Lean Marketing: Customer service strategies for small businesses and startups

Of the many things businesses can do well (or fail at) none is more important than customer service. Although the marketing textbooks, don’t consider it to be one aspect of a solid marketing plan, this key function should be considered as a part of your marketing and approached the same way you would approach any of your other marketing tactics. I say this because the word of mouth that great customer service can engender is among the most powerful forces that can impact your business in a profound way – improving revenues, strengthening margins, and increasing customer lifetime value all while reducing marketing expense in other areas, decreasing employee turnover, and leading to expanded visibility and awareness for your brand.

Great customer service does not have to be expensive, complicated, or slow. There are some wonderful tools available that can help you increase your customer service capacity, build an efficient infrastructure, and scale your ability to be responsive as your business grows. Here are some tips and tools which you can put to use as you learn to market through service!

1. Be available.

    Make yourself reachable by your customers in the ways they want to reach you. The best approach is to make yourself available to your customers in multiple ways: email support, phone support, instant chat are all tools that you can use. Of course this depends on your business and the resources you have available. For instance, many small companies simply do not have the capacity to offer full-time phone support, so many will offer it during certain specific hours. Chat is also a great way for customers to reach you, but this too may stretch your internal capacity. If you do offer these during limited hours, make sure to message this and be clear about exactly when you are available and by what means.

    2. Be fast.

    Don’t keep people waiting, whether it is for an answer to their email request or by simply limiting the hold time on your phone support. We are proud of the fact that 96% of all customer support requests that come in are answered in under one hour! But the flip to this is that you have to communicate how long it will take you to respond and to calibrate your customer’s expectations to what you can realistically deliver; in other words, don’t promise a response within 25 hours if you know it may take more than that.

    3. Be honest.

    People appreciate transparency and your answer to their questions, comments, or suggestions are each an opportunity for you to establish an honest, open tone. This goes for everything from your message when they first contact you all the way through your answers to them when you are actually communicating. If your site is experiencing issues, tell them so; if you think a solution may take a long time, tell them that, too; and if you think their suggestion is one that is just not appropriate thank them and move on. They will appreciate the candor and will tell their colleagues how refreshing it is to deal with a company that tells the truth.

    4. Be appropriate.

    Whether it’s friendly and funny, or serious and business-like, the tone you adopt with your customers is critical in building a sustainable relationship. Listen to them and respond in kind. If a customer is angry about something, the last thing they want is to hear a snarky response and if they’re being friendly and open, your tome should reflect the attitude they bring to your communication.

    5. Be efficient.

    Scalability is critical in the way you look at your support structure and you should always bear this in mind as you make choices on how to deliver service. Your business is growing (hopefully really fast) and your support tools, staff, capabilities, and capacity need to be able to grow flexibly as your company scales. This doesn’t mean that you need to add expensive capacity every week, but rather that you need to be smart in how you handle support and know when the time is right to ramp up resources and when finding additional efficiencies may be more appropriate. Among the things we have done to improve efficiencies are to develop great templates for answering often-asked questions, building admin tools to quickly solve common technical issues or extract relevant data for answers, adding and improving Help center content and FAQs and making those easily available. In addition, we have iterated everything from our “Contact us” form to include tools to find answers to common questions and tweaked site content as well as email content to anticipate many user questions and common issues.

    6. Be polite.

    When delivering support to your customers alway pretend that your mom is in the room listening or reading over your shoulder. If your response passes her test for politeness than it’s probably good. If mom would disapprove, well it’s probably time to revise that answer or adjust that attitude, mister. Please remember to always apologize if your user is frustrated or angry and always, always be sure to say thank you. Right, mom?

    7. Be thrifty.

    There is no reason that you need to spend massive amounts of money to deliver great service and support. Tools are readily available which can help you with your efficiency and capacity and technology can be leveraged to allow you to do more with less. Online resources abound, and these provide great features for collaboration, search, content updating, messaging, and automation. This is not to say that you shouldn’t open the checkbook and hire that new customer service agent when the time is right, just that you should find creative ways of delivering service and support without spending piles of your hard-earned cash doing so.

    Photo: gwaar