You've probably heard that most — 75 to 95 percent of small businesses, depending on the source — fail within the first five years.
Sure, economic turbulence, fierce competition for customers' dollars or offering the wrong product in the wrong place at the wrong time have a lot to do with this staggering failure rate. So does something so basic many small business owners overlook it: customer service.
Ask any veteran salesman, and he'll tell you: People don't buy products. They buy good experiences, good feelings, good solutions. Most customer needs are emotional, not logical. So the more you know about what pleases customers, the better you become at anticipating their needs.
Here are 13 lucky tips for better customer service:
- Be a good listener. Take the time to identify your customers' needs by asking questions and concentrating on what the customer is really saying. Use what Bill Clinton's staff called his big ears, not just listening but absorbing the customer. Make eye contact, nod, jot down a note. Ask clarifying questions when the customer is finished speaking to get more details. Don't interrupt! Listening doesn't work when your mouth is moving. Listen to their words, tone of voice, body language and most importantly, how they feel. Beware of making assumptions — thinking you know what the customer wants. Do you actually listen to find out what the problem is and what solution the customer would like, before you try to resolve the situation? Maybe they just need to vent.
- Smile. Seems too simple, doesn't it? Well, the simplest things are often the hardest. In today's fast-paced world, a smile can make a huge difference. It may not seem terribly scientific, but try not smiling at your customers for a couple of days and see what happens. This is all really a matter of perception: When people smile at us, we perceive we've had a much better experience even if it was mediocre.
Customers like to be treated like they matter.
- Be courteous. Ah, those simple words we learned in kindergarten: "Please," "Thank you" (and, of course, "Yes, Mom.") Now just add "May I help you," "How are you doing today," "Is there anything else I can do for you," "How did you find your service experience today." Courteous phrases are phrases of welcome. But courtesy also extends to actions. Walk your customers to the item they asked about, get them a cup of coffee while getting yourself one.
- Get in touch with your customers' reality. We often see this in politics, when we accuse elected officials of being out of touch with reality. Bad customer service is almost always a result of being out of touch with customer reality. Again, it's so simple it's often hard to grasp: Customers like to be treated like they matter. Do you have an automated recording telling customers that their call is important to you ... so important that you keep telling them this over and over that by the time they reach 10 minutes on hold, it actually becomes insulting for them to be told that they're important ... when they obviously aren't? This leads directly to No. 5.
- Make customers feel important and appreciated. Always use their name and find ways to compliment them. Do it sincerely or don't do it at all. Most of us can tell the difference between sincerity and not caring. Ensure that your body language conveys sincerity, too; words and actions should be congruent. Greet the customer in a friendly but business-appropriate way. Make eye contact, smile and say something like, "Hello. How may I help you today?" Stop there. Allow the customer to respond. If you are in the restaurant business, introduce yourself, ask their name and when delivering their order, set it in front of them and say "Joe, you'll really enjoy this dish." Watch your tips go up.
- Look for ways to help your customers. When they have a request (as long as it is reasonable) tell them you can do it. Figure out how afterwards. Look for ways to make doing business with you easy. Then do what you say you are going to do. Appear eager to help but not in such an aggressive or rote fashion that the customer is turned/driven off. Continually trailing customers about the premises or interrupting them every two minutes to ask them how they're doing is just intrusive. Customers who respond to the initial question by saying something like, "I just thought I'd take a look around" should be approached after an acceptable period of time (depending on your business, size of establishment, floor layout, etc.) to ask if they have any questions or if they've found what they're looking for. They didn't? Next time they might if they like you.
- Know how to apologize. When something goes wrong, apologize. Customers like it. The customer may not always be right, but the customer must always win or you lose. Don't be angry or defensive; make it easy for customers to complain. Yes, it is hard to say "It's my fault." Who wants to admit fault? But those three words are going to make your angry customers much happier. You may think that admitting fault is a strict no-no that can get you sued. Nonsense. The way to avoid getting sued is not to have people mad at you in the first place.
- Give more than expected. Since the future of your company lies in keeping customers happy, think of ways to elevate yourself above the competition. What can you give customers that they cannot get elsewhere? What can you do to follow up and thank people even when they don't buy? What can you give customers that is totally unexpected? This will obviously vary enormously depending on your business. Think about it.
- Treat your employees well. We've all encountered them — the irritated receptionist, bored twenty-something staring balefully as you approach the counter, the clerk who doesn't care about the merchandise they're selling, the curt waitress. They might naturally lack personality, social skills or the interest in people required to give decent customer service, but your business climate may also have contributed. Whether your employees give great service when you're not around depends on whether you create a climate of goodwill, pride and respect, not anger, fear and humiliation. Your people easily spot the hypocrisy — if it exists — between how they're treated and how they're expected to treat customers. If they're treated poorly, disrespectfully, or worse, then they will have trouble changing standards when dealing with customers. In fact, they'll likely treat customers the same way. Businesses lose a tremendous amount of internal credibility when they tolerate double-standards of service: one for their employees, and one for their customers.
- Empower your employees, too. Ask employees to help you analyze how your policies, practices and processes could be more customer-friendly. This is one of the most important things you can do to keep employees engaged and inspire them to think — and care — like they owned the business. Let them make decisions and judgment calls. And make it absolutely clear that they are not there to defend the company against complaints. They are there to make people happy. They are there to help people with their problems.
- Fix it! When customers have a problem and you fix it, they're actually going to be more satisfied than if they never had a problem in the first place. Helping a frustrated customer resolve the issue can turn them into an evangelist for your brand. They'll tell their friends about you. They'll blog about you. They'll sing your praises for months to come. They'll proudly buy and wear T-shirts and hats with your logo on them.
- Be knowledgeable. Few things are as annoying as going into a store and being served by someone who has no idea what you are talking about. Customers commonly compare products and/or services, so you and your staff need to be able to do this, too. After all, you may be able to save them a trip to another store. You also need to be aware of any accessories or parts related to your products so you can tell customers where they can get them if you don't supply them.
- Enlarge your concept of service. Traditionally, customer service was viewed narrowly as that slim channel between a customer making a phone call, sending an email or asking questions on the premises and an employee responding to that inquiry. Today, the definition of service must be enlarged to embrace all interface channels. Everyone and everything that interacts with a customer, current or prospective, influences the customer. These are called touch points. Touch points begin the moment the customer becomes aware of your company and are comprised of multiple independent interactions, transactions and contacts along the way — every encounter between your company and the customer, each of which can influence the customer's perception of your product, service or brand. This starts with a potential customer listening to a friend review your product and continues through your website and Facebook page, well before the customer even considers your product, much less steps into your business. It includes the installation crew, loading dock folks, your out-of-office message and even the customer service helpline, if you have one. This might sound intimidating, but learning the difference between what you can influence and what you can't will give you peace of mind that you have the very best touch points you can have.
Customer service is really not all that complex. It's really pretty simple. We just make it complex.
Next: 13 steps to happier, more, productive employees
For personalized help for managing your business, contact your local MO SBTDC office. To find the center closest to you, go to www.missouribusiness.net/sbtdc/centers.asp.
This story was featured in the July 2012 newsletter