How to Start and Scale Small Business Customer Service

As a small business owner, you know customers are at the heart of what you do. Customer service should be, too. Offering responsive service and a great overall customer experience is key to winning business and building customer loyalty in today’s marketplace. Small businesses built on better customer experiences are more likely to win customers today, and keep them for the long haul.

Namely, over 80% of respondents to a recent Gartner survey said their organizations expect to compete for business mainly on customer experience (CX). And nearly half said they can track the financial benefits of customer experience projects. For example, superior customer experience reduces churn, increases repeat business and customer loyalty, and encourages referrals via word of mouth and social media.

So how does a small business get started offering killer customer service? And how can you scale your service efforts as your business grows? Let’s take a look.

Why invest in customer service for your small business?

Helping customers resolve problems is good, there’s no doubt about that. But the positive impact that offering great service can have on your business goes way beyond solving one-off billing issues and warranty claims.

So how does investing in customer service affect a small business?

Customer service is good for your bottom line. Happy customers drive more business. When customers have great experiences, they drive referral business by spreading the word and leaving positive reviews for you on social media.

Customer service builds customer loyalty. Great customer service is the key to fostering the kind of loyalty that reaches more and more people over time. A 2017 survey found that a whopping 94% of consumers are loyal to brands that deliver consistently good customer experience. 73% of them are loyal because of good customer service.

Customer service builds company reputations. Customer reviews are a leading driver of new business for small businesses of all kinds. Deliver great service and encourage customers to share great experiences with your brand across Facebook, Instagram, and other social channels.

Customer service prevents employee churn. Good coffee is great, but did you know that a reported 87% of customer affinity for Starbucks is driven by the way the company treats its employees? When your small business delivers a great customer experience, your employees are going to get some of that positive energy back, and your customers will take notice. It’s a virtuous cycle that makes employees more likely to stick around and grow with your business.

The kinds of customer service that a small business can offer

Gone are the days when customer service was limited to standing at an in-store counter, waiting to help shoppers initiate returns and exchanges. Today’s customer service is proactive, and it’s available around the clock, whether in person, over the phone, or across multiple digital platforms.

Anyone interested in your company’s products and services should be able to easily get support, whether they’re a longtime customer or just checking your brand out for the first time. That might sound daunting for a small business relying on a small staff of people already wearing many hats. But smart deployment of self-service, social media, and traditional call center-based support can give your team the customer service superpowers of a much larger organization.

Email

Social media, live chat, and other digital platforms are becoming more popular with each passing day, but email is still most customers’ go-to when it comes to getting help online. Setting up an email support channel can be as easy as opening a “support@companyname.com” address and posting it to your website. But there are a few considerations to keep in mind before you do.

Start with these key points, and take a look at our email for small business playbook, as well:

Speedy Responses: Customers expect swift responses to their email inquiries. Plan to respond to emails as quickly as you can, within 24 hours if possible, and by the next business day at the latest.

Keep it Concise and Professional: Respect your customers’ time by keeping support emails short, polite, and friendly. Make sure your instructions are easy to understand, and always thank them for their time and business. And always check for spelling and grammar mistakes before hitting ‘Send’.

Use Subject Lines and Signatures: Clear, attention-grabbing subject lines let customers know you’ve responded directly to their issue. Signing off with an agent’s name and title puts a human face on your brand, even if you’re a business of one. Both tactics make it easier for you and your customers to review every step of your interactions.

Self-Service

Self-service refers to giving customers the tools and information to resolve some service issues on their own. Today’s customers like helping themselves — According to the Salesforce “State of the Connected Customer” report, 59% of consumers and 71% of business buyers say self-service availability impacts their loyalty.

Start simple by creating a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page, and posting it to your website and Facebook page. Since web pages are available at all hours across all time zones, self-service also lets you offer customer service even when your storefront or office is closed and your team isn’t on the clock.

