How to Excel in a Small Business
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 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
These things serve as the foundations for survival, but real success requires more attention to the details. Here is an example of how a company raised 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 Cokes 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!
Care Enough to Ask Your Customers What They Think.
- 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 have 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 to create the average customer profile, her 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; however, a company needn't have a massive budget to do this. 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 from a problem at home or a quest for simple advice. Full attention should be given anyway because of the customer's loyalty. 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 his turn, so he should be shown courtesy during the transaction without feeling rushed. It is equally important to be respectful of a customer's time. He or she 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. In addition to offering great products and services, businesses must also know their customers and strive to meet their wants and needs. Owners must make sure that managers and other employees 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 do! 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. The message here would be that they are not trustworthy. A tip would be to 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. At the same time, 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/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! Small business owners have more power to exercise complete control over the care of their customers. Make it exemplary. Give it that personal "wow" factor. Let your happy customers do your 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.
© 2012 Catherine Tally