Hundreds of millions of businesses exist. At any given moment, hundreds are vying for your attention in subtle ways. Yet as we’ve adjusted to the ubiquity of logos and branding in our everyday life, it’s all become background noise. The one thing that really stands out – genuine human connection, or, put another way, excellent customer service.

When someone breaks, we just want it fixed. When we lock ourselves out of our bank’s website, we just want to log back in. Companies know this, and that’s why so many are focused on providing good customer service. Indeed, 81% of Americans report that businesses are exceeding expectations when it comes to customer service. Another 67% worldwide believe customer service, in general, is improving.

But providing great customer service when you’re running a small business is tough. The megacorporations of the world have vast call centers, often spread out across the world to provide 24/7 support. How on earth can you compete with that?

In this guide, we’ll be talking about how your small business can provide great customer service. We’ll start with basic tips that everyone can understand. Then we’ll talk about how to do the hard work: implementing processes that let you provide great customer service – day in, day out.

A Quick Definition of Customer Service

Let’s start by defining customer service. Wikipedia defines customer service as the provision of service to customers before, during, and after a purchase.” That’s a pretty broad definition, but the phrase “before, during, and after a purchase” stands out.

Your goal with customer service is simple: help customers and potential customers when they need it. Before and during purchases, that means answering questions and resolving technical issues. After purchases, that means helping them use your product or service, handling returns, issuing refunds, and occasionally listening to a rant. (And yes, letting a customer rant is actually a valid strategy in customer service in some situations.)

Here are a few examples of customer service:

  • Jack isn’t sure if your shirts will fit him, so he sends you a Facebook message. You respond and provide him with a link to your sizing chart so that he can make a more confident decision.
  • Alexis is trying to check out online, but your shopping cart software doesn’t work on Internet Explorer. You take his order over the phone and then ask your tech team to resolve the website issue. You follow up and thank him once the issue is fixed.
  • Selena’s decorative mugs broken in the mail. You send her some new ones by priority mail and apologize for the inconvenience.

5 Basic Rules of Customer Service

Customer service, in theory, is easy. The basic rules are simple:

  1. Be friendly.
  2. Respond as quickly as you can.
  3. Resolve the problem in the most straightforward way possible.
  4. Build positive relationships.
  5. Collect feedback.

As easy as the rules are to understand, though, good customer service is hard to provide. This is especially true when you’re busy. Bundle this with the fact that 54% of customers have higher customer service expectations than they did a year ago, and it becomes clear that we can’t just give you these tips and end the article. So let’s break down each one.

How to Provide Friendly Customer Service

Friendly customer service comes down to a handful of kind gestures used consistently:

  • Smile when you see the customer.
  • Greet customers as they enter your store.
  • When answering the phone, sound upbeat and polite.
  • Ask the customer for their name and use it.
  • Be empathetic and genuinely listen to their problems.
  • Say please and thank you.
  • Be patient and ready to explain next steps to resolve common issues.

Nothing in here is complicated or revelatory. That’s why 68% of customers believe that the key to great customer service is a polite customer service representative. You and your staff simply have to be very consistent, even when customers are angry.

How do you do this? Train your staff to answer common questions. Run through a few practice calls. Make sure that everybody who interacts with customers is capable of meeting these simple guidelines.

You can also take this one step further. If you notice that specific products or services are causing problems, you can gather feedback and start fixing those problems before they come to customer service. That way, customers don’t call in angry and reps don’t get worn out by the emotional stress of their jobs.

How to Respond to Customer Service Inquiries Quickly

Customer service moves quickly. For example, 48% of consumers expect a response to social media questions and complaints within 24 hours. That’s just social media, too. It’s likely that customers expect even greater attentiveness for emails and especially phone calls.

Timely customer service can make up for a lot of problems. That’s why it’s a good idea to think of all the touchpoints where customers can contact you: your store, phone number, email address, social media, and so on. Then you need to come up with a way to make sure no inquiries go unanswered.

If you don’t have sufficient resources to answer social media messages, set up an autoresponder asking customers to email you. It’s better than nothing.

If your business is particularly small, you can also set up forwarding for your emails and even phone calls. That way, emails and phone calls go to your personal inbox and cell phone. You don’t have to answer them from your own inbox or phone, but you will at least be notified immediately.

The point of all the tips above is to make it where you can consistently respond to all inquiries within 24 hours. There’s no getting around this and it’s a basic rule for looking professional and retaining customers.

How to Straightforwardly Resolve Customer Service Problems

When a customer comes to you with an issue, they don’t want to answer a billion questions. They just want their issue fixed. They’re busy and you need to respect that.

Don’t grill the customer if they need something. If they need to return, for example, a shirt to your store, don’t ask them for the tags or a receipt or any of that. Simply trust that they are doing the right thing. Making customers defensive reduces your odds of retaining them, hobbles your future revenue potential, and wastes labor hours. No one wins.

Similarly, be generous with refunds and returns. As many as 81% of customers say they are more loyal to retailers with generous return policies. Yes, the occasional bad actor will take advantage of your generosity, but that is a risk worth taking to avoid alienating the vast majority of customers who will not do that.

If you start seeing a trend in questions that customers ask, start writing out the answers to those questions and post them publicly. That way, customers have a chance of answering their own question. Even if not, you can refer them to the guide, thus reducing the amount of time you spend on customer service.

If you see a trend of problems with particularly products or services, it may be time to see if there’s something you can fix. One of the best ways to ensure good customer service is to reduce the amount that customers need customer service! The same principle applies to instruction manuals – good ones prevent confused calls and emails.

How to Build Positive Relationships Through Customer Service

You might think that a customer who feels the need to contact customer service is put off by your company. However, when customers contact you, you have the chance to really improve the relationship. If you fix their problem, they are likely to come back and possibly respect you more.

To build positive relationships, start by following all the friendliness tips. These go a long way!

Next, try to proactively prevent customer service issues. When appropriate, such as with expensive services, communicate frequently. With complex products, provide detailed instructions.

If you haven’t heard back from a customer in a while, send them a friendly message to check in with them. Again, this may not be applicable if you’re selling $20 T-shirts, but it’s definitely applicable for many service-based businesses.

Lastly, ask for feedback. The mere act of asking for feedback makes customers like you more because they feel like you are listening. This creates ideal conditions for a two-way relationship.

How to Collect Feedback on Your Customer Service

On the subject of feedback, there are a lot of ways you can gather it. The simplest way is to ask smart questions while the customer is talking to you by phone or email. You can ask them what is working and what is not. This will help you to find areas to improve.

However, gathering feedback doesn’t need to be an informal process. In fact, in many ways, it works better if you formalize it and collect specific data. HubSpot, whose blog is always fantastic, has a long list of ways you can obtain customer feedback. We’ve highlighted our favorite recommendations below.

Send follow-up emails. Once you deliver your product or service, send an automatic follow-up email. You can link to a standard survey which customers can fill out. You’ve probably seen this if you’ve ever stayed at a hotel after booking online.

Send survey links by text message. If you want another way to get in touch with people, send survey links by text. This often reaches people who don’t check their emails very often.

For brick-and-mortar businesses, have paper feedback cards. You’ve probably seen this. It’s the proverbial comment box in your favorite restaurant. Business owners use it because it works.

Read your live chat transcripts. You can learn a lot just by seeing the real conversations that customers and your service representatives are having. This can help give you some insight into common questions and responses. That way, you can reduce the questions by tweaking your product or service. Alternatively, you can give your service representatives a standard response to handle common inquiries.

Analyze recorded phone calls. This follows the same principle as the live chat transcripts.

Needless to say, once you collect all this feedback, the key part is using it. Customers will respect you more if you implement their feedback, and less if you ask for it but never use it.

Final Thoughts

Customer service standards have dramatically improved over the last few years. In order to stay competitive, your small business needs to provide great service as well. Fortunately, even if your resources are limited, by implementing these tips, you can efficiently provide great customer service.