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5 Customer Service Rules to Boost Your Profit by 18 Percent Utilize innovative solutions and technology to engage and retain your customers.

By Linda Orr Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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By 2020 customer service and experience will overtake price as the essential brand differentiator. Eighty-six percent of buyers are willing to pay more for excellent customer experience. Customers will spend 13 to 18 percent more for excellent customer service. Here are five rules to set yourself to take full advantage of this trend.

1. Never make your problems the customer's problems.

Recently, at a large grocery chain, I had a very frustrating experience. I attempted to use the self check-out express lanes to purchase three products. I was not able to do this because I did not have a store card. After finally being able to buy my items, I emailed the corporate store. I got a response the next day that said that cards were now required and this was a new policy due to a large amount of theft. This did little to ease my annoyance.

Excellent customer service means you fix your problems without the customer knowing the problem. Years ago, when a Red Lobster got behind and had a long wait, they gave out free fried ravioli in the lobby. At Target, store cards are not required, but they have cameras at every self-checkout register. Giant Eagle requires cards at the self-check registers, but the cashier keeps a generic one for customers without a card. There is no reason for customers ever to see the back of the house problems. Never put that burden on a customer. As in the Red Lobster example, sometimes problems can even be turned into positives. Customers may have to wait an hour for a table, but they are happy to eat free food and drink at the bar (which allows the business to make more money!)

Related: 3 Lessons From a Customer Service Failure

2. Seek reviews and encourage open dialogue.

In my grocery store experience, none of the store or corporate workers ever asked me if I wanted a card or why I did not want to use one. The issue is, I have about 20 cards from random stores that I rarely visit inside my purse that are hard to find. If the store had sought feedback, perhaps they would realize that having that information stored on an app on a smartphone might be a better idea. For example, Macy's has never been a store where I was a frequent customer. However, in recent months, I have found their app so convenient that I have started shopping there again.

An app that improves customer service can differentiate the experience. Macy's redesigned their stores and added a new desk at the door. This desk is exclusively used for online order pick up and returns, with no questions asked. If the grocery store asked how to make the customer service better, they would likely hear the same thing from many people, that a convenient app might make shopping and check-out more convenient. Plus, apps allow for better customer tracking, which also may help with the theft problem.

Also, solicit information as online reviews. Ninety-one percent of 18-34-year-old consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations. Have all representatives at all touchpoints continually "survey" the customer. Cashiers can ask questions like, "Is there anything we could have done to make your experience better?" Most customers will say no. However, a few customers will provide valuable information.

3. Respond promptly with empathy to customer comments.

Fifty-three percent of customers expect a response to a complaint within one hour. An HBR study found that customers are seven times more likely to buy a product when their calls are returned within one hour. Typically, companies use a third-party firm to respond to online comments, if they respond at all. You should respond to both positive and negative comments quickly with tailored responses. Our dog trainer, Alpha & Omega, asked us to leave a positive comment on Google. They took the time to personally respond with a thank you and a personal observation that showed they remembered our dogs' names and unique personalities.

Related: How You Can Build Long Lasting Customer Relationships

In addition to speed and customization, you must handle comments with empathy. "I'm sorry," is a powerful phrase that can repair a bad experience. Everyone wants to be heard, appreciated and respected. Empathy is free and should be a minimum requirement for any employee that interfaces with a customer. Disney employees will go out of their way to show compassion. It is part of their cast member training. They have procedures to get disabled guests on rides quickly. When a guest has a food allergy, the head chef comes to the table to talk to the guest, no matter how busy the restaurant is. The Cleveland Clinic prioritizes empathy as a core value in the organization. Healthcare providers will personally apologize to patients and families. This differentiates them from other healthcare providers who do not share this focus as part of their corporate DNA. These kinds of experiences stand out in customers' minds and make them loyal.

4. Map the customer service journey and establish a voice-of-the-customer program.

Customer journey maps include every touchpoint and examine frustration points and areas that create satisfaction. Using internal and external market data, you can look for gaps between what the customer expects at each step and what the customer experiences.

Establish a voice-of-the-customer program, which is a formal process and procedure to solicit feedback and share it across the entire organization to all relevant employees. From the top down, your organizational culture should encourage all employees to appreciate and respond to customer feedback. Through sharing and by using reputation management software, you can analyze data and can implement actionable goals. Continually look for ways for your organization to improve and continue to become more customer-focused.

Related: 30 Ways to Show Your Customers They're Always Right

5. Reward customers for staying loyal.

By increasing your customer retention rate by just five percent, you can improve your profits by 25-95 percent. Use email lists or apps to provide discounts or exclusive deals to loyal customers. Disney offers individual character meet-and-greet sessions only to their Visa cardholders. These events have short lines and are typically in air-conditioned places. Macy's progressively gives greater discounts based on the total money spent over time. Geisinger Health System offers a refund for customers not happy with their care. Give customers a reason to stay loyal. The longer they stay, the more likely they will be to give good reviews and referrals. These tips will lead to excellent service, greater loyalty, and higher profits.

Linda Orr

Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Akron

Dr. Linda Orr is a Marketing Professor at the University of Akron. She has taught marketing and sales courses for over two decades and is the author of five books and many articles. Dr. Orr has experience in the record, restaurant and finance industries, along with numerous consulting experiences.

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