Regardless of your industry, offering, or expertise, anyone who starts a business is ultimately in the business of serving customers—so it should go without saying that providing excellent customer service is crucial for your business’s wellbeing. Not only does providing excellent customer service promote customer loyalty (and ultimately boost your bottom line), but it simply feels good to treat your customers with the respect and support they deserve.
With that in mind, we asked small business owners to share their advice about how to provide excellent customer service. These tips can help steer you in the most successful possible direction both in your regular communications—when your customers walk into your store, sending follow-up emails to your clients, and the like—and how to keep your cool (and your customer’s) when dealing with the inevitable unhappy patron.
Before we dive into how to provide excellent customer service, let’s first discuss why it matters. As we mentioned above, not only does it feel good to treat your customers well and know you’re doing everything you can to make their experience a positive one, excellent customer service also promotes customer loyalty. Why does this matter? Consider these brand loyalty statistics:
Sixty-five percent of a company’s business comes from existing customers and 80% of customers are willing to pay more for a better customer experience. In other words, once you impress a customer, they’ll not only come back but they’re also likely to spend more.
Plus, happy customers tell their friends about the great product or service they experienced, and this word-of-mouth marketing can translate to significant customer growth. After all, 83% of people trust recommendations from people they know. All of this happens through minimal effort on your part—simply providing excellent customer service from the start leads to a snowball effect that can make a big difference in your bottom line.
Now that we know why excellent customer service is so important, let’s look at how you can provide your customers with a great brand experience. Whether you’re managing a dedicated customer service team or if you comprise your customer service team in its entirety, take a look at how your fellow small business owners provide excellent customer service for some creative ideas and valuable advice.
If you’re working on a long-term project, update your client periodically as you work on delivering their product. This is especially important if you’re doing branding or marketing work, like copywriting, graphic design, and photography. It’s important to ensure that you and your client are on the same page about these inherently subjective creative products, as they’ll directly impact your client’s brand. Mark Armstrong, the owner of Mark Armstrong Illustration, notes the importance of sending his clients regular status reports:
“The client is going to tell me what they want, but they may not be clear on certain technical details—so they’ll want my advice and ideas. I need to encourage their feedback and make sure they’re happy with any proposed design. Nothing kills credibility faster than to be presented with finished work that contains a surprise: something the client didn’t know about and didn’t approve. If I’m working on ideas, I let them know. If I’m working on sketches, I let them know. I don’t wait until I have something ‘official’ to show them. When clients don’t hear from you, they worry. Keeping them informed relieves anxiety and builds trust.”
Once you’ve delivered your final product or service, follow up with your customer to make sure they’re happy with the result and with your service. This is also an excellent time to garner valuable customer feedback. “This makes a tremendous impression on a client,” Armstrong says. “It tells them you’ve got their back, and that you’re invested in their success. They’ll be more than happy to give you a testimonial, and they won’t hesitate to call on you again.”
You’re not perfect, so don’t pretend to be. When communicating with your customers, don’t be afraid to show your personality and use your typical language. “Keeping customers informed only works if you speak their language,” Armstrong says. “Nobody wants to hear me use design buzzwords. Jargon hurts your credibility, and makes you sound pretentious. When you speak plainly, you’re being courteous—and courtesy is an essential part of customer service.”
This applies equally to happy customers as it does to customers who come to you with a complaint. By being honest, direct, and kind, you’ll put your customers at ease and remind them that they’re talking to a human being who cares about their happiness. Peter Shankman, author of “Zombie Loyalists: Using Great Service to Create Rabid Fans,” also believes that transparency is crucial for providing excellent customer service:
“As customers, we expect to be lied to. Be honest, open, and when you screw up, acknowledge it and fix it. Do that, you’ll win 75% of the time even if you do nothing else. Remember that customer service is about helping people. Understand what your audience wants and needs, and aim to be the company that delivers exactly that.”
Along those lines, if you don’t have the answer to your customer’s question, or if you simply can’t provide the product or service a customer is looking for, then don’t pretend that you do or can—it’ll only hurt you in the long run, says Ron Humes, vice president of operations, southeast region, for Post Modern Marketing:
“Don’t be afraid to be honest with your customer. Telling a customer that you cannot provide a particular service, but that you can help them identify the proper person or company who can, will instill trust. Clients can sense when you are not sincere or when they are being fed a line. They will appreciate your honesty and your willingness to help them track down needed information.”
This level of honesty extends to your mistakes, too—which, despite our best intentions, are inevitable.
“The difference between good customer service and bad customer service is the way you handle the mistake. When a customer brings a mistake to your attention, own it. Apologize for the mistake, take the information, and assure them that you will find the source of the issue and the solution right away,” Humes says.
Ultimately, a customer with a complaint doesn’t care who was responsible for the mistake—they simply want the mistake handled promptly and courteously. Rather than get defensive, find a solution ASAP.
