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Ways to Improve Your Company's Customer Service

Start by determining what isn't working and put a system in place to fix it. Then monitor what customers are saying and communicate with them, Alice Bredin advises

Here's another reason businesses should improve their customer service: Customers are willing to spend more with companies that do. That commonsense nugget is also supported by recent surveys by American Express of 12,000 consumers around the globe. More than 60 percent of U.S.respondents ranked great customer service as important, but only one-third believe they're getting it. Alice Bredin, author and small business adviser to AmericanExpress OPEN (AXP), says that small companies are missing out on the opportunity to deliver service that could differentiate them from larger competitors. She spoke recently to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow. Karen E. Klein: Your survey says that Americans want great customer service but aren't getting it. Alice Bredin: A majority of Americans feel companies either haven't changed their attitude toward customer service or are paying even less attention. Just 37 percent believe companies have increased their focus on providing quality service in the current economy. Why the disparity? Business owners, despite their best intentions, don't always know what it is that will most satisfy their customers. They might think it's price, when really it's personalized service, like customers being able to quickly find what they need in the store, or getting follow-ups and reminders. I think a second reason is that business owners haven't put in place the systems and processes to ensure that they can provide ongoing service easily. Business owners in these challenging economic times are working more hours and having to lay people off. They're not as focused on things like service. What do you recommend? Find technology to help you monitor what customers are saying about you. Sign up for services that will alert you when someone online is mentioning your company, like Google Alerts or TweetBeep. Make sure you're reaching out to customers on a regular basis and making it really easy for them to tell you how they feel. Put something like SuggestionBox or IdeaScale on your website to encourage online feedback. There's no excuse now for not knowing what your customers are thinking about you. What do you do with a complaining customer? Make sure that the problem gets fixed and they are happy. If the owner is there when the problem comes up, the customer probably leaves feeling happy. If the owner's not there, that satisfaction may not happen. So you have to communicate with your employees about how important it is that customers are really happy about doing business with your company. It's not easy to give good customer service consistently unless you train your people. They should know how to listen to customers without speaking until the customer is done. If the customer is not happy with whatever the employee suggests, they should get a manager, and the manager should turn to the owner if need be. These incidents should be tracked, with follow-up, and everyone knowing the ultimate outcome. How does a small company make superior customer service part of its reputation? You need to make sure you're talking about your great customer service and selling your service or products on that fact. You can encourage your satisfied customers to share their experiences with friends or on sites like Angie's List or Yelp. Offer a free class or a discount to anyone who writes something nice about you someplace like Google Local Business Center. Make an ongoing effort to get other people evangelizing for you. There were a couple of other interesting findings in your survey. One is that people said they were more inclined to talk about good experiences than to complain about bad ones. That goes against conventional wisdom. Yes, three-quarters said they are likely to speak positively about a good business but 59 percent said they would complain about a bad one. People actually like to tell their friends about a good company and they like to recommend places to people. Maybe that finding also reflects the fact that there are so many outlets now where people can share experiences. But another finding is that your survey respondents said they are skeptical about feedback they see online. Maybe they suspect that good reviews are planted. They told us that they put greater credence in negative reviews on blogs and social networking sites than they do on positives ones. This just highlights the power of the Internet to influence opinions about your business. So if someone's unhappy and they're talking about it online, you need to directly reach out to that person and you may need to go into the discussion yourself and talk about what you've done to fix the situation. An unhappy customer presents a great opportunity to learn about what you can do better as a business owner. And maybe you can turn that person into a happy customer and maybe even an evangelist for your brand.

Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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