08/28/2013 11:33 am ET Updated Oct 28, 2013

Why Fortune 500 Companies Got Nothing on Us (Small Businesses) When it Comes to Customer Service

Let's start with a little background on this post. It was in September of 2012 when I was sitting in a class room with another 25 small business owners, many of whom, like myself, looked like they weren't sure if they had made the right decision to sign up for the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Program (in partnership with City Colleges of Chicago). After all, we're small business owners and nothing gets done (or at least not properly) unless we do it ourselves, right? Well, WRONG but more of that in a future post.

For me personally, it only took the first few hours of the program overview and its agenda to reaffirm that this was one of the best decisions I had made in a long time, but at the same I couldn't stop asking myself a simple question:

- Why wasn't there a daily/weekly time block on my calendar called "Strategize about where the business is heading"?

This of course is typical for many, or should I say most, of us small business owners (c'mon admit it) who end up working "in" our businesses versus "on" them. I could write a whole series of posts about what I now realize I was doing wrong but instead, let's start with a positive example of something I noticed during one of the program modules titled "It's the People." This module covered the subject of "company culture" and how it can be a resource in growing a business. As part of the materials during that day's session we saw a video on Zappo's (the online shoe and clothing shop) and their successful loyalty business model built around relationship marketing.

As anyone familiar with Zappo's knows, a big part of the company's success also has to do with their extreme commitment to customer service. In one of interviews with Zappo's employees in the video, a customer service rep told the story about how she spent over 3 hours on the phone with a woman who wanted to return a pair of boots but wasn't sure about what style she should replace them with. There have supposedly been much longer customer calls recorded at the company's call center whose team members do NOT use a script and neither do they need to worry about limits on call times. They are simply instructed to take care of the customers' problems and are given the leeway to do so.

Now I know what many of you are thinking. These extreme cases make for great punch lines but how many companies can actually afford to run their customer service teams like that? Well, my answer to do that would be: We all should at least try to some extent and many small businesses have actually been doing it all along. At Animated Vision for instance, we regularly interact with clients who subscribe to our furniture specification and space-planning tool called Visual Planner. We offer free training at the time of subscription as well as weekly "refresher webinars" for anyone who'd like to dig deeper or has follow-up questions after using the system for a while. We do that to make sure our users are getting the most out of their accounts but also to actively prevent 3 hour calls!

Long before I had ever heard of Zappo's approach, it just made sense to me that we should do whatever it takes to retain and grow customers who we worked so hard to acquire in the first place. That includes giving anyone answering a customer service call (which is something we encourage our entire staff to do from time to time) the flexibility to take as much time as needed to solve the customer's problem while offering a full training session at a later date if desired. Every computer in our office has a webinar (desktop sharing) account allowing us to either walk the customer visually through the problem on our screen or even view/control the customer desktop remotely if needed.

Our case is certainly only one of many examples. From talking to other small business owners, I know most go well beyond the line of duty to keep their customers happy and that is exactly my point. Because of, or maybe despite the small size of our organizations, we, in our small businesses, do a lot of things instinctively right when it comes to customer service. We often know our clients by name, know their birthdays and at some point even call them our friends. We understand that listening to our customers and solving their problems is a great opportunity to improve our products and build loyalty at the same time. We truly appreciate every person who spends his/her hard-earned cash with us. Heck, I sometimes even feel like hugging our clients but that's probably just me. (By the way, even though I'm a "hugger," I still won't take you up on "free hug offers" on the street, so don't bother).

Now before you post a comment, I am certainly not suggesting that this is feasible for every company. The type of customer service you need certainly depends on the product offering among many other factors. It also goes without saying that as the number of customers/subscribers/users of your offering grows, you are well-advised to implement more cost-effective and self-serving customer service tools. However, as we all know, going too far in that direction can result in the type of automated call answering systems we have come to despise. Far from being just a nuisance, these systems (and the impersonal approach they represent) can cost large companies dearly as I personally experienced (contributed to?) recently.

You see, for nearly a full year, I put up with a cable provider company at our home in Chicago whose customer service was so hard to reach that I basically gave up trying to contact them. How would you like to stay on the phone for 25 minutes before getting disconnected on numerous occasions? Only after cancelling my account and (finally) switching to a different provider, I started getting some attention and calls trying to win me back and asking why I switched. (On a side note, I actually took the time to talk with one of the agents calling and basically recommended she start looking for a job if the experience I had with their company was typical for other customers.)

Now why would any company spend all that money in marketing, advertising and promotions to get me to sign up but fail to do enough to help me when I had a problem? My short answer to that is "size." And that can happen to you too.

As your company's client base expands, it is easy to start focusing on growth while neglecting client retention. With increasing "size," you will most certainly face new challenges in your operations, your HR efforts and many other aspects of your business potentially distracting you from maintaining the level of communications and commitments your customers had come to expect from you. In case of the cable provider I got rid of, all they needed to do to keep me as a customer was listen.

And that would be my final note to my fellow small business owners, keep communicating with your customers even as you delegate daily operations. As the "leaders" of your organizations, take time to participate in customer service calls. Do new customer trainings/installations/demonstrations (or whatever applies to your industry) once in a while.

After all, can you think of a better way to hear firsthand what is and what isn't working with your products or services? With our Visual Planner software, at least 50% of our ongoing product development is based on direct user feedback we collect mostly through asking questions during calls to our customer support desk as well as training sessions.
Consider it "free" advice from people who know your products best: YOUR CUSTOMERS.

This blogger graduated from Goldman Sachs' 10,000 Small Businesses program. Goldman Sachs is a partner of the What Is Working: Small Businesses section.