CHAPTER 1 / CUSTOMER SERVICE
Start Your Own Business
How to Serve
The complete beginner’s guide to superior customer service.
TO THE ORDINARY ENTREPRENEUR, closing and finalizing the sale is the completion of serving the customer’s needs. But for the pro, this is only the beginning. Closing the sale sets the stage for a relationship that, if properly managed by you, the entrepreneur, can be mutually profitable for years to come.
There’s a widely recognized rule that states that 80 percent of your business comes from 20 percent of your customers. Repeat customers are the backbone of every successful business. So now that you know how to land customers, it is time to learn how to keep them.
BUILDING CUSTOMER RELATIONSHIPS
It’s tempting to concentrate on making new sales or pursuing bigger accounts. But attention to your existing customers, no matter how small they are, is essential to keeping your business thriving. The secret to repeat business is following up in a way that has a positive effect on the customer.
Effective follow-up begins immediately after the sale, when you call the customer to say “thank you” and find out if they are pleased with your product or service. Beyond this, there are several effective ways to follow up that ensure your business is always in the customer’s mind:
➧ Let customers know what you are doing for them. This can be in the form of a digital newsletter sent to a large and existing customer base, or, if you have a smaller business built on more personal relationships, consider a phone call. Whichever method you use, the key is to dramatically point out to customers what excellent service you are giving them. If you never mention all the things you’re doing for them, customers may not notice. You are not being cocky when you talk to customers about the work you have done to please them. Just let them know they don’t have to worry because you handled the paperwork, called the attorney, or double-checked on the shipment—one less thing they have to do.
➧ Keep up with old customers! Don’t underestimate the power of a personal email to check in on a loyal client: “I was just sitting at my desk, and your name popped into my head. Are you still having a great time flying all over the country? Let me know if you need another set of luggage. I can share our latest models anytime.” Or if you run into an old customer at an event, follow up with a note: “It was great seeing you at the Chamber of Commerce Christmas party. I will call you early in the new year to schedule a lunch.”
➧ Remember special occasions. Send regular customers birthday cards, anniversary cards, holiday cards…you name it. Gifts are excellent follow-up tools, too. You don’t have to spend a fortune; use your creativity to come up with interesting gift ideas that tie into your business, the customer’s business, or their recent purchase.
To ensure you don’t drop the ball on follow-up, check out one of the many contact management or sales software programs on the market. These little wonders can remind you of everything from a big client’s birthday to an important sales call. Some will generate automatic—or personalized—emails for you.
➧ Pass on information. If you read an article, see a new book, or hear about an organization that a customer might be interested in, drop a note or make a quick call to let them know.
➧ Think of follow-up calls as business-development calls. When you talk to or visit old clients or customers, you’ll often find they have referrals to give you, which can lead to new business.
With all that your existing customers can do for you, there’s simply no reason not to stay in regular contact with them. Use your imagination, and you’ll think of plenty of other ideas that can help you develop a lasting relationship.
There are so many things you, the entrepreneur, can do to ensure good customer service. And when you’re a one-person business, it’s easy to stay on top of what your customers want. But as you add employees, whether it’s one person or 100, you are adding more links to the customer service chain—and creating more potential for poor service along the way.
That’s why creating a customer service policy and adhering to it is so important. Here are some steps you can take to ensure that your clients receive excellent service every step of the way.
➧ Put your customer service policy in writing. These principles should come from you, but every employee should know what the rules are and be ready to live up to them.
➧ Establish support systems that give employees clear instructions for gaining and maintaining service superiority. These systems will help you outservice any competitor by giving more to customers and anticipating problems before they arise.
➧ Develop a measurement of superb customer service. Then reward employees who practice it consistently.
➧ Be certain that your passion for customer service runs throughout your company. Your employees should see how good service relates to your profits and to their future with the company.
➧ Be genuinely committed to providing more customer service excellence than anyone else in your industry. This commitment must be so powerful that every one of your customers can sense it.
➧ Share information with people on the front lines. Meet regularly to talk about improving service. Solicit ideas from employees—they deal with the customers most often.
➧ Act on the knowledge that customers value attention, competence, promptness, and dependability. They love being treated as individuals and being referred to by name. (Don’t you?)
INTERACTING WITH CUSTOMERS
Principles of customer service are nice, but you need to put those principles into action with everything you do and say. There are certain “magic words” that customers want to hear from you and your staff. Make sure all your employees understand the importance of these key words:
➧ “How can I help?” Customers want the opportunity to explain in detail what they want and need. Too often, business owners feel the desire or the obligation to guess what customers need rather than carefully listening first. By asking how you can help, you begin the dialogue on a positive note. And by using an open-ended question, you invite discussion.
