7 Keys to Turning Your Small Business's Clients into Raving Fans
by Nathan Rohler
OK, so that picture is completely over the top. But in all seriousness, if you run a small business, don't you wish your clients loved you that much?
When you’re running a small business – providing products, services or both – one of your biggest weapons is great customer service. Most big companies are known for their crummy service. Large size and rigid systems create sterilized, impersonal support experiences that alienate customers. Short-sided frugality and poorly implemented outsourcing yield horror stories – ones that can now be shared with hundreds of friends in seconds via social media.
On the other hand, you, as a small-businessperson, don’t have to worry about these pitfalls born of “bigness.” Customer service can be your valuable asset rather than dogging liability. But if you don’t have clear objectives for providing great customer service, you’re bound to fail. It may be in different ways from MegaCorp, but your clients will still feel just as frustrated and alienated.
In this article, I’ll share seven keys from personal experience for providing your clients the absolute best service. If you do things right, you’ll have more than just happy customers – you’ll have raving fans who actively promote your business for you.
This is one of the most obvious tips. Clients value a quick response – whether it be for an initial lead or pre-sales question, a support request, a progress inquiry, or any other interaction. Prompt communication before the sale is especially critical in building confidence and strengthening your professional reputation. If you give a quick, professional response before they’ve spent money with you, they’ll be confident that you’ll be there to help after the contract starts or the purchase is made.
When dealing with non-immediate channels (e.g. email, voicemail and text messages), quick turnaround makes you stand out. Email-based support communication has a reputation for “I’ll get around to it in a day or two” service; fast email communication is an especially valuable differentiator.
There are two pitfalls, however. First, customer service can become a time alligator that destroys productivity. Until you reach a point where you can hire dedicated account manager / support / service personnel, personal time management is key. Designate specific recurring times when you’ll deal with clients. Don’t let your customers’ pseudo-emergencies become your own emergencies. Most “emergencies” really aren’t. Fast service doesn’t have to be “drop everything and come running” service. Depending on your business, weigh carefully how many people should have access to immediate support channels; let voicemail, email and/or texts suffice when appropriate.
Second, and most important, is the communication of clear expectations. Some customers will legitimately expect a reply to an email in 20 minutes in the wee hours on Sunday morning. Others are so occupied with other things that they’ll think a turnaround of 4 days for a voicemail is completely acceptable, and won’t even take note of faster service. It’s important to clearly lay out what your customers can expect – how long response times will usually be, and what hours you’re available. If you’re going to be unavailable or out of the office, notify clients well in advance or plan for someone else to be on-duty. By managing expectations, you’ll avoid sticky situations with people who you don’t really want as clients in the first place.
2. Emphasize Respect as the Foundation for Customer Relations
Whether you’re handing all communication yourself or have others involved too, the way you view your customers (and communicate this view to others in your business) will be obvious to each customer. If you view your customers as stupid dolts and often mutter their names together with four-letter words, be assured that this attitude will “leak out” in the way you relate to them. Far too many businesses emphasize the superficial trait of politeness while overlooking or ignoring the root issue – you must have a proper respect for clients as fellow humans, and as the people who pay your bills.
Respect doesn’t mean brown-nosing. The customer may not always be right. But maintaining a high level of respect internally will bear itself out externally in customer service. Only when you view your customers from this perspective can you appropriately deal with angry customers; otherwise, your own pent-up anger will come out when they lose it with you. Patience turns away wrath, and proper respect will provide the patience needed to deal with the most inexperienced and unreasonable customers.
3. Fix Mistakes FAST
We all make mistakes. It’s not making the mistake that shows what we’re made of; it’s how we handle them. In the context of client service, fixing your mistakes is critical. If you screw something up or provide an unsatisfactory product or service, a prompt and humbly apologetic resolution will show you’re really committed to the client respect I just talked about.
In our software business, there have been many instances where customers got in over their heads, ran into bugs, or simply found products unsatisfactory for their needs. By fixing bugs quickly, proactively offering refunds when a product wasn't a good match and apologizing when any inconvenience was caused, these customers ended up respecting us just as we respected them. Many customers of this type end up coming back later and purchasing other products because they know we’re committed to integrity.
By avoiding horror-story material, you create allies for your reputation instead of ticking time bombs.
