You have worked hard all year, hit your targets and enjoyed the office party. But while your staff take a break, you face a bleak time minding the office phones in case any of those last minute orders go astray.
Alternatively, you could sneak off, put on your slippers and sit by the fire with your family, safe in the knowledge that all your calls are taken care of, even with no one on the premises.
How? By being in your virtual office. A virtual office is a modern day solution to this age-old problem, allowing you to have a Christmas break and a business. Even when small businesses are growing too fast to meet demand, it’s so easy to create a professional, established image by using virtual office or receptionist tools.
Small companies now have an advantage; unlike larger companies, they don’t need expensive fixed phone lines or the premises to house them in. Using mobile and virtual office technology they can respond quickly and cost-effectively to customer queries — no matter where they are in the world.
Service with a smile
By creating a virtual office with an e-receptionist to answer calls, smart businesses are gaining all the benefits of a real life receptionist (or an expensive PBX system) at a fraction of the cost. There’s no hardware or software to be installed or support. All you need is an existing phone line and that includes the mobile in your pocket.
Using a virtual landline number (a real number but without needing a fixed line) you get the benefits of the professional image that a landline number brings to your business as well as a welcome greeting and caller menu bespoke to your business.
You can also choose a local landline number — anywhere in the UK — as customers often choose local numbers for that first call. Or you can bring your business to national attention and get calls from all over the country with a non-geographic or freephone number.
Calls can be forwarded to any location, whether to your home, mobile, hotel room or even to your mum and dad’s house! And adjusting your call routing can all be done online.
Finally, with a cloud provider managing your business calls, you’ll get all the quality of regular business phone line - without some of the dropped calls or quality issues that users sometimes find with VoIP.
All in all, having a service like this allows you to enjoy your Christmas break, safe in the knowledge that you’re not missing out on business just because you’re away from your desk.
Exceptional customer service is a badge that everyone wants to wear, but few people get right. In my opinion, it isn’t difficult to provide a service that customers find exceptional. The answer is easy — put your customers at the heart of everything you do.
Satisfied customers are the Holy Grail for any business. With high levels of support, customer churn is minimised and existing customers not only buy more from you, they recommend you to others.
The service we provide (gritting and snow clearance) is critical as it keeps organisations operating in the worst weather but, by its nature, is delivered in the toughest conditions. Yet, last winter, our annual end-of-season survey of clients revealed 99.2% satisfaction with the service they received.
This satisfaction led to us being listed as the 37th fastest growing business in the Sunday Times Virgin Fast Track 100 in December 2011, on the back of an 83% increase in sales.
The secret is simple — build your business around your customers’ requirements and continually listen to them so you understand the challenges they face and can respond with innovative ideas to help them.
After happy customers, your second biggest asset is your staff. Having motivated and passionate people representing your business will mean they’re always doing the best job they can for you and your customers and they’ll often go the extra mile.
The importance of ASK
We select everyone we work with based on their attitude, skills and knowledge (ASK) — in that order. Having a can do attitude is essential for us. We believe it’s easier to teach people the skills needed for the job, than it is to change a person’s work ethic and the team continually prove to us that this is the best approach.
Our staff go above and beyond the call of duty for our customers. Last winter, one of our guys was clearing snow from walkways in the middle of a freezing night and noticed that someone had piled snow up against a fire escape door as a prank, preventing it from being opened. It wasn’t part of the contract to clear snow from that part of the site but his conscience couldn’t let him leave it as it was, so he spent additional time clearing it, much to the customer’s delight.
It’s not just customer-facing staff who should be relied on to react to customers’ needs, everyone in the business should be focused on it. There needs to be an internal culture that promotes and rewards innovative thinking.
No more computer says “no”
It’s also vital to have robust systems and processes in place, which enable every member of the team to do the best job whilst being as flexible as possible with customer needs. As technology improves, the possibilities become endless – so never again should staff need to say “computer says no”.
We are extremely proud of the partnership we have with our customers and it’s all down to putting them at the centre of everything we do. And of course it’s not all about the bottom line; there is nothing more satisfying for you and your staff than a customer being delighted with the work you’ve done.
With the recession leaving a legacy of consumers and businesses demanding more value for their money, customer service has never been more important. Those who will thrive will not just make customer service one of the things they do, they will ensure their service delivery is based entirely around the customer.
Alastair Kight is managing director of GRITIT, winter risk management specialists.
After reading and commenting on this article, Competing on price? Ten steps to success, on Marketing Donut I was asked to write this blog post on the topic.
We’re a retailer; more specifically we sell army surplus. Much, not all, of our stock has been used and some people still see shops like ours as second hand clothes shops, a place to find a real bargain.
It may surprise you that we are actually more expensive than some of our competition. In fact, there are a couple of websites that are selling a few lines for less then we can buy them in for…
Whether you know this or not; your suppliers are retailing and who can blame them?
If they can get a better margin on their items by selling direct to the customer then they’re hardly going to pass on that opportunity. No matter how important you are as a customer to them, they need to make money just like the rest of us.
There are some companies that will be honest about it and others that stammer on the end of a phone when you ask them about this new website that popped up. So how can you compete?
Customers can get our products elsewhere cheaper, so why do they buy from us?