GO TO THE SOURCE
Excellent customer service is more than what you say or do for the customer; it also means giving customers a chance to make their feelings known. Here are some suggestions for finding out what your customers want, need, and care about:
1- Attend trade shows and industry events that are important to your customers. You’ll find out what the competition is doing and what kinds of products and services customers are looking for.
2- Nurture a human bond, as well as a business one, with customers and prospects. Take them out to lunch, dinner, the ball game, or the opera. In the relaxed atmosphere of socializing, you’ll learn the secrets that will allow you to go above and beyond your competition.
3- Keep alert for trends; then respond to them. Read industry trade publications, be active in trade organizations, pay attention to what your customers are doing.
4- Ask for feedback. Survey your customers regularly to find out how you’re doing. Send email surveys, call them by phone, set up focus groups. Ask for suggestions, then fix the trouble areas revealed.
Whatever you do, don’t rest on your laurels. Regularly evaluate your product or service to be sure it is still priced, packaged, and delivered right.
➧ “I can solve that problem.” Most customers, especially B2B customers, are looking to buy solutions. They appreciate direct answers in a language they can understand.
➧ “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” When confronted with a truly difficult question that requires research on your part, admit it. Few things ruin your credibility faster than trying to answer a question when you are unsure of all the facts. An honest reply enhances your integrity.
➧ “I will take responsibility.” Tell your customer you realize it’s your responsibility to ensure a satisfactory outcome to the transaction. Assure the customer you know what she expects and will deliver the product or service at the agreed-upon price. There will be no unexpected expenses or changes required to solve the problem.
➧ “I will keep you updated.” Even if your business is a cash-and-carry operation, it probably requires coordinating and scheduling numerous events. Assure your customers they will be advised of the status of these events. The longer your lead time, the more important this is. The vendors customers trust the most are those that keep them apprised of the situation, whether the news is good or bad. And make sure you follow up with updates.
➧ “I will deliver on time.” A due date that has been agreed on is a promise that must be kept. “Close” does not count.
➧ “Monday means Monday.” The first week in July means the first week in July, even though it contains a national holiday. Your clients are waiting to hear you say, “I deliver on time.” The supplier who consistently does so is a rarity and well-remembered.
Feeling alone? Wish you had someplace to get advice on better customer service? Try the Professional Association for Customer Engagement (paceassociation.org). You’re required to join the organization to reap the benefits, but there are plenty of them—from networking opportunities to customer service training programs.
GOING ABOVE AND BEYOND
These days, simply providing adequate customer service is not enough. You need to go above and beyond the call of duty to provide customer service that truly stands out. How do you do this?
Begin by thinking about your own experiences as a customer—what you have liked and disliked in certain situations. Recall the times you were delighted by extra efforts taken to accommodate your needs or outraged by rudeness or negligence. This will give you greater insight into what makes for extraordinary customer service.
To put yourself in the customer’s shoes, try visiting a wide range of businesses your customers are likely to frequent. This could include your direct competitors as well as companies that sell related products and services. Observe how customers are treated in addition to the kinds of services that seem to be important to them. Then adapt your business accordingly.
Going above and beyond is especially important when a customer has complained or if there is a problem with a purchase. Suppose an order is delayed. What can you do?
➧ Call the customer personally with updates on the status of the order and expected arrival time.
➧ Hand-deliver the merchandise when it arrives.
➧ Take 20 or 30 percent off the cost.
➧ Send a note apologizing for the delay…tucked inside a gift basket full of goodies.
Going above and beyond doesn’t always mean offering deep discounts or giving away products. With a little ingenuity and effort, you can show customers they are important at any time. Suppose you’ve just received the newest samples and colors for your home furnishings line. Why not invite your best customers to a private showing, complete with music, appetizers, and a coupon good for one free hour of consultation?
Emergency orders and last-minute changes should be accommodated when possible, especially for important occasions such as a wedding or a big trade show. Customers remember these events…and they will remember your flexibility and prompt response to their needs, too.
Being accessible also wins loyalty. One entrepreneur who runs a computer chip company has installed a customer service line on every employee’s telephone, from the mail room clerk on up. This means every caller gets through to a real person who can help them, instead of getting lost in a voice-mail maze.
Customer loyalty is hard to win and easy to lose. But by going above and beyond with your customer service, you’ll soon see your sales going above and beyond those of your competitors.
Join local community Facebook groups as well as surrounding communities, including those aimed at your market. Often, satisfied customers will recommend businesses on these groups. And as important, if someone has a complaint, you’ll see the post and be able to act quickly to rectify it and avoid further word-of-mouth damage.