Good news, business owners of today: You're doing something right. In a recent survey by communications software provider CorvisaCloud, 60 percent of consumers said they believe that customer service overall has improved from 2013 to 2014.
Despite the resources a company needs in order to keep up with increasing customer demands, smaller businesses actually have an advantage over larger companies when it comes to providing great service. And customers think so, too. Nearly 50 percent of CorvisaCloud's 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 mean more pressure to deliver what those customers want.
"The customer has more power and choices than ever," said Don MacLennan, CEO of customer success platform Bluenose. "[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."
Based on conversations with executives who have mastered the art of customer service, here are five best practices for keeping today's customers satisfied. [See our report for guidance on picking the best CRM for your business]
Hire great people
Smart business owners know that top-notch customer service comes from 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 attitude impresses your customers.
"Hire and train the right people to get better customer service," said Brandon Knight,vice president of direct sales at CorvisaCloud. "Customers think small businesses have more knowledge and are better prepared for dealing with customers [because they have] a more personal touch."
Robin Copland, vice president of retail for the Americas at agile development firm ThoughtWorks, 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."
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: Recent research by customer-engagement company Thunderhead.com found that 20 percent of customers stop trusting a company after one bad experience, and a quarter will instantly switch brands. The brands that understand the value of a great first impression come out on top.
"Perfecting the first impression is crucial to any business given today's competitive environment," said Matt Rizzetta,president and CEO of North 6th Agency public relations firm. "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. The difference between getting a customer off to a "good" start versus a "great" 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," Rizzetta said. "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."
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 his or her 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 the customer issues before they become a major problem," MacLennan added. "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."
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," Copland said. "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 multi-channel 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]."
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 gotten 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," Tochner told Business News Daily. "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 entirecustomer lifecycle," Tochner said. "Maximize engagement continuously and in real time, according to the customers' regularly changing needs. Radio silence for any industry should be avoided, and open lines of communication should exist and remain open."
Originally published on Business News Daily