These days it’s easier and easier to start a business -- that’s the good news. Unfortunately, with low barriers to entry comes tons of competition, so it becomes harder to distinguish your business and win customers. As an entrepreneur with a service-based business (corporate training/keynote speaking), I’m constantly trying to connect with potential clients not just to sell a training class but to develop a long-lasting relationship. As small-business owners, we sometimes feel we can’t relate or even learn from major Fortune 100 companies, but over the years, I’ve always attempted to glean customer service best practices from the best, so that I can incorporate into my business model and processes. Here are a few of my favorites.
Develop a habit of addressing customers by name.
I remember reading somewhere years ago that everyone’s favorite word is their own name (whether they realize it or not), so it makes lots of sense that smart businesses have learned to incorporate this small (free) practice into their business processes -- whether it’s a face-to-face interaction, email, newsletter, etc.
Two companies that taught me this lesson are Disney and Pure Barre. When our family went on our first Disney Cruise, one of the things that both surprised and impressed me was the fact that as you walk onto the ship after initial registration, they ask you your family name then proceed to announce you on a loud microphone, “Now welcoming the Brownlee Family…” As you walk in, they simulate a red carpet, replete with paparazzi, teeming with Disney reps applauding your arrival. It’s a seemingly simple step but an amazing way to make customers feel special. Similarly, I’m so impressed how consistently Pure Barre staff call me by name -- whether it’s walking in or out of the studio or during class -- it’s very intentional … and smart in my book. I think that calling people by name creates a bit of an instant bond, and bonding with potential customers is a good thing for sure.
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This one isn’t natural for me I must admit so I’ve had to be very conscious about using names as much as I can. In training classes I typically include name tents to help remind me to call on people by name throughout the session. Even in speaking events, I’ll sometimes ask a person their name and then use or repeat it during my talk instead of using fictitious names to make a point.
Avoid nickel and diming the customer.
Have you ever encountered a company whose terms and conditions are really restrictive or they have additional fees for every little thing so much so that you’re just turned off and don’t want to do business with them? And the opposite is true as well, once you experience a “no questions asked” free and easy return policy, you’re not only impressed but may also feel a sense of gratitude and loyalty towards that company. Recently, I sent my mom flowers from Pro Flowers and my mom said that a few were dead. I emailed them to let them know and before I could send a follow up email with pictures (to prove it), they’d already responded to apologize and ask whether I wanted a refund or second delivery at no charge. Similarly, I’m always impressed when I call Constant Contact’s customer service (invariably because I’m struggling with a newsletter) and they don’t just answer my question, but also ask permission to edit the newsletter for me -- yes, as an entrepreneur trying to get that newsletter out, that’s what I need! I’ve been told about other email marketing applications that are cheaper, but Constant Contact’s service is so great … I’m likely a customer for life.
The key here is to think long-term relationship-building, not short-term profitability when determining the fine print on your pricing, service plans, etc. Of course, any entrepreneur has to be smart and ensure their basic pricing structure or business model is profitable (or there won’t be a business for very long), but when you’re thinking about the details around shipping, returns, cancelations, etc., try to avoid nickel and diming. Instead adopt policies that would make you come back as a customer. As a corporate trainer, I’ve had several occasions where a client canceled or I needed to resend a product. Although I could have easily charged additional fees to cover my inconvenience (and sometimes even my out of pocket costs), I typically would not, because I felt that engendering a level of goodwill was so much more valuable than a nominal fee.
Hire great admin staff.
It amazes me how most companies fail to realize that customer contact positions irrespective of hierarchical position can make or break your business in so many ways. Indeed, your receptionist or executive assistant is often the face of your organization and can create a positive or negative image with the slightest direct customer interaction. Are they warm, inviting, happy to answer questions or do they seem like they’re just punching the clock and irritated by too many customer questions? Do they have a natural passion for your business or industry or did they take the job because it gives them a short commute or the ability to work from home? Finding amazing people who not only provide the customer service you’d want but also stay with you long term and enhance your brand with every customer interaction are priceless. Nordstrom is famous for great customer service and the heart of that is their people. Whenever I need to make an important clothing purchase, I head straight to Nordstrom, not necessarily because their selection is better (or cheaper) but because I know that I can walk in and approach almost anyone and get an amazing personalized shopping experience. Over the years I’ve hired many assistants and other support staff, and those hiring decisions are certainly some of the most important ones I’ve made. I’ve learned the hard way that a great assistant is so valuable (and a bad one so stressful and costly) that I’d rather go without if I can’t find one that is truly spectacular.
Related: The Key to Hiring the Best Employees
In today’s competitive market, entrepreneurs must figure out how they can distinguish their service or product. Oftentimes, small businesses can look to the big boys to benchmark how they attract and retain customers. The little guys may not feel they have much in common with their Fortune 500 counterparts, but the truth is that while their balance sheets may be drastically different, many of the fundamental challenges are the same. The key for smaller scale entrepreneurs is figuring out how to customize these best practices for their specific business. You never know, if you start providing the best customer service in your industry, you may become one of the big boys (or girls) before you know it.