4. Anticipate Problems and Provide Active (not just Passive) Service
Instead of ever getting to the point where you have angry clients, try to head off problems at the pass. Always be reaching out in non-obtrusive ways to probe for feedback. If a client feels they have a listening voice, they’re much less likely to vent their frustration elsewhere.
If you make a mistake and a client’s site goes down, consider notifying them immediately to let them know you’re working on it. Yes, they might never find out if you don’t tell them; but wouldn’t your client rather know you’ve always got their back, even when it looks bad for you? Your client will know they can trust you, and that’s worth its weight in gold.
If you foresee delays in a project, notify immediately; explain the situation, how you’re actively working to combat it, possible solutions, and how you’re going to make things right if you can’t deliver as promised. If you manage to deliver on time, they’ll be impressed with your honesty and resourcefulness. If the delay does occur, you’ll avoid an even more uncomfortable situation.
If you’re engaging in e-commerce, look for duplicate order issues. Don’t wait until the customer gets her credit card statement and thinks you’re trying to rip her off (or files a chargeback).
Practicing simple policies like these will avoid bigger problems down the road and communicate unequivocally that client welfare is your top priority.
5. Educate Whenever Possible
Obviously, you’re in business because you know more than your clients. So why should you keep them in the dark? Take advantage of every opportunity to share bits of your knowledge with customers. Every time you take an opportunity to educate a client, they will recognize that you’re giving added value and appreciate it. An educated client is easier to work with. Moreover, you’ll differentiate yourself from everyone else, even many of your small-business rivals.
In most cases, you're not trying to educate on a level where you teach yourself out of a job. Instead, you’re simply trying to engage clients and empower them to better themselves. It isn’t rocket science, and doesn’t have to take a lot of time. It can be as simple as taking three minutes to explain some process in elementary terms, or doing a quick Google and including a link to a high-quality introductory article or tutorial on a bamboozling subject. If your client doesn’t value this or sees it as an opportunity to cut you out and take their business in-house, you’re working with someone who doesn’t see your value in the first place – and you probably shouldn’t be working with them at all. Educating your clients will ensure you have the best clients possible. The worthwhile clients will recognize your value, and be willing to pay.
6. Learn From Your Clients
Just as much as you should educate your clients, you should also learn from them. If you provide easy ways to provide suggestions and comments, many clients will be happy to share what they like and don’t like about you, your product or service, and your customer service. Instead of being defensive, listen closely to your most frustrated customers. They will most likely tell you what many others thought, but weren’t annoyed enough to voice.
As much as you think you understand your client, there’s always more to learn; if you’re listening, what you hear will often include some surprises. No client is exactly the same. The more you focus on learning from and about them, the better service you’ll be able to provide to them and the rest of your customers. Additionally, you’ll be able to refine your products, services and processes in tiny ways that yield higher satisfaction and positive emotional connections.
7. Seize The Opportunity of a Happy Client
If you’ve practiced all of the first six keys mentioned here, you’ll be in good shape with your service. But once you’ve successfully implemented these goals and have numerous happy clients, what do you do with them?
When a customer has just had a positive experience with you (especially if they’re impressed enough to tell you!), it’s critical to seize this opportunity and recruit them as promoters. Please note – I’m not talking about over-the-top salesmanship when I say “recruit” them. That will only alienate them, and make them think you were using them all along and putting on a show. Rather, I’m talking about strategically providing opportunities for the customer to voluntarily share their positive experience with others.
If you’re providing a service, respond to compliments by saying that you’re grateful for the opportunity to serve them, and mention that referrals from satisfied customers are important to your business. When appropriate, provide promotional materials that make it easy for the customer to refer you to others.
If you’re providing a product or service, use the opportunity to request a quick review in some strategic web or print location. These super-happy customers who have had positive personal contact are the ones who will leave the most glowing reviews, and will often do so with pleasure. Nielsen says that recommendations from friends and online reviews are the most trusted forms of advertising. Leverage your great customer service to take advantage of this.
In this article I’ve provided seven important keys for creating the best client service experience possible in your small business. These keys, which I’ve learned from years of personal small business experience, are guaranteed to help you get and retain better clients, maximize your value, and turn customers into raving fans. As a small-businessperson, use your size to your advantage and start impressing clients today.
Do you have any tips of your own? Please share in the comments!