Customer Service for Small Business Owners: Everything You Need to Know

Allie Johnson

Learning how to deliver superb small business customer service can help you keep your customers happy, sail through mistakes without losing accounts, and boost your small business.

However, providing superb service can be a challenge at all stages — whether you’re just starting a business, or you’re an established small business owner who’s working to get your customer service right as you juggle all the tasks involved in running your business.

Need a little help improving your small business customer service? This guide will walk you through the basics of providing great service and arm you with the ideas and tools you can use to make your customers happy. If you already have a small business, you’ll get the information you need to improve your service or to fix problems that may be holding you back from reaching a higher level of growth and success.

(Download our free eBook: How to Keep Customers Coming Back for More – Customer Retention Strategies)

Great Customer Service Is Good Business

After you’ve arranged the basics for running your business, like setting up an accounts payable system and getting small business insurance, it’s time to turn your focus to customer service.

By 2020, customer service will become more important than price or product when customers make choices about who gets their business, according to SCORE, a volunteer organization of business professionals helping small business owners.

Even today, customer service snafus can cost you revenue, cause you to lose customers, and, in a worst-case scenario, tank a business. Stories of service fails or even perceived slights can spread instantly via viral videos and social media spats viewed by hundreds or even thousands of onlookers.

The most well-known examples typically involve big businesses — recall, for example, that out-of-tune response to a broken guitar that dropped United Airlines’ stock valuation by $180 million.

But negative word-of-mouth can hurt small businesses just as badly.

Recently, an upscale new restaurant in my city upset a prominent local guitarist when the chef insisted on preparing the rabbit rare as described on the menu. The diner, who had ordered his meat well done, complained to a manager, who reportedly told him — in less-than-melodious language — to leave. One of the musician’s dining companions took to Facebook to post a scathing review that generated dozens of comments from incensed acquaintances who vowed never to set foot in that restaurant.

The following weekend, the place was practically empty.

On the flip side, excellent service can send you rocketing ahead of your competition. For example, you can borrow customer service hacks from companies like Zappos, a business that has outrun its competition in part by creating a culture of customer service in which employees are encouraged to go the extra mile — such as sprinting over to another store for a pair of out-of-stock shoes.

“Excellent customer service is simply understanding how someone else wants to be treated, and viewing each person as an individual,” says Nick Bush, a Realtor licensed in Washington, D.C. and Virginia, who picked up his personalized style of service through his previous career in hospitality at five-star hotels.

These high-end hotels often keep files on guests’ quirks, Bush says. “For example, say I’m checking somebody in and they mention they really love Diet Coke,” he says. “I’d put that into the system and have a Diet Coke waiting for them every time they arrive.”

Now, he asks a lot of “how” questions to learn about clients’ needs and plans for their new homes, and he even reflects those preferences in unique post-closing gifts. For example, one woman mentioned she planned to drink coffee and read in a certain room, so he sent a Keurig coffeemaker to her new home.

Providing the best small business customer service doesn’t have to take a lot of time or require you to personally interact with customers all day long, which could quickly lead to burnout.

Instead, good service is a matter of putting systems in place to identify your customer service issues, training yourself and your employees, and harnessing the right tools and services to get the job done.

Providing good small business customer service means doing what you say you’ll do when you say you’ll do it.

Here is a step-by-step guide to becoming a customer service superstar:

Choose the Right Customer Service Tools for Your Small Business

There are many tools available — from social media, to chat, to CRM systems — that can make it easier to serve your customers. Consider these small business tools to help you provide stellar service:

CRM System

A Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system is an essential customer service tool. Not only will a CRM provide you with the reports you need to monitor your customer service, but it also can help you organize and streamline other aspects of your business, such as operations and marketing.

Essentially, a CRM helps you manage your customer relationships by letting you store and analyze data about your customers, create customized reports, and send custom emails. A CRM also lets you slice and dice data so you can analyze patterns and trends.

For example, with a CRM, you might see that your top customer often places a big order in the fall, so you can give her a call in early September to see what she needs. You can also automate contacts by, for example, setting up the system to send follow-up sales emails to customers who opened your e-newsletter.

CRM systems are available at various price points. On the high end, SalesForce costs $125 per month per user, with a user being anyone who puts data into the system. Users could include you, your customer service manager, and all of your customer service representatives. On the lower end, Zoho CRM costs $35 per month per user.

Help Desk

While most CRM systems have some functions that allow you to create “tickets” to handle customer complaints, consider a help desk application if you want more features, such as metrics and workflow.

