A Quick Guide to Small or Medium Businesses
By Mary Beth Theisen who is a consultant in private sector development in conflict-affected and fragile states, with expertise in the small and medium enterprise (SME) finance, agricultural finance, program evaluation, and design, and a reputation for innovative programming to promote entrepreneurship, often drawing upon her experiences in two entrepreneurial ventures and two family-owned businesses.
Recently, I wanted to switch my internet service and sign up with a new provider. The two companies that I contacted had trouble getting their service working in my house.
Despite hours on the phone with very nice, but ineffective customer service representatives, it took weeks for the companies to figure out they needed to send technical support staff to repair their lines on my street before connecting my house.
The difficulty in solving the problem was the result of a restriction on direct communication between the customer service staff and the repair staff. However, at the end of each call, the staff person pleaded me for a good review on the survey that their employer would be emailing to me. It was an incredibly frustrating experience that left me feeling the company did not care about having me as a customer.
Despite this, in every survey, I praised the staff person and wrote a scathing review of the company.
Around this time, I went to a business supply store to buy printer ink. As I walked into the store, I was greeted by a friendly salesman who helped me find what I needed and even approved giving me a discount, which had expired a couple of days earlier. By making the exception and extending the discount, the salesman made me feel I was a valued customer who received extra special service. But, as the salesman handed me my receipt, he pleaded me to go online and give him a good review.
The problem in both cases was these companies had an ill-conceived customer service monitoring system that put their employees in the humiliating position of pleading for a good review, which left me with a bad feeling about how they treated their staff.
Even worse, it was obvious from my two vastly different experiences that the monitoring system had nothing to do with actually delivering good customer service.
Often small business owners stress over the idea that they do not have the money or staff to install and benefit from an online customer feedback system, as do large corporations.
But these examples show that having a large budget does not necessarily guarantee the desired result.
When you think about it, providing customer service is very straight forward; deliver a good quality product or service in a way that makes your customer satisfied with the transaction. Customers should feel they got good value for the money they spent.
Delivering top-notch customer service can be even more important for a small business than a large corporation. Small and medium businesses often have little or no money for traditional marketing tools; such as advertising on TV, radio, and billboards. And, business owners with limited time and budgets need to be creative in how they promote their businesses.
The least expensive customer to get is a repeat or recurring customer. Get your customers to keep coming back for more. Even better is when they tell others about their experience and your business grows via word of mouth.
So how do you run your business in a way that makes your customers happy enough to refer you to others? Focusing on six principles is key:
1. Everyone is responsible for customer service
Besides customer-facing staff, everyone in the company has a role in delivering customer service. Whether it is the people ordering raw materials so the manufacturing line can meet deadlines or the payroll ensuring timely payments, every member of the staff has a role in making sure the company runs well and achieves the goal of delivering a good product.
2. Eliminate silos – no one says it is not my job
Silos happen when people in different parts of the business do not talk with each other. They might be aware of a problem, but do not or cannot resolve it since ‘it is not their job.’ We have all probably had the experience of sitting in a restaurant and feeling ignored while everyone around us is receiving a meal. As a customer, you do not care if it is the waiter assigned to your table, another waiter, or the chef who takes your order – you just want a meal. All employees should work together harmoniously with the shared goal of serving you.
3. Give your staff both training and authority
When I opened a small shop, everyone I knew thought I would be so committed to everything being perfect that I would never leave the shop. But I knew I would need a time out. The only way to achieve both objectives of delivering good customer service and taking time off was to ensure my staff knew they were authorized to make decisions. New employees were trained by me or an experienced staff member, and we developed a simple but thorough employee handbook to help them look up things if they forgot or were unsure. Eventually, I was so confident in their ability to run the business that I could go on vacation without the need to check-in for a week or more.
4. Sincerely apologize for mistakes, and make them right!
Everyone makes mistakes once in a while, regardless of the systems we put in place or how hard we work. The key to turning a bad situation into a good one is to apologize and make it right. For instance, give the customer a little something extra to thank them for their understanding. A large financial services company was so well known for doing a great job fixing things that they joked they did not make mistakes, but would intentionally mess up once in a while because the stories their customers told of the lengths they went to make things right was such good advertising for them. Small businesses have many options to make things right. The restaurant that made a mistake on someone’s order could offer a free dessert. A service provider could deduct a small amount from the next invoice. An important aspect of this principle is to reassure the employees they will not be punished for normal human errors because the fear of reprisals causes people to hide mistakes instead of fixing and learning from them.
5. Stay close to your customers
Small businesses have an edge over big corporations when it comes to keeping close relations with their customers. By spending a few days every quarter working with sales or delivery employees, a business owner can interact with customers directly, get an actual sense of how the company processes work in real life, and collect feedback from customers. The large financial services company mentioned above, required every employee, including the CEO, to spend three days a year taking customer service calls. It gave them firsthand knowledge of the problems their customers experienced.
6. Measure customer service performance meaningfully – continuously
Once you train your staff and have guidelines in place, do not assume everything will work fine. Apart from the above suggestion of having senior staff work directly with customers once in a while, you can engage with your customers on social media. Follow up with customers who report good and bad experiences, and show commitment to turn the bad experiences around. Above all, be present and know what is going on. I learned this from the owner of a restaurant in which I had my first job, clearing and resetting tables. My first day coincided with a festival and the restaurant was unusually busy. As I struggled to keep up with the workload, this very successful man who owned many shops and restaurants, joined me in clearing tables. At first, I felt nervous that he thought I could not keep up, but he reassured me that it was one of those days when everyone had to pitch in and help where needed. He loved every aspect of the businesses he built so the chance to get to know his staff and to see how things were going brought him joy and ultimately, very successful businesses.