Catherine has 30 years experience in the customer service sector having worked as both a retail manager and a company sales representative.
Today's economic instability and a trend towards online shopping throw a real challenge at business owners, especially those without corporate backing. How can these "mom and pop" stores compete? Great customer service is the key, and small businesses actually have the advantage of a more hands-on approach with the consumers in their neighborhoods.
Elements of a Good Business
- Great products and services
- Product knowledge
- Solid operating procedures
- Financial stability
- Courtesy toward customers and vendors
- Consistency of service and availability of products
Raising the Bar on Customer Service
In 1968, my best friend was visiting her aunt in New Jersey. They were playing gin rummy and chatting away when they heard a loud rumble coming up the long driveway to the house. Puzzled, they both ran out to see a big Coca-Cola truck in the turnaround.
Two weeks earlier her aunt had written a letter to Coca-Cola's corporate office in Atlanta to alert them of a bottle with a broken lip she had found in a batch of sodas from her fridge. She felt it was the responsible thing to do. Coca-Cola responded with a letter of apology and thanked her for her concern. She was impressed that they had even taken the time to reply. Imagine her total surprise when she was handed a second note that hoped the 48 complimentary sodas would right any wrong caused by the company! Going beyond the routine and leaving a lasting and positive impression is exemplary customer service. They had created a happy customer for life!
- Ask for the Business: The most overlooked part of sales is asking potential customers for their business and loyalty. People need to know that you want them as customers more than your competitor. Advertising, location, and attractive displays have brought them in, but you have to ask them to stay . Then, once you've got customers, treat them like gold!
- Follow Up: Following up with a customer shows that a business is both concerned about satisfaction and committed to a business relationship. Thank-you notes and e-mails, surveys, and incentives relay appreciation and concern for clients. Remembering specific transactions or personal facts about a customer shows an individual interest and often makes that person feel like more than a faceless consumer.
- Show Courtesy: Courtesy is a must, especially when the customer is sour. Often a smile or a warm greeting will bring a nasty person out of a funk. Most often a dissatisfied customer just wants to be heard. Those in the service sector need to be patient and listen actively without taking criticism personally. Shoppers and callers should be allowed to vent. In circumstances with irate customers, it is best to turn the case over to a manager who has the authority to be flexible with company policies. The sooner these ticking time bombs are diffused, the better. It is a form of damage control. Angry customers are not good for a company's reputation.
- Protect Your Reputation: Companies which consistently adhere to the elements of good business practices have stellar reputations that keep their brands strong even in the midst of crisis. Take Toyota, for example. The accelerator/ floor mat debacle in 2010 could have ruined the company, but its swift action in recalling vehicles, issuing apologies to customers, and opening a thorough investigation with the assurance that its autos were safe instilled confidence and showed appreciation for its loyal customers. “We deeply regret the concern that our recalls are causing for our loyal customers, and we are making an all-out effort to develop and implement effective remedies as quickly as we can.” Toyota still had a mess on its hands, but quick damage control and a solid reputation for quality, safety, and excellent customer service kept them on solid ground. Wells Fargo, on the other hand, is still struggling to rebuild its reputation after unethical practices undermined their customers' trust.
- Reach Out Through Effective Marketing: The large successful chains know their customers. These companies have collected data for the average customer profile, their shopping habits, demographics, lifestyle, and preferences. They are able to spend millions on advertising to target this group, and sustain interest through innovative marketing campaigns. A small company, however, doesn't need a massive budget to do this. Word of mouth is also effective. Thriving businesses are successful at attracting new customers to offset those who are lured away by competitors and others who relocate, change needs, pass away etc. This is called attrition.
- Understand Your Customer's Needs: Sometimes a customer's intent isn't to buy a thing. Shopping may be a diversion or a quest for simple advice. Full attention should be given regardless of reason. A few minutes of active listening without concern for a sale can bring a payload over the long-haul. It takes time and patience to build trust and rapport. Even when lines are long, a welcoming smile and warm greeting is appreciated. The customer has been patiently waiting their turn, so they should be shown courtesy during the transaction without feeling rushed. It is equally important to be respectful of a customer's time. They may be on a short lunch break or between appointments. If the staff is short-handed and lines are long for reasons beyond control, those waiting should be politely informed of a delay, so they can decide to wait or not.
The Principals of Good Business Are the Same Regardless of Company Size
Besides offering great products and services, businesses must also know their customers and strive to meet their wants and needs. Owners should train managers and other employees to know company products, services, and policies so they can avoid mistakes. Following through on promises and handling them in a consistent and timely manner is a must. These practices are key to building trust and laying the foundation for loyal business relationships.
A salesperson should be friendly and helpful, not arrogant or put out. Generally, customers want to be directed to a particular section, then left to browse, not hovered over. Avoid sending a message of mistrust. Follow the customer's lead. Some do want you to walk with them every step of the way.
