack experience in dealing with customers, have accumulated life experience that gives them untapped skills for handling the public. As well as training your staff to deliver good customer service, keep finding time to ask them if they would recommend the business to their friends, and do not punish them for being honest. You are better off hearing the bad news from them and they may have good suggestions for how customer service should be improved. You also benefit by getting them to think about what their friends would want and expect from excellent customer service. This will help them to empathize with customers, encouraging them to get the same pleasure from giving great service as they get when they receive it.
A lot of customer service advice focuses on handling complaints, but making business decisions based on complaints is like wagging the dog by the tail. It is no good smoothing over a customer’s problem, and then finding the next three customers all make the same complaint. Every now and then, make time for your team to set aside day-to-day work and use it to talk about service. Identify the top few reasons for complaints, then work out the causes as a team. Then deal with those root causes. The problem may be with suppliers, or there may be frictions inside your business. Dealing with these problems may be painful and expensive, but weigh the cost against trying to keep fundamentally dissatisfied customers coming back by offering lower prices, by giving refunds, or by making promises that things will be better next time. Most of us, as customers, have been trained to be cynical about promises, because we know how rarely a real change is made. If a customer had a complaint previously, do not be afraid to tell them what you have done to fix the root cause. You can tell them the next time they come to the store, by including a short note in the envelope with their invoice, or by sending them an email. Most of them will be impressed you not only took the problem seriously, but that you responded to them personally.
Customer suggestions are worth listening too, but try to keep in mind that many suggestions are not representative of what most customers really want. Prominently offer comments cards and feedback forms, but also have other channels for getting customer feedback. The people who make unprompted suggestions tend to be highly motivated, so it is good to also get feedback from people who may not otherwise bother. Complaining customers are upset, and will not tend to tell you what you do right. Some comments will come from people with particular requirements, and these may not represent the rest of your customer base. As well as sitting back and reacting to suggestions, small businesses again have the advantage, because they can support conversations between the customer and somebody empowered to make decisions for the business. One approach is to ask customers if they mind being contacted, at another time, to discuss the quality of service they received. The customer can always politely decline, and some will be glad to spend time talking about what they liked and did not like. Because they are speaking to someone who can make a decision, they will genuinely feel that they have an influence on their supplier, and are not just speaking to someone paid to fill in forms.
A great source of advice is to ask an honest friend to walk into your business, especially when you are not around, and try it out. How long did it take them to get served? Did they feel like they got good advice? How did they feel about the experience? Your friend may pick up on all sorts of things - good and bad - that nobody else noticed or told you about. I regularly count on friends to tell me about my company’s services, especially when something new is being offered or something has changed. They will spot things I miss, such as whether the logistics surrounding a product were clearly explained. Another approach is to remember that people sometimes want something different from what they say. As Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell points out in this presentation, even people who want weak milky coffee tend to say they like rich roasted coffee. To counter this, do not just ask what people want, but observe it as best you can. Experiment by giving people new choices, and seeing if customers like them. Because yours is a small business, they will understand if you say you are just trying out new ideas to see if they are popular. These experiments could be something as simple as offering free lollipops to the kids of customers who come in the store, or as complicated as asking for payment in kind as an alternative to money, when you notice a small business customer who could also be your supplier. Many experiments will come to nothing, but many customers will admire and appreciate you for having a bit of invention and constantly striving to improve the customer’s experience. Just as importantly, when they see how hard you work to improve customer service, they will feel more relaxed and inclined to make helpful suggestions, because they will have confidence that you will take notice.
The subtle signs that show a customer they are valued are too great in number for you to always remember and always simulate. You can train your staff to smile whilst talking on the telephone, because your customers can hear the difference, and you can use a computer to keep notes about customer preferences, so you can individualize the way they are handled. But in the end, remembering to put on a smile or remembering to record a fact about a customer are harder to do if you are not interested in the person and are only interested in their money. A genuine smile, or a genuine interest in your customer, are ultimately simpler and easier to sustain. You are in business, and it is easy to have your revenues and costs screaming for attention at the front of your mind. But you are also a person, and you will take pleasure from good relationships with your community, including the community of your customers. Great customer relationships are about trust, so learn to trust yourself too. If you can find time to enjoy talking and getting to know your customers, you will please them, please yourself, and make good business too.