THE BLOG
10/14/2014 05:22 pm ET Updated Dec 14, 2014

Customer Service: A Market Differentiator For Small Business

Congratulations, small business owners. When it comes to customer service, you seem to have a leg up over the big guys.

At least that was the feedback given in our recent survey of U.S. consumers [1] which analyzed trends related to key service issues, industries with excellent and poor customer service, and top approaches for keeping customers happy. Almost half (49 percent) of those surveyed said that small, independent businesses provide the best customer service; only 11 percent picked large companies.

But there is always room for improvement. About one-third (34 percent) judged service between large and small companies to be about the same, and 7 percent said No Companies provide good service these days.

As a small business owner competing against the likes of Amazon, no one has to tell you it's a jungle out there. You live it every day. So it's no surprise that customer service is a key -- if not the -- market differentiator.

Consumer Hot Buttons

So what are consumers' biggest hot buttons when it comes to customer service, and how can you make sure you aren't pressing them? Our survey specifically explored service as it applied to contact centers, where an agent is handling customer inquiries via the phone or other technology channels. But whether you have one person or 1,000 staffing the front lines, guidelines for good service remain the same.

What customers want:

  • Reduced Hold Times -- 32 percent will hang up after waiting on hold for more than five minutes; nearly half (49%) believe lowering hold times would vastly improve customer service
  • Knowledgeable Staff -- 37 percent ranked knowledgeable reps as the primary service consideration for why they would continue to do business with a company
  • Keep It Real -- 80 percent said their customer service calls feel scripted and robotic
  • Quick Resolution -- 45 percent said trying to get an issue with a current service or problem resolved was the most complicated request they experienced
  • Regular Business Hours -- 40 percent said they prefer to call customer service in the morning; 43 percent indicated a preference for the afternoons
  • Multiple Delivery Channels -- While 55 percent still prefer to get help by phone, 39 percent indicated they will also use web chat, email and social media

When it came to industry leaders and losers, 30 percent said the hospitality industry provides the best customer service; 49 percent identified cable and Internet service providers as the worst.

One additional insight from the study -- you don't get many chances to make a good impression. About one-third of respondents indicated they had contacted a company just once during the past year; 20 percent had contact just twice a year or more.

6 Guidelines for Customer Service Success

So what can you do to make sure you get customer service right, resulting in rave reviews and more sales for your business? The 6 guidelines below can help guide your efforts:

1. Hire the Right People -- When it comes down to it, customer service is all about people helping people. First and foremost, know your customer, what they want and what challenges they may encounter with your product or service. Then, based on this knowledge, be strategic about whom you hire. Emphasize the importance of their role in your organization's success - and incentivize them accordingly.

2. Invest in Training -- Hiring the right people is only half the battle; making sure they're correctly trained and well-informed - no matter if they're the team rookie or a seasoned pro -- is the other half. While most organizations provide some type of training prior to dealing with customers, it's important to give your staff ongoing coaching and feedback to ensure continuous improvement. There are also many new technologies that can make the training process easier so don't be afraid to modernize your tactics.

3. Set Up Your Phones for Speed -- Nearly half of survey respondents said lowering phone hold times would vastly improve customer service. Other annoyances such as multiple transfers or the need to contact a company more than once can be triggered by issues such as inflexible systems that can't scale to handle fluctuating call volumes, improper staffing or utilization of staff, or poorly structured call menus. Decrease hold times and the need for customers to call or be transferred multiple times by using technologies that make it easy to adjust queues on the fly or tweak Interactive Voice Response (IVR) menus based on common issues you see in post-call reports.

4. Use Technology Based on Customer Preferences -- Know your customers and then deploy technology accordingly. For instance, telecom technology review firm Software Advice recently released a report on IVR optimization [2] which suggested that companies need to think harder about which services they want their IVRs to automate, especially since most callers tend to settle on just a few service options in the initial IVR menu. Do you know the top five reasons your customers call you? Is your phone system set up to respond?

5. Scale to Meet Demand -- Despite multi-channel options like online chat, more than half (55%) of survey respondents prefer to use the phone when it comes customer service issues. Make sure you have the appropriate staffing and systems in place to handle those calls, especially when volumes spike due to such dynamics as seasonal demands, a new product offering, or an emergency response situation. Many cloud communication solutions are natively structured to support scalability. For example, in the event of a special promotion, inquiries can be easily re-routed to other locations or additional lines can be turned up quickly to support the influx of calls.

6. Provide Multiple Channels -- The phone still reigns supreme, but be sure to also give customers other options such as web chat, email, and social media to access you on their terms. Surveying your customer base can be an effective way to see which outlets might be right for your target customers. Additionally, make sure that your staff can easily transition between various delivery channels so they're able to retain an individual and aggregate view of customer needs.

Make awesome customer service your market differentiator. The guidelines are simple, but the results will be exponential.

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[1] CorvisaCloud polled 1,214 individuals via an online uSamp survey between August 25-28, 2014. The margin of error is +/- 2.98 percentage points.

[2] IVR Design Tips From Researchers and the Fortune 500, IndustryView 2014, Software Advice.