A help desk application like Zendesk or Freshdesk can make it a snap for you to serve customers, and can be used for online businesses or hybrid brick-and-mortar and online businesses. You’ll be able to create a service ticket for each issue and route customers through the proper channels to get their issues resolved.

Both SalesForce and Zoho CRM can integrate with help desk applications. Cost varies by feature. For example, Freshdesk ranges from free to $89 per agent per month, while the cost of Zendesk ranges from $5 per agent per month to $199 per agent per month.

Chat

Most CRM systems do not offer chat functionality that allows a customer to “chat” with you about issues online, but both Freshdesk and Zendesk offer it in their mid-to-higher-priced packages. Or, use chat software such as LiveChat or SnapEngage. LiveChat ranges from $16 to $149 per person per month, while SnapEngage starts at $17 a month.

Different customers prefer to reach out to you in different ways. While some might like email or phone, chat is essential for any small business. In today’s world, customers expect instant gratification.

Social Media

Make sure customers, at minimum, can reach you on at least one social media platform. Social media is not just a place to occasionally post about a new line you’re carrying or an award you won: It’s an essential customer service channel that needs to be monitored and used to interact with customers and fix their problems.

It’s easy to get alerts directly from Twitter if someone uses the @ sign in front of your Twitter handle, but to monitor other mentions of your company on Twitter, use a Twitter management tool like TweetDeck or the monitoring tool offered by Sprout Social. Or, to track mentions of your business across multiple online platforms, use a tool like Brand24.

Knowledge Management Tools

If you want to set up a library of frequently asked questions for customers, you can use tech tools to help you. For example, Desk and Answerbase are both good options.

However, expect most customers to want to get a response from your business rather than read an answer off an FAQ.

So why use them? They offer features that make the Q&A on your website easy for customers to navigate, through categorization and tagging, and they offer extras like community support, so customers can help each other.

Team Communication Technology

Desktop and mobile apps can help your customer service team communicate issues quickly with each other and with you, as necessary. Good choices include the popular business app Slack and alternatives like Azendoo and Bitrix24, which is totally free.

These tools can help you stay plugged in and tuned in to your customers and the team that’s helping to meet their needs.

Set Up the Right Reports to Identify Your Customer Service Issues

While a small business owner can quickly become exhausted by trying to handle every single complaint or problem personally, it is crucial to get an overview of the types of issues your business is having and how they’re being resolved.

Your best friend in staying on top of customer service is a customer relationship management system that can log complaints and generate reports for you so that you know where every customer service issue is and how your employees are handling it.

Determine which reports you will monitor regularly.

One way to keep tabs on customer service is by reviewing customer service reports on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. The best way to generate these reports is through a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system (more on how to choose a CRM later), a crucial tool for every small business owner. Here’s what every small business owner should know about their customer service:

1. Complaints Report

Get a daily complaints report. Employees should log complaints into the CRM system so they get included in this report. You should review this report to find out which customer complained, what it was about, how big the customer is, and what is being done about the complaint.

2. Glitch Report

You also should get weekly service reports, which aren’t necessarily complaints but are issues customers need resolved with the product or service. A weekly service report should show every open service ticket, what was last done to resolve it, and what is the next scheduled action.

3. Time-to-Close Report

Another report to review regularly is a time-to-close report, which shows how long it’s taking to resolve customer problems. Set a goal and check to see if you’re meeting it. For example, you might say, “I want to make sure any ticket that gets opened is closed within 24 hours.”

Customer relationship management systems can send alerts by email, text messages, popups, or calendar task items. This can prevent or minimize issues by allowing you to jump in and make sure a problem gets fixed early.

For example, you could set up your workflow so that if a “gold level” customer calls in with a problem and their ticket is not resolved within two hours, the issue gets elevated to high priority. And, if it’s not resolved in another two hours, the issue goes to a senior manager or to you.

Invest in Customer Service Training

Training yourself and your employees to see things from the customer’s point of view is a crucial early step toward creating a culture of customer service. Training can help you nix simple mistakes and turn your employees into customer service standouts.

Learn the Ins and Outs of Customer Service

Consider starting your customer service education with the basics: free online resources, such as the U.S. Small Business Administration’s free video training on customer service.

To delve more deeply into your customer service education, consider turning to organizations like SCORE that offer free training, resources, and mentoring for small business owners. For example, SCORE offers business workshops on an array of topics, including customer service, both in-person and online, with recorded versions available to view at any time.

