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Customer Service: Lessons From the Fall No matter the economic climate, taking great care of your customers is always a worthwhile policy.

By Randy Myers

There's nothing like a recession to drive companies to new heights of customer service. After all, when every customer becomes precious, it becomes more important than ever to keep the ones you have happy.

But why stop when the economy recovers? Taking care of customers makes sense no matter what the business climate. That's why smart entrepreneurs are looking back at customer service improvements they made during the recession and, in many cases, deciding to continue them--even as the economy finally appears to be regaining its footing. Financial advisor Matthew Hudgins of Mosaic Wealth Management LLC in Atlanta, for example, is going to keep posting the blog he started during the recession to stay in closer contact with his clients.

"Your customer base is important whether you're in a recession or not," says John Pearring, vice president of customer service and co-owner of STORServer, a data backup company based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. "It sets you apart in the competitive arena."

At STORServer, maintaining customer service enhancements means the company will continue to employ the "customer care" specialist it relied on during the recession to coordinate responses to customer problems. By taking on that responsibility--speaking with clients, communicating with resellers and coordinating the efforts of the company's own employees--the customer care specialist has freed STORServer's support personnel to spend more time actually solving customer problems.

"Customer care functions as a logical, single source of communication without having to throw the problem over the fence to the sales team, which is the knee-jerk reaction," says Pearring. The approach has worked so well, he says, that STORServer has since trained two more people to function in the customer care role on a part-time basis. "We're probably going to expand the department in the next couple of years to do even more," he adds.

Customer care enhancements don't have to be expensive or complicated. At a restaurant, it might be as simple as having the manager loop through the dining room from time to time to thank diners for stopping by, or offering call-ahead seating on busy nights. At a lawn and garden center, it might involve hiring a teenager or two to help customers load purchases on busy weekends.

At Episciences Inc., a Boise, Idaho-based company that sells its own line of skin care products, it meant incorporating broad-based business advice into the product training programs it offers to physicians and medical spas that resell its products. The company is now teaching its sales representatives to offer a formal "growth needs analysis" to Episciences customers. The sales reps collect information about the customers, and Episciences then uses that information to generate individualized advice for how each reseller can operate its business more profitably.

Not all customer service improvements will carry over easily from recession to recovery. The best candidates will be those that drive sufficient additional sales or sufficiently improve customer retention rates. Improvements that you can afford to give when business is booming again, and that require no more from you or your employees, are also good candidates.

If you're running an auto dealership, for example, giving each customer's car a quick run through the wash bay before returning the keys could be fine when you're only making a half-dozen sales a day. Why not do the customer a favor? However, it could prove unworkable once you're back to selling, say, 20 cars a day. By contrast, if you're a retailer doing most of your business with customers who shop online, it may not be much of a burden to continue enclosing a thank-you card with every order that ships from your warehouse, no matter how much your sales take off when the economy rebounds.

Adam Armbruster, a partner with retail ad agency and media sales consultancy Eckstein, Summers, Armbruster & Co. in Red Bank, New Jersey, launched a customer service improvement during the recession that he's convinced is worth keeping now that the economy is growing again.

During the summer of 2008, Armbruster began creating and hosting educational webinars for his best customers. The idea, he says, was to provide them with tips for growing their businesses in a down market. "I thought that I had better give more value than my competition, and that I could keep customers happy that way," Armbruster says.

One of his early webinars was called "Recession Busters," and featured tips on sales, pricing and advertising. Another focused on predatory marketing, or, as Armbruster describes it, "how to create marketing tactics that allow you to take market share from a shrinking industry." In that webinar, he says, he shared examples on how companies could retool their marketing message to stand out in a crowded field and tweak their merchandising efforts to boost sales and profits.

Customers responded enthusiastically, Armbruster says, and he quickly made the webinars a regular monthly feature. In 2009, his business grew by 30 percent. While he can't directly link the webinars to his improving sales volume, he doesn't discount the possibility, either.

And, he has no intention of stopping what he's doing. "I've created a monster!" he jokes, then continues: "Clients love them. I believe the webinars keep them motivated and inspired. I like to help people, and these are just another way to help. They are now a permanent part of my service."

If you didn't introduce any formal customer service enhancements during the recession, try to remember some of the little things you may have done to keep your favorite customers happy, whether it was finding ways to accommodate a special order or just returning phone calls a little faster. Then, see if you can incorporate that into your standard operating procedures. No matter how good the economy is or isn't, I'm betting it will serve your customers, and you, well.

A former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones and contributor to Barron's, Randy Myers is a contributing editor for CFO and Corporate Board Member magazines.

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