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State of Service

Don't ruin your reputation--provide top-notch customer service to help your business thrive.

A few days before Christmas, I was scheduled to fly on the airline I have nearly 2 million frequent-flier miles with. Bad weather in one of the airline's hub cities had caused a horrendous backup, and there was such a mess at the airline's counters that it soon became obvious that most of us standing in line would miss our flights. After talking to the person at the counter three times, I finally asked to talk to a supervisor--one never appeared, and I missed my flight. I contacted customer service and was told it was my responsibility to make sure I got on the plane. (Should I have rushed the counter? I still wonder what I could have done without getting arrested.) I sent another e-mail to someone who I thought was a different customer-service person and received a reply which began, "I guess you didn't like my answer . . . ."

Several weeks ago, articles editor Charlotte Jensen was eating out with a friend when she found a rather large, dead roach in her salad. Not wanting to make a fuss, she told the server, who removed the plate. When he returned with the dinner plates, he lied and told Char it was a root, not a bug. Unable to finish her meal, she asked for the check. When he brought the bill (the restaurant comped the salad but charged for the rest of the meal, though much of it remained uneaten) he said, "I'm so, so sorry. At least it was dead. You know we cannot control everything here."

I bet every one of you can recount a similar example of jaw-droppingly stupid customer service. Yes, I know this is hardly an original topic in this space. But as you can tell from the two anecdotes above, the sorry state of customer service hasn't improved much.

This is an area where you entrepreneurs can stand out. A few weeks ago, we decided to replace the windows and doors in our home. Still stung from bad past experiences at large home-improvement stores, we found a small, independent shop where the entire team--from Sean who showed us our choices ("We don't sell here.") to John and Julie, the married entrepreneurs who own the company, to the courteous and efficient installers--was not only helpful, but very pleasant as well. I have already recommended the company to several friends and neighbors.

Remember that good customer service doesn't stop with a job well done. You need to follow up with thank yous to clients, and offer them easy ways to refer customers to you. For more information on building a viral marketing program, see our archives on www.entrepreneur.com.

In our entrepreneurial world, you don't get many (if any) second chances. While viral marketing helps spread the good work your company does, that same principle means news of shoddy practices will spread like the plague. And here is where entrepreneurs are more vulnerable. The big boys can absorb more hits than you can and often just lower their prices to attract customers who might be thinking twice before shopping there. You likely can't afford to do that. Entrepreneurs have to get it right the first time.

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This article was originally published in the May 2005 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: State of Service.

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