I’m tempted to make this advice short and sweet with, “Don’t be an idiot.” If you’ve experienced poor customer service with small local businesses, you know the frustration that can inspire you to sink to that level.
Technically skilled contractors, electricians, plumbers, lawn care businesses, and snow removal services inadvertently torment their clients because they lack basic social skills. Although a lack of social grace can be found in all professions, some trade-oriented businesses seem to require it. (I’m not a picky customer either. If you show up and do an acceptable job, you’ll never hear from me and you’ll get paid right away.)
Why do so many local small businesses lack basic etiquette? One reason is that some owners have never have learned basic social skills. If you don’t have it personally, how are you going to use it in your business? Yet it’s never too late to learn, and no one should ever be ashamed of not knowing something that was never taught or modeled for them. Learning is a lifelong process and we’re all at different stages.
I believe the most common reason is because such new business owners haven’t shifted their mindset from one of task-doer to that of value provider. They work as if they are still an employee and the only thing that matters is finishing the task at hand, whatever that happens to be. The customer can wait.
Successful business owners however, have learned to make the customer the center of their business world. Those that make this mental shift to business owner and value provider stand out like rock stars. I’ve been fortunate to work with a few such local vendors. So no, they’re not all bad. The good ones excel by simply including basic social skills on top of their technical trade skills. They put themselves in their customer’s shoes.
But they’re exceptions. In my own informal survey of friends and family the results are nearly unanimous—most local service providers make one or more of these five business etiquette mistakes.
1) Not returning phone calls.
Please, answer the phone. It’s frustrating to call a vendor and get absolutely no response. Whether I’m a customer or prospect, I’m calling because I need your help! Return your phone calls in a reasonable time, preferably the same business day.
A much better solution is to hire a virtual assistant or answering service to answer calls for you. There are plenty of them available for very little money. It makes you sound professional, adds credibility, and helps you get more customers and retain them.
When I first started a business many years ago, I was on the road most days. Just me and my phone. I used an online answering service to take all my calls, checking in with them a few times a day and returning calls as needed. It made me look like a much bigger organization and was a factor in helping me grow my business.
2) Not answering emails.
If you have a form on your website, have it automatically send a “Got your message” email or take the client to a thank you page. Let them know you got their request and that you’ll respond within a specific time frame. Then read the client’s message and answer them.
If someone emails you directly, reply in a reasonable time, preferably the same day. If you’re away from your computer or phone for extended periods, you can use an auto-response to acknowledge that you got the email. With today’s connected technology, there are few reasons you or a co-worker can’t reply.
3) Not taking notes on customer requests and preferences.
Sorry to pick on snow removal guys but it’s winter and you’re on my mind. Plus, all these examples happened to me repeatedly with various vendors.
If your customer wants their sidewalk shoveled every time you plow their driveway, make a note of it somewhere. Don’t rely on your memory. Don’t make them call you back every time you plow to ask you to come back because you forgot to shovel the walk…again. If you plow a business lot and they asked you to keep the doors clear, don’t make them call you back every time to return to clear the doors. You don’t need technology for this other than an old-fashioned paper notebook.
There can be a high cost to not taking good notes. Let’s say you have 30 homes to plow and 15 of them ask to have their walk shoveled. At $20-30 or more per walk, that’s up to $450 for the day in additional revenue. Multiply that by the number of years you can expect to have a customer and you see how valuable a single reminder note can be. And you’re going to forget?
4) Not doing what they say they're going to do.
One morning after an overnight snow storm my plow guy didn’t show in his usual time. I left a message asking him if he’d be coming before 5 p.m. because I had to get out for a dinner. No response. I called again and then texted a couple times. Nothing.
Finally, he called me with a dog-ate-my-homework story and a promise he’d absolutely have me plowed before 5 p.m. I said, “Fine, but if you can’t make it by 5 for any reason whatsoever, please, please, please just call me so I can make alternative plans.” He swore he’d call if he couldn’t make it and promised once again he’d have the drive plowed no later than 5 p.m.
By 6 p.m there is still no plow guy and no contact whatsoever from him. He finally shows up around 9 p.m. with more excuses. This brings me to the next mistake.
Don’t do it. My snow plow guy didn’t have to lie and concoct crazy stories. He just had to call and say he couldn’t make it and I would have been ok. Stuff happens and most people understand. By committing all five of these mistakes in one day, he lost a customer for life.
It’s not that hard to do good customer service work. Most customer service problems can be prevented if you always remember basic manners and courtesy. If you’re not sure what to do in a situation, put yourself in your client’s shoes. How would you, as a customer, like to be treated?
If you're new to small business, remember you're in it to give value to the customer. They in turn give value (money) to you.
Every time you get a new customer, you start a new relationship. In the same way that kindness, manners, and courtesy improve your family and personal relationships, they do the same for you in business. That’s how you get more customers and keep them for life.
For other simple techniques to get more customers and keep them, be sure to get 17 Hidden Secrets of Business Success. Click the link below.