For all the time you spend developing and pricing your products or services, managing costs, and marketing your brand, how you treat customers can be the tipping point in driving your small business’s growth and profit.
Here are five simple ways to improve your customer-service game in 2014.
1. Invest in listening posts. “Often, small companies invest a ton of money in advertising to generate leads — only to mistakenly let customer inquiries (by phone and other channels) go unanswered,” says Ben Landers, president and CEO of internet marketing firm Blue Corona. “Today’s customer is always connected. They email, text, tweet, and post feedback across all media. Increasingly, they expect a near instantaneous response.”
To get a handle on all that customer activity, it’s critical to understand the tools your target audience uses to find and share information. Then, invest in creating a “listening post” that ensures someone at your company is dedicated to fielding customer inquiries as soon as they come in. Your customers will receive better service, which can help you generate sales through channels that have a lower acquisition cost than the ones you’re already using.
2. Find a way to compete with larger businesses. Being small doesn’t mean you can’t give larger competitors a run for their money. You just need to think strategically. Mike Dash, president of online auto-parts store Car Part Kings, says that adding free shipping and returns was the catalyst for increased order volume, average order size, and customer satisfaction (which increased by 45 percent), in just three months.
Dash admits it took quite a bit of data analysis to arrive at an offer that benefited both customers and the business, but the effort paid off. “We also offer two-day shipping, and [we] saw an immediate sales lift of about 20 percent just by adding the benefit to the order,” he says. “Our prices may be slightly higher now, but people’s psyche often tells them not to buy online unless it ships free.”
3. Build a community around your brand. Tatiana Tugbaeva, owner of online girls-clothing boutique My Little Jules, has a Stella Service Elite rating, an accolade she says is bestowed to just 4 percent of e-commerce sites. A key factor in her success: Building an online community of customers who interact with one another.
“We found forums where people interested in our products ‘hang out’ and became a part of those communities,” she explains. “Eventually, we were able to ‘move’ them to our Facebook page. Some already knew each other; others invited friends and family. This is how our Facebook following grew.”
As a result, her highly engaged Facebook followers have formed a community that acts as a type of self-sustaining customer-service forum. “People have a natural tendency to help each other,” Tugbaeva says. “Our Facebook page is just one of the places where they have an opportunity to do so.”
4. Identify dissatisfied customers who don’t complain — and request feedback. Negative online reviews can be bad for business, but unhappy customers may be able to help you improve. Kathryn McGeehan, president of internet marketing firm Market Wise, says a brief, smart-routing online survey is an easy way to identify these silent but dissatisfied customers, as well as to encourage positive reviews from those who had a good experience.
“Set one survey question as a ‘trigger’ to gauge customer’s satisfaction using a unipolar Likert scale with no more than five response options and only one extreme,” McGeehan advises.
For example, the scale should range from “extremely satisfied” to “not at all satisfied.” Customers who select the top two choices, “extremely satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied,” should be invited to leave a review. All others should be sent to a Help Us Improve page that reinforces how much you value them and their experience. Monitor the responses continually and personally reach out to the customers who’ve had a very poor experience and/or a recurring issue.
McGeehan notes that this process will not eliminate negative reviews, but it will help to boost your customer service and build a balanced, authentic online reputation for your business.
5. Empower your employees with solutions. The employees who interact regularly with your customers may know more about your company’s problem areas than a survey or monitoring tool will indicate. To use their knowledge to your benefit, Joseph McKeating, founder of consulting firm Pulsar Strategy, suggests giving customer-facing employees the freedom to come up with their own solutions — without scripts, handbooks, or service rules.
Need inspiration? He points to eyeglass maker Warby Parker. Its employee-created customer-service solutions include taking service requests on Twitter, responding with quick YouTube videos, and directing customers with similar questions to the same video for help.