Protect your customer support team’s valuable time by providing your customers with resources on your product or service—whether that’s blog posts, whitepapers, how-to guides, an FAQ page, informational pamphlets, or YouTube tutorials. Whatever medium you choose, these resources should answer what you anticipate will be your customers’ biggest questions about your product or service. Make sure these resources are easy to find on your business website, or offer them up at your front desk or till.
While it’ll take some time for you to create these resources, you’ll save time in the long run when your customer service team (or you) isn’t bogged down by calls and emails from your customers about relatively simple questions or problems. Maintaining a trove of resources will be especially valuable as you scale and your customer base grows, says Hani Abdou, the CEO of cloud-based procurement software company Tradogram:
“One of the greatest challenges about managing customer support is scaling the company while managing the limited resources available for responding to help queries. Part of our strategy at Tradogram is to provide a wide range of resources for new companies to learn more about the software for themselves. In many cases, new users are able to learn all they need through our help guides and tutorial videos. These resources allow users to find answers to the questions they encounter while setting up the software for the first time, while allowing our own staff to reserve their time for questions outside the scope of what our knowledge base offers.”
Also, be sure to periodically update and add to your resource base as your business’s offerings expand and grow.
According to Shankman, “The average customer attention span is 2.7 seconds.” So while it’s important to send your clients online updates—whether that’s in an email newsletter, social media posts, or announcements about special sales—keep your content pithy and to the point. Otherwise, your customers might scroll past that post or filter your emails into their spam folder.
Matt Schmidt, the CEO of Diabetes365, also recommends forgoing the phone or email as much as possible in favor of sending quick text updates:
“As a small business owner, I know firsthand what it’s like going up against larger businesses. To stay competitive and to earn business, you need to do things differently than your competition. One tip I like to share is a simple one: Instead of calling prospective clients out of the blue, or emailing over and over, send a brief text message. Almost everyone has a cell phone and is receptive to a quick text message, as opposed to countless emails and phone calls that other larger entities tend to make.”
Texts tend to feel more personal than emails, as well, which can make your customers truly feel as though they’re speaking with a human being (which they are!).
It is a universally acknowledged truth that everyone loves free stuff, so whenever possible (and appropriate), throw in free products or services along with your standard offering. Jake Lane, the director of growth at NuBrakes Mobile Brake Repair, says that this simple but powerful tactic helps customers feel especially cared for—and incentivized to favor your business over your competition:
“We often send a box of cookies to our customers while they’re having their vehicle repaired at their home or office to really drive home the difference of having to sit at a repair shop versus the comfort of your normal space. Sending a gift during or post-sale can go a long way in a customer’s eyes and help differentiate your business from others.”
Also, Shankman suggests offering your customers free samples of new products. This is a great way to make your customers feel special, and to garner feedback on a work-in-progress product at the same time.
If you’re hiring a customer service team, be mindful of hiring employees who embody your company’s values. “The number-one thing you need to provide great customer service is to have the right people. It’s impossible to create a culture based on great customer service if you don’t have people who like helping people,” says Sandra Hinshelwood, founder of Business Partner Magazine.
And once you have the right people in place, make their working environment supportive and positive. This should really go without saying, and it should apply to all your employees, not just your customer support team. But customer service can be especially stressful—and stressed-out employees probably won’t be able to communicate with your customers calmly and effectively.
“Treating your employees well can trickle down to your customers,” says Margaret Williamson, owner of Leaf + Petal. “When employees are appreciated, they are more likely to bring a positive attitude toward their interactions with customers.”
For tips and advice on how to maintain employee happiness, read our guide on how to create the best company culture for your business.
Take the time to train your customer service team. Not only should they know your product or service inside and out, but they should also be trained in how to communicate with your customers appropriately—and especially how to deal with frustrated or angry customers.
“First and foremost, it is vital that your customer service staff are knowledgeable about your products or services. They should be prepped for the questions most commonly asked by customers and know how to answer them articulately,” says Steve Pritchard, founder of Checklate.
Your customer service team should also be keeping meticulous track of their communications, Pritchard advises.
“Keeping track of consumer feedback is another excellent tactic for enhancing your customer service. Getting your customer service team to note down the particular issue, feedback, or complaint of each call is an excellent, free and effortless way of finding out where your company can improve and what you are doing right. Spending a little bit of time analyzing this feedback will help you to establish patterns in what people are coming to you for, which helps you to be better prepared for incoming inquiries.”
You or your customer service team can also proactively reach out to customers for feedback.
“Asking for feedback and actually taking that feedback into consideration can go a long way,” says Williamson. “If a customer gives you feedback, think about how you can incorporate their responses into your business going forward, whether it’s suggestions for new products or other ideas for improving customer experiences.”
If you’re providing a service or meeting a customer for an appointment, Humes suggests keeping the following three tenets in mind: show up, be on time, and communicate.
