Having been in business for 10 years (not that long, but still a nice milestone for a company I started with 4 guys and very little experience), I’ve learned a thing or two. (Note: I’m talking about my “day job” here not IGotNewsForYou.com, which has been in business for just about 2 weeks!) And one of the most important things I’ve learned (or knew already but crystallized over the years) was that customer loyalty is cultivated most successfully through great customer service/support.
Your product may not be the best in the market, it may not be the “coolest”, and it may not be the least expensive, but if you provide better-than-expected service, you’ll reap the rewards.
Even when we’ve lost customers (for any number of reasons: needs changed, when out of business, mergers, etc.) they almost unanimously tell us that our customer service was exceptional. That’s even better than telling me my product was great, because feelings towards a product will fade faster than feelings towards the people behind the product.
Lots of big companies don’t focus a great deal on customer service; they rely on other things to keep customers hooked. Maybe they’re the only legitimate player in the marketplace, or maybe they’ve built up such an incredible brand (based on their “cool” factor) that everything else falls to the wayside. Or maybe they’re so aggressive on their pricing that it’s hard to resist even if you know the service will be lousy. Maybe big companies can get away with that (although I still think it’ll bite them in the rear over the long haul), but small companies can’t afford those luxuries, and they can win out over big companies with great customer service.
So how can you provide great customer service? And, use that to your advantage by building loyalty…
1. Respond quickly. If a customer sends an email or calls, respond as quickly as you can. Don’t let it sit there. If I could give a recommendation I would say that a response is needed in less than a few hours. Even if you don’t have an answer to someone’s question, respond anyway with something of value (you’re looking into it, ask questions back, etc.) At minimum, try and start a dialogue with the person as quickly as possible; by doing so you’re making that customer feel important, as if s/he is the most important client you have, and that’s cultivating loyalty.
2. Be as thorough as you can when responding. Creating a dialogue is good, but having to go back and forth 50 times is not. Now you’re irritating the client and starting to waste their time. So, be as thorough as you can when responding to someone’s issue. Ask all the questions you need to ask, provide any advice you can immediately. And, if possible, give them an estimated resolution time (if it’s something you have to fix on your end). Clients will appreciate that they didn’t get a “cookie cutter” response (which is so common with bigger companies; most times it’s an automatic email response, not even a real person), and they’ll recognize that you put thought into it.
3. Be friendly. Customer service isn’t just about answering someone’s question or solving someone’s problem. It’s about connecting at a more human level, even if it’s just a little bit. It’s almost impossible to be friends with every client you have, and even if you become friends you’re not necessarily inviting them over to your next family BBQ. Still, it is fairly easy to take a relationship up a notch from “client-vendor” to a level where you can express genuine interest in the other person and they will reciprocate. There are two ways of asking, “How’s it going?” — one is the generic, bland, formal way, and the other is when you actually care what the person says. Try and get to the point where you care, and more importantly, get them to the point where they care. If a client is genuinely interested in you, you’ll hear it in their voice or see it in their emails, and that’s a huge step towards building loyalty.
During the winter, when I was sick with the flu, I had several clients tell me about their home remedies for making me feel better. That’s taking the relationship past “client-vendor”.
4. Read your clients. This might be a bit harder to explain, but one thing that’s important when providing great customer service is to understand your clients. What does that mean? It means getting a feeling for them, getting a sense of how intimate they want the relationship to be; some will operate at a strictly professional level, others will want to chit-chat. Some will be responsive, others won’t be. Being able to gauge this quickly and then structuring your communication (both verbal and written) accordingly will be essential.
Software companies are notorious for giving poor customer service and support. Some believe that once they’ve got their claws in you, it’s difficult to switch to another software company. That might be true (although it’s becoming less and less so), but that’s not real loyalty. Others think their job is over when the sale is closed and the money is in the bank. That’s also a mistake, especially when a lot of software companies these days are using the “Software as a Service” (SaaS) model which relies on renewals of their software for repeat revenue.
The reality is that true loyalty isn’t ever to a product itself or the price of a product, but to a company and more importantly to the people running the company. And loyalty is critical to business success for small companies (and it should be for big companies too).
Loyal customers stick around.
Loyal customers will be more willing to accept your mistakes or faults.
Loyal customers will give you referrals (even without asking for them).
Loyal customers will accept price hikes.
Loyal customers will be more understanding and willing to “work with you”.
Loyal customers break out of the “client-vendor” mold.
Loyal customers will make your business successful.
And loyalty is cultivated through great customer service.