Another easy lift for around-the-clock self-service is linking out to third-party community forums related to your products. Hobbyists and enthusiasts love to share tips and tricks related to their favorite products, so take a few minutes to search the web for discussions about your company’s wares. Point your customers towards anything helpful.

Social Media

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms have become a huge part of how brands relate to customers over the past five to ten years. It’s equal parts marketing tool, service channel, and conversational forums. Bear in mind, social media as a service channel does have a bit of a learning curve, so take your time getting up to speed before encouraging customers to use this option.

It’s free to create accounts for your small business across most major social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. A variety of web-based tools like Hootsuite can streamline the process of posting to multiple channels from the same workflow.

Phone

Most small business owners act as “one-person call centers,” answering the phone and helping customers with whatever service needs they might have. When it comes to phone support, a few easy to follow tips can go a long way:

Make your phone number easy to find. First and foremost, make it easy for your customers to get ahold of you.

Make a great first impression. A little can go a long way when talking to customers on the phone. Answer calls with, “Good morning!” (or afternoon) and “How may I help you?” instead of just “Hello.” Respond to questions with, “I’d be happy to find that out for you!” instead of, “Dunno, hang on.” Putting your best foot forward is job number one when answering customer calls.

Overcompensate for mistakes. Your customers should be happy when they hang up, even if their issue isn’t totally resolved. Many customers want nothing more than to vent their complaints. Listen patiently and offer sincere apologies.

‘Please’ and ‘Thank You’ win the day. Keep it simple with basic manners. Use please when you ask things of your customers, eg, “May I please place you on a brief hold?” And be sure to thank them for their business and for taking the time to call.

The bottom line is that you’ll want somebody answering the line who’s positive, helpful, and appreciative of the customer. A lot of times that person will be you, so take the time to practice your phone etiquette.

Differences between customer service in small businesses and large businesses

Customer service is going to work a little differently depending on the size of your company and support team. Where large companies are afforded the luxury of building out large service organizations with dedicated call centers, email/online agents, and production teams focusing on crafting self-service documents, small businesses often have to find ways to deliver killer service with fewer resources. But small business owners are used to doing more with less.

Support and the Single Owner

Owner-operators of small businesses with no additional employees are used to wearing many hats. That same, “be everywhere, do everything” mindset applies to customer service. As a business of one, the single owner can leverage technology to automate some tasks and extend their reach via digital channels, but ultimately there’s only so much one person can do in a day.

A good initial strategy is to focus your efforts on a single service channel, acting as the face of the company while also getting things done behind the scenes. Email is usually the way to go, as it’s widely used and flexible enough to support sending photos, user manuals, and other service documents to customers. You might also offer walk-in service or phone-based support, depending on the specifics of your business. More tech-savvy small biz owners could extend their reach by meeting customers on their own turf with individualized support over customers’ favorite channels (Facebook, Twitter, etc).

In any case, the key is to offer the broadest support net possible without overextending yourself. Always balance new initiatives against your business’ overall health. Again, spinning up even the most basic self-service offering can really go a long way in this regard.

How Small Businesses Offer Good Customer Service

Most small businesses don’t have the resources to field a dedicated support team. Instead, they have one or more employees who work with customers across all support channels as needed. Sales reps will hop on support calls or man the customer chat lines, product specialists chime in to walk customers through setting up or troubleshooting, and so on. It’s the age-old, “everybody wears different hats” strategy applied to customer service.

This customer service strategy is out of necessity, but it has a big upside: Different employees get to hone a variety of support skills, and they get closer to your customers. Talking directly to the people who buy and use your products and services affords the best perspective on how customers are feeling about your brand, and it’s an incredible way to gather information about what’s working — and not — about your product offerings.

Make sure that knowledge gets shared across your organization so everyone can benefit from it — even if you’re a team of two and “everyone,” is only you and your business partner. Implementing a CRM platform that lets you log all customer calls, chats, and emails, and store all of those interactions in a single, accessible place, is a great way to get the information flowing throughout your business.

