By John McAlister
You are a small business owner— and every day it seems you get besieged with an endless array of seminars, how-to books, training programs, sales lecturers, experts and assorted gurus who will gladly take your hard-earned money and teach you, they claim, how to be a business dynamo. But once you have mastered the technicalities of your business and day-to-day operations, done the foundation building and groundwork, being successful in your business all boils down to one essential ingredient.
And hey, folks, it's not brain surgery.
It's customer service.
Just because you can sell ice cubes to Eskimos doesn't always mean you should. Service trumps sales, and sales drive your bottom line. Remember there is a fine line between driving sales and driving away customers. Always think service first and the sales will follow.
There probably is a no more infamous retail group on the planet than car salesmen. Their skills in selling an automobile that a buyer may not really want or can afford are things of legend. While the dealer's bottom line looks good today after such a sale, the long-lasting bad taste in the customers' mind can be devastating and seldom results in good customer relations and repeat business. Repeat customers can be crucial to the small or home business owner.
As maligned as car salesmen have been (rightly or wrongly since perception rules), my first encounter with good customer relations came about due to a car salesman.
I remember my father always bought his Buicks from Art Stella. Since both of them were in sales, there was the usual offer, counteroffer, haggling and seemingly exhausting negotiations over "options." But when the deal was done, my dad was happy, Art was happy, the dealer was happy and they shook hands, knowing they would do it all over again in two years.
Friends and family would ask my dad why he went through such an ordeal. Simple, he would say. "On the one hand, Art and I like to play the game, but he respects me and I respect him. We are friends ... plus the service I get from the dealer is unbeatable. We always get loaner cars, fast service on repairs, fair prices and honesty."
Our family bought cars from Art for 17 years because he knew my dad, and he provided sterling customer service. What should you, the small business owner, know about building such a customer relationship?
We've compiled a recipe for good customer service you will find helpful in your daily operations. Some of this information you may know, some may be new, but it all will help you focus on creating a successful sales environment for your business.
Know your product
One of the greatest benefits of having your own business is that you are the expert on your products and services. Knowledge is an important ingredient in completing a successful sale, and the customer appreciates that you are thoroughly familiar with your company's offerings. While it can be said that familiarity breeds contempt, that's not so when your customer is looking to you for help.
The buddy system
Your customers drive your bottom line. You better like them; they are going to pay your bills and build your company. Always imagine yourself in the other person's shoes. Do you want slick or sincere? Do you want a smile or a grin? An honest answer to questions or a canned reply?
Don't try to be everything to everyone
How many times have you seen successful businesses lose their way and stumble or fail because they tried to "expand" only to discover that what made them successful in the first place slipped away. When you lose focus, you lose customers, lose business and lose that bottom line. You've stopped providing customer service in favor of providing an arena for failure.
Commit to quality service
Go above and beyond your customers' expectations. Your product knowledge will engender confidence and trust and enable you to anticipate their questions, focus on their needs and guide you both to an appropriate solution to their situation. It's almost impossible to ask too many questions of your customers. Once you know what they want, you will be able to deliver the right product at the right time. In simplest terms: Listen to your customers and go that extra mile. Listening to customers also often enables you to make suggestions about your services and products the customer hasn't thought about and they will appreciate your knowledge and your expertise to help them resolve their needs.
Treat people with courtesy and respect
You know how you like to be treated when you're the customer. We all like to be accorded courtesy and treated as a sensible adult. You NEVER argue with a customer. Even if you know your customer is wrong, resolve the sales question or service issue quickly and in their favor and you've made a friend. Research shows that helping a customer resolve his or her issue results in continued business and likely makes a customer for life. Repeat business, not to mention word-of-mouth referrals, is the lifeblood of bottom lines.
First impression truly is important
This axiom needs no amplification. You can't unring the bell, so do it correctly from the first, and good customer service is bound to lead to sales. Do you really need to be told to be pleasant and smile (even if it's just your voice on the phone) when greeting a customer?
No excuses and dogs don't eat homework
Delivering on a promise results in a customer delivering you the order. Even though we live in a litigious, red-tape, bureaucratic world, good customer service is as old as a handshake. Your word is your bond so make it mean something. Your customer will appreciate it and you will appreciate their business.
Focus on making customers, not sales
Repeat customers save you money because you don't always have to reinvent the wheel to get them into your store or to your Web site. Every new customer comes with costs, whether it's advertising, marketing or time spent explaining and describing your products and services. Repeat customers are gifts you give yourself because you did it right from the start and your reward is their loyalty and continued patronage.
Make your business user-friendly
Whether your business is brick and mortar or a Web site, make it EASY to navigate and SIMPLE to understand. In a store, make sure you and your staffers are helpful, cheerful and knowledgeable; on a Web site, get your customers to where they want to go in the fewest clicks possible. Don't overload them with sidebars and diversions as they push their electronic shopping carts through a morass of "maybe you'd also like" icebergs until their ship sinks and they head elsewhere where the Web site waters are calm and easy to cross to that elusive checkout stand.
Don't talk up or down to customers
Customers want you to be proactive, be an ATM of information and service. They don't want to feel they're trying to communicate with a rocket scientist or a politician. Customers want your attention. Whatever their need is, it's the most important item on their agenda at that particular moment so treat it accordingly. And never violate that old axiom that you can't judge a book by its cover. Remember Jed Clampett.
Live customers trump phone calls
We've all been to stores where the salesperson is on the phone. Personal calls are the kiss of death, but if you're on a business call, don't ignore the live body waiting for you. Let them know you'll be right with them and if you have to, explain that you were helping a customer and not making a date for coffee after work.
Be helpful even if it means sending the customer elsewhere
The 1947 movie "Miracle on 34th Street" contained a great sales and service gem. If you can't get your customer what they want, offer to help them find it elsewhere. That unselfish gesture will make you stand tall in your customers' eyes and will have them return next time. In addition, you can take it to the bank they will share your generosity with others who will come to you for service and sales. And for the trivia folks among us, that movie starred Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn as Santa and Natalie Wood as a tyke. See how being helpful works?
Loose lips sink customers
If you've been to a hospital lately, you've seen the signs imploring medical staff not to talk about patients. The same applies in business; you don't talk about other customers. It serves no purpose to talk about others and will make your customer wonder if you talk about them when they leave. Silence about other customers indeed is golden in the retail world.
Dot those I's and cross those T's
Always check your product or service package before the customer leaves. Give everything that last once-over to make sure everything is in order. Not only does it demonstrate that you care about your customer, but it often will save grief down the road when service or corrections to an order are required.
Follow the customer
No matter what the product or service you have sold a customer, you can be assured that they will appreciate it if you follow up in a couple of days to see how it's working out. And it may lead to further business and more customers when your attention to detail and customer service is passed on by a happy customer.
About the Author
John McAlister writes for www.BusinessKnowHow.com, a popular small business Web site that provides ideas and strategies for growing a business and making it profitable. The site attracts 3 million visitors a year, contains thousands of free articles about sales, marketing, Internet marketing, business finance, ecommerce and all phases of starting and growing small and home businesses. Visit Business Know-How and sign up for their free newsletter at www.BusinessKnowHow.com.