To paraphrase one of my favorite quotes from e.e. cummings, being a small businesses means to fight the hardest battle any business can fight without ever stopping.
You are by your very nature a David in a world of Goliaths, or a small shop in a galaxy of Wal-Marts. You have to fight to make yourself heard and to find and keep customers, and you need to know how to play your position to achieve your fundamental goals.
With a hat tip to my always helpful boss, I’ll point you toward this Tennessean column about the one thing that truly separates small businesses from their bigger cousins: Service. Where your average chain supermarket, restaurant or store has a reputation for being a soulless corporate entity that will slash prices but won’t pay an employee to be friendly with you, small businesses have a carefully cultivated image as places where people know your name and will take the time to help you find what you’re looking for.
So many businesses seem to have trouble grasping this basic concept. If you’re not providing quality customer service every step of the way, you’re losing your most significant advantage over your larger competitors. If you don’t build a loyal customer base…well, you don’t have a bright future, if I may be blunt.
We won’t leave you hanging, though. Here’s a few tips for ensuring your customer service is so superlative that your regulars practically swoon in the face of it. That’s true if your products are bicycles or working capital.*
- Hire only the enthusiastic. You can get plenty of good employees who basically have no personality and no desire to engage in a meaningful way with customers. You could also hire a robot. If your guys and gals are going to be dealing directly with customers, pick ones who care.
- Craft guidelines. You don’t want glassy-eyed employees sticking to a script, but give them a sense of how to talk to customers. Get to know your target audience and learn to start conversations in a familiar way, with variations according to what that particular person needs. Let you employee know what the standards are.
- Work to solve problems. Nothing is more grating than a business that pledges to take care of any issues that arise with their products and services and then backpedals furiously away from a guarantee. Be honest, be forthright and work to get it done. Even if it turns out that you can’t solve their problems, customers will walk away with the sense that you give a damn about them. That encourages them to come back.
- Don’t let customer service stop at the door. You don’t want to harass your customers from afar, but checking up to see how they enjoyed their latest trip to your store or what they recently purchased can be helpful. Follow up by offering e-mail coupon offers and the latest sales to keep customers on the hook and informed of what you’re up to.
Have more tips to share with your fellow business owners and employees? Make them known in the comments, if you please.