Show Your Customers They're Always Right

This 30-point primer on customer service will help you keep clients smiling and business booming.

When you're a start-up with few employees and few customers,it's easy to stay on top of what customers want and whatthey're getting. But as you add more customers and employees,you add links to the customer service chain. That creates thepotential for growth and the potential for poor service along theway. That's why creating a customer service policy and adheringto it is so important. Here are some steps you can take to ensurethat your clients receive excellent service every step of theway.

1. Put your customer service policy in writing. Theseprinciples should come from you, but every employee should knowwhat the rules are and be ready to live up to them. Thisdoesn't have to be elaborate. Something as simple as "thecustomer is always right" can lay the necessary groundwork,although you may want to get more detailed by saying, for instance,"any employee is empowered to grant a 10 percent discount toany dissatisfied customer at any time."

2. Establish support systems that give employees clearinstructions for gaining and maintaining service superiority.These systems will help you outservice any competitor by givingmore to customers and anticipating problems before they arise.

3. Develop a measurement of superb customer service.Don't forget to reward employees who practice itconsistently.

4. Be certain that your passion for customer service runsrampant throughout your company. Employees should see how goodservice relates to your profits and to their futures with thecompany.

5. Be genuinely committed to providing more customer serviceexcellence than anyone else in your industry. This commitmentmust be so powerful that every one of your customers can senseit.

6. Share information with people on the front lines. Meetwith your employees regularly to talk about improving service.Solicit ideas from employees-they are the ones who are dealing withcustomers most often.

7. Act on the knowledge that what customers value most areattention, dependability, promptness and competence. They lovebeing treated as individuals and being referred to by name.

Phrases That'll Make Your Customers Happy

Principles of customer service are all very well, but you needto put those principles into action with everything you do and say.There are certain "magic words" customers want to hearfrom you and your staff. Make sure all your employees understandthe importance of these key phrases:

8. "How can I help?" Customers want theopportunity to explain in detail what they want and need. Toooften, business owners feel the desire or the obligation to guesswhat customers need rather than carefully listening first. Byasking how you can help, you begin the dialogue on a positive note(you are "helping," not "selling"). And byusing an open-ended question, you invite discussion.

9. "I can solve that problem." Most customers,especially business-to-business customers, are looking to buysolutions. They appreciate direct answers in a language they canunderstand.

10. "I don't know, but I'll find out."When confronted with a truly difficult question that requiresresearch on your part, admit that you don't know the answer.Few things ruin your credibility faster than trying to answer aquestion when you are unsure of all the facts. Savvy buyers maytest you with a question they know you can't answer and thenjust sit quietly while you struggle to fake an intelligent reply.An honest answer enhances your integrity.

11. "I will take responsibility." Tell yourcustomer you realize it's your responsibility to ensure asatisfactory outcome to the transaction. Assure the customer youknow what he or she expects and will deliver the product or serviceat the agreed-upon price. There will be no unexpected changes orexpenses required to solve the problem.

12. "I will keep you updated." Even if yourbusiness is a cash-and-carry operation, it probably requiresscheduling and coordinating numerous events. Assure your customersthey will be advised of the status of these events. The longer yourlead time, the more important this is. The vendors customers trustthe most are those that keep them apprised of the situation,whether the news is good or bad.

13. "I will deliver on time." A due date thathas been agreed upon is a promise that must be kept."Close" doesn't count.

14. "Monday means Monday." The first week inJuly means the first week in July, even though it contains anational holiday. Your clients are waiting to hear you say "Ideliver on time." The supplier who consistently does so is ararity and will be remembered.

15. "It'll be just what you ordered." Itwill not be "similar to," and it will not be "betterthan" what was ordered. It will be exactly what was ordered.Even if you believe a substitute would be in the client's bestinterests, that's a topic for discussion, not something youdecide on your own. Your customer may not know (or be at liberty toexplain) all the ramifications of the purchase.

16. "The job will be complete." Assure thecustomer there will be no waiting for a final piece or a lastdocument. Never say you are finished "except for...."

17. "I appreciate your business." This meansmore than a simple "Thanks for the order." Genuineappreciation involves follow-up calls, offering to answerquestions, making sure everything is performing satisfactorily, andascertaining that the original problem has been solved.

Neglecting any of these steps conveys the impression that youwere interested in the person only until the sale was made. Thisleaves the buyer feeling deceived and used, and creates ill willand negative advertising for your company. Sincerely proving youcare about your customers leads to recommendations and repeatsales.

Never Let Your Customers Forget You

One important tool for generating repeat business is followingup. Effective follow-up begins immediately after the sale when youcall the customer to say "thank you" and find out if heor she is pleased with your product or service. Beyond this, thereare several effective ways to follow up that ensure your businessis always in the customer's mind.

18. Let customers know what you are doing for them. Thiscan be in the form of a newsletter mailed to existing customers, orit can be more informal, such as a phone call. Whatever method youuse, the key is to dramatically point out to customers theexcellent service you are giving them. If you never mention all thethings you are doing for them, customers may not notice. Youaren't being cocky when you talk to customers about all thework you have done to please them. Just make a phone call and letthem know they don't have to worry because you handled thepaperwork, called the attorney or double-checked on theshipment-one less thing they have to do.

19. Write old customers personal, handwritten notesfrequently. "I was just sitting at my desk and your namepopped into my head. Are you still having a great time flying allover the country? Let me know if you need another set of luggage. Ican stop by with our latest models any time." Or if you runinto an old customer at an event, follow up with a note: "Itwas great seeing you at the CDC Christmas party. I'll call youearly in the New Year to schedule a lunch."

20. Keep it personal. Voice mail and e-mail make it easyto communicate, but the personal touch is often lost. If you'rehaving trouble getting through to someone whose problem requiresthat personal touch, leave a voice-mail message that you want totalk to the person directly or will stop by his or her office at adesignated time.

21. Remember special occasions. Send regular customersbirthday cards, anniversary cards, holiday cards...you name it.Gifts are excellent follow-up tools, too. You don't have tospend a fortune to show you care; use your creativity to come upwith interesting gift ideas that tie into your business, thecustomer's business or his or her recent purchase.

22. Pass on information. If you read an article, see anew book, or hear about an organization a customer might beinterested in, drop a note or make a quick call to let themknow.

23. Consider follow-up calls as business developmentcalls. When you talk to or visit old clients or customers,you'll often find they have referrals to give you, which canlead to new business.

With all your existing customers can do for you, there'ssimply no reason not to stay in regular contact with them. Use yourimagination, and you'll think of plenty of other ideas that canhelp you develop a lasting relationship.

Dealing With Unsatisfied Customers

Studies show that the vast majority of unsatisfied customerswill never come right out and tell you they're unsatisfied.They simply leave quietly, later telling everyone they know not todo business with you. So when a customer complains, don't thinkof it as a nuisance-think of it as a golden opportunity to changethat customer's mind and retain his or her business.

Even the best product or service receives complaints now andthen. Here's how to handle them for positive results:

24. Let customers vent their feelings. Encourage them to gettheir frustrations out in the open.

25. Never argue with a customer.

26. Never tell a customer "You do not have a problem."Those are fighting words.

27. Share your point of view as politely as you can.

28. Take responsibility for the problem. Don't make excuses.If an employee was sick or a supplier let you down, that's notthe customer's concern.

29. Immediately take action to remedy the situation. Promising asolution and then delaying it only makes matters worse.

30. Empower your front-line employees to be flexible inresolving complaints. Give employees some leeway in deciding whento bend the rules. If you don't feel comfortable doing this,make sure they have you or another manager handle thesituation.

Excerpted from Growing Your Business

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