5 Actionable Customer Service Tips for Small Businesses
We're helping SME's build great customer experiences. Here's our starter's guide.
June 19th, 2017
Small or growing businesses are finding themselves in an increasingly competitive environment, facing the big SME challenges of the moment. Things like predicting the future of the industry without an in-house Mystic Meg and differentiating themselves in copy-cat markets, but also keeping the books balanced and performance monitored.
And of course, customer service.
It’s got to be close to the heart for small businesses. Customers are still the soul of why they’re doing what they’re doing. There’s a reason big businesses take leaves out of the small business books when it comes to looking after customers. A startup can still remember precisely how the first proverbial dollar in the till felt, and that’s an advantage. But caring about it isn’t enough. They still have to get the customer journey right. So we’re going to talk about what makes excellent customer service. Specifically, achievably, how to build an operation that better serves the customer and you.
If you’ve no time to skim read, here are our 5 customer service tips:
- Build a knowledge base and let your operators make decisions
- Multi-skill your operators so you can cover multiple support channels
- Choose the right software to maximise efficiency
- Crunch numbers to target problem areas and reward good performance
- Hire an expert because you don’t have time to reinvent the wheel
But why put customer service first?
There is an argument to cover here. Are there not bigger fish to fry as an SME? Things like good accounting, scalability, commercial viability, and the many other concerns of a growing business? If you’re already responding to customer service queries, why can’t that be a box ticked so you can move on?
The simple answer is that responding to the incoming queries isn’t enough – you need to differentiate yourself by going above and beyond what your competitors are doing. Customers have more choice than ever, so a poor customer experience can be the difference between growth and failure. Great customer service comes down to the bottom line, and there’s nothing more important.
This CEI survey found that 86% of buyers will pay more for a better experience. That means using it as your differentiator can be a very real revenue opportunity – or a threat if your competitors are using it better than you are. Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, said:
We decided a long time ago that we didn’t want our brand to be just about shoes, or clothing, or even online retailing. We decided that we wanted to build our brand to be about the very best customer service and the very best customer experience.
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at what it takes to create a better, small business, customer service offering.
TIP #1: Build a knowledge base
One thing big businesses have over small businesses in the customer service game is procedure. There’s a handbook for every scenario and an answer to every question. Where they go wrong is following process to a fault – forgetting that customers are individuals who have context, personality and opinion. It should always be a two-way conversation.
So, we’re saying this and asking you to take it with a pinch of salt. Build a knowledge base for your operators that shows them key methodologies:
- How and when to issue refunds/redispatches
- Solving ‘where is my order’ queries
- Goodwill gestures
- Escalation processes and solving disputes
You can keep it as simple as a word doc or PDF, or find an app that will let you keep it online (recommended – processes change all too fast). At FM, our chosen customer service software, Gnatta, includes an in-built Wiki function that operators can access easily, mid-query.
But here’s the key: don’t forget to teach operators flexibility too. Processes need to be specific, but also elastic, to be effective. Show operators how they can bend and adapt these processes. Use specific scenarios if you have to, but also accept that you can’t cover every possibility. If you want to create an intelligent, reactive team you must empower your operators to make decisions.
TIP #2: Multi-skill your operators
Give your operators training in multiple platforms, and reap a few quick wins:
1. Same number of staff, more channels
2. Fulfil customer expectations
3. Motivate employees
You’ll be able to more effectively manage your workforce with ‘channel hopping’, and that means that you can be present on more channels (without starting a recruitment drive). You’ll be fulfilling customer expectations with a service that closer fits demand just by changing your existing operation. Businesses that are meeting omnichannel demands are experiencing on average 89% customer retention, as opposed to just 33% for those who don’t. For businesses who haven’t done it already, this is easily the fastest way to launch a new social customer service strategy.
Multi-skilling can also be a staff motivation strategy. Giving individuals a ‘training passport’ that they fill with stamps and badges, to show a record of their skills and completed training to-date, will give a sense of achievement and help you keep track of your most flexible operators.
Achieving a multi-skilled workforce is highly dependent on investment in the training strategy. It’s less obvious than it seems and can be tricky to get right. It begins with a great knowledge base that covers tricks and tips specific to each channel. But it also requires you to use an omnichannel customer service software that lets your operator switch between channels with ease – which brings us on nicely to Tip #3.