Firstly, we’ve been in business for 24 years, so we have a good reputation. We rank very well for certain search terms, which means our website pages are consistently on the front page of Google.
To back that up we have a bricks and mortar shop, which reassures buyers that if anything does go wrong there is a physical location they can show up at.
In all honesty, it’s the simple things that count though:
Selling is about abating fear and our competition doesn’t have the time or the inclination to get to know their products like we do.
Periodically, we’ll have a look at feedback left for the competition and this is what we see:
Without a good reputation, backed up by a good service, your price is bordering on irrelevant, because the customers you upset will be shopping somewhere else tomorrow.
That is why soldiers drive 300 mile round trips to pick up kit from us, why we sold a job lot of parachute bags that are going to be used in the new Batman film and why so many Australians buy £7 thermal gloves from us and pay nearly the same again in postage (to be honest I still can’t get my head around that).
More than 90% of consumers listen to their friends and the people they trust when they are making a purchase decision. That is why every encounter of a customer with your store, brand or product is critical. Every time someone asks about your brand or product or a competitor’s product, a customer’s answer will be based on that one encounter.
The surest way to make your testimonial material believable and credible is if it is true. Like any other advertising material, you need to start your advertising with the quality of your product and/or service. No poetry, no artistry, no amount of Hollywood-level acting can ever convince the market to support your business if you treat customers like crap.
One shining example is Zappos, an online store in the US. In their early years, they decided they would have zero marketing budget and would pour their resources into customer services. This is how they were able to afford setting up a 365-day return policy with free shipping.
They also don’t put a time limit on the duration of their customer sales calls. The instruction is to keep the customer on the phone for as long as the customer wants to talk. What is important is to make sure the customer is happy when they put down the phone. Their customer representatives are accommodating, patient and will do anything they need to do to make the consumer happy even if it means actually referring customer to their competitor.
And where has it brought them? In their 10th year they were worth $1.2bn, with 90% of their sales coming from customer referrals.
When they were bought by Amazon, Zappos came up with their first TV ad. The advertising agency didn’t just settle on the traditional testimonial of other people telling stories about how great the company is. They decided to really demonstrate it by putting the customer representatives to the test. They asked several people to call Zappos with the most outrageous requests to test the patience of the customer representatives. The result is the best testimonial-based campaign of any company yet. Zappos didn’t just prove they make their customers happy, they proved that they are happy to do it, too.
Not all customer service programmes have to be as extensive as this. But businesses of all sizes could learn a lot from Zappos.
Lucy Gould works for KPI, an SEO specialist.
• Bolt Insurance has produced a great infographic on customer service here:
Customer loyalty isn’t what it used to be.
With comparison websites and online shopping it takes seconds to find the best deal.
The world has become smaller, it’s much easier to reach customers anywhere, without having to travel, without large costs and without a large sales force.
What does this mean for the small business owner?
If your customers don’t remember you, they will call someone else.
A business that is in your marketplace right now, trying to steal them.
Who are the easiest customers to sell to? The ones you already have.
Yet, so often I see businesses that put all of their efforts into finding new customers, which is the hardest part of sales, rather than keeping in regular contact with their existing customers.
Here are four reasons why it’s so important to keep in contact with your existing customers.
Before a customer will purchase from you they need to know, like and trust you.
Existing customers have already been through that process, you’ve already gained their trust, you just need to keep it.
Keep your business in their memory.
We all live busy lives, and our customers are no different. If they don’t hear from you on a regular basis then you move out of recent memory. The longer you are out of their memory, the more work you have to get them to know, like and trust you all over again.
Walt Disney said: “Do what you do so well that they will want to see it again and bring their friends.”
If you’re a solicitor specialising in property sales you won’t expect to hear from every customer every year, but what about your customer’s friends, family and colleagues?
Keeping in contact makes it easy for customers to refer you to other people, building your customer list.
Referral business is especially good because the personal recommendation from the person referring you makes the process of know, like and trust easier. A lot of the work is already done for you.
Customers respond to different messages and have different needs and issues.
Often a marketing message will be relevant for one customer and not for another.
Keeping in touch with customers gives you the opportunity to use a variety of marketing messages and topics with your customers. This increases the chance of a message being relevant and the customer wanting to purchase more of your products and services.
This is a much better small business growth plan than relying on a single message and a one-off sale.
Staying in the recent memory of your existing customers helps keep others out.
In most industries, there will be several businesses keen to steal your customers, as an old boss of mine used to say — “trying to eat your lunch”.
Don’t let them.
Make sure when your customer thinks of the types of products and services that you sell they immediately think of you.
Robert Peters is a Small Business Advisor and Director of Fresh Eyes Consultancy.
You must keep asking questions of yourself: “What's the unmet need?”, “How are we doing?”, “How can we do better?”.
Treat them how you would like to be treated yourself.
Consumers are fed up with mass-produced mediocrity. “Authenticity” — a genuine product rather than a created manifestation from the brains of the marketing department, will generate customers for life.
Inspire customers to spread the “legend” to others.
Customers hate to be “sold at” but they love to buy.
Make it easy to understand for your customers and for yourselves.
Is this really so very hard to deliver? Evidence would suggest that it is…
But think of the benefits to you if your business could deliver this way!