customer service

In a marketplace increasingly dominated by ecommerce, where free shipping and liberal return policies have become standard, customer service expectations are higher than ever. Meeting these high expectations is particularly crucial for privately held businesses, both retail and service-based. According to a recent survey conducted by the online legal service firm, business owners said excellent customer service was the top reason clients chose their firm over their competitors’ firms, making it even more important than product or price point.

So there’s no question that you and your staff must treat clients right. But as a business owner, you may be too busy to interact with every customer on a regular basis. Without regular training and evaluation, it’s not unusual for customer service standards to slip over time.

Now that the holidays are over, why not reevaluate how your company’s customer relations measure up? After all, the end-of-year crunch – or slump, depending on your industry – is over and everybody is in the mood to make resolutions. Focusing one resolution on your customer relationships now could pay off big time later this year.  

Here are some tips for getting your service up to speed, so your customers keep coming back – and sending you referrals. 

Hire smart: New staffers need to fit in with your company’s culture, says Shep Hyken, a customer service expert and the author of several books, including “Amaze Every Customer Every Time.” “Upbeat and outgoing may be perfect, or that may not be the right personality for your organization,” Hyken notes. One secret he gleaned from a high-profile client: The best hires often come from the hospitality industry. “People who’ve come up through restaurants, hotels and retail stores understand how to deal with demanding people and maintain the right attitude. They come to the dance with something more: The idea that every customer is a guest and needs to be treated like one.”

Train everyone: Putting recruits through technical training isn’t enough; they need instruction on the soft skills, too. Even a short course on what your organization believes and a primer on its goals can work. “A little bit of onboarding training can get reinforced with a five- or 10-minute meeting with the CEO or manager every day. Ask what happened the day before, how you missed, what you achieved and what you want to do today,” Hyken says. No time for a daily meeting? Schedule a Monday morning huddle during which every staffer shares a positive customer service moment from the prior week.

Speak up: Bad customer service experiences cost the average business $54,000 a year in lost revenue, according to Joseph Grenny, a small business expert and author of “Crucial Conversations.” He recently surveyed nearly 1,000 businesses and found that a typical employee witnesses 19 poor customer interactions a year, but only 7 percent of them always intervened or alerted a supervisor, even though most say they could have improved the situation if they or a supervisor had intervened. Empowering your employees to step in calmly and positively when they witness a transaction deteriorating can make a big difference for your company and its reputation.  

Practice right: Model good interactions with role-play scenarios in which difficult customers are handled appropriately, Grenny advises, and make sure employees know that there’s nothing more important than serving your customers. “Create a safe climate where anyone can approach anyone else, face-to-face, when it comes to improving customer service,” he says. That’s not so scary when employees are given the benefit of the doubt rather than attacked with hot language and accusations. Better to say, “That looked like it didn’t go too well, can I share some feedback?” rather than, “Wow, you really lost it!”

Act fast: One bad apple really can spoil the barrel. “What happens if you have 100 employees and 99 are stellar – but your best client talks to the one who’s not?” Hyken asks. “That can cost you a bundle.” Be frank with employees who aren’t performing up to your customer service standards and get them aligned with your company’s values. If they won’t get on board, let them know you’ll give someone else the opportunity to do so.