Person working on a laptop
What is your company doing to make your customers happy? PHOTO: Tim Gouw

In an era when consumers have become more demanding and the underlying threat of negative reviews shapes business decisions, some small business owners are consistently delivering a superior customer experience.

Although some still view customer experience as a synonym for customer service, those who are delivering the best experiences understand customer service is just one spoke on a wheel. 

A customer’s experience with a business is much more comprehensive — it’s everything that touches customers as they interact with a business.

For brick and mortar businesses, customer experience (CX) includes such things as parking options, convenience of hours, facility cleanliness, and employee knowledge and attitude. For ecommerce businesses, it’s speed and ease of website navigation, inventory, return policy and so on.

Recently, I interviewed people from multiple businesses to learn more about the practices of those who are getting CX right — what are they doing or not doing that’s making their customers so happy?  

To be considered for an interview, the companies had to be in business for at least eight years, have a brick and mortar location with an online presence, and a reputation for great service.

1. Pick up the Phone

Some small businesses deliberately model how they interact with customers after large companies. Sadly, this snuffs out one of their key advantages: the ability to quickly and personally connect with customers.

Needlessly forcing customers through phone trees in an effort to “look bigger” is generally a bad idea if you’re focused on your customers’ experience. If customers know they can quickly get through and get what they need, they can act immediately.

2. Build Relationships

While some business are turning to chatbots, building relationships with customers is still key for small businesses. In fact, during the interviews, everyone said open communication, with the goal of creating an environment where customers truly want to engage with the business, was crucial for their success.

Through the conscious creation of an environment where your customers like you and want to do business with your company, you will increase word of mouth and build a loyal base that wants to see you succeed.

3. Compete on Customer Experience, Not Price

Businesses that focus on creating positive customer experience are more in tune with customer needs and willing to adjust their services to meet those needs. These shifts ultimately help the business create loyal customers who feel “heard” and valued and can help small businesses to compete on customer experience rather than on price.

The manager of a massage spa that attracts many post-menopausal women who are prone to hot flashes began offering optional cooling pads for treatment tables rather than the traditional heating pads. The pads cost about the same, so the buzz and word of mouth from happy customers generated more business at no additional cost — and without the normal “monthly special.”

4. Hire Customer-Centric Employees

Have you ever hired someone who seemed perfect for the job only to find out they don’t do well in tricky customer situations? In addition to screening for technical skills and who gels with others in the office, be sure to check how they will interact with customers both on the phone and via email.

Rather than hiring an unknown full-time person, one retailer hired three people the owner knew personally to work part-time. This helped grow the company culture because they already knew these people shared their customer focus.

5. Have a Feedback System

You can’t adjust to customer feedback if you don’t get any, and it’s important to get feedback across your entire customer base. I once had a client who initially did all their surveys at their annual customer appreciation party. There was a high response and very positive feedback but, most of those who came to the party were already happy so crucial feedback about issues was missing.

If you have different people who are talking with customers, be sure they are sharing any feedback customers are providing. Remember that it’s better to get negative feedback that enables you to fix an issue than getting no feedback and thinking everything is fine.

6. Use Social Media to Solidify Relationships

Initially, many on social media were so focused on building a huge fan base that services selling followers sprouted like weeds. It’s now clear active engagement is what’s really important.

A realtor says that he is Facebook friends with both current and past clients so he can stay in front of them. When clients post pictures, he comments or “likes” the posts so it’s easy to keep up contact.

7. Avoid the 'But'

Imagine your customers describing their experience to others and then do what you can to avoid the “but” patterns that signal an issue with customer experience. For example: “My doctor is really good, but…” or “The food at the restaurant was awesome, but…” If you are averaging 3 star reviews, you can probably see some a pattern.

If you have a substandard product or service, no matter how you dress it up, your customers will have not have a superior experience. Similarly you need to be in business to give a positive experience, so avoid adopting practices that drive your business into the ground.

A superior customer experience is deliberately shaped and adjusted over time. There’s a difference between working to avoid negative feedback and committing to a customer-centric culture.

Small businesses owners have more direct control over their operations and are uniquely able to engage with customers and create a superior customer experience. Don’t squander this opportunity.