Great customer service isn't just about money--but dedicated staff and extra resources certainly help. So when it comes to customer service, small companies can have a hard time keeping up with deeper-pocketed retail giants.
In his new book, High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service, Micah Solomon shares some of the best practices of consumer giants like Amazon, Lego and more. But small businesses can steal some great customer service ideas and apply them to their own firms, Solomon said in a recent interview with Inc.
Your competitors are already offering "tolerable reactive service," Solomon says--meaning if a customer asks for something, they give it to them. "Just about every business in the country does that, so if that's all you're doing, it might be OK--but it's not enough to distinguish your company," he says.
Here are a few companies he says are doing better than OK--and some great takeaways you could put into practice.
1. Lego: Provide Emotional Support
Last year, Solomon recalls, his daughter, now 11, discovered two missing pieces in her Lego set. When they contacted the company, the company offered to send replacements--no questions asked. But what really impressed him was the accompanying letter, which read:
"We'd like to get even better at catching any faulty Lego sets, though, so I'm passing your comments on to the team in charge of testing. It'll help make sure this doesn't happen again."
That made Solomon and his daughter feel as if they were a part of the Lego quality control team, he says: "Since then, we've felt a closer bond than if the incident hadn't happened at all."
Solomon equates this sort of situation to watching a horror movie with someone: "You get through this scary situation—it's not really dangerous, but it feels scary and your heart's pumping—and you get through to the other side, so you're more bonded with the person you got through the situation."
Small business takeaway: A business doesn't need defects to develop this kind of bond--but when something does go wrong, says Solomon, start by addressing the customer's emotional needs. "Imagine that you're an Italian mama, and your little bambino's taken a spill on the sidewalk. So you would comfort your child, give him ice cream, maybe let him watch some TV. ... With customers, it's similar," he says. "You want to be extremely empathetic and let the customer explain to you when they're ready to move on to the problem-solving stage."
2. Zappos: Hire the Right People
Finding qualified and skilled employees is not the problem, Solomon says. The real challenge is to hire the ones who share your company's values and vision.
One of Zappos' most unusual company policies helps weed out would-be employees who don't resonate with the company's principles: Although Zappos trains new employees for a month, during week two, new workers can take $2,000 to quit. That way, the company can see who truly wants to work at the e-tailer.
"If someone values $2,000 rather than this job, then fine, that's money well spent not having to deal with them later," Solomon explains.
Solomon says it's important to make sure those who work for the company have the same values and goals so when it comes to customer service, employees' actions will reflect well on the company's overall vision.
Small business takeaway: You probably don't have the budget to pay employees to get lost, but there are other ways to focus on company values. Solomon suggests taking five minutes a day to explain a key service value, such as the importance of a warm greeting. "Five minutes a day is enough to go over one of your principles of how you want customers to be treated, but not long enough so it disrupts the day," he says. "Over the course of hundreds of business days a year, it really adds up to quite a bit of training."
3. Amazon: Know Your Customer Really Well
Part of what Solomon emphasizes is "anticipatory" customer service--understanding the needs of your customers even before they're expressed.
He recalls an instance when he browsed through books for his Kindle, and almost purchased a title he already had in his digital library--until Amazon alerted him to the duplicate purchase. That saved him time and money. (Because, really, who needs two of the same e-book?)
"If you can assist [your customers] with something that's really their responsibility, it binds them closer to you," he says.
Small business takeaway: How do you anticipate your customer's needs? Solomon recommends in High-Tech, High-Touch that you and your employees walk in your customers' shoes--whether that means using the front entrance to your shop instead of the back, or navigating the website like a consumer. That way, you can catch the wobbly door knob or the inconvenient "contact us" page from a customer's viewpoint.
4. Whirlpool's Maytag: Get Smarter About Social Media
Twitter and Facebook have made it possible for customers to be more vocal and far-reaching with their opinions. That's an opportunity for your company--but creates also a potential risk.
For example, Solomon writes about a blogger who had problems with her Maytag washing machine. Frustrated by the lengthy process of repairing, she threatened to tell her Twitter followers, to which a Maytag representative dismissed the blogger rudely: "Yes, we know what [Twitter] is, and no, that will not matter."
The incident didn't go unnoticed, however--and a senior Maytag exec reached out to personally attend to her situation. Later on, the company opened a discussion page for other complaints on the company's Facebook page.
Small business takeaway: Solomon recommends that small businesses move the discussion to a private space--like when a store manager asks a customer to step into the back office to further discuss the problem. So if someone sends a dissatisfied tweet, message the customer directly and offer a variety of methods to personally reach you. Don't air the problem for the whole world to see. (And if you're not handling your account personally, make sure you're keeping an eye on what's being said.)
Solomon equates it to having a friend tell you about your unzipped fly or spinach stuck in your teeth. "Your good friends ...[are] not going to go on Twitter; they're going to tell you directly," Solomon says. "This is what you want your customers to do. You want them to know that they can reach you directly to tell you when there's a problem."