5 Things I Wish I Had Known About Customer Service

  •    Anne is a marketing consultant who specializes in content strategy. Before becoming her own boss, she led the marketing team for a Fortune 500 brand.

Entrepreneurs need to learn the ins and outs of nearly every aspect of running a business — and fast! That's why we've launched this series — “What I Wish I Had Known" — to share lessons that successful business owners have learned through experience.

We hope their advice prepares and informs you for your own entrepreneurial journey. And, if you missed them, check out previous installments of this series: Building a Website, Prototyping, Financing, Manufacturing and Brand Building. This time we're covering something that truly makes or breaks you: customer service.

Good customer service has always played a vital role in inspiring repeat customers, but it carries even more weight when your brand's reputation can be easily impacted with a few one-star reviews or a negative trending hashtag related to your business.

On the flip side, a stellar customer experience can prompt public praise and send more customers your way. So, take a look below at two experienced small business owners' tips for how to impress your customers.

Lesson 1: Create customer service rules.

At the start of your business, you are likely to be the main person interacting with your customers, but over time that may change. Creating and recording customer service rules — and living them early on — will infuse them into your culture as your team grows, keeping everyone on the same page when it comes to how customers should be treated.

“Having core values or processes sets the tone for everything and keeps us focused when it's easy to become distracted," affirms Judi Powers, founder and creative director of Judi Powers Jewelry, which sells handcrafted fine jewelry. Her customer service expectations: “Take your time with customers. Be honest with your customers. Answer their questions within 24 to 48 hours."

Heather Long, the founder of Naked Goat Soap Co., notes that every contact made is a chance to care for your customers, a potential sale and an opportunity for word-of-mouth advertising. Her rules: “Be responsive. Be kind. Listen. And resolve [any issues] to the customer's satisfaction."

In a nutshell: Set up customer service expectations early and share them openly with every team member to ensure you earn and maintain a reputation for good customer service.

Lesson 2: Create a tangible and lasting impression so you won't be forgotten.

Small businesses have a unique opportunity to stand out from competition by working details into the customer service process that showcase the human side of their operation, especially when it comes to unboxing.

“When a customer unwraps a beautifully and thoughtfully packaged order from Naked Goat, it's an opportunity to leave a positive impression on our customers," explains Long. “Including personal touches like samples and handwritten thank you notes reminds them that every step of our process — from product development to shipping orders — is done by hand."

In a nutshell: When a customer opens their first order, it's their first tangible experience with your company and product — and a perfect time to make a unique first impression. Add a special touch to your packaging: an inspiring scent, a small gift or a handwritten thank you card can go a long way.

Lesson 3: Find proactive ways to show customers you care.

Customer service shouldn't just serve as a complaint center. Proactive customer service processes assure your customers that they'll be taken care of if issues arise, which can calm their nerves even before they reach out with their concerns.

“I clearly state my sales policies on my website and sales receipts, and I review them at least every six months to make sure they're still current and relevant," explains Powers. She also shows her customers that she remembers and care about them by periodically creating exclusive offers for them and checking in with clients just to say hello.

Long says, “We stay ahead of issues by seeing our shipments through all the way to delivery." This ensures customers not only receive their orders but are also pleased with them.

In a nutshell: Don't wait for issues to arise before customer service kicks in. Plan ways to serve your customers throughout their interaction with your company and communicate with them in a way that shows you are responsive and care.

Lesson 4: Respond quickly to your customers.

Even when you're not immediately sure how to answer their questions or solve their concerns, you should still respond so your customers know that their effort to communicate hasn't been sucked into a black hole.

“I aim to answer customers' questions within two business days," says Powers. “And if I don't have the answer to a question, then I admit it, go research the answer and get back to the customer."

In a nutshell: Respond to customer inquiries as near to immediately as you can — even if it's just to tell them when they can expect to hear back from you.

Lesson 5: Own your mistake and make it right. Then follow up.

For small businesses, reputation is everything, says Powers. And the key to keeping a good reputation is recognizing how it's fully connected to the quality of your customer service.

“When I misstep, I own it, sincerely apologize for it and then do whatever possible to make it right," Powers says, adding that it's paramount to focus on the solution rather than the reason things went wrong. “Don't over explain yourself in any situation. Focus on how to correct or repair the issue and not on the minutiae of the problem, itself."

In a nutshell: Customers care about getting their issue resolved — not about how or why it happened. Understanding why it happened in the first place and how to stop it from happening again should just be your focus, not theirs.

“The passion that has led us to create should be the same passion that is reflected when dealing with our customers. As small business owners, we are a direct reflection of our goods," says Long.

When it comes to your business, take every opportunity to connect with and listen to your customers. Their feedback should be valued. Long finishes, “We all deserve respect and kindness. Our customers are just as much a part of our story as the products we make. Being open and honest with them allows them to connect. We are real people, making real soap with real goat milk, and they can see that. It helps tell our story."