TIP #3: Find the right software
Software will underpin your entire customer service operation. You need a platform to manage all of your customer interactions, which makes sure everything is responded to in the right way, at the right time. Don’t let your support channels become ignorant of one another; to offer a personal, one-to-one service you need to capture everything about their journey in one place. Some vital functionalities to look out for:
- Omnichannel – keep all of your channels in one place so you can streamline handling processes and also get that bit closer to a single view of the customer.
- Workflows – let the software do some of the hard work and automatically route interactions to the right operator using custom rules and triggers.
- Integrations – if you’re storing data in order management systems, like Magento or similar, you want to be able to match that up with the relevant customer interaction at a glance.
- Analytics – to be able to tick off the next tip, you need your building blocks. Data on your operation should be readily available.
We couldn’t have reached this stage of the game without developing a preference – we’ve tried our fair share of platforms in our journey to better understand the cogs in the customer service engine. So our software recommendation is, once again, Gnatta. It does all of the above, and more.
TIP #4: Crunch the numbers
Something our Chief Operating Officer said when we were founded still rings true today:
If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. - Sally Chandler, Chief Operating Officer
Running an efficient operation starts with taking a benchmark of our current performance and monitoring change over time. You can read up a bit more on that in this blog on measuring customer experience. Here are a few of our recommended data points to consider collecting:
- To measure for channels and operators:
- Customer satisfaction
- Average handling time
- Average response time
- To measure by the channel, hour and day
- New interactions
- Reason for contact
Some are more labour intensive than others, such as collecting the ‘reason for contact’ on every single interaction. In many cases it’ll be a manual process for your operators. But this data can be powerful and will give you the most value when questioned and analysed. Ask yourself questions like:
- Is a specific item or product line generating an unusually high number of refunds?
- Is a particular channel more prone to certain kinds of queries?
- Is the graveyard shift more or less productive than daytime?
- What does your operator leaderboard look like? How can you use it to incentivise good performance?
- Do you get more contacts on Mondays? Tuesdays? Etc.
- Can you use the data to improve contact volume forecasting, and plan resource more effectively?
Asking those questions and finding answers to them builds a picture. It’ll help you identify the dark clouds, but also the shining stars – you can fix problems and reward success with more clarity and certainty than ever.
TIP #5: Hire an expert
There is temptation, as a small business, to use home-grown talent and build your leaders from the bottom up. It’s cheaper, you’re working with people you already know and trust, and, often, they’re stakeholders who are willing to invest time and effort to learn what they need to know. But very little beats experience in the customer service world. You risk reinventing and rediscovering the wheel, because you don’t know what you don’t know.
Bringing in someone with expertise and knowledge in customer care can create a huge impact, very quickly, and accelerate growth. There are two routes you can take to bring in expert knowledge:
1. Recruit and hire a consultant/s to oversee your customer service operation from a strategic point of view. This is rarely cheap, but can add impressive value if you recruit the right customer experience experts. Be sure to look out for someone with an aptitude for innovation and change who will support your business growth trajectory.
2. Get it from an outsource provider. Customer service outsourcing models are built for the sole purpose of knowing more about a great customer experience and operational handling than anyone else. Let them pick up the baton, and you concentrate on your core business focus. With commercial models like cost-per-conversation emerging, this is more available than ever to small businesses.
This isn’t to say it’s impossible to home-grow. In fact, we’re verging on hypocritical. Many of our customer service experts were taught in-house from the very beginning. But we couldn’t have taught them without the expertise we already had, and there’s nothing wrong with a powerup.
The key takeaway is to remember that customers are people, and whilst you know that now, the real challenge is not forgetting as your organisation grows. Putting these kind of tactics into action is a balancing act.
Formalising process, analysing performance, automating legs of the journey, bringing in expertise – all must be balanced against providing the ultimate one-to-one experience for every single customer. Customers are savvier than ever, and can’t be fobbed off with a script; it’s personalised handling or nothing.
Make customer service part of your core proposition, and a differentiator for your business to stand out against the competition. If you’re looking for more information about putting together a customer service operation as a small or growing business, check out more on what we know here.