Read about consumer trends and you’ll inevitably run into an internet k-hole of articles about the service economy, customer experience, and how important meeting the needs and wants of increasingly demanding customer base is. It’s a pervasive, widely-accepted premise largely backed-up by many of the most successful businesses of the 21st century. Companies like Uber, Apple, Amazon, and Whole Foods have built their fortunes on being attentive to customers and their needs, and their methods are, no doubt, effective. All of these companies enjoy high rates of customer satisfaction and loyalty.
But these are all large companies. They have bazillions of dollars to spend on the research and development of customer interactions, and are able to strategize and implement customer interaction policies far beyond what most small businesses would ever need. When you’re running an operation not involving thousands of employees across multiple continents, you might not feel like most of what these companies do is accessible or applicable to what you’re doing.
This couldn’t be further from the truth, though. In fact, small business is what many of these big companies are trying to emulate. The sense of warmth and humanity you get when interacting with an individual who seems to care, who knows your name and recognizes you time and time again, a person truly able to cater to your needs as a customer, is what small business does best.
Every algorithm and piece of data that a business collects, misguided or not, is just an attempt to automate this humanity. It’s only a matter of time before the Uber driver asks how your kids are and how that Dodgers game was last night (it was nice, thanks for asking). There is a value to knowing your customer well and, at least for brick-and-mortar operations, small businesses have a huge advantage.
The web isn’t an easy place for business owners to express a coherent vision of their company.
It’s not all a win for small business, though. Many small businesses fail to play to this advantage across their operation. They make the mistake of keeping this warmth and humanity confined to their brick-and-mortar business, leaving their online presence as some kind of desolate Siberian wasteland of shitty “about” pages and animated “under construction” gifs. And, to be fair, I can’t really take them to task for it. The web isn’t an easy place for business owners to express a coherent vision of their company. It’s expensive to build a considered user experience online and shit if anyone doing payroll, taxes, and inventory on top of just, you know, keeping the lights on, can get a free moment to create focused and apt web content.
But, more small business owners should think about how to let their humanity shine through the iPhone screen. It takes some time, effort, and money to communicate these things online, but with more and more people going to the web first when they look at a business, it should be a priority.
Small businesses are competing for the same dollars spent at places like Whole Foods and Amazon, so it goes without saying small businesses have to compete by offering better customer service online than these bigger companies. And, surprise surprise, it’s completely possible. Again, the advantage here is that you, small business person, know your customer in a way corporate multi-nationals spend billions of dollars trying to replicate every year.
Here are just a few of the things I focus on when thinking about how to strengthen customer service for small businesses online.
My first focus is always on repetitive issues that slow down a company’s interaction with its customers. Often times, this amounts to a not-that-big-of-a-deal question or inquiry for specific information regarding a product or service. These inquiries often take no more than five minutes to resolve, so many businesses ignore the hassle and just deal with it. But, if considered as a whole, five minutes a day is 30 hours a year. If that’s stretched across multiple employees, time starts adding up quick and so does money.
When your customers feel ignored, you run the risk of losing their business.
What these questions signify is a need for clarity. And for sure, if you’re getting a question once or twice a week, it’s not just one or two people a week who need that answer, it’s closer to 10 or 20 people a week. The people speaking up and asking questions are engaged enough to ask, many more are passive and will seek answers elsewhere, from other businesses, if they don’t get the right answers from your website. Disengagement is a very real problem, and when your customers feel ignored, you run the risk of losing their business.
So what can a small business do? Well, simply put, it can pre-emptively answer the question. Often this is as simple as providing the necessary information in a visible place on the website or, if it’s already on the website, giving the information more prominent placement. Finding a natural and appropriate way to present these answers takes some consideration but, without fail, it will improve and streamline your customer interactions.
It will also save you time and money and, correct me if I’m wrong, everybody wants more time and money.
Many small businesses know their customers by name, and most know the importance of chatting and building a sense of trust and familiarity. The number of Holiday cards with pugs in Santa hats going out at the end of the year are a testament to this. Every company wants their customers to know they care about them and their individual needs.
This often sits in contrast to the language and tone used on a company’s website. No business owner would dare risk boring a customer, or potentially wasting their time in person, but often the language used on small business websites is unengaging, lengthy, and/or overly technical. Studies show that using this sort of language can a have negative impact on how others view you.
These things aren’t the product of negligence, either. Businesses simply don’t consider the strength and opportunity the right words, big and small, create. Every word on website is a chance to build trust, familiarity, and excitement around your business, just like the things you say in person.
You’d never sit and recount every specific detail of your life to a customer while they were say, shopping for candles in your candle store. Because, with rare exception, it’s not your life story that brings all the candle boys to the yard. It’s the candles. So why is your “about” page 1,500 words long? Very few people are reading your candle Magna Carta, and you’re missing an opportunity to sell candles every time a person lands on that page.
Just because information is technical, doesn’t mean it can’t be engaging. And even when it seems like you need so many words to communicate the importance of what you’re selling, there are many ways, including the use of pictures, sweet graphics, and cool huge pull-quotes, to reach people in a way that makes them feel delighted and connected with you.
Here’s a design truth I live by: There are no unimportant pages on a website. Every single page is an opportunity to communicate you care and respect your customers, and that your goods and services offer exactly what they’re looking for. Every page is an opportunity to build a bond with others.
The last thing I want to touch on is the social aspect of web interactions with customers. It’s important to view the web as a customer service platform, regardless of what you’re selling. Your interaction with customers online is, more than any other aspect of your web presence, critical to keeping those shoppers happy.
Email, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and whatever else inevitably comes along and forces us to install another app, are all among the most critical and delicate places you’ll interact with customers. These interactions often require patience, understanding, and an ability to separate the complaint from the attack. If you’ve ever suffered through intense online scrutiny or backlash, you understand how difficult these moments can be.
It’s your reaction, and not the initial comment or complaint, that matters the most. Unlike interacting with a customer in person, interacting with a customer online can often be public and seen by many random-ass people over a long time or heaven forbid, goes viral. So instead of reacting in the moment, take some time to chill out and consider the issue being presented rather than the way it is presented (people often overreact, but it doesn’t mean their complaints lack merit).
Figure-out if you have the ability to remedy the complaint or prevent it in the future and, if not, explain your reasoning in a non-condescending way. Avoid going negative at all costs, because going negative will potentially cost you many silent customers.
Too many otherwise good small business owners undermine their businesses with sloppy and negative social practices.
People become repeat customers because you offer them something they need or want in a way that appeals to them. And there is nothing appealing about anger or demeaning people. I’ve seen too many otherwise good small business owners undermine their businesses with sloppy and negative social practices.
It’s a simple thing, but don’t reflect anger– deflect anger. Understand the complaint and let it bounce off of you. Find a way to make people happy (or at least satisfied) their complaint was heard, and you’ll be a better business for it.
We all want to feel good about the experiences we have, whether online or in-person. The logistics and strategies of online customer experience may seem complicated, but they’re not. When you can think of these strategies as an extension of what you already provide as a service-oriented professional, it’s not an insurmountable task. Let your humanity and care shine through, and the asses will follow.