When it comes to customer service, failing to plan is almost akin to planning to fail, according customer service consultants and several successful small business owners.
The most successful businesses, large and small, offer great customer service,” said Barbara Khozam, an Escondido, Calif.-based customer service consultant.
“The companies that hire me already are distinguished by their superior customer service and continually seek to improve it,” said Khozam.
Simple steps, Big returns
She said answering the business phone before the third ring, greeting customers walking through the door within 20 seconds and requiring staff to wear nametags and introduce themselves to customers are no-brainer protocols for small businesses seeking a competitive edge.
“The owners need to have a checklist of what employees must do and they need to constantly reiterate that the customer is number one,” she said.
Khozam said today customers seek “effortless experiences” when shopping and doing business. “Customers want to exert as little effort as possible in dealing with a business. They don’t want to make four phone calls to resolve a problem, just one. Businesses that understand that dynamic can profit.”
Mike Schatzman, co-founder of the popular Chicago restaurant, Union Sushi & Barbecue Bar, said the most important step to achieving good customer service is developing a plan, sharing and executing it and securing buy in from staff.
“If you don’t articulate your ideas and don’t write them down, new people on board may receive different messages from different managers and become confused, which can filter down to customers.”
Schatzman, who employs 35 and will hire another 30 by the time his new city tavern, The Franklin Room, opens in November, said years of working in sales and marketing schooled him in the importance of customer service.
“The key is to make sure everyone knows what customer service means to you,” he explained. “To me it’s doing the right thing and being able to accommodate customer requests and being honest with them. If there is a problem, tell them why and give them the most information possible, so the customer understands why you’re making a decision.”
He said dealing with high-level clients with very particular requests made him realize how customer service can be a tool to bring in new customers and keep them coming back. Genuinely listening to customers and thinking before answering customer questions is key to developing trust and loyalty.
“And employee retention is hugely related to customer service. Our customers see the same faces and we have people well versed in our mission who understand our level of customer service and our customers notice and appreciate that,” he said.
Quint Studer, president of the Orlando, Fla.-based consulting firm, The Studer Group, which primarily serves hospital clients, is also the owner of an AA minor league baseball team, the Pensacola Blue Wahoos. Studer’s wife also owns an olive oil and coffee shop in Pensacola, the Bodacious Olive.
So while his firm works mainly with large complex hospital organizations to improve customer satisfaction, he maintains his small business cred.
His Blue Wahoos employ only 20 year round, but hire 350 in the summer, with an 85% retention rate. His wife’s firm has 32 employees and only had two departures last year. “Good customer service is directly correlated to happy, satisfied employees,” he said.
Studer said customer satisfaction includes five key components:
- Acknowledging the customer. “At a Blue Wahoos’ game at least four different people thank and welcome you before you get to your seat. Our customers feel valued.”
- Introducing your product or service to your customers so they trust what you say. “In a restaurant your server tells you about the chef’s credentials. If you’re a nurse, explain how long you’ve been doing your job. It puts customers at ease and builds credibility.”
- Managing the duration. “If you’re a barista and a new customer walks in, don’t say you’ll be right with them. Tell them as specifically as you can when you’ll be able to serve them: ‘It’ll take me two minutes to finish this latte after that I will take your order.’ You’re managing your customer’s expectations so they can feel confident when their meal will arrive or their product will be delivered.”
- Don’t skip the explanations. “My wife sells a ton of olive oil and we’ve noticed that people 35 and under really want product explanations, like the oil is sensitive to light and how it is processed. Don’t assume that I know something. Take the time to explain it. It’s part of the product or service and people expect and appreciate it.”
- Don’t ever forget to say thank you.
“If they do those five things, it’s a home run,” predicted Studer.
It starts with employees
Studer said it has to start with employee engagement: imbuing employees with a shared sense of the company’s vision and mission.
“It comes down to what I call hiring correctly,” he said. “And that involves peer interviewing techniques, using your current employees in the hiring process.”
He said every year before baseball seasons opens new employees are interviewed four separate times before they’re hired.
“Small businesses tend to hire too quickly,” he said. “The research I’ve seen points that the one skill set a business owner must master is selection. Too often small businesses assume they’re not big enough to be too sophisticated or thorough and hire too soon.”
Tom Gabriele, owner of The Cigar Loft, is celebrating his store’s fifth anniversary in St. Petersburg, Fla. Gabriele, a former teacher and salesman, agreed that listening is key to providing quality customer service and building customer loyalty.
“A small businessperson has to tolerate all kinds of people and make them feel comfortable in spending their money at your place. It’s common sense: people go where they feel comfortable. I’ve never studied business or owned a business before. But listening to my customers, learning what they want and giving it to them, has worked for me.”
He said providing little things makes a difference. For example, Gabriele said that on Friday nights he offers snacks —chips and dips or pizza —which don’t cost much, but creates a welcoming atmosphere of fun and frivolity.
“It’s my strongest night of the week and everyone loves to come,” he said.
The soft-spoken cigar aficionado conceded he is not bubbly or boisterous or gifted with a strong, outgoing personality.
“But I am a good listener and have the ability to appreciate all kinds of people. It’s like I have 500 friends. It doesn’t feel like I’m working. I do most of my work before I open and close. That frees me to serve my customers and make them feel at home.”
In his 43 years in the restaurant business, Jeff Veigel has cooked and served as kitchen, bar and restaurant manager and food and beverage director, working nearly every job from dishwasher and busboy to waiter and boss.
Veigel, the son of a restaurateur who bought Isles Bun and Coffee in Minneapolis 14 years ago with his wife, Catherine, said he’s learned that customers like and appreciate “that little something extra.
“With our cinnamon rolls (often voted the best in the Twin Cities) you get all the frosting you want. It’s a perceived value thing. At some places you pay another 50 cents for extra frosting. At Isles you’re not being nickeled and dimed to death. It’s a little thing, but it sets the tone. People appreciate value.”
Veigel said he learned from his father that ‘You can raise prices, but don’t cut your portions.’ “People come back to your place because they feel comfortable about the quality of your product and the service they receive. People like being treated like people, not like numbers. They enjoy getting what they paid for and maybe a little extra. They like being recognized and remembered. They like it when we start making their favorite drink as soon as we greet them coming through the door.”
Catherine Veigel said most of the bakery and coffee shop’s business is completed in the morning.
“But if you can cover the costs, you can draw new customers in the afternoon who’ll come back in the morning. If a new customer walks up to our door and it’s closed, we may not see that customer again. So we extend our operating hours 15 min before or after our regular posted business hours. We serve them if they arrive at 5:01 p.m. and we officially closed a minute earlier. Those customers feel special and come back. It’s about letting people know they’re important to you and wanting them to return.”
Ultimately, she said, what customers crave more than anything—- more than the aromatic cinnamon buns they bake or the strong, satisfying coffee they brew, is the sense of community they derive from coming to Isles Bun & Coffee.
“They’re coming to find that sense of belonging, that third place away from home and work where they can feel at home,” she said. “These are my people. When I don’t see a customer for a while I get concerned. We are people first. And that’s how we operate our business and treat our customers.”