Want some old advice? The customer is always right. Okay, now you can stick that in your pocket. Today's best service entrepreneurs are looking beyond old axioms in relating to customers. That's because today's best customer service isn't something that can be faked: it's personalized and it has a personality. Do you have the certainty you can harness all the feedback customers will give your company, act on it, and keep your best customers coming back for more? We've compiled highlights of new expert tips from articles in Inc. and guides on Inc.com to help you take a fresh look at making your customers happier and your business better.
1. Ditch the formalities and break the rules.
The last thing unsatisfied customers want to hear is a recitation of your company's return policies, Tali Yahalom writes on Inc.com. "Today's customer expects to be treated as an individual, not as just another number who's complaining," Ann Thomas, a senior consultant at Performance Research Associates, a Minnesota consulting firm, says. Consider the case of a department store with a 90-day deadline for returning an item. If there's a customer who just got married, returned from her honeymoon and, at day 100, realized that a gravy plate adorned with doves is actually not her style, it's worth looking into alternative options rather than sending her home right away. Your company should know that occasionally bending the rules will ultimately cost less it than it would to lose the customer or, worse, if the customer leaves and relays a negative story about your company. Read more.
2. Don't give customers too much choice.
What happens when you give customers too much say in how you make what they buy? "Quite simply, overly-demanding customers can undercut your ability to grow a valuable business," writes John Warrillow, serial entrepreneur, author, and Inc. contributor. He explains that when trying to scale up a subscription research offering similar to a Bloomberg or Forrester research program using a model by which a customer subscribes to a pre-set number of reports provided to all, things started to derail. His company was customizing each report for the 17 subscribers, meaning an annual 102 reports based on six studies, which was untenable for the company's 20 employees. Warrillow shut down the program. The lesson? "In hindsight, I realize a big part of the problem was my involvement in the selling. I'm just too tempted to make a sale at just about any cost. Next time, I'll know better than to let my sales instincts undermine my entire business model." Read more.
3. Monitor your reputation online. All the time.
"Facebook, Twitter, and Yelp have become essential components of many companies' online marketing strategies, but there are countless other sites on which customers rant and rave about their experiences," writes Inc. reporter April Joyner. When customers rant online, it has the potential to tarnish a company's brand—and scare away prospective buyers. There is a host of new tools to monitor what's been said about them online. "Eighty percent of companies do fine with Google Alerts," says Andy Beal, founder of Trackur, an online monitoring software company. "But once you have 30 different keywords to monitor, you'll outgrow it very quickly." Companies such as Trackur, Radian6, and Viralheat offer Web-based dashboards specifically designed to monitor multiple brands. Though the most expensive of these can cost more than $6,000 a year to use, many services offer less expensive packages for small businesses, Joyner reports. Read more.
4. Shut up and listen.
It sounds simple, and it sounds easy, but it's often not. When a customer starts ranting, just listen. Tali Yahalom writes on Inc.com: "Often customers feel the needs to vent frustration with a product or service before even considering a proactive solution." And Thomas told her: "Acknowledge the customer's emotional state," Thomas says. And don't get defensive. Remember that a good empathy statement does not imply ownership of the problem. Another key communication tip involves asking open-ended questions that involve the customer, Thomas says. This technique will not only divert focus from emotional frustration but also generate copious information about the problem at hand and help you arrive at the appropriate solution. "Rather than getting defensive … I need to simply listen to the customer, accept the feedback, thank the person, and then decide what to do," she adds. As a bonus, the customer might feel appreciated and cared about, alleviating some of their emotional frustration. Read more.
5. Collect lots and lots of customer feedback.
Several companies offer tools that let customers submit feedback and vote on suggestions. Although all of these services offer some basic features for free, they typically require business owners to pony up for paid versions in order to moderate customer comments and integrate the tools into their company websites. With Get Satisfaction, customers can report problems, ask questions, submit ideas, and offer compliments. The most popular package for small businesses, priced at $89 a month, includes design customization and an analytics dashboard. Other options, such as IdeaScale, UserVoice, and UserEcho, are priced from $15 to $589 a month. Read more.
6. Sit tight and be nice.
Sometimes, necessary business-sustaining decisions irk customers. In the case of eMusic, an online subscription-based music service, in order to broaden the offering catalog, a price hike was needed. Customers lashed out online immediately. Adam Bluestein writes: "Over the next couple of weeks, Stein received more than 1,500 comments. 'Good luck with your new major label friends,' read one. 'They will teach you so much more about screwing your customers,' offered another. Over the summer, eMusic staff members worked to cool down the message boards and promote added-value features of the new pricing plan, such as album pricing, which allows customers to buy many complete albums at a discount on the regular per-track rate. The company also dispensed a flurry of virtual Band-Aids—giving customers 'booster packs' of free downloads and offering them free songs in exchange for rating or reviewing albums." Lo and behold, a few months later the online dust had settled, with the site's subscriber base holding steady. Read more.
7. Don't fear using your QSA budget.
Clarissa Cruz writes that successful restaurants specialize in dealing with unappetizing situations with customers. "When a bug was recently discovered on a table at the Michelin-starred Jean Georges in New York City, management promptly moved the affected customers to another table and comped them drinks, dessert, and an additional course," Cruz writes. Rajat Parr, wine director at Michael Mina in San Francisco, says: "Comps are built into our QSA [quality service assurance] budget. It makes up about one percent of the budget." Consider that from the start, and don't get bitter about using it, experts say. "It's the cost of doing business," adds Michael Madrigale, the head sommelier at Bar Boulud in New York City. Read more.
8. Focus on learning from the feedback.
Larry O'Toole, the founder of Gentle Giant movers, doesn't get a lot of negative feedback from his customers. In fact, he tells Inc. magazine editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan that in order to solicit more criticism he broadened the rating spectrum or 1 to 10 he asked customers to place their service on to 1 through 14, where 12, 13, and 14 were all excellent. "That way people could give us a lower score and not seem too critical. They could circle 12, meaning you're excellent but you could be better," he says. But once you have feedback, it's key to tune in to how you can actually use the criticism to make your company better. O'Toole tells a story: "I remember when my grandfather was teaching me how to drive. He told me, 'If someone honks a horn at you, you probably could have done something a little bit better. Maybe they were being a jerk. But if you were a really good driver, that wouldn't have happened. Instead of getting upset at that person, try to figure a way to improve.' So if someone yells at me in traffic I just say to them, 'Thanks for the feedback.'" Read more.