According to a 2019 study by Microsoft, 54% of American consumers have higher expectations for customer service compared to last year. Don't worry – 67% of people believe that customer service, as a whole, is improving.
There are many ways to deliver excellent customer service, but companies almost across the board agree that empathy – and treating your customers like people – is the most important first step.
"One of our best practices is to treat each client like a close friend, getting to know them personally so we can better help them realize their goals," said Sarkis Hakopdjanian, director of strategy and principal at The Business Clinic.
Providing excellent customer service is a big job that requires a lot of resources. It's easy to turn to giants like Disney for examples of world-class service. But smaller businesses actually have an advantage over larger companies when it comes to providing great service.
In a survey by CorvisaCloud, 50% of the 1,200 respondents said small companies provide the best service. A smaller customer base means a greater opportunity to get to know each individual client, but it can also add more pressure on small business owners to deliver what those customers want.
"The customer has more power and choices than ever," said Don MacLennan, vice president of engineering and consumer products at McAfee. "[With consumers'] ability to amplify their complaints and praises through social media, [and] the lower barrier to switching [providers], modern businesses can't get away with having subpar customer service."
Business News Daily spoke with executives who have mastered the art of customer service. Here are the six practices they recommend for keeping your customers satisfied. [See our report for how to choose the best CRM software for your business.]
1. Hire great people.
Smart business owners know that top-notch customer interactions start with top-notch people. Hiring the right team and creating a people-first culture from the get-go is the best way to ensure that your employees' good attitudes impress your customers.
"Hire and train the right people to get better customer service," said Brandon Knight, senior vice president of global channels at Serenova. "Customers think small businesses have more knowledge and are better prepared for dealing with customers [because they have] a more personal touch."
Robin Copland, group vice president of business strategy at Huge, agreed, noting that company culture plays a big role in the level of customer service businesses can provide.
"It's how they build their stickiness factor," Copland said. "A culture that attracts people to want to work for [the company] translates into better customer service. They project [that culture] on customers."
2. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
Customers want to know what to expect and what they're getting, and they want to understand every step of the process. Make a concerted effort to go the extra mile and be transparent across the board with your customers in terms of what you do and why.
"Customers want clear communication," said Andrew Rohr, president of MSS Cleaning. "[This includes] appointment confirmations, notices when a technician is on the way and a follow-up to make sure the job was done correctly. When something goes wrong, [they] want to be heard."
3. Make a great first impression.
In job interviews, romantic relationships and business, your first impression can make or break a deal. This is especially true when you're trying to attract and keep customers: Research by Inc. found that there is a 91% chance customers will not use a company again after one bad experience, and a dissatisfied customer will tell, on average, nine to 15 other people about the poor experience. If you want to ensure your customers both come and stay happy, focus on delivering a stellar experience from the second they come through your doors.
"Perfecting the first impression is crucial to any business, given today's competitive environment," said Matt Rizzetta, president and CEO of North 6th Agency. "Stay fully committed [to] making sure that customers receive a memorable, impactful and enjoyable kick-off phase with [your company]."
Rizzetta noted that his firm's longest-standing and most profitable customer relationships are ones that had incredibly strong starts. Getting a customer off to a "great" start versus a "good" start can make the difference in a business's ability to scale over time, he said.
"Right out of the gate, a customer needs to understand your commitment to their needs, level of competence and ability to deliver what they're looking for," said Rizzetta. "They need to develop an appreciation for your culture and what makes you stand out as a service provider. There is no time to waste when it comes to making a first impression."
4. Be proactive.
Too often, customer service is reactive; that is, a brand communicates with customers only when they reach out with comments or complaints. When it comes to negative feedback, catching a disappointed customer before that person has a chance to express their displeasure can make all the difference.
"By the time the customer contacts the company, it's usually because of a negative experience they've had," said Rita Tochner, head of corporate marketing at contextual marketing firm Pontis. "The customer relationship has been compromised by this point, and in competitive markets, the customer will go elsewhere. When customer service management systems operate proactively with customer experience solutions and are able to anticipate customer needs before they occur, you'll have a more satisfied customer."
"Utilize big data and marketing automation to proactively address customer issues before they become a major problem," said MacLennan. "For example, if you have a software product and you know where a customer is getting stuck, you can use that knowledge to proactively reach out to other users with emails or messages that provide guides or walkthroughs."
5. Offer a seamless experience.
In a world of constant connectivity and mobile devices, customers interact with brands through more channels and in more places than ever before. Today's top companies stand out by providing a consistent experience through every single channel, whether it's in the store, on the web or through social media.
"We expect a lot more from the brands and companies we interact with," said Copland. "The omnichannel experience [is] where service breaks down. [Customer] experiences are disconnected for the most part."
Copland noted that taking a "360-degree view" of each customer is the best strategy for connecting that person's multichannel experience with your brand.
"Tie [the experience] together in a more comprehensive way," he said. "Understand [customers] beyond the four walls of the store, beyond the interactions with an associate or on digital [channels]."
6. Treat customers as individuals, not demographics.
Until recently, the standard approach to marketing was dividing customers into segments and using broad demographic assumptions to serve them. Marketing has become much more sophisticated and personalized, and customer service is following suit.
"Customers see themselves as distinct individuals and expect brands to see them this way as well," said Tochner. "Customer service tactics should be as dynamic and agile as the customers they serve. This means utilizing solutions that allow marketers to move past segmentation and to embrace personalization."
One way to ensure a personalized experience and build loyalty is to develop real, genuine relationships with customers beyond their initial purchases.
"We see the most positive results [when] customer engagement occurs throughout the entire customer lifecycle," said Tochner. "Maximize engagement continuously and in real time, according to customers' regularly changing needs. Radio silence for any industry should be avoided, and open lines of communication should exist and remain open."