It matters whatever size the business, but great customer service is especially important for smaller businesses that rely less on customer volume and far more on loyal, repeat customers.
It may sound a little hardheaded, but the fact is that each happy customer is an investment. They are effectively the very best kind of marketing opportunity – the personal recommendation. And in the era of social media, personal recommendation (and its opposite, personal condemnation) is more powerful than ever.
So, what are the elements that really make a difference and create superb customer service?
1. Truly care
One essential is not to think in cliches that don't really add up to action - this is all too easy and is really just lazy. It certainly won't win any loyal customers.
So, for example, instead of talking about being 'committed to customer service excellence', consider an actual concrete action that can be taken to bring this about.
Having said that, the best customer service probably comes about through a combination of mindset and practical measures. Doing the right thing is vital, but the customer also needs to feel that you actually care.
2. Create goodwill
THE golden rule is, of course, the one everyone knows - 'the customer is always right'.
The fact is, as everyone also knows, the customer is not always right. But the clear message is that they need to feel, as far as possible, that you are taking their side, seeing matters from their perspective and doing all you can to meet their demands.
This means, whenever possible, giving the customer the benefit of the doubt. This may cost, but the sense of goodwill that will be created can be huge.
3. Get personal
Keeping customer service personal is vital. If you're a web-based company, one of the great advantages is that so many processes can be automated. But when it comes to customer service, the human touch is essential. That means speaking to the customer, allowing them to realise that a real person is dealing with their issue.
4. Act promptly
Again, this is easier said than done; but if you delay in handling a complaint, the customer is only going to become increasingly irate and there's a risk that even fixing the problem will not create a great impression for your business.
Quite simply, for a customer, there's little worse than the feeling that they are not getting the attention of a business when something's going wrong.
Similarly, make sure customers can reach you promptly and easily, whether it's to do business with you or to raise a problem. This means opening as many channels of communication as possible - phones, email, social media, live online chat are all useful tools. The important thing is not to keep the customer waiting whatever their reason for wanting to get in touch.
6. Do not argue
Contradicting an angry complainant is probably the worse thing you can do, short of slamming the phone down. Sympathy and solutions are what is required.
The best technique is therefore to listen and then work rationally, step by step, towards a solution. Working towards a solution means finding areas of agreement not dispute and then using positive phrases that progress the conversation. Examples of these could be such phrases as, "Would it help if i....etc?, "Would the best thing be to......etc?" And so on and so forth.
Make sure you know what the customer wants. It can often be the case that a series of events has left a customer feeling aggrieved and what started off as a minor annoyance - or even perhaps a neutral inquiry - has escalated into something much larger.
Spotting this, when it’s the case, is an important skill. Many people have trouble untangling all the elements of what has got them fired up, so a good listener will do this for them and then approach each part of the problem and deal with it.
8. Own the problem
Don’t pass a problem down the line. This is another example of what winds up unhappy customers. Take ownership straight away. If you sound personally determined to resolve the problem you will immediately help calm the situation and build confidence that ‘something is going to be done.’
9. Be reliable
If you say you’ll do something, make sure it gets done. This doesn’t just apply to problem solving, it also means showing up at the time you said you would, making sure the job is completed when you said it would be and generally demonstrating reliability.
And, if you can’t do exactly what you said you would….make sure you communicate. If you are forced to let down a customer because of events beyond your control (a part has been delayed, for example), then tell your customer simply and directly what the problem is.
10. Anticipate needs
If you are able to do this it will always impress. It can relate to the very smallest of actions, such as anticipating that someone will need help carrying something and then arranging for that help; or perhaps that they will need a follow up call and some extra advice regarding a service they are buying. These touches can and often do leave a lasting impression.
11. Give for free
Tell your customers something useful. If you can do this you will definitely be on the way to creating a loyal customer. Of course, it’s not always possible, but if you are able to offer a specific piece of advice or knowledge from within your trade, or just information about a product that isn’t obvious, it’s a great idea to do so.
12. Value your staff
Don’t forget to create a culture that values customer service by getting staff involved through incentives, such as awards or concrete rewards for going that extra mile when dealing with customers. Of course, to do this effectively, you also need to make it clear to your customers that you want and value their feedback.