Q: Do you think a small business can really distinguish itself through superior customer service?
A: Absolutely, but it can't happen overnight. Good service is extremely hard to find these days. As a consumer, I'm always on the lookout for good service and am frustrated by how seldom I see it. Even when I do see it, more often than not it's the result of a single person going out of their way to provide the service and not the policies or practices of the business.
So what does this mean for you, the entrepreneur who is working like crazy to get your business off the ground? You have a million things to think about, and this is just one of them. If you're looking to distinguish your business and offer something that will be a real competitive advantage, then I suggest you focus on customer service. Understand, however, that if you choose this path, it has to be a long-term strategy, and you'll have to be patient to see the results. That's because anyone can claim to offer great service, and that makes it hard for customers to distinguish between the people who really deliver it and those who just say they do. If you want to make customer service a key part of your business, then you have to not only make the claim, but also consistently back it up. If you do this, over time more and more people will believe you, and they'll spread the word.
If you can establish a reputation for service, great things will happen. It will be easier for you to get new customers, get more business from your existing ones and increase your prices. Many businesspeople seem to think that price is everything. My experience has been that people will pay more if you give them more.
But you can't just raise your prices and say that you have more value. You have to prove it. When my brother-in-law and I started Tucker Golf, we wanted our service to be second to none. At our first trade show, people would ask about our company, and at some point I'd mention that our goal was to provide better service than any other golf vacation company. Their response was almost always, "Oh, so you charge a lot more!" That wasn't what I meant at all, and we really didn't charge much more. The point is that no one believed us because we hadn't been around long enough to prove our claim. It isn't enough just to say it--you have to do it! And not just for a few weeks--you have to do it day in and day out for years.
Now, five years later, we have customers who call and say, "Set me up with something similar to last year, and here is my credit card number--just charge it with however much it costs." It has taken Tucker a long, long time to earn that kind of trust. We had to provide a lot of great service along the way for people to hear about us, experience us and recommend us to other people.
OK, maybe I've persuaded you that this could work. But how do you get from here to there? Well, I admit it is a bit of a chicken and an egg problem. When Tucker first got started, we had many competitors who regularly sent thousands of golfers on vacations, while we had never sent anyone. How do you make a name for yourself against that kind of competition? You work hard, be persistent and stay alive until enough people experience your service to come back (and bring other people with them). At Tucker, we started out slowly, but eventually the first person called and booked their vacation, and then a little later another one, and then another and so on.
It's one thing to talk about great service, but quite another to provide it, day after day, for the months and years that it takes to make a difference. But there's nothing magic about it--just hard work and persistence. You can provide it, I can provide it and our competitors can provide it. But most of them don't. And that opens a big door for us, if we're willing to do what it takes to step through.
Keith Lowe is an experienced entrepreneur who is a founder and investor in companies in several industries. Lowe also mentors new entrepreneurs; serves as past chairman of the board for Biztech, a nonprofit high-tech business incubator; and is a co-founder and officer for the Alabama Information Technology Association.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.