I was recently asked to lead a group discussion on customer service at my local Women In Business Network meeting.

I didn’t have much time to prepare, which may have been a good thing, as it made me tune into my instinct of what customer service means to me.

The first thing that struck me is that customer service really is the priority for small business owners.

I haven’t yet met anyone who has a totally unique business idea, even the more unusual ones are a variation on an existing theme. So, if our product or service has many providers, the only way to differentiate ourselves is through our customer service. It is embodies the ‘like’ and ‘trust’ parts of the ‘know-like-trust’ purchasing continuum. Customers need to like what they get, but they also want to trust that they will be well looked after.

We can all sell something once, but it is through good customer service that a relationship is formed and the customer comes back for more.

So, for most of us a satisfied customer isn’t quite enough, we want loyal customers who wouldn’t consider going anywhere else for a similar product or service. Not only do loyal customers keep coming back, but they become an advocate for your business, telling others how delighted they are, encouraging others to buy too.

I am always thrilled when an ‘ad hoc’ client decides to move to a retainer package, to ensure that I have time to help them with their business, on a regular basis, either weekly or monthly. It is a true compliment, but also a big responsibility to maintain and enhance the loyal relationship that has developed through my customer service standards.

There is much written about what makes up great customer service, and my 5 favourite tips are:

1. Listen to your customers. Hear what they are saying, and indicate that you understand through appropriate responses, maybe suggesting a solution to a problem. Sometimes really listening to your customers involves also hearing what they haven’t said, and drawing those things out to complete the picture.
2. Do what you say you are going to do. So basic, but so often overlooked! Only commit to what you know you can do. If unforeseen circumstances mean that you can’t deliver what you said you would, when you said you would, then manage the expectations of your customers, don’t in any circumstances let them down.
3. Turn a complaint into an opportunity. A complaint means that whatever went wrong, the customer hasn’t given up on you. Take steps to turn the complaint around with great customer service, really listening to what went wrong, learning from that and ensuring that it doesn’t happen again. And apologise. In an unqualified way.
4. Make customer service part of your brand. Take steps to ensure that your customer service is one of the things that customers know you for, make it your differentiator. And that also means that if you have staff, they must be trained and empowered to make great decisions for your customers. Train your staff to be ‘can do, with pleasure’, service with a smile people.
5. Do the unexpected. You will be remembered for doing more than was strictly necessary, for making the extra effort to do an outstanding job.

“The Women in Business Network (WIBN) is a membership organisation for women who wish to gain new business opportunities through word of mouth. Whether employed or a business owner the network has a huge diversity of businesses involved. Our members support and encourage each other through collaboration and the sharing of business contacts and opportunities.”