The term "customer service" encompasses a variety of techniques used by businesses to ensure the satisfaction of a customer, from friendly and attentive staff to prompt response when confronted with product defects. Successful small business owners often cite this factor as one of the most important in establishing and maintaining a prosperous company. "A cascade of beneficial effects can result when a small business cultivates customer loyalty," wrote Michael Barrier in Nation's Business. "That pattern holds in all kinds of small businesses—those that sell to other businesses as well as those that sell to consumer."
Indeed, some business experts contend that quality customer service can be a more important factor in ensuring company success in some industries than promotion, advertising, and other marketing efforts. "Customer service is a great business advantage," wrote Canadian Manager 's John Tschohl. "When you have several competitors in a field and one of them courts customers with service and the others don't, it's the customer-oriented company that pulls ahead. Customers buy more. They return to buy again. And the feed the positive word-of-mouth grapevine about the quality service company." Business owners who make customer service a central guiding principle in their business, then, are far more likely to succeed than those who are indifferent to such practices. As one thriving entrepreneur told Tschohl, "You can't lose sight of the fact that customers come first. No matter what the product …you must always please the customer. If you don't, they can find someone nicer and more accommodating to take their business."
"Good customer service rests on three pillars: the right employees, sound practices, and training," wrote George Paajanen in Discount Store News. "Like a three-legged stool, your customer service efforts will be shaky if they rest on only one of the pillars."
EMPLOYEES Many business observers contend that the most critical facet of ensuring good customer service lies in simply hiring personable and responsible employees. "The good news is that pre-employment screening tests can enhance the interviewing process by helping employers measure the skills and characteristics needed for success in customer service jobs," said Paajanen. "There are a variety of valid tests available, and consistently hiring people who score higher on them will ensure that you select employees who will represent your business to customers in a positive light." In addition, business owners are urged to make sure that they adequately inform potential employees of any customer-relations obligations that they might have. This is typically accomplished through training programs.
TRAINING Employee training is an important component of customer service. Customer service principles should be put in writing, and it should be made clear that all employees are expected to be familiar with them and be prepared to live up to them. Small business owners also need to recognize that customer service training should be extended to all employees who interact with clients, not just those in high profile sales positions. Service technicians, for example, often regularly interact with customers, but all too often they receive little or no customer service training. "More companies are asking their technicians to fill gaps in sales efforts and to repair communication breakdowns," noted Roberta Maynard in Nation's Business. "Some companies are cultivating their technicians' abilities to clarify customer needs and identify and capitalize on sales opportunities…. Some managers are giving technicians greater authority to do what it takes to keep customers happy, such as occasionally not charging for a service call or a part."
SOUND PRACTICES Finally, businesses need to make sure that they work hard to ensure customer satisfaction on a daily basis. Customer service should be ingrained in the company, commented one entrepreneur in an interview with Barrier: "It has to be part of the organization's mission and vision, right from Day One. Then the rest tends to be simple—it carries over to your products, your advertising, your staffing, and everything else."
Business experts cite several tangible steps that small business owners can take to ensure that they provide top-notch service to their customers. These include:
Any one of these traits might not be enough to sway a customer into beginning a long-term relationship with a company. But combined with one another, they can be a potent attraction to other businesses and consumers alike. As Thomas A. Stewart remarked in Fortune, "customer satisfaction—deep satisfaction, the kind that creates loyalty—isn't likely to result from one big thing…. A customer's decision to beloyal or to defect is instead the sum of many small encounters with your company."
Although smart entrepreneurs and business managers recognize that customer service is an important element in ensuring company success, it is a reality of life that a small percentage of customers are simply incapable of being satisfied with the service they receive. Small business owners are generally averse to letting any customers go, but consultants contend that some clients can simply become more trouble than they are worth for any number or reasons. The solution to determining whether a business owner should sever ties with a problematic customer, observed Nation's Business, "may lie in defining the word 'customer' properly: Someone who costs you money isn't a customer but rather a liability."
Entrepreneur's Jacquelyn Lynn listed several scenarios in which consultants recommend that small businesses consider ending their relationship with a troublesome client. Client attitudes and actions that should prompt an honest assessment include:
Lynn noted that, in some instances, honest communication with the client can salvage a deteriorating relationship, but this does not always work. "If your attempts to make the relationship a mutually productive one don't work," said Lynn, "it may be time to move on and focus on more profitable clients or prospective clients. Calculate what you will lose in gross revenue, and decide if you business can stand the financial hit." If the business is able to withstand the loss of revenue, move forward to terminate the relationship in a professional manner. If not, then the company's leadership needs to develop a strategy to expand existing business relationships or garner new clients so that the company can sever relations with the offending customer down the line.
Barrier, Michael. "Ties that Bind." Nation's Business. August 1997.
Brown, Stanley E., ed. Customer Relationship Management: A Strategic Imperative in the Worldof E-Business. Wiley, 2000.
"Customers You Want to Lose." Nation's Business. August 1997.
Friedman, J. Roger. "Quality Service Is the Key to Earning Repeat Customers." Nation's Restaurant News. September 1,1997.
Lee, Dick. The Customer Relationship Management Survival Guide. High Yield Marketing Press, 2000.
Levinson, Jay Conrad. "Taking Care: 17 Ways to Show Your Customers You Care." Entrepreneur. October 1997.
Lynn, Jacquelyn. "Good Riddance." Entrepreneur. October 1997.
Maynard, Roberta. "Are Your Technicians Customer-Friendly?" Nation's Business. August 1997.
Paajanen, George. "Customer Service: Training, Sound Practices, and the Right Employee." Discount Store News. September 15, 1997.
Reichheld, Frederick F. The Loyalty Effect. Harvard Business School Press.
Stewart, Thomas A. "A Satisfied Customer Isn't Enough." Fortune. July 21, 1997.
Tschohl, John. "How to Succeed in Business by Really Trying." Canadian Manager. Spring 1997.
Wilhelm, Wayne, and Bill Rossello. "The Care and Feeding of Customers." Management Review. March 1997.
Zemke, Ron, and John A. Woods. Best Practices in Customer Service. AMACOM, 1999.