The S-Word

To the list of words that can be spoken only by their first letter (the F-Word and others) let's add the S-Word: Service.

Quality (the Q-Word) has been declining for the past 30 years: Workmanship is a declining art and pride in doing a good day's work has been largely replaced by either greed or complacency (depending on which end of the pay spectrum you are on).

As quality has declined so has brand loyalty. Price is the driver now. Just because I bought a Maytag washer last time doesn't mean I'll buy one again. I'll buy whatever is cheaper because I perceive them to be all basically of the same quality, same features and same expected lifespan.

With quality and customer loyalty lagging, we now spend a ton of time talking, writing and blogging about how to get customers. We are awash in advice on how to get customers: the five keys to marketing, 10 ways to use your database, 15 keys to social media marketing. In the enumeration of our efforts to find them, less time is spent thinking about how to retain them.

As a consumer of products and services, the answer is customer service - plain and simple. It seems so simple, I am always surprised by how hard it is to find and how excited you get when you do find it. On the rare occasion that a company provides me with what I consider to be outstanding personal service, I become loyal, committed and a passionate advocate. I spread the word to friends and associates, I write nice notes on my Facebook page or blog and generally do everything I can to extol the virtues of the company.

The sad thing is that today's great customer service was really just basic business practices a few decades ago. Companies have trained us to lower expectations: consider cell phones, we now consider it perfectly acceptable that you have dead spots where you phone doesn't work, can only clearly hear every third word of a conversation and that the call may be dropped at any time. That's just the price we pay for convenience. None of us is calling AT&T to complain that we have to bend over the kitchen sink to the south facing window to get enough bars to make a phone call. No. We just accept that that's the way it is.

But shouldn't we - as consumers - expect more? And as business owners, shouldn't we at least try harder to fulfill those expectations?

As a small business, we don't have a ton of money and we certainly don't have a huge staff. But here are a couple of small guidelines to better customer service that we can all follow. They won't break the bank and they will increase loyalty.

1. Be an advocate for your customer, not your company. A customer dealt with fairly and honestly, who's complaint was addressed quickly and without recriminations is worth their weight in gold to you. They will tell their friends and associates, they will be your customer for as long as they need that service and they will hold you up to others as an example. This is grass-roots, word-of-mouth marketing you can't buy.

2. If it costs more to prove you're right than it costs to fix the problem, just fix the problem. Recently, I took issue with a supplier over an order. The order cost me less than $125, so I'm assuming it cost the supplier less than $50 to produce. After a day and half of discussion, a courier pickup, and two separate employees including a senior manager explaining to me why it was "acceptable quality," I finally had to give in. Then they overnight shipped the 20lb box back to me. All in all, this company is out money AND they have aggravated me to the point of looking elsewhere for a supplier. I'm sure the company considers this a win, but by my business ROI calculator it's a definite loss. This company missed a huge chance for a big customer service win with a pretty low price point.

3. Manage expectations; fulfill commitments. What do you want from companies you deal with? For most of us, it's pretty basic - do what you say you're going to do for a fair price that we agree on. Unless you are a fast food restaurant or a hospital, your customers and clients can generally understand if you can't do something "immediately." But if you tell me you can't do it until two weeks from Friday because of previous commitments, then have it done by then. Even though this seems basic, I find a lot of companies - big and small - promise more than they can deliver because they think telling the customer what they want to hear is going to make them happy. What makes customers happy, is getting what they are promised.

4. Be honest. A customer with money to spend and who will pay those bills, is in some ways an easy mark. It is tempting to put them into things they may not really need, to create situations where your services will continue to be required for maintenance, or to recommend things for them that you know they can do themselves or obtain for free. If you've ever had the experience of a company that tells you they won't sell you something more expensive because you only need a $2 part, then you know how quickly you become a rabid fan and loyal customer. Sometimes the sale you don't make is the best advertising you can have.

This is only a 4-item list and everyone knows a list must be 3 or 5, 10 or 15. So please comment, tell us your best customer service tip. If small businesses came together and made a commitment to improving our relationships with customers, maybe we can again feel comfortable saying the S-Word out loud!