How important is customer satisfaction in your small business?

Recent interactions with customer service departments in two businesses highlighted for me their different approaches. Here’s what happened:

I bought a folding bike from a nationwide retailer of camping supplies. When I opened the shipping carton (which was clearly damaged), I was not surprised to discover broken parts. I called the retailer and a replacement was promptly sent that arrived scratched, but functional. I accepted a $30 merchandise credit in lieu of a second replacement bike.

After a series of miscommunications and delayed and lost merchandise credit certificates, I finally received and was able to spend the last $9. Coincidentally, my year’s membership was ending. In reply to a request to renew my membership, I wrote their customer service department summarizing my experiences and asking why I should believe that things would be different in the future. I received a very polite apology and explanation of everything that had happened, which, of course, I already knew.

By coincidence, their monthly flier arrived the next day with its usual invitation to write directly to the COO of the company to let him know of any dissatisfaction. I forwarded the correspondence from his company and asked my question again. I was pleasantly surprised to get an answer the next day copying two senior individuals who called me later that day. The COO really does read every email and personally ensures speedy follow up! While the company still has some issues to address, I felt heard and confident they were working to overcome shortcomings.

Next, during a recent vacation in Canada, I needed warm weather gear and bought a pair of shorts for that day’s hike. After an hour, they were so stretched out that, had I not held on, they would have been around my ankles. I hoped that they’d shrink back in the wash. They did a bit, but stretched out again when worn.

After returning home, I wrote to the manufacturer to ask whether this was a known problem and if there were something I could do to remedy the situation. I got a form letter telling me that they manufacture to the highest standards and guarantee their products against defects for one year; my redress was to return them to the retailer. I wrote back saying that wasn’t possible and again asked if there was something I could do to make the garment wearable. The reply from a person (not a computer) re-stated their guarantee. She added that she had checked with their fabric experts who had no suggestions and ended her note by saying that’s all that they could do and they considered the matter closed.

I understand that my taking the initiative to write to the COO in the first case is what turned that interaction around. Perhaps I could have gotten a better response from the clothing manufacturer as well had I gotten to their management. Upon reflection, I realized that I was so turned off by that last note that I didn’t feel the company deserved the “gift” of my feedback.

I understand that small business owners have plenty to manage without keeping track of each customer’s experience. And yet, what business can thrive that doesn’t have customer satisfaction as its top priority?

As a small business owner, what can you do to ensure that your company keeps customers happy?

Explicitly make customer satisfaction a top priority. Be sure your employees know how important it is and to get you involved if needed. Ask customers, suppliers and staff about their experiences. You may be surprised by what you learn.

Be personally and directly accessible to customers. Had I not had easy access to the email of the COO, I probably wouldn’t have written.  In an hour-long call that ensued, the head of customer service learned that the packaging from the bike manufacturer was flimsy, that customer service reps are frustrated by not being in the loop about planned system updates, and that they need to train some line staff on company policies.

Treat feedback as a gift. Most dissatisfied customers will just go away without letting you know they’re upset, but they’ll complain to others about your company and – because you don’t know about it – you won’t be able to correct the problem. Be grateful when customers take the time to let you know that, in their eyes, you have a problem.

Take action and communicate. If you hear about some dissatisfaction, make sure a senior person makes personal contact and listens. I was pleased that the head of customer service did not tell me that it wasn’t their fault that the shipper damaged the package or that the rep didn’t follow company policies. What I wanted was to know that she heard my concern and would make an effort to improve things.

Talk to staff who interact with customers openly and frequently. Learn what frustrates both staff and customers – it’s probably the same things. Keep staff in the loop about what you’re doing to address the issues.

Think about the companies that satisfy your expectations – ones you often mention positively to friends and family. Is your small business one that would come to mind were someone to ask one of your customers the same question?

Since 1991, Laurie Breitner has assisted organizations with operational improvement, organizational development and strategic planning. Learn more at

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