Customer Service Above All Else

How do you compete with big-box stores? By offering the personal touch and customer service they can’t.

Customer Service Above All Else

Photo by John Hafner

When we lived in Alaska, my wife, Cheryl, started a small business from scratch. It began as a retail shop catering to hockey players, swimmers, kid’s dance, the sale and engraving of trophies, and the like. Over the 15 years she owned it, it morphed several times until, during the final years, it was centered on commercial embroidery, engraving and the hockey community. She kept it going strong through hard work, dedication, keeping costs to a bare minimum, staying abreast of changing times, and meeting current market demands — and by providing platinum levels of customer service.

When a huge national big-box store moved nearby and started selling skates and hockey gear, Cheryl didn’t panic. She still charged a little more than they did, but she grew her sales by providing great customer service, often turning the box-store customer into one of her own. She knew that one of the key ways that a small local business can differentiate themselves and gain a competitive advantage over bigger businesses is to simply provide great customer service. She knew that what customers want is pretty basic: to be heard, to have their issues understood, and to get their questions answered and problems solved quickly and accurately, preferably on first contact.


Customer Service Expectations

A 2019 study by Verint Systems, “The New Rules of Customer Engagement,” tells this same story. The study questioned 18,000-plus adults worldwide to find out more about their customer service expectations and experiences. The results revealed key findings (percentages based on the United States). Here’s what they are.


1. Resolution is more important than relationship.

For the vast majority of respondents, all they really want is to have their questions answered. Despite the clamoring from brands and marketers for “engagement” and “relationship building,” more than half (55 percent) said they viewed customer service as a transaction and not as an experience that “should reflect me as a person.” When asked if they wanted answers to questions or for companies “to know my mood and respond accordingly,” an overwhelming eight in 10 agreed that answers were more important. And, 47 percent said that the one thing that most created a favorable impression was a quick response.


2. Personalization vs privacy.

In today’s world, there is an ongoing struggle for companies trying to find the right balance between privacy and personalization. To further complicate matters, that balance — and the reasons for not liking the service provided — can lie in different places, depending on the sector. Respondents were evenly split (51/49 percent) between those who accept that a degree of personalization is necessary to provide a good service and those who were suspicious about how their data is used. But for Americans under the age of 35 years, the balance was more in favor of personalization (59 percent,) compared to just 36 percent for those older. For “high relationship” sectors such as banking, dissatisfaction with service most often came from mistakes or an uninterested staff. On the other hand, for supermarkets and other retailers, price was said to be key in driving a preference of personalization.


3. Long-term relationships are declining.

Businesses are in danger of becoming a commodity. The research found that, when compared to a similar study completed in 2012, the proportion of consumers that maintained a relationship with a provider for three years or more had dropped from 85 percent to 60 percent. For millennials, that figure dropped to just 40 percent. Longevity of relationships varied significantly between sectors, with banking, supermarkets, grocery and clothing earning the most loyalty. At the other end of the scale, phone and broadband providers, as well as online retailers, showed the most customer churn. This is where a local small business can reap some significant benefits. Going above and beyond to deliver great customer service at the time of sale and strategically putting systems in place that allow you to stay connected to, and serving, your customer base can go a long way toward building enduring relationships.

The results of the study suggest that speed and convenience are the top priorities for customers. Delivering on that means having well-trained first contact and frontline staff and ensuring they have real-time information available to answer customer queries. It means building systems throughout the organization and (hopefully) maintaining an up-to-date Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system. