Appalling, all right, or amazing…What is the customer experience at your small business?

In today’s global and fast-changing commercial environment, savvy business leaders are vying to attract, retain, and delight customers. While conventional wisdom has long held that small businesses are by nature advantaged when it comes to providing an excellent customer experience, ever more capable software tools are enabling large companies to mass-produce high quality, personalized customer experiences. Amazon has been a leader in this. In light of this trend, it is increasingly important for every small business leader to get beyond comforting assumptions about the quality of the customer experience their organizations provide and take steps to ensure they are the best possible. What can you do?

• View the customer experience through your customers’ eyes. Don’t assume you know what your customers experience. Ask them. Try to get information on the entire experience from first contact through to your current relationship. Don’t overlook prospects that never developed into customers; they may have especially useful information for you. Whether you use focus groups, one-on-one interviews, surveys or a combination of these and other techniques will depend on your particular situation. Regardless of the specifics, make sure you frame the conversation to encourage candor. If you can’t listen objectively, find someone who can to gather information for you.

Ask your frontline employees to identify opportunities for improvement. All employees — especially those in sales, marketing, customer service, reception, shipping, operations, tech support, and top management — are likely to have contact with customers or prospects. As with customers, it is important to find a way to get brutally honest feedback from all perspectives. If your customer service employees agree that complaints don’t get resolved until the customer gets angry, you know you have a problem. But getting that kind of unflattering information is always a challenge. Listening well is essential to encourage the necessary candor.

• Use the information you gather from customers and employees to assess the current situation. Then commit to improving weaknesses and capitalizing on strengths.

Implement or improve systems with the customer experience in mind. Every small business has systems in place that keep it running. If these systems don’t work well for your customers and prospects, change is in order. Take a broad view. If customers find your invoices confusing or prospects complain that your phone menu is too lengthy, addressing those annoyances may result in happier customers and perhaps even new customers or improved cash flow for your business. New technology can help your team manage customers more effectively but don’t confuse that functionality with what’s important to your customers. Be aware that striking a balance between actions that give information to improve the customer experience and those that invade customers’ privacy is a work in progress. Take heed of this article from the New York Times.

• Empower your employees and yourself to surprise on the upside. Business as usual doesn’t delight; the unexpected does. Deeds speak louder than words. Unexpected kindness that exceeds expectations is a powerful demonstration of your appreciation for the customer or sensitivity to his/her situation. Exceptionally speedy or personalized resolution of a problem can turn an angry customer into your biggest fan. Your business’ capacity to do this depends on its culture and explicitly empowering frontline employees to take action.

What if it’s too late to start fresh? Perhaps your assumptions about the customer experience you provide have been shattered by a difficult situation that prompts you to jump into the middle of a mess? Consider this post from my colleague Laurie Breitner. Once the immediate problem is resolved, get proactive. Use the steps above to help you define and implement better practices.

In my next post I will share examples of local small businesses that manage to delight while routinely providing an excellent customer experience.


Karen Utgoff, principal of Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting, is a market-oriented business strategist based in Amherst, MA. Learn more at

© Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting 2013. All rights reserved.

Leave a Reply

The Self-Employment Survival Guide can help you succeed. Learn all about it here.

Self-Employment Survival Guide book cover