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Customer care for small businesses

Customer care should be at the heart of your business if you want to build customer loyalty and bring in new business. Edwina Hughes, director of consultancy Eddy & Co, explains

How important is customer care?

It's absolutely vital, particularly in times like these. The old adage that the customer is always right is more important than ever. SMEs, in particular, are having to distinguish themselves from their competitors in order to retain and attract new customers. You can't place too high an importance on service, it should be under-pinning all business activity. People buy from people. If they've had bad service, a customer won't go back. Business to business firms can lose sight of that. They often see clients as demanding and complacency sets in. You have to think how you can make a client happy.

What is a customer care culture?

You need to inculcate customer care throughout an organisation, whether your firm is a one-man-band or has lots of staff. Very few small businesses have a customer care policy. They probably think they don't need one. But you only need a few guidelines to make a big difference. The first point of contact at your firm may be a surly receptionist who doesn't even look up when someone comes in. There has to be a company ethos. Staff must be trained and they must think that their job is important and that they are valued.

How can you train and incentivise staff?

The role of staff in customer care is paramount. You have to engage members of staff in the customer care process. Ask them for their ideas. Make sure they are fully empowered to act if there's a complaint. Staff can have a massive impact on service, whether they have face-to-face contact with customers or are involved in dispatching goods. If you're talking about sales staff, then there is a basic monetary carrot that you can use to incentivise your staff. But you also need an incentive that has a life to it to encourage long-term customer loyalty. To get the most out of your staff they must feel valued. They need recognition that they are doing a good job. It's easy to become complacent and think that if your staff are doing their job, well that's what you pay them for. Your staff, meanwhile, are working their socks off and wondering why they don't even get a thank you.

How can you find out what kind of service customers want?

Ask them! People like to asked. Don't be afraid to pick up the phone and ask for feedback. Ask customers what else you can do for them. Do a survey. If they respond, send them a thank you, such as a voucher or discount. Tell customers that you respect and value them. And, if you are losing customers, ask them why they have left.

Can customer care impact on the bottom line?

Yes, absolutely. Customer care is about retaining existing customers, selling more to them and attracting new business. It's also about getting more business through referrals and recommendations. All of this activity impacts on the bottom line. This is especially true for small firms that don't have big marketing budgets. Customer care is powerful and cost-effective, especially compared to advertising, which can be costly and have little impact. You can use your reputation to bring in more business.

What common customer care mistakes can be avoided?

One of the biggest mistakes is when business fail to tailor their approach to the customer. You need to tune in to your customer and be savvy enough to move away from the script. It's about relationships. You also need to offer consistency to each client. That's especially important when you rely on one or two main clients only. To have a long-term relationship, many customers want to deal with the same person, something that banks used to offer but which has gone now.

For more information and advice on customer service, see the Resources box right.