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Bad customer service? These four steps will fix the problem

Dilip Soman is a professor of marketing at the Rotman School of Management and the author of The Last Mile: Creating Social and Economic Value from Behavioral Insights.

Many small-business owners get so caught up in their day-to-day operations that they forget about the customers they're working so hard to please.

That can lead to poor customer service, which experts say has the potential to become a much bigger problem than the little operational issues they're spending so much time trying to fix.

"Small businesses need to realize that those customers are the most valuable asset they have," says Susan Solovic, a U.S.-based small-business expert and the author of It's Your Biz: The Complete Guide to Becoming Your Own Boss. "Even when you're so tired and feel like you can't do another thing, you still have to make the customers feel good. That's what business is all about."

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But serving customers well does not mean pulling out all of the stops to please them.

In fact, the biggest mistake many small businesses make is giving customers more than they want, says Dilip Soman, a professor of marketing at the Rotman School of Management and the author of The Last Mile: Creating Social and Economic Value from Behavioral Insights.

"It's really about doing the things that you promised, but doing them well, and not doing too much," Prof. Soman says. "A lot of companies try to do too much."

He cites Southwest Airlines in the United States as an example of a company that does not offer business-class services, yet passengers are satisfied and keep coming back because they know what they are getting from the discount airliner.

"It's really important to know what you stand for and to make sure that you deliver on that," Prof. Soman says. "The number of small- and medium-size companies I see that try to deliver too much to their customers is a lot."

Here are four ways small businesses can upgrade their customer service without blowing their brains out on extra bells and whistles.

Keep it simple, salesperson

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"It should be easy for the customer to do business with you," Prof. Soman says.

He points to edX, the online education company, and e-commerce giant Amazon as good examples of companies that make it easy for consumers to purchase products on their websites. "Simplicity is the key," he says.

When things get too complicated, customers can walk away. Prof. Soman remembers a few years back when he and his wife were finally ready to buy a Mercedes-Benz they had been coveting. But the process was so onerous that they ended up purchasing from another car company instead. "It was a brilliant product, Mercedes-Benz is very well known for its after-sales service, but the purchasing process was so complicated," Prof. Soman says.

He said simplicity includes how your website is set up, how many forms you require customers to read and fill out, how available your product is, and how quickly you can process the sales transaction.

Some companies that Prof. Soman believes can do a better job of simplifying customer service include Canadian telecom providers, in particular when they force customers to call different departments for services such as mobility and Internet. "That doesn't seem right in today's day and age when computers are so interconnected," he says. "It's not that they're not nice about it, but do I really have to speak to two different people?"

Talk where customers are listening

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"Speak in the language of the consumer and on the channels they want to speak on," Prof. Soman says.

For example, he says, a lot of companies still rely on 1-800 numbers for customer service when consumers are increasingly engaging on social media channels such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. "You also need to make sure the agents on these channels talk to each other," he says.

Ms. Solovic says social media sites are also the perfect place to engage customers and respond immediately, especially when they are upset about a product or service. "Instead of letting that customer go out and tell a million people they're unhappy, you have an opportunity to fix it and resolve the issue immediately," she says.

Consumers also like to give positive feedback, which Prof. Soman says many companies do not accommodate. He recommends that businesses provide a channel for customers to give kudos about their products and service. This helps to boost employee morale and reinforces the positive experience with consumers.

"In our small-to-medium-size business culture, we don't do enough of that," Prof. Soman says.

Empower the front line

Customers don't want to hear a sales agent say, "Let me check with the boss and get back to you," Prof. Soman says.

Instead, they want to deal with a competent person who has the power to negotiate a price – or say no to such a request – and the ability to answer all questions about a product or service.

Sales staff should also have the authority to offer an added service or fix a problem, such as a faulty product, without having to seek input from management, which slows down the process.

Prof. Soman also believes that small businesses should provide incentives to front-line staff not just for units sold, but also for the quality of customer service they provide.

Don't just listen, engage

Even with the rise in online shopping, human connection and connection with products is still important, says Doug Stephens, a retail consultant and founder of Retail Prophet.

"There is a value to be able to talk to a real human being. I don't think retailers are exploiting the real value of that," Mr. Stephens said. "They need to give people a reason to get off the couch, put down the tablet and go to the store."

He said more salespeople need to be enthusiastic about what they are selling, as well as provide expertise and empathy toward the consumer.

"Expertise is different than knowledge," Mr. Stephens says. "I can gather lots of knowledge from the Web, but expertise is something that's a little deeper. It's not just knowing about a product, but the questions to ask consumers to find out if it suits their needs. … I don't want a sales associate to say, 'Tell me what you want and I'll tell you all about it.' I want them to say, 'Tell me about your needs and I'll make recommendations.' "

Salespeople should also be empathetic to a customer who may be confused about a product or anxious about spending the money. "Consumers want someone who can relate and that can make them feel better," Mr. Stephens says.

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About the Author

Brenda Bouw is a freelance writer and editor based in Vancouver. She has more than 20 years of experience as a business reporter, including at The Globe and Mail, The Canadian Press, the Financial Post and was executive producer at BNN (formerly ROBTv). Brenda was also part of the Globe and Mail reporting team that won the 2010 National Newspaper Award for business journalism. More


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