Smart Answers

Don't Overlook Customer Service Basics


The liberal return policies and fast shipping that define Internet marketplaces have made customer service offered by many retailers better than ever, whether they operate brick-and-mortar storefronts or online sites, says Micah Solomon, co-author of Exceptional Service, Exceptional Profit. The problem, he argues, is that most individuals don't feel better about the service they receive—because of rising expectations, and because many smaller businesses don't do a good job keeping up with their larger counterparts. Solomon's tips for small business owners seeking to improve customer service:

1. Emphasize hellos and goodbyes. Ever wonder why hotels and resorts pay so much attention to the customer entrance experience? Solomon says it's because psychological studies show that people retain the strongest impressions of first and last encounters. "The ones in the middle are kind of a blur," he says.

Pay attention to where your first interaction with customers actually starts: It may be in your parking lot, on your website, or outside your front door. Wherever it is, make sure you "shine the doorknobs," Solomon says. "There's a superstore near me where people have to walk past all this trash and garbage to get inside. It looks like the store owners never stepped outside their front doors."

Avoid similar circumstances by being your own customer for a day. Park where your customers park, walk past what they see coming into your store. Search for your website and review all the links that turn up. "If Google Maps has your hours or phone number wrong, people will be mad at you before they ever get to your place," Solomon says. Make sure every page of your website includes a welcome message that orients customers to your home page and contact information.

2. Train greeters. Have a friendly employee stationed near your door who has a great smile and is not overly aggressive. "You want someone who can figure out what the customer needs but doesn't give off the feeling they're checking for shoplifters," Solomon says. "I was in a music store recently where I felt like a criminal. I made a $10 purchase and then on the way out they demanded to see my receipt. If your greeter is doing double-duty, at least have them be subtle about it."

3. Speed order fulfillment. The length of time customers expect to wait for orders has changed dramatically. "It's not even that you and I expect it faster than our parents did; we expect it faster than we did last year," Solomon says.

If you're a small retailer, think hard about the inventory you stock and what's available through your website. "Customers will not special order from your store anymore. They'll go online and buy it at your competitor, unless it's something very, very special they can't find elsewhere," Solomon says.

4. Hire selectively. It's nearly impossible to teach employees to have a genuine smile or a natural affinity for people. That's why you must hire optimistic, warm, and conscientious people, Solomon says. This is particularly true for those who will interact with customers in person, on the telephone, or online.

Once you have the right people on staff, give them the autonomy to make things right for your customers, no matter what the circumstances.

5. Get the language right. Even a nice person can unwittingly use words that make customers uncomfortable or insult them. "An employee may want to tell a customer, 'You owe $100.' But it's better to say, 'Our records seem to show you have a $100 balance,'" says Solomon. "That gives everyone a chance to save face,."

Don't be afraid to write some simple scripts for your employees—and make sure you model the language you want them to use. For instance, "May I take your plate?" is better wording for a waiter than "Are you still working on that?" A clerk should say, "You're welcome" or "my pleasure" rather than, "no problem," Solomon explains.

6. Develop a system to make each customer feel that employees care. An area where small businesses can shine is in relationships. Encourage employees to get to know regular customers and greet them personally, if possible. "The problem is," he says, "when a company gets even a couple branches bigger, [it loses] that personal touch."

Employ technology to assist you and your employees in remembering details about your customers, their preferences, and their typical purchases. "When a customer gets that feeling that he is remembered when he comes back, that's the best," says Solomon.

Karen_klein
Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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