Also, through SCORE, the SBA, and other organizations, you can get paired with a volunteer small business mentor who will answer questions and coach you on starting and growing your business. Your mentor will not only share knowledge from his or her own experience, but also can point you toward local training resources.

Finally, make it a practice to read blogs and books and listen to podcasts to continue learning on your own. If you have a commute, consider using that time to cue up audio versions of must-reads like Raving Fans: A Revolutionary Approach to Customer Service by Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles, or Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose by Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, in which he explains the thinking that makes his company legendary for wowing customers.

Taking the time to continue to learn, think, and improve on your service delivery will put you far ahead of the competition because so many small business owners are still making basic customer service mistakes that are easy and often free to fix.

Train Employees to Provide Excellent Service

In order to provide good service, every employee in your organization needs to be trained on what to do and what not to do. Here’s a step-by-step guide to training your employees:

1. Hire the Right Employees

Start by recognizing that all of your employees are in sales and that you need to hire people who can provide great service, no matter what the position. That’s because you should create a company culture in which, if an employee were hired to take out the garbage and they see a customer who needs help, they stop what they’re doing and help, says Susan Solovic, aka “The Small Business Expert” and a New York Times bestselling author on small business.

Take your time to choose a candidate who has a caring attitude, patience, and the ability to listen, empathize, ask questions, and solve problems. For example, years ago, small business owner Deborah Sweeney, of MyCorporation.com, decided to provide better customer service by switching from an automated phone answering system to human beings. When she hires people to answer phones, she knows that she’s not hiring a “receptionist,” she’s hiring the face and voice of her company. She tells new hires that a big part of their job involves “answering the phone and being fabulous.”

2. Coach New Hires in Simple Techniques for Talking to Customers

Immediately teach new employees the best ways to interact with customers and role play with them so they can practice their new skills. They need to learn to empathize, apologize, and defuse the situation when dealing with an upset customer.

Train your employees to truly listen to a customer and to adapt their approach and words to the situation. A casual-yet-professional style of speaking, with contractions, short sentences, and a light tone of voice, can warm up an interaction with a customer and help your company build a relationship if the customer has a question or minor concern that your staff can easily fix.

However, if a customer is angry or extremely frustrated, or if you are unable to give them exactly what they want, it can be helpful to adopt a slightly more formal, serious, manner.

It can be helpful to teach easy-to-remember techniques that your employees can rely on in a stressful service situation. For example, the Telephone Doctor, a business that offers customer service training, recommends using the “ASAP” approach to diffuse a problem. ASAP stands for Apologizing immediately, Sympathizing with the customer’s situation, Accepting responsibility, and Preparing to help solve the problem.

Small business owner Jen Oleniczak Brown uses a simple “improv technique” at The Engaging Educator, a company that teaches communication, presentation, and social skills to everyone from kids on the autism spectrum to senior VPs of large companies. Teach employees to say, “Yes, and …” when interacting with a customer, she recommends.

For example, if an irate customer accuses your employee of being rude, teach them to say, “Yes, you feel I was rude, and I think we have a misunderstanding. How can we make this better?” This way, “You’ve given the customer the control, defused the situation, and shown empathy,” she says.

3. Consider Sending Employees to Outside Training

Various organizations and companies offer customer service training that can help take your business to the next level, says Gene Marks, who owns a small tech company.

Consider sending key employees, such as your customer service manager, to an in-person seminar or bringing in a pro to train your whole team.

For example, the American Management Association offers two-day customer service seminars in large cities across the country for under $2,000 per person.

Dale Carnegie Training offers two-hour mix-and-match modules on various customer service topics, and these can be delivered online or in a classroom on site. Topics include building customer loyalty, telephone service, and service-based selling.

4. Model Good Customer Service and Enlist the Help of Customer Service Standouts

Make it a point to solve customer problems in front of your employees so they can see how you want it done.

If you have an employee who’s particularly good at customer service, ask them to help teach others their techniques. Set up lunch-and-learn sessions or just ask the employee to provide tips to others throughout the day, Marks says. “That way, people can learn right there and then,” he says.

5. Watch and Offer Feedback in Real Time

Make it a point to work near your customer service employees occasionally. One of Marks’ clients learned the importance of this when he moved his desk into the middle of the customer service area while his office was being painted. “He learned a lot during those two weeks,” Marks says. During that time, he was able to offer on-the-spot training by popping his head over a cubicle and making suggestions for alternate ways to deal with customer issues.

Sweeney makes sure she’s often out on the floor among the employees who field calls. If she hears an employee having a tough time on the phone, she signals them to route the call to her so she can help out. Afterward, she talks with the employee to offer pointers.