There is a fine line between being knowledgeable and being intimidating. It is better to keep things in layman's terms rather than be overly technical. Let the customer be the one to ask for more in-depth information. A comfortable customer will stick around and will want to return.
Being well versed in a company's products and services will enable employees to offer the best customer service by customizing options for value and convenience. These services make customers feel catered to and appreciated. However, try not to overwhelm them with too many choices. Offer two or three options, suggesting additional ones only if the first ones are undesirable.
Asking open-ended questions rather than yes or no queries encourages better communication and allows employees to garner key tips to the customer's needs. Casual conversation eases tension and is the first step to growing a business relationship.
According to the Bloomberg Report on small business, "Walmart might spend a meager 0.4% of sales on advertising, the sheer size of the company turns that tiny percentage into a significant budget. Walmart's nominally higher-margin competitor, Target spends closer to 2% of its sales on advertising, while Best Buy, as a specialty retailer, spends upwards of 3%. Finally, more upscale stores like Macy's typically spend on the order of 5%. The same kind of ratios can be seen in the car industry (automakers' generally spend 2.5% to 3.5% of revenue on marketing), liquor (5.5% to 7.5%), packaged goods (4% to 10%) as in every other industry."
Smaller business can't keep up with corporate ones in terms of marketing, but they do have a huge advantage. Business owners and managers can leverage more direct control over daily operations and customer service. Complaints with big businesses tend to fall through the cracks. Customers see these business giants as faceless entities. Mishandling unhappy customers, failing to follow through on promises, and being inconsistent with goods and services will serve to negate all the benefits of clever marketing. Word of mouth travels like wildfire when a customer is dissatisfied. Negative advertising is unfortunately very effective and can change the tide for even well-established companies with past success. Smaller businesses have greater potential for building face to face relationships and more opportunities for effective problem resolution.
A Unique Opportunity
In tough economic times when mom and pop businesses are struggling to compete, there is a unique opportunity to thrive instead of fail. Raise the bar on customer service. Take advantage of the latitude to care for customers. Make it exemplary. Give it that personal "wow" factor. Let happy customers do the marketing for you through their glowing reviews. In terms of business success, customer service is the Golden Goose. Once you have customers, ask for the privilege of keeping their loyalty and treat them like gold. The relationships will grow vigorously.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2012 Catherine Tally
Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on January 16, 2013:
I am glad that you found my thoughts and advice on customer service helpful. I appreciate hearing the things that give first impressions- the things that make or break a business relationship. These are important for owners/managers to know, so they can make corrections. Thank you for stopping by and for leaving your thoughtful comments.
Helen Murphy Howell from Fife, Scotland on January 16, 2013:
This is a great hub with excellent advice.
I don't own a company as such - being self-employed - but your advice and information should be adopted by the self-employed and small businesses as well as the large ones.
I liked in particular the part about courtesy. It makes such a difference if you visit a shop or telephone a company and the person or voice is warm, friendly and welcoming. This immediately gives out good vibes about the company and the employees they have!
Here's hoping that the not so good companies read your hub and learn a lot about how to run their business properly!!
Great hub + voted up!!
Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on January 10, 2013:
I really love being able to shop from home, and good customer support makes all the difference. Thank you for stopping by to read and comment!
Felipe717 from Philadelphia, PA on January 10, 2013:
Good customer service makes a big difference especially when customers have the many choices they have today. Customers don't even have to leave their house with the internet these days.
Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on January 07, 2013:
I really think business owners must love people and be passionate about their products/services. I like to support the small independent businesses as much as possible. Thank you for being such a loyal follower and for leaving your thoughtful comment. I appreciate the awesome vote!
My best .
Agnes on January 07, 2013:
Interesting hub, a lot of good points. My husband and I owned a business in the past, and let me tell you, it isn't easy! Customers can really make or break your day! Voted Awesome!!!
Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on September 13, 2012:
Good morning, kashmir:) Thank you for the glowing review! It really is a shame that some businesses either don't care or are blind to their shortcomings in customer care. I really do hope that business owners struggling to survive will recognize the power of great customer service and use it to their advantage. I'm glad that you stopped by to read and comment. It's always good to see you here!
Thomas Silvia from Massachusetts on September 13, 2012:
Great well written hub, yes good customer service is so important but yet some stores and business are below par on giving real good services to their customers . But maybe they could read your hub and fix that. Well done !
Vote up and more !!!
Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on September 12, 2012:
Hi freecampingaussie :) Thank you for the nice comment and vote up. I will check out your hub. Thanks!
freecampingaussie from Southern Spain on September 12, 2012:
Good customer service is so important yet lacking in so many places . I have a hub about this & also Grocery shopping etiquette as it works both ways . Found you hub hopping & voted you up !