Even if you're not in the customer service business, there's one clear way to please your customers: act like serving them is your first priority. We've compiled tips from expert interviews and articles that have appeared in Inc. and on Inc.com to find the most poignant pointers for pleasing your most valuable customers.
1. Be accessible. Be very accessible.
When dealing with large clients, small businesses can get self-conscious about their size. But the dexterity of start-ups and flexibility of lean operations is exactly what draws aerospace giant Northrop Grumman to work with small companies. "In 2009, we subcontracted $4.5 billion worth of goods and services to small businesses," says Gloria Pualani, director of socioeconomic business programs at Northrop Grumman. "Because we're such a large company and we have so many commodity lines, we ask that our suppliers really target their outreach." Pualani adds: "Also, the advantage to us of working with a small business is the flexibility and agility they offer. Many times we have orders that require very quick turnaround. So it helps when it is the decision makers that we are talking to, and we don't have to go through three or four layers of people to get a decision made. We like to have access to the CEO or CFO of a company, the person who is actually making the decisions." Read more.
2. Mind the customer's mood.
Perhaps you can learn something from a tactic used at the world-famous Inn at Little Washington, where it's been said the tastiest thing served up is the service itself. It was founded in 1978 by chef Patrick O'Connell, who believes people aren't impressed by what you know or what you can offer until they see that you care. And you can't possibly care in any meaningful way unless you have some insight into what people are feeling and why. Enter the "mood rating." When a new party arrives in the dining room, the captain assigns it a number that assesses the guests' apparent state of mind (from 1 to 10, with 7 or below indicating displeasure or unhappiness). The mood rating is typed into a computer, written on the dinner order, and placed on a spool in the kitchen where the entire staff can see and react accordingly. Whatever the circumstances, O'Connell's goal is crystal clear: "No one should leave here below a 9." To that end, restaurant staffers spare nothing in their attempt to raise the number – be it complimentary champagne, extra desserts, a tableside visit from one of the owners, even a kitchen tour. "Consciousness to the extreme is great customer service," O'Connell says. "If guests ran into terrible traffic on the way over here, or are in the midst of a marital dispute, we need to consider it our problem. How else are we going to ensure that they have a sublime experience?" Read more.
3. Bring expertise to the table.
Aside from being flexible, the most important thing a small business can do to differentiate itself is "having deep expertise that can give us knowledge about a particular customer segment or a technology." That's according to Larry Wood, Intuit's director of sourcing. "Several years ago, I did an RFP for a hardware bundle comprising five components. We were interviewing suppliers for each of the components when one of them took a chance and said, 'You don't know anything about this market. Let me step up. I know all these other providers. I can buy these other components and bundle it for you.' That was amazing. They addressed a lot of our needs and took a lot of things that we weren't familiar with off the table. I have to admit that I see very few companies do that." Read more.
4. Make sure your staff is equipped.
Your customer-service team is your frontline in making sure customers are not just satisfied – but are genuinely happy to work with you. The most critical person to hire in the customer service schema is the manager, says Andy Fromm, president of Service Management Group, a Missouri-based firm that works with retail and restaurant chains on improving customer service, since employee turnover is directly driven by manager turnover. You want someone who'll stick around, because otherwise, Fromm cautions, "it will be almost impossible to keep up with the hiring challenge." But everyone should care about the product at hand: "Make sure that pet retailers like pets. It's not rocket science." Other qualities to look for, according to V. Kumar, author of the book Managing Customers for Profit, include empathy, consistency and patience. Experience is vital, too, but it can be a double-edged sword: too much, and the representative may sound pedantic or condescending; too little, and the representative won't know how to handle delicate situations. The ideal? Three to five years. Read more.
5. Know the competition.
In Inc.'s series of sales tips from the world's toughest customers, Kathy Homeyer, director of supplier diversity for UPS, gave a helpful tip on what not to do. "The biggest no-no is not knowing our competition. People will say, 'I've got this really exciting proposal I want you to look at.' I'll say, 'Go ahead; send it to me.' Then they send it to me by FedEx. It happens every day. Just be smart. Know the company you are pitching to and know their likes and dislikes. You get such brownie points with me when you come in with a UPS envelope and have an account all set up. It's just the little things like that, the icing on the cake." Read more.
