Little things that can improve the customer experience in your small business

In this season of reflection and review, I recently reread my post from January 2011. I have been thinking a lot lately about one of the questions I posed there: “How can we make the business work better in the coming year?” My specific focus has been on the impact of little things on the customer experience.

Although I know that every successful business owner thinks regularly about new initiatives and campaigns, I also know how easy it is to overlook little things that can frustrate or discourage customers and potential customers. So as we head into 2013 I suggest taking a moment to identify and make simple changes with the potential to significantly improve your customers’ experiences.

Do this quick “audit” of routine customer touch points to catch and correct sources of customer frustration, usually at minimal cost:

Are your hours of operation, directions, and contact information prominent on your Web site’s home page? I recently visited the site of one of my local favorites and found I needed to click several times to find this information. As a loyal customer I wasn’t dissuaded but, had I been a newbie, I could easily have navigated away before finding the information and been lost as a customer forever.

Is all the information – products, services, policies, and pricing – on your Web site, Facebook page, brochures, advertisements, and other marketing materials up-to-date? The other day I met a friend for lunch at a well-established restaurant. When presented with a breakfast menu we were surprised to learn that the lunch menu – still posted on the restaurant’s Web site – had been discontinued several months earlier. Are seasonal hours of operation accurate? If return or other policies have changed, do your materials and staff represent these changes accurately and fairly? While this may sound silly, if you have a Web site with more than three pages it’s easy to fall behind in making updates.

Is your company’s telephone menu user friendly? Take a moment to put yourself in a new customer’s place and call your own business. Is the greeting current and informative? Can a caller reach a human being without undue effort? Is the menu easy to understand? The last thing you want to do is to irritate a prospect or frustrate a returning customer.

Are your electronic and printed materials – order forms, invoices, and signage – clear and useful from the customer’s point of view? All customer interactions, including routine documents, need to be clear and provide the right level of detail. An order form with cryptic product numbers and abbreviated product names may well convince a would-be customer to try elsewhere. An invoice that lacks important details may trigger inquiries that delay payment to your business and negatively impact your cash flow.

It’s also important to take a look at how you and your employees treat customers and prospects. This person-to-person part of the customer experience can be more difficult to improve, even when the cost in dollars is minimal. Here are three routine situations that are critical in defining how your customers experience you and your employees:

Do potential customers receive a gracious, prompt, and professional welcome when they meet with you in the office or shop in your store? Good manners take a little extra effort yet can make the difference between an awesome or awful first impression. None of us likes waiting at the reception desk while employees talk amongst themselves and carry on with routine work. Empower every employee to greet visitors immediately with an offer to help.

Are telephone messages and emails answered promptly? Assuming these messages will be answered eventually, why not do it right away? A potential customer with a question may lose interest if she does not get a prompt reply. Even if you need to do some research before answering a question, you can alleviate uncertainty and build trust by letting the inquirer know that her message was received and that an answer will be forthcoming.

Are you and your employees so focused on the details that are important to you that you miss what’s important to your customers? This can easily happen when supplying highly technical products or services. Often this takes the form of going into exquisite detail on product features rather than responding to customer needs. In extreme cases, a salesperson becomes so intent on giving a full explanation that he misses the opportunity to book an order. Sometimes reconfiguration of the sales process is necessary but, often, significant gains can come from simply practicing active listening.

Every business has operational details and human factors particular to it that can significantly impact customer satisfaction and the company’s ability to implement strategy effectively. I have encountered each of the little things listed above in the course of my work and/or as a customer. While I know it isn’t typical for a strategist to trudge into this territory, for a better 2013, I urge you to check on the details mentioned here and any others that are important to the customer experience your company provides.

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Karen Utgoff, principal of Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting, is a market-oriented business strategist based in Amherst, MA. Learn more at http://www.utgoff.com.

© Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting 2012. All rights reserved.

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