From the April 1998 issue of Startups

A friend of mine loves to tell the story about the time he went to buy a car. He made it clear that all he wanted was a stripped down, bottom-of-the-line import, but he was treated as if he had come in asking to see the latest, fully loaded luxury car. His two young kids were given stuffed animals and escorted to a play room. A few weeks after purchasing the car, my friend received a tin of cookies from the dealer with a note from the salesperson.

The dealer didn't get the order because of these extras, of course. But over the next few months, whenever my friend was asked about his new car, the first thing he did was recommend the dealership where he made his purchase.

Such is the power of customer service. More often than not, the only way a company can distinguish itself from its competitors is if its product or service is easier for customers to buy. The homebased entrepreneur who realizes this will have a clear advantage over his or her competitors.

Ask Around

Your first step is to take a new look at your customer service. Traditionally, this has meant reacting to customer complaints. There are two problems with this, however: It's not a proactive strategy, and everyone does it. Customer service should be about anticipating needs and fulfilling them before being asked.

Becoming more customer service-oriented means being empathetic to clients' needs. Ask yourself what extras you can offer your customers. Can you make your company react faster without sacrificing quality or profits? Is there a way you can improve the way questions are answered in your business? Why should people buy from you?

Just asking these questions isn't enough. Find a way to survey your customers. One method, of course, is through a mailing. This is expensive, however, and even with postage paid for, you can expect a low return rate. Firms can be hired to conduct phone surveys, but that, too, is expensive.

For many smaller businesses, it's better to meet with key customers. Have a series of lunches or informal gatherings. Ask them what you're not doing or not providing; ask them to be critical of your business. Have they ever been disappointed in your service? Have you ever been difficult to reach? Find out what you can do better.

Surveying customers allows you to build your business around their needs. It affords you the opportunity to tailor your services to those needs. If the customer occasionally needs a product that's hard to come by, keep it in stock or order it far in advance and, if possible, don't pass on any extra costs.

Be flexible. As a homebased business owner, you can change your pricing policy, extend payment options, and work a little longer without bending company rules. You are the company. Take advantage of the fact that you don't have layers of management to consult with--be creative with customers.

Finally, customer service must be cost-effective. Keep track of the extra cost of using overnight shipping, doing telephone surveys, sending follow-up thank yous. You can make yourself available and take every return without question. But if you're not getting your money's worth in sales, you'll service your business to death.

Baby Boom

When Jill McArthur needed a gift for her newborn twin nieces, she ended up making her own: matching red and green chili pepper bunting sets. The outfits were a hit, and a friend suggested she market her creations.

McArthur needed little prodding but she knew she needed to be smart about getting her business off the ground. Borrowing the business cards of a friend in the garment business, she bluffed her way into a trade show, where she wowed a sales rep with her creations.

That was three years ago. Today, McArthur is eliciting more than words of encouragement. Sales at her Los Angeles-based company, Tinis to Go, have nearly doubled in each of the past two years. Her clothes are available at Nordstrom and regional high-end boutiques, as well as through mail order. McArthur now has a booth of her own at trade shows, along with a brochure and a Web site: http://www.expresspages.com/t/tinistogo/index.html

Business really started to snowball, says McArthur, when she made good use of marketing opportunities. Through the clothing trade shows, she met a sales rep who agreed to distribute her clothing line, and another who suggested she place ads in apparel publications to subcontract the sewing to professionals. McArthur also befriended writers and editors of baby and children's magazines who've included her clothing line in their stories.

Adding eggplant, frog and sunflower designs to her clothing line, McArthur has realized that perhaps the most valuable marketing strategies are her offbeat creations themselves. As she points out, "Most of my competitors have cute clothing lines, but being both funny and cute really catches people's eyes."

How much does McArthur believe in her designs? So much so that last year she hand-delivered an outfit for Madonna's new baby. No order yet from the singer, but with McArthur's history of unconventional success, you never know.

Expert Opinion

More and more, professionals like business systems consultant Fred Savage are finding that volunteering their expertise is a successful way to network.

Savage is an expert in Microsoft office systems and counts Boeing and JC Penney among his clients. With three Microsoft certifications, including software solutions developer and trainer, Savage now makes close to six figures.

He is also a member of several regional and national associations, including the Professionals in Human Resources Association, the Human Resources Management Association and various Microsoft-oriented organizations. Savage also finds time to teach at the university level and considers his time spent mentoring students another form of "volunteering."

Savage has conducted seminars on several Microsft disciplines, such as ACCESS and Visual Basic, and has written an article for the California Management Review business journal. It doesn't hurt that Savage has dual talents in computers and human resources, or that he's an expert in optical scanning and is one of only about 7,000 Microsoft Certified Solutions Developers in the country.

He acknowledges that having a multifaceted background makes him more marketable. "Most people have either oral and written skills or analytical skills. It's merging all three that makes you a unique commodity."

Savage adds that "when you're networking, it's important to expand beyond your narrow area of expertise. Having a technical specialty that most people don't understand means getting exposure in the user area as well. It makes you more accessible."

contact Sources

Fred Savage, savagefl@cyberg8t.com

Bill Kelley is a business writer in Arcadia, California. Julia Miller is a Los Angeles business writer specializing in marketing.