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Customer Service Tips for Small Businesses

We hear it all the time about big companies, and most likely we have professed a few of the same sentiments ourselves: "They've gotten too big to care about individual customers," "Personalized service is a thing of the past," and "If you get mad and go away, there will always be another customer right around the corner."

Perhaps--but I like to think that no matter how big or small, a company's first priority is to satisfy its customers.

There's such a thing as "Buffalo Hunter's Syndrome"--the feeling that because there always has been plenty of a certain thing (in this case customers) there always will be plenty. But we need only to look at what happened to the once great Buffalo herds of the American plains to understand the fallacy of this way of thinking (are you listening K-Mart? Ames?).

CUSTOMER DISSATISFACTION IS LIKE A CANCER

No matter how big an enterprise, dissatisfaction can eat away like a cancer. The bigger the entity, perhaps the longer it takes for the "disease" to run its course--but it will run its course!

Large companies often dedicate entire teams and departments to customer service--to studying it, measuring it, and supposedly improving it. But what about small business owners, or even solo-professionals--individuals who are one-person businesses--who either don't have the time or lack the budget for such an approach? How can they handle customer service?

KEEP IT SIMPLE

As a solo professional, I've kept my customer satisfaction process simple, relying on two main principles to guide me.

Principle #1--It takes less effort and drains less of my energy to be helpful and pleasant than it does to be a "grump." Try it sometime. If you're having a bad day, go ahead and be genuinely nice to the next customer who calls, emails or visits--even smile while you're on the phone. Dare to laugh! You're bound to get an energy lift, an up-tick on your mood meter. You'll be happier . . . and so will the customer.

Principle #2--Role play. Whenever I'm contacted by a customer or potential client, I imagine myself in that person's position. How would I feel? What would my needs be? How would I want to be treated? I then respond accordingly.

By employing these two simple ideas, I've been able to make providing good customer service second nature--it's simply the norm--which allows me to focus more on sustaining and growing my business.

GOOD MANNERS AND COMMON SENSE

For small business owners with employees, are there ways you can instill these principles in your staff? I think so. It's not rocket science. It's mostly good manners and common sense.

If imagining yourself in a customer's shoes isn't a powerful enough image, perhaps imagining the customer as your "mother" would be more effective. In other words, given a specific encounter, how would you want your mother treated? Think about it.

SETTING EXPECTATIONS

Good customer service also depends on setting EXPECTATIONS with your customers from the outset--possibly even BEFORE they become your customers--and then consistently meeting or exceeding these expectations.

1) Clearly delineate your range of services--what you can and can't do. Remember, you can't be all things to everyone, and trying to do so will undoubtedly result in some level of customer dissatisfaction.

2) Let your customers know how they can access your services and when--What are your office hours? What about after hours? and when is email (or a phone call) more appropriate?

3) Provide an idea of your responsiveness--When a customer calls or needs work done, how responsive are you? Be consistent. If you routinely reply to emails within one business day, do this consistently. If, for some reason, you aren't able to respond as you traditionally do, let your customers know (for example, you're on vacation, away from the office, etc.).

4) Maintain good, honest communication. If you can't do something in a requested time period, or aren't available, simply say so. It's not only the right thing to do, it's good service.

5) Provide alternatives. If you can't meet a customer need, offer ideas for alternatives. This may push business to someone else, but you're certain to engender goodwill among your customers--and that can often result in return business and, at the very least, positive word of mouth.

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Copyright (c) 2004 by Matt McGovern--All rights reserved.

About the Author

Matt McGovern combines a rare blend of creative and technical know-how with years of experience and a balanced and purposeful approach to life. He has authored and edited numerous books, e-books and e-zines. Get "Know-How" his free e-newsletter at www.700acres.com/pages/ad_archive.html or explore life, death and beyond with his novel, "CURRENTS-Every Life Leaves an Imprint" at www.MattMcGovern.com/books.html.

Matt McGovern