6. Be innovative.
After you know the competition, you simply have to do better for your customer than the competition would. Inc.com compiled video clips of tips on how to build customer loyalty from Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, JetBlue founder David Neeleman, and other successful CEOs."We're not waiting for them to call us This is hand-to-hand combat out there, folks: you have to do a better job," said Jay Myers of Interactive Solutions Inc. Watch the video.
7. Don't fear the online tools.
Your website is usually the customer's first exposure to your company, so your homepage should be personal and user-friendly. Include staff bios or embed a Twitter feed to build an intimate relationship with your customer, and consider other social media. Think of Facebook and Twitter as listening posts. People love to chat about their recent purchases and experiences, so why not tune in? But, she cautions, be mindful that those conversations may not represent the majority and should be put into context. "If you have a large group of people on Twitter talking about their problem with pairing their headset to their phones, you want to be able to grab those Tweets and route them to the appropriate person in your company so the customer can get the answer they need directly from the source," says Sean Whiteley, vice president of product marketing for Salesforce.com, a San Francisco, California-based CRM provider. Read more.
8. Nurture your relationships.
When companies build relationships with their clients and suppliers, "it's a huge competitive edge," said Kathy Homeyer, the director of supplier diversity for UPS. A lot of large corporations offer mentoring programs, which many entrepreneurs don't realize are available. At UPS, we do outreach programs and external mentoring. We go to a lot of workshops, expos, and networking events. When a manager here comes to me and says certain commodities are going to be put up for bid in the coming months, I go through my files of people I have run across over the course of the past couple of years. We'll also reach out to the other large corporations, like Time Warner, and ask, 'Who are you guys using? Do you have someone that we don't know?' It's almost a small family." Read more.
9. Add value to your relationship.
Even if you planned for the possibility, no one wants to lose big clients. So, how do you make sure they hang around for as long as possible? Big companies are looking for value, says Constance Bagley, a professor at Yale School of Management. Figure out your client's immediate concerns. "Make sure the information is flowing both ways," she says. "What info can you bring them about their costs and competitors? Have your account manager talk to their counterpart; have your salespeople talk to their R&D." Erin Enriquez, who manages a Red Bull account for Terralever, says with Red Bull the company focused on the client's desire to be perceived as technologically forward in its online marketing. "The No. 1 thing is to be aware of the competition and what they're doing, and what new types of technologies are out there," says Enriquez. "Red Bull appreciates us coming to them and pitching them and usually agrees to let us do a portion of that work." Plus, once you have that competitive insight, you can use it to attract new clients – especially if your contract isn't exclusive. "It's a lot like high school dating," says Bagley. "Nothing makes you more desirable than the fact that someone else wants you." Read more.
10. When in doubt, ask what your customers want.
When Norm Brodsky looks back to his first year of doing business, one instance of impromptu customer satisfaction stands out. As a transit strike appeared eminent in New York City in 1980, Brodsky wrote: "I realized I was facing a potential disaster. Perfect Courier was barely seven months old. We were doing about $30,000 or $40,000 a month in sales." Then he went to a person he respected in the office of a client and was handed an idea: use the existing company vehicles to not just deliver packages during the strike, but also help Perfect Courier's clients get their people where they needed to be. And it helped Perfect Courier grow much closer to its best clients. Brodsky writes: "During the strike, we saw them every day, and they became our friends, as did the executives at other accounts. They came to our office for coffee and doughnuts." Also: "Aside from the additional cash and the new sales, I took away from the episode one of the most important lessons I've learned in business: When in doubt, go to your customers. They will tell you what they want and lead you to solutions you'd never come up with on your own. Indeed, just about every successful new initiative I've taken in business since then has come from listening to customers." Read more.