Time for a customer service refresh in your small business?

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By Michelle van Schouwen

Sure, everybody is stressed right now. And that’s affecting the way customers are being treated.

I was waiting in line at a pharmacy this week, cringing as I listened to the pharmacist and assistant dealing with hapless customers. “Oh, you made your flu shot appointment with us online? That’s the WORST way to do it!” and “You aren’t on our list. Now I have to create a WHOLE PROFILE for you.” … and so on. I followed the pharmacy stop with a similarly disconcerting visit to a local hardware store and decided to write this article.

As a business owner, it’s your responsibility to make sure your employees have the tools to assure customers don’t take the brunt of all the frustration employees may be feeling. It may be time for a customer service refresh.

Employees need to understand that bad customer service will cost the company customers. It’s that simple. Your employees need to have the motivation, the tools and the daily commitment to treat customers well. They need to do so even when they are busy, tired or – perhaps especially – when the customer is irritating or unpleasant.

Set aside time to meet with your staff to discuss a drive for enhanced customer service. It’s a great idea to begin by admitting that we are all experiencing a lot of change, stress and anxiety, and that these conditions are likely to continue for awhile. But this doesn’t reduce the need to set and maintain high standards for customer service. In fact, customers deserve to have a bright spot in their days, too.

Identify current barriers to great customer service. Ask your staff about their recent interactions with customers, to see if they are feeling mistreated or overwhelmed. Find out who is having problems and why. With this information in hand, you can find specific ways to cope with everyday issues and with specific employees, so that customer service can be tweaked where needed. Meet regularly to update on progress and specific issues and successes.

General guidance for your employees:

-Start every interaction well. For example, say “good morning” when a customer arrives (yes, even before you ask the customer to stand behind the social distance line or to don a mask).

-Clichéd as this may sound, smile and be positive. Improve your customer’s day rather than being another grump along the way. Don’t regale your customer with your personal issues, such as, “I’ve been here for seven hours already” or “I’m supposed to go on break now.”

-Set a high standard for helpfulness. Do everything you can to meet customer needs. If work product is moving slowly or products are not available, apologize for the inconvenience and offer alternatives or support, rather than just saying, “We’re out of that” or “We can’t do that right now.”

-Words matter. “May I do anything more for you?” is better than “Are you all set?” “You’re welcome” is far preferable to the often-grating “no problem.”

-Kindness first. “Hear the words, overlook the tone” has helped my employees deal with unpleasant customers over the years. A customer may have a legitimate complaint but take such an attitude that your employee’s first impulse is to respond in kind. Instead, train the employee to deal with the specifics of the complaint and become “tone deaf” to the unfortunate way the customer has conveyed it.

-If a customer interaction is particularly difficult to resolve, instruct your employee to call a superior (ideally before the customer demands it)! Often, a person in authority will have some luck in defusing a difficult interaction. Your employees will also appreciate having support in dealing with thorny customer issues. Of course, providing good customer service does not mean being a doormat for truly unacceptable customer behavior, so sometimes a little assistance is in order.

Tools to enhance your ongoing customer service success:

-Provide small, ongoing incentives for great service. Weekly or monthly, recognize employees who are doing a great job interacting with customers. Even a small gift card for a lunch or coffee means a lot.

-Check out some customer service training resources  that may help with your 2020 refresh.

Happier employees mean happier customers. And happier customers mean happier employees. Both of which should make you… well, you get it.


Michelle van Schouwen  enjoys an “Act 2” career as principal of Q5 Analytics, providing advocacy and communications for climate change mitigation and adaptation. See Q5 Analytics.org.  For 32 years, Michelle was president of van Schouwen Associates, LLC, a B2B marketing company. In 2017, van Schouwen Associates was acquired by Six-Point Creative Works, Inc. of Springfield, MA. Michelle is available for speaking engagements on topics including her new work on climate crisis mitigation and Florida coastal water issues. She speaks to business and student groups about marketing launches and entrepreneurship and works with start-ups to support their development.

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