How to start customer service for a small business

Launching a customer service program can be straightforward, particularly if you’ve thought about which support channels best fit your small business.

1. Set up a support email address and/or phone number. Start by opening up support channels for customers to use. Email is the cheapest and easiest way to get started, though depending on your business you might also want to offer a customer service phone number from the outset.

Use a simple email address like, “support@companyname.com.” Make a plan for who’s going to monitor the address, and general guidelines for how emails will be written (style, tone, response time, etc). Make your support address easy for people to find — add it to your website, marketing materials, email signatures, and other places where customers will see it.

2. Figure out which channels your customers prefer. As mentioned, many of today’s customers prefer digital channels to phone or in-person support options. This varies depending on the particulars of your clientele, and what products and services you offer. Broadly speaking, B2C small businesses have a lot of customers on Facebook and Instagram, while LinkedIn is more of a hotbed for B2B clients.

Once your first lines of support are up and running, spend some time figuring out which channels your customers prefer to do business on. Then extend support options to meet your users where they are.

Social media listening tools like Hootsuite and Sprout Social bring all of your social channels onto one screen, greatly simplifying the process of monitoring and responding to customers across multiple platforms. These tools also use email and desktop/mobile notifications to alert your staff to incoming messages, and even general social media activity related to your brand, so your service reps don’t have to waste time manually scanning social feeds for support requests. With the right tool, you can offer support across several channels at once without a lot of extra internal overhead.

If your support team is more tech-savvy, you could spin up a help center on your company website. A basic help center consisting of contact information, an FAQ page, and some self-service content is a pretty easy lift for a team already comfortable building web pages.

3. Set goals for time-to-resolution Once you’ve established basic support channels, start working on your internal processes. Time-to-resolution is a great first measurement of customer service success. Set some goals for reducing that time. From there, start looking at other customer-centric ways to measure and improve your customer care efforts.

4. Make it clear when support can be offered Customers love online self-service offerings that they can access anytime they like, day or night. But there’s also little that’s more frustrating to a customer than expecting support when it's not actually available. We all know the feeling of being on hold only to realize that nobody’s actually answering the phone on the other end.

Make it clear when customer support is available and when it’s not. Note on your website if and when live support is offered, whether via phone, email/chat, or other channels. Post estimated response times to set customer expectations. Use automated responses to let customers know you got their request, it’s important to you, and they can expect a reply within a certain timeframe.

How to scale small business customer service

Growth is essential to any small business. With growth comes more customers, orders, products, and, yes, more service requests. Growing small businesses have to scale their operations, and that includes scaling customer service. A few tips on how to scale customer service in your small business:

Know when to expand. Most businesses invest in production and sales before service. That’s fine, so long as you know when it’s time to expand your service operations, too. Signs include:

  • Realizing that you can’t accommodate all incoming requests.
  • Facing a backlog of support requests.
  • Overall business growth dictates having to provide service for customers than your current staff can accommodate.

Work off of customer feedback. Great customer service gets you closer to the voice of your customers. Listen to customer requests demanding more support on specific channels. Take note of where the customer’s voice is coming from:

  • Do your most active customer voices align with your overall customer demographics? Is there more activity coming from one segment than others?
  • Are there particular aspects of your products that customers are having the most trouble with?
  • As you scale, shape your service offerings to address customer pain points, and use product-related questions as an opportunity to create new help articles and self-service content.

Train reps to be dynamic. Customer service is a skill, and like any skill, it needs to be developed. A little training goes a long way when it comes to small business customer service. From what to say and how to say it, to understanding when and where to escalate customer issues, training your service reps to be more dynamic in their customer interactions can be a huge boon to your brand.

Implement CRM. Cloud-based CRM for small business lets you put your whole company on the same page when it comes to logging customer interactions, facilitating cross-team collaboration, and putting important information at everyone’s fingertips. Salesforce Essentials offers a free trial to see how CRM can help small businesses do more.

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