There aren't many businesses that can survive without customers. Even if you already have all of the business you can handle, there is no guarantee that you will be in the same position next month, or next year and those people you ticked off by not returning their calls or not showing up for a job will remember you - and the way you treated them.
If you are managing staff you must be constantly aware of the impression your staff are making on your customers. It might not be your business, but bad service reflects on you just the same - especially if you ever have hopes of getting a promotion, a raise, or a new job.
There are loads of rules for customer service and just as many companies that would be happy to train your staff for a fee. Here, I am going to list the customer service guidelines that are basic, easy, and guaranteed to make you and your customers a lot happier.
1. Answer the phone. Say your name and/or the name of the business slowly and clearly - even if you say it a hundred times a day (it's not the same caller every time). It's OK to have an answering machine, but only if you return calls promptly. All calls. You might not be able to help the person, but you can at least acknowledge that they called and you can explain what you can or can't do for them. And for goodness' sake don't leave people on hold or tell them to call back because you're busy (see #2).
2. Treat others like you wish to be treated. Ask yourself, if this was me how would I want someone to assist me and put me at ease. Treat everyone with courtesy and respect. Never leave them in limbo, ignore them, or act as though they are interrupting your busy day.
3. Never argue with a customer. You know very well that the customer isn't always right. Inevitably you will encounter people who immediately approach you with a negative tone, attacking words, or placing blame. Now is not the time to react emotionally. Try really hard to understand them and do your best to find a solution. The outcome may not be perfect, but it could certainly be worse and the last thing you need is someone spreading bad feelings about your business around town.
4. Think before you give any promise - because nothing annoys customers more than a broken one. Don't promise to be somewhere at a certain time, provide a quote, or finish a job if you can't do it.
5. Be helpful - even if there's no immediate profit in it. Maybe you don't have the item the customer needs, or you know you just can't do the job on time - refer the customer to someone who can help them even though you might be giving work to your competitor. If the customer chose you first, chances are if you treated them well and helped them out they'll come to you again. Maybe the job takes only a few minutes and you can smile and say, "No charge." What a treat for the customer - they'll leave with warm feelings about you and your business and you'll be the first one they come to again or recommend to their friends. Offer more than is expected - it works every time.
6. Make it easy to buy. The buying experience in your store, by phone, or on your Web site should be as easy as possible. Don't overwhelm your customers with endless chatter when they really want time to look around or just make a purchase and go. Don't make them wait; serve them as quickly as possible (everyone hates waiting - especially when staff appear to be ignoring them or pretending to be busy elsewhere). Don't bombard your customers with forms, rules or complicated receipts.
7. Smile. Customers can tell if you are going to be helpful based on your facial expression or the tone in your voice. Yes, you really do sound different on the phone if you are smiling. A smile puts everyone at ease. Use conciliatory phrases like: "Sorry to keep you waiting," "Thanks for your order," "You're welcome," "It's been a pleasure helping you," "Thank you. See you tomorrow." A positive and friendly attitude will keep your customers happy and you'll feel pretty good too.
8. Be careful with e-mail. E-mail can be tricky. It is really hard to convey your tone-of-voice in writing and you can be easily misinterpreted. Never write emails using all CAPS as it appears loud and rude. If you can't spell try using spell check but read your message over before you send it anyway. Double check who you are sending your email to and never say anything in writing that you wouldn't want the whole town to read (they just might!). Like phone calls, respond to emails quickly and courteously.
I hope this inspires you in your business. If you are a customer who has endured bad service perhaps you can cut this article out and pass it on to the business you think needs a reminder. In the end, good customer service not only keeps customers coming back it makes your business much more efficient and can make your day a whole lot nicer.
Gwen Kerr is a member of the Amherst Daily News Community Editorial Panel.