“If you are the best at what you do, you offer the best price for the service, or you are faster than your competition, it will not matter at all if you don’t show up when you promise and communicate with your customers. This is especially true if other people or activities are dependent on your attendance and timeliness. One contractor or vendor can destroy the entire schedule of a project or event with their absence or tardiness. It shows a lack of respect for the customer. Don’t promise a schedule you cannot deliver and if something unforeseen happens that you cannot avoid, communicate immediately with your customer to give them a chance to adjust their schedule or find your replacement.”
Cut down on confusion as much as possible by downloading appointment scheduling software, which will enable you to view and manage your and your staff’s appointment books from a single dashboard.
If you own a brick-and-mortar store, take the time to ask your customers’ names and engage in a quick chat. This may seem simple, but it’s effective.
“It’s not always easy, but learning new and potential customers’ names and then greeting them by their name when you see them again is a quick way to provide great customer service,” says Williamson. “People love receiving individualized attention, and personal acknowledgment can help contribute to that feeling.”
Social media isn’t only a key aspect of a comprehensive small business marketing strategy—it’s also where you’ll have the chance to interact with your customers, field their questions and comments, and garner important feedback (both prompted and unprompted). Understanding proper social media etiquette is crucial. Alicia Piazza, owner of social media marketing agency The Spark Social, has a few tips on this front:
“Small businesses that truly want to succeed need to have a strategy for online communications with customers. This could be messages to your Facebook Page, inquiries through a chat bot, or even comments on social media posts.”
Piazza’s rule of thumb for providing excellent customer service is to respond quickly—12 hours or less—even if it’s just to acknowledge the request while you track down the answer, that way your customers feel heard. And she doesn’t stop at answering direct questions, she also makes sure every comment on social media is addressed—both positive and negative ones.
“With multiple social media platforms and the sheer volume of increased customer interactions, it may seem that customer service is now more work than ever,” she says. “However, businesses should view this as an opportunity to stand out from their competition, and connect deeper with their core audience. Providing an exceptional customer service experience both online and offline can now be a way to cultivate true fans and build customer loyalty with the customers that matter most.”
Even if your operation is large enough to hire a dedicated customer service team, Adam Hempenstall, founder and CEO of Better Proposals, recommends hopping on the phone or your customer service email yourself:
“The best way to promote excellent customer service for me is to get involved in it myself. I spend a good chunk of my day online and I respond to as many customer inquiries as I can. People are really surprised when they get an answer from the company CEO directly from the website’s chatbox, but I personally love the experience.
“Being involved in customer experience firsthand gives me the unique opportunity to learn directly from them. I can hear their concerns and questions and ask them what they want to change about our product. I realize that there are other ways I could spend my time as the CEO, but I believe that there is no good product without a happy customer, so I’ll continue talking to them and making Better Proposals even better.”
When approaching your customer service strategy, it may help to remember why you started your business in the first place—because you believe that you know how to provide your customers with the absolute best product or service. Extend that attitude to your communications with your customers, especially those who come to you with a question or complaint.
Trivinia Barber, founder and CEO of Priority VA, provides excellent customer service by keeping her mission that simple:
“Within our organization, we say that we aren’t here to help, we’re here to serve. That means that we go above and beyond what is expected from our customers and potential customers to give our time and energy to serve them in a way that defies logic. This may look like referring them to a company that’s better suited for them, offering free advice, sharing content that will help them with their business goals, or offering resources that will help them in their career.”
Kriss Judd, a writer and a business owner for the past 15 years, also believes that providing excellent customer service simply means taking care of the customer no matter what:
“I recently helped a client with a homepage for her new business venture. She doesn’t know what she’s calling the program she’s offering yet, so I offered to throw in a list of possible names for the program at no additional cost. When I had a product-based business a few years ago, a client’s budget was tight, and she could only afford the basic version even though she wanted much more. When I delivered her order, I included trial-size versions of the extra products she couldn’t afford, so she could still have the same experience without the additional cost.”
Across the board, the small business owners we spoke to said that when dealing with customers—both the positive and the not-so-positive—they aim to be patient, respectful, positive, and to communicate clearly. This is true in your positive (or neutral) interactions with you customers, but it’s arguably more important when handling a customer complaint. Try to listen actively to your customer, without interrupting, then repeat back what they said once they’re finished speaking so you can ensure that you’ve heard them correctly.
Lots of the SMBs we interviewed also suggested using these interactions as an opportunity to learn more about your customers. Be open and curious about what they have to say about your product or service, even if they’re angry or frustrated. Direct feedback is one of your most valuable tools. Use it to keep evolving your business so that it continues to serve your customers in exactly the way they want and need.
Caroline Goldstein is a contributing writer for Fundera.
Caroline is a freelance writer and editor, specializing in small business and finance. She has covered topics such as lending, credit cards, marketing, and starting a business for Fundera. Her work has appeared in JPMorgan Chase, Prevention, Refinery29, Bustle, Men’s Health, and more.