Stay within reach

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Q: I attend seminars and get motivated by lots of great speakers. One speaker I heard said that small businesses should act like a big business. But if I did a lot of things that big business do then I'd be out of business. Am I just being cynical?

A: Well, the speaker was right in lots of ways, but there’s room for improvement in every business be it big or small. The best thing is to model your business on what you think is good about a big business and develop systems to bring those practices into your organisation.

It might be, for example, the way you answer the telephone. Write a system that has a title ‘The way we answer the phone in XXX business’. Include in your system such things as:

  • Avoid the phone ringing more than three times.
  • When you answer the phone, smile and say “Good morning (afternoon etc). This is XXX speaking. You’ve called XXX. How may I help you?”
  • Always take down a message with a name and a phone number etc. This way you will have everyone who answers the phone in your business give exactly the same uniform message that creates a professional impression.
  • Forget whatever else you are doing and focus completely on that customer. If you do need to finish something before speaking with your customer, ask if it's OK to put them on hold for a moment and make sure you don't test their patience by keeping them on hold for too long.

If a customer can’t reach you the first time they call, they might not try again. Don’t let your phone just ring out. It’s a wise idea to pay for voicemail so your phone is answered even when you’re busy elsewhere. Then switch off the call-waiting function, or use it for personal calls only: never interrupt a customer to take an incoming call as this sends the message that they are not important.

Remember that customers need to feel important and nothing is more important to your business than your customers. These two facts should be the pillars that underpin your customer-service strategy.

Ideally, provide email and fax contacts, be an active social media user and ensure your website is up-to-date and easy to navigate.

Is there a better way to follow up customers or potential customers?

There certainly is. Many organisations really lack communication skills and do not train their staff on how to return calls and emails – even unwanted ones. Consequently, their staff just ignore these messages, which is not only rude, it also sends a bad message to the caller that is “We don't value you at all”.

If you are not interested in the caller, then a better way is simply to return an email or phone call and say “Thank you for calling, however we are not requiring these services/products though if there is ever a need, we now have your contact details and will follow up”. Ignorance might be bliss, but it will come back to bite you eventually.

So what are your recommendations?

You should check any phone and website messages and/or emails regularly, and return calls promptly. Many customer service books recommend returning calls and answering emails within 24 hours, but this can be too slow for today's world that wants answers instantly.

Give yourself a competitive edge by aiming to return calls, emails, faxes and website inquiries within minutes rather than hours. However, if you let your customers or suppliers know that you aim to respond within a certain period of time, make sure you can always do that.

If you can’t, give yourself more room to move as an important aspect of customer service it to under-promise and over-deliver. Apply this rule to every aspect of your business: order processing, call outs, delivery times.

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