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Will Your Company Be a Leader of the Customer-Service Revolution?

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The notion of a market leaders conjures up big-name companies with impressive R&D budgets and resources to develop exciting products with the luxury of scale and making a big impression on consumers.

These companies often try to win on the customer-service front with similar "bigger is better" thinking. Though well-intentioned, this philosophy can result in massive contact centers staffed by legions of (often outsourced) agents required to read from a script to ensure a baseline level of satisfaction.

Related: Customer Support Is as Easy as 1, 2, 3

But aiming for baseline satisfaction is neither innovative nor disruptive. Remember that early classroom experience, when the grading was on a simple scale? "Needs Improvement," "Satisfactory" or "Excellent" were the only choices. Probably back then everyone strived for the elusive E in every category, but today when it comes to customer service, companies all too frequently settle for the S.

Last year's Customers 2020 report by Walker Information revealed a startling prediction: By 2020, customer service -- not price or product -- will be the key factor consumers will use make brand-loyalty decisions.

Not only well-known market leaders can capitalize on this trend. Some small businesses and scrappy startups are already delighting customers.

I recently had an E experience after ordering a pair of earbuds from Far End Gear, a small company in Arizona. When the first set arrived with a defect, I emailed the company and received a response in minutes from the owner, Kevin Goldstein, acknowledging the problem and assuring me he would send the new version that was just entering production. In the interim, he sent me two of the current version to tide me over. By that point, I didn't even care that the earbuds had been defective. He had taken ownership of the relationship and built my trust and loyalty, guaranteeing that I will be a customer for life. (The new version works just fine.)

While not every business owner can respond directly to customers, here are four lessons for entrepreneurs at the helm of any kind of business -- regardless of size -- to apply:

Related: 4 Things Shoppers Want in an Online Retailer's Return Policy (Infographic)

1. Customer service is the product. Companies doing customer support right don't just treat it as an add-on. They invest in it so it's part of the corporate culture and product strategy. A good overall customer service experience meets consumers where they are when trying to get in touch.

Set up several proactive listening posts around the Internet to intercept queries as needed. Approaching customer care as a product means asking the questions any product manager would: What current customer service needs aren't being solved? How can the company solve them? What are competitors doing? Which ones are doing it exceptionally well?

2. Agent empowerment creates memorable customer-service experiences. At a small business, a customer service team may have only one or two people but they might be able to instantly escalate issues and provide results and answers in a personal way through any channel that a consumer uses. At larger organizations with exponentially bigger customer-service teams, employees have different levels of power.

I learned this on a recent trip when the airline's customer service reps at its call center didn't have the same authority or access to solutions as its social media team. The members of social-media team were at headquarters, where they could quickly obtain approvals for off-script solutions to customer issues.

Team members at larger support organizations should be more empowered to speak freely with shoppers, resolve concerns and take ownership of the customer-service experience.

Related: If You Want That Customer, Mind Your Manners

3. Customer self-service is a win-win. Being able to visit a company's web site and easily find answers can be rewarding for a customer and a huge cost savings to the organization. Small businesses that can't afford around-the-clock customer-service staff are finding huge benefits in a robust self-service channel.

When the information is presented in the voice of the company's brand and is as engaging as a team member would be, then the self-service immediacy factor is valuable.

4. Create the illusion of personalization. Remember when an Apple customer could directly email Steve Jobs and he would respond? This was the executive personally replying from his email account, directly engaging users without a cumbersome system. Such an approach can work for smaller startups whose management teams are heavily involved in the company.

Perceived accessibility to founders and decision makers goes a long way with customers. Even if this setup won't work for all startups, making the online support experience more personable is crucial. Reframing language from "submit a ticket" to "email us," for example, can dramatically alter perceptions of what the product or service is about and what the company stands for.

In the end, all companies can go beyond offering a minimum viable product in customer service, as Apple, Amazon, Zappos and Nordstrom have famously shown.

Related: Why the Future of Retail Will Blow Your Mind

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