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Great Customer Service Helps in Tough Times

Little things make a big difference when it comes to hanging on to customers.

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In these unsettling times, great customer service can mean the difference between making a profit or barely keeping the lights on. Big companies spend big dollars to maintain customer loyalty, but smaller companies often focus on the transactions and forget to build the relationship.

"Although we were focused on serving our customers, there were things we really weren't doing a good job on," says John Blomberg, vice president of Insite Business Solutions, a custom software developer in Charlotte, North Carolina. "We hadn't been cross-selling our customers or thanking them for their business and asking for referrals."

Seeking solutions, Blomberg's company recently took part in the beta test of a new online customer loyalty evaluation tool developed by Customer Service Solutions, another Charlotte-based firm. "We teach companies to measure the lifetime value of a customer vs. the transactional value," says Greg Ward, president of the company.

Ward, who helps large financial services companies deal with customer loyalty and retention issues, wanted to help small companies as well. So he developed an online evaluation based on the business owner or manager's answers to 160 questions. While big companies can pay $6,000 to $10,000 for Ward's personal consulting services, the fee for the online evaluation is $385. For the fee, clients receive a detailed report with recommendations on how to improve relationships with customers, an organizational assessment and customer retention suggestions. (Check it out at

One example of great customer service can be found at Nashville, Tennessee-based Lamp Store. Laura Shuster, co-owner, writes personal notes to customers when she isn't busy unpacking new arrivals or writing descriptive captions for the company's whimsical and easy-to-navigate Web site.

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The business is a family affair. Co-owner and husband Marty spends most Sundays turning all sorts of wacky things-including a giant carrot sculpture-into lamps. Son Max, 22, shoots digital photos of the lamps for the Web site when he's not attending classes at a local photography school.

"If you don't work, you don't eat" has been the Shuster family motto since they opened the store 23 years ago. Since then, they have only closed their doors for one week and were closed one Saturday to attend a funeral. The 5,000-square-foot retail store, located across the street from the Green Hills Mall, has become a magnet for locals and their friends.

"So many people bring out-of-towners to the store, we've become a tourist attraction," says Laura, who recently shipped a $75 lamp to a Japanese customer who was willing to pay $100 in shipping costs. (Domestic orders are usually shipped at no charge). Customers near and far are apparently smitten by an inventory of between 4,000 and 5,000 lamps.

The Web site makes shopping easy 24 hours a day. categorizes lamps by room, style and price. Laura attributes a very low return rate to the fact that the lamps are photographed in a simple, realistic manner, unlike the dramatic, glossy photos used by most lamp manufacturers in their brochures and Web sites. ("What you see is what you get," she says.)

Avid antique and junk collectors, the Shusters began making lamps out of the things they picked up during their travels around the world. In 1976, they moved from Chicago to Tennessee, seeking respite from the cold weather and Marty's demanding restaurant business. "We just knew we wanted to do something that had nothing to do with food," says Laura.

For six years before moving to Nashville, the family lived on a 55-acre farm in the middle of Tennessee. Tired of the country life, they moved to the city and eventually bought a building in the heart of Nashville's high-end shopping district. As tenants moved out, they slowly expanded their store. At first, they sold antique furniture as well as lamps, but today they only sell lamps. "When we started shipping lamps all over the country, we thought the Internet was a good way to get the store name out there," says Laura. "We've made the cold medium of the Internet warm."

They learned through experience that not everything you do for customers in a retail setting works online. For example, they used to offer customers a choice of lampshade with their Web order, but that became too confusing and difficult to manage online. Now, the Shusters pick an appropriate shade, and what you see is what you get.

Admitted workaholics, the Shusters have only one part-time employee and rely on an answering service to field customer calls. Customers also appreciate the fact that when they buy a lamp online, it's usually shipped out the same day. "There's no waiting for a lamp," says Laura, unlike traditional lighting stores that often need weeks to fill an order.

In recent years, the family has filled a lot of orders. The company posts about $1.5 million in annual revenues, although sales in the last quarter of 2001 dipped after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Business is picking up as more people devote time and money to home improvement. "We are grateful to have a very enthusiastic customer base," says Laura, who keeps in touch with many repeat customers.

Jane Applegate is a syndicated columnist and the author of 201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business. For a free copy of her "Business Owner's Check Up," send your name and address to Check Up, P.O. Box 768, Pelham NY 10803 or e-mail it to