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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.

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