Every small business owner knows how expensive and time-consuming it is to acquire new customers. Sooner or later we figure out that the best customer is a repeat customer and outstanding service is the key to customer satisfaction and loyalty. That’s what keeps them coming back time and again.  

Meanwhile our products, services and systems are becoming more and more complex every day. Things go wrong. Stuff happens. And competition is fierce. If you’re not adept at handling the many issues that inevitably arise, customers are not likely to stick around.

Besides, everyone loves to complain about customer-service nightmares and word travels fast both online and offline. You don’t just have Yelp and social media to worry about. In at least one sense, word of mouth can have a bigger impact on your reputation because you don’t know what people are saying. It’s a silent business killer.  

In almost every situation, the difference between bad and outstanding customer service comes down to the same two things:

The first is having respect for the customer as a potentially intelligent human being as opposed to a clueless pain in the you-know-what.

The second is asking and answering one simple question: “What is the most effective way to get this customer what he or she wants?”

Here’s a great example. It’s not a small business but it is a perfect illustration of what I’m talking about.

If you’ve done a lot of business with Walgreens’ prescription services you know that your experience will vary from day to day and person to person. There are a number of reasons for that and, while most are not within the local store’s control, the individuals you interact with do have quite a bit of control over the outcome.

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In a nutshell, Walgreens has lots of different systems – both automated and manual – for ordering and reordering prescriptions and notifying customers. Those systems are buggy and they don’t talk to each other very well. So it’s often challenging for both call-center and local retail agents to figure out what’s going on.

I was out getting food the other day when my wife called to tell me that we received a call from our local Walgreens that a prescription was ready for pickup. I had recently responded to an auto refill email request and had already received several calls, so I swung by the drive-through and gave the agent at the window my name.

“I’m not showing anything for you,” said the agent staring at her screen.

“Are you sure?” I said. “My wife said she just got a call from you a few minutes ago saying a prescription was ready to be picked up.”

“Really? From a person?”

“No, it was an automated call.”

“From this store?”

“Yes, from this store,” I said.

“Are you sure?” She asked, still staring at her screen. “I’m not showing anything.”

“Yes, I’m sure. Do you have a reorder for Flonase from a few days ago?”

“Did you call or fax it in?”

“Neither," I said. "It was a response to a reorder email request from you folks. It was just last week.”

“I show a purchase in June, that’s the last activity,” she said, still staring at her screen.

“That’s funny because I’ve gotten several automated calls saying it’s ready for pickup over the past week,” I said. “You’re not seeing that?”

“Really? Are you sure it was from this store?”

“Yes, I’m sure,” I said, getting a little annoyed at this point. “This has been my store for over 10 years. I know you. We must have talked a hundred times.”

“Hold on a second.” She left. After a minute, the pharmacist came to the window.

“Can I help you with something?” he said.

“No thanks, I’m good,” I said and drove off. It was pointless. I had melting ice cream in the car and enough Flonase to last at least a few weeks.

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When I got home we figured out that the call was for a refill of one of my wife’s prescriptions. She has a different last name. Funny thing is, she had not called it in and doesn’t use the auto-refill service because it’s so problematic. It might seem weird that the prescription renewed itself for no apparent reason but for us that was nothing new.

In any case, the agent could have filtered by phone number. She never thought to do that. To be fair, I didn’t think of it either. But then I was too busy eating a peach and responding to all her questions. Besides, it’s not my job to figure out how to solve what I imagine must be a very common problem. It’s her job.

Instead of treating me like an alien from another planet and giving me the third degree all the agent had to do was ask herself, “What is the most effective way to get this customer what he wants?” Had she done that, she would have realized that maybe Walgreens actually did call, as I said it did, and simply asked for the phone number.

The order would have come right up, we would have avoided that entire ordeal and I would have driven off happy instead of questioning my own sanity for sticking with Walgreens all these years.

While I picked on Walgreens, the reality is that its customer service is no worse than that of CVS. Which begs the question why do people stick with their pharmacy? The answer is there has been so much consolidation that there are just a few choices left. And once you’ve got all your prescriptions with one chain, it’s a real pain to switch.

But most small businesses can’t count on there being minimal competition and high switching barriers, especially in markets where it’s hard to differentiate. Oftentimes, your quality of service is the only thing that keeps customers coming back.      

In a complex world where time is precious and competition is fierce, companies have to be just as innovative with their customer service as they are with their products. If you want to be known for outstanding customer service, treat customers with respect and think about the most effective way to serve them. That way you’ll never have a customer walk away dissatisfied.

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