A Dozen Simple Ways to Improve Customer Relations

Wednesday Jul 27th 2011 by Jennifer Schiff
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Business owners, customer service experts and marketers share their tips on how to gain customer loyalty.

Research shows that it is less expensive and more profitable for businesses to retain existing customers than to acquire new ones. And one of the simplest ways to do that is by providing great customer service. Herewith are a dozen simple tips from business owners and customer service pros on how to satisfy customers (without, in most cases, having to spend an extra dollar) and keep them coming back for more.

Take responsibility for problems. "Be honest," said Ross Kimbarovsky of crowdSPRING. If you screwed up an order, admit it. If your site is experiencing some downtime or your software has some bugs, let people know.

"And if you don't know the answer [to a customer question], simply say that you don't and tell them that you will find out and get back to them ASAP," he said. "People appreciate transparency, but even more so they appreciate humility. And a healthy dose of both" can calm an angry customer and help build trust – and even brand loyalty.

Embrace the complaints. "As customers complain, or make note of things that aren't working with your products or business processes, use that information to create a fix that customers will love," said Chris Curtis, executive director of Web Business Ownership. Want to impress customers even more? Write about the problem – and how you fixed it – online, on your website or blog, or on Facebook or Twitter – or in your company newsletter, thanking the customer for pointing out the problem.

Respond quickly to customer queries. "Be responsive and fast with your replies," said Davide Di Cillo, CEO of The Fifth Layer. "People always seem [pleasantly] surprised when we reply to their enquiries in less than an hour." And while you probably don't have to reply within an hour, sending customers an acknowledgment that you are aware of the problem within a few hours (if not automatically) and then helping them solve their problem in less than 24 hours is a sure-fire way to win over customers.

Use social media. Social media tools, such as Facebook and Twitter, are a great customer service device, said Lindy Moses, marketing associate at FabulousSavings. "FabulousSavings.com has been using Twitter as an open forum, making us available to the customer whenever they may need us, be it to answer questions or hunt down a deal. Customer service is all about being there for the customer, and social media tools allow for this quite easily."

Sabrina Fenster, marketing director at mTrip Travel Guides, advocates integrating customer service and customer relationship management (CRM) with social media.  Sites like Facebook and Twitter are great listening tools, she said. You can use them to "ask customers questions – such as what features they would like added," as well as provide customer support, and then store that information in your CRM system.

Add live chat and collaboration tools to your website. "Tools like [live chat,] co-browsing and screen sharing enable customer service agents to be on the same page – literally – as customers calling in with a question or problem," said Michelle Brusyo, marketing director at LiveLook.

"By providing technology that creates a visual connection, companies ensure their agents are able to understand customer issues and complaints quickly and accurately, without requiring lengthy descriptions of what the customer sees on the screen, or expecting the customer to articulate effectively what he or she is having trouble with on the website," she said. And today there are several highly secure tools and services that allow for co-browsing while preventing transmission of sensitive data, or even blocking content.

Reward good customers. "Develop reasonable customer loyalty programs with generous discounts and seasonal offers," said John White, support manager at BestEssayHelp.

Follow up with customers. "Call customers after they bought the service or product and check how they are doing," suggested Orit Pennington, the owner of TPGTFX Label Solutions Inc. "Ask things like: is everything working as you expected? Do you need help with anything? Can I answer any questions for you? We find this practice to be a real winner for us. Our customers appreciate it."

Indeed, many times that follow-up call or email can reveal problems you didn't know about that could have cost you future sales. And by following up not only can you identify and help solve or resolve problems or gain new insights into your products and services, you create satisfied customers who are much more likely to buy from you again and tell their friends.

Don't over-automate. "Too many sites seem to believe in total automation, to the point where you can't even find an email address, much less a phone number," said Izzy Goodman, the owner of Complete Computer Services. Moreover, "when you write to that email address [or fill out the form], you get a canned response which says expect an answer in three business days," or no response at all. And that can cost sales.

Case in point, Goodman was looking to buy 20 expensive calculators for a school – "and found a dozen merchants on Amazon who seemed to have plenty of them. I emailed several to ask if I could buy 20. Other than canned replies, not a single one answered! I ended up going to Staples. The lack of customer service cost them a $2,000 order and more in the future!" It's also why Goodman has a dedicated staff answering the phone and emails six days a week, 12 hours a day.

Indeed, don't discount the importance of the lowly telephone, cautioned several business owners and customer service experts. And "always have telephones answered by a live person," said Roger Kahn, president of Champion Office Suites. "Nobody likes to deal with an automated attendant or voicemail. A recent Consumer Reports survey in fact indicated that 71 percent of respondents did not like getting voice mail when they made a call. Technology allows us to communicate more effectively and more quickly but nothing beats the personal touch and direct communication with a real person."

Be flexible. While not all businesses can or should offer customized products, services, or quantities, if it's not a big deal, provide it when asked. "If a customer wants to order something which is not our regular package, we customize one," said Goodman. "If they need something we don't stock, we find it. That is how we retain almost 100 percent of our customers and why we constantly get new customers referred by our existing ones."

Have consistent CRM processes – and monitor what's working and what's not. "It's vital that there be an established process in place for data entry and follow-up," said Stephanie Hackney, chief brander at Branding Masters. "Be sure everyone using the system knows the process and is accountable for following it," and periodically check to make sure your processes are working the way they were designed to – and make adjustments as needed.

"For instance, if the system is initially set up to send out automated email responses to customer service complaints, and these automated responses don't initiate a correction of the issue by someone on your staff, or worse yet, aggravate the situation with the customer, perhaps an automated email to the person responsible for fixing the issue and having them follow up personally is a better solution." The bottom line: CRM can be a great tool, but be careful not to get wedded to a solution or process that is not working.

Personalize the online customer experience. Before a person has ever bought from you, "your business can improve customer relations and impact the bottom line by making [your] website exceptional," said Nicole Carrier, director of IBM Web Experience. And one of the best ways to do this is to "make all users feel like the experience was custom fit for them – based upon their preferences, device, location, social networks and behaviors. Personalizing the experience based upon a full profile of your customers – including information collected by your web analytics tool – can make a big difference in increasingly customer loyalty and satisfaction."

Say "thank you." It is amazing how powerful two little words can be. But as many small (and larger) business owners can tell you, customers really appreciate receiving a thank-you note along with their order. Paper not your thing? Send an email thank-you note or thank customers on Facebook or Twitter (if they are a friend or follower). Also consider offering them a discount coupon or code for referring a friend or towards their next purchase.

Jennifer Lonoff Schiff is a regular contributor to Enterprise Apps Today and runs a marketing communications firm focused on helping small and mid-sized businesses.

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