6. Create a Library of Customer Service Resources

Another way to help employees cut the learning curve on training is to build a library of frequent customer issues and questions, says David Kosmayer, founder and CEO of Bookmark, which helps people build websites. The library is a guide for customer service reps on how to solve common problems with which customers regularly need help. “This has been the greatest component to the success of our customer service team,” he says.

Once they’ve been trained on the basics, new customer service reps can learn more in depth by browsing and using the library, which is kept in folders or by topic on Google Drive. “My advice is to start early,” he says. Start building it by simply adding frequently asked questions with in-depth answers. It doesn’t have to be exhaustive, and it will grow over time, he says.

The system helped the Bookmark team provide excellent service during a recent product launch when thousands of new users signed up in a day. “This would’ve normally been a nightmare for our customer service team,” he says. “However, since we had previous expectations of what new users ask in our library, that made the customer success team’s job 10 times easier.”

Consider: Should You Outsource Customer Service?

Some small businesses opt to outsource their customer service to a company that provides customer service agents. This can make sense for some SBOs, but it’s also a move to consider very carefully.

There are pros and cons of outsourcing small business customer service. It can make sense for some small business owners who don’t want to hire employees and who want to focus their own efforts on the big picture of the business.

Outsourcing customer service can take some work off of your plate and allow you to focus on other areas where you have strengths, such as developing new products. However, if the company provides poor service, it can seriously harm your business and leave you scrambling to repair the damage.

If you decide to outsource, you have many options. For example, you can choose a fully integrated customer service center that offers phone, chat, email, and fax capability and also manages online orders. Or, you can choose a call center where employees all work in one place. Or, there are companies that employ contractors who can work from anywhere via internet calls and cloud-based applications.

To find customer service candidates to vet, ask for recommendations from your mentor or other small business owners in your networking group. Or check the list of call centers by country, offered by ELSNET, an organization dedicated to language technology. Consider narrowing your search to companies located within the United States. In fact, some experts recommend working with a company as geographically close to you as possible, so also do an online search for call centers your local area.

Before you choose a company, make sure you’ve reviewed the way they work, the services they’re providing, and the costs compared with other choices. Also, make sure you test out the company before you sign on and that you feel 100% confident putting your customers in their hands. Finally, after you’re on board, assess your metrics and customer satisfaction scores on an ongoing basis to help ensure you’re getting the results you want.

However, many small business experts, including Solovic, recommend keeping customer service in-house. The main benefit to this approach is that it gives you much more control over the quality of service and how that service is provided. It also allows you to better monitor service issues, fix problems promptly, and remove employees who aren’t working out.

While outsourcing might work for some small business owners, Azazie, an online bridal boutique, has stuck with in-house customer service from the beginning. Having customer service reps — called “stylists” at Azazie — working in the same space as shipping, marketing, and other departments has helped customer service run smoothly, says Rachel Hogue, customer service manager. Reps are hand picked and empowered to use their own personal flair when dealing with customers.

By having their customer service staff in-house, the company also can make sure they’re happy — which includes offering snacks, regular breaks for walking around, and standing desks for employees who prefer not to sit. “Make sure your employees are well taken care of and they’re going to be happy to serve your customers,” Hogue says.

Creating a Small Business Customer Service Plan

Now that you know the ins and outs of great customer service, think through your company’s existing issues or potential issues, so that you can design a workable plan.

Look at your business, the services or products you provide, and all the ways you can satisfy your customers or clients.

What opportunities do you have to shine, from the first impression of your company, to preventing and dealing with problems? Sift through customer surveys and take note of compliments or times when your company came through for a customer in a big way. Ask yourself how you can do that more often.

What could go wrong, or has gone wrong, and how can you prevent these issues? Check your CRM or other available reports for patterns that seem to crop up again and again.

If you have major problems or can’t figure out where you’re going wrong, consider bringing in a customer service consultant. For example, Micah Solomon travels the country helping businesses troubleshoot customer service problems and teaching best practices, Marks says.

As you’ve learned, a high quality of customer service can help make your business a success, but it’s also easy to make service mistakes that can tank your business.

Fortunately, it’s easy to provide stellar customer service by addressing these important factors:

  • Knowing what outstanding customer service looks and feels like
  • Creating a culture of service within your business, by training and empowering employees to solve problems
  • Putting in place systems, management tools, and reporting that make it easier to communicate with and please your customers.

Download our free eBook: How to Keep Customers Coming Back for More – Customer Retention Strategies

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