Successful small-business owners know that their “secret weapon” for winning the race against larger competitors is stellar customer service. The up-close-and-personal approach just can’t be replicated by most big businesses.
“In an increasingly disconnected world, the small-business owner has the competitive advantage of delivering one-on-one connections,” says small-business consultant Olga Mizrahi, author of Sell Local, Think Global: 50 Innovative Ways to Make a Chunk of Change and Grow Your Business. “By having meaningful interactions with customers, small businesses engender the kind of loyalty that's not price-dependent. There's a magic to the Main Street retailer who knows your daughter's name, the local pizza joint that remembers your gluten-free preference and the independent bookseller who recommends the perfect beach read.”
As a small-business owner, you generally can’t compete with big advertising budgets or numerous employees and locations, but you can “out service” larger companies, says Scott Stratten, author of UnSelling: The New Customer Experience and president of UnMarketing. “As a small business, you can easily make customers ecstatic by turning on a dime and making requested changes much more quickly than large businesses can ever do.”
If you're trying to harness the power of customer service, put these 10 tips to work for you:
1. Look to online reviews.
“It's no longer ‘The customer is always right,’ ” Mizrahi says. “While it may be hard to digest, the new adage is ‘The critic is always right.’ Online reviews are the number-one way small businesses get noticed. There's a real power in responding to your online reviews, both positive and negative. Treat each review as an external communication tool and internal suggestion box, rife with ideas about how to improve.”
2. Hire with attitude in mind.
You want talented employees with an aptitude for the tasks you give them, but it’s equally important they have a positive, welcoming, can-I-help-you attitude. Anything less is insufficient and even dangerous to your business.
3. Offer customers multiple ways to get in touch.
“Don’t miss opportunities to connect with customers where, when and how they want,” Mizrahi says. “Let people choose to hear from you through 'new offerings' emails, special sales text alerts, Instagrams of new items, curated content on Facebook and helpful article links on Twitter.”
4. Lose your inferiority complex.
“Just because you [run] a small business doesn’t give you an excuse to give subpar customer service,” Stratten says. “Even if it's a business out of your home, you have to act like a business.” For instance, telling a client you can't meet a deadline because of a personal problem is terrible customer service.
5. Stay pleasant.
“Always have the attitude that everyone matters and that it’s a pleasure to work with any customer who walks into your business, calls or checks in online,” says Sherry Agee, owner of Fort Knox Flowers and Crafted Gifts. “It’s easy to dismiss people because you may not like their attitude, but recognizing everyone and offering patience and a relaxed communication could be the key to a customer’s acceptance of your suggestions. Make sure to leave a lasting impression that sways people to want to do business with you.”
6. Make it easy and simple to do business with you.
If you own a retail business, as soon as you see a customer pick up an item or look for a price, give a little bit of information about the product and then step back, Agee suggests. “Be ready to engage with the customer and follow up when the person is ready, but don't be pushy. If the customer is holding several items, offer to take some to the counter. That causes the customer to relax and engage in conversation and that builds trust.”
7. Recreate in-store attention online.
On your website, recreate the face-to-face "Can I help you?” moment that happens when a customer walks through the door, Mizrahi advises. “Engage website visitors as soon as they log on via proactive live chat.”
Agee agrees. “It’s important to reach out directly to online customers to show them that even if you’re not meeting face to face," she says, "you still care and recognize them just as much as people who walk into your store.”
8. Limit your offerings.
As a small business, you’re not equipped to be all things to all people, and because of that, you’re likely to do a poor job if you try, Mizrahi notes. “Limit what you offer to choice offerings curated by your unique lens of expertise,” she says. “It's overwhelming out there, especially online. By narrowing down the options, you can create a convenience model where customers 'get' your taste and trust your picks.”
9. Be truly active on social media.
“Don't join a social media site and only check it once a month," Stratten advises. "Many customers use social media as a customer service communication line. And avoid automating social media as a customer service tool. That’s like sending a mannequin to a networking event. You're 'there,' but you're just not there.”
10. Learn from every customer service opportunity.
Realize that every customer service issue is a learning experience. “Interactions with customers are only truly a problem if a customer doesn’t alert you to a problem but just leaves without telling you,” Stratten says. When people see that you truly care about their satisfaction and are willing to make changes to fulfill their expectations, you’re likely to inspire loyal customers who wouldn’t think of going anywhere else.
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