For too many small businesses, customer service is still seen as a “burden.” Entrepreneurs don’t realize that this burden is actually costing them over $200 billion in repeat sales, according to a recent study by the W. P. Carey School of Business. The report also indicates that customer problem experiences continue to increase, up four percent to 54 percent since the last study.
The proper time to put a formal program in place to improve your customer experience, with measurements of both cost and value, is before your first product or service hits the market. Don’t wait for the first bad review to hit Yelp, or for friends to stop recommending you to friends. These days, relationships and online reviews are key drivers for over 80 percent of new customers.
As an adviser to startups, I’m convinced that most understand the need, but many still simply don’t know how to show their customers that extra love and support. The need to bridge the gap between minimally satisfied and totally excited customers who go on to be your best brand advocates. In my experience, and the eyes of experts in this arena, here are some practical tips:
- There is no substitute for a personal touch. We all know it’s less expensive to automate the support role, through web site forms and touch-tone phone systems. But beware of false economies, as customers still strongly prefer to talk to human beings who can sense their emotion, relate to their values and customize responses accordingly.
- Make the process quick and frictionless. No customer likes keying in account numbers or repeating information before any meaningful action is started. Indeterminate and long waits before or during a session can and must be eliminated. If a customer feels like they are doing all the work, satisfaction will never be forthcoming.
- Connect, do not just answer questions. Every customer wants to feel a personal connection with a person, not with a non-human business. Relationships are all about empathy, passion and going the extra mile. Today’s generation is accustomed to relationships via social media and texting, as long as social protocols are honored.
- Provide training and empowerment. Every support situation is different, such that written policies and edicts from the top are not enough. Unusual situations require creative solutions and the authority to make these solutions happen. Outsourcing your support team to a far-away country and culture is not the way to start.
- Measure support against competitors. This means asking your support team to sample the support of competitors on a monthly or quarterly basis. The goal should not be to match levels of customer repeat business, but to exceed every time. Rewards and bonuses should be based on wins against competitors.
- Have a sense of urgency and promptness. Waiting for an email response, for a chat session to start, or listening to elevator music on the phone won’t endear you to customers and won’t convince them that their satisfaction is urgent for you. They will reflect your lack of urgency into no repeat business and no mentions.
- Admit mistakes, be proactive on specials. Everyone has a story of a service business which offered specials to new prospects, while existing customers were paying higher rates. Similarly, customers are often left to feel that they are paying for a mistake never admitted. Generate trust and respect for repeat business and customer advocacy.
As examples of “far-exceeds” customer service, Starbucks once addressed an order mix-up by first making the customer whole and then providing a $50 store credit. Trader Joe’s once took an order over the phone from an elderly man who was snowed in and then went the extra mile to deliver it without charge. You can bet these customers will be back and will tell their friends.
Customer service is now considered to be a key part of every customer’s total experience. You wouldn’t ask a customer ordering on your e-commerce site to wait a few days for an email response, so don’t do it when they have a support question. You know what it takes to keep you begging for more, so just treat every customer like your best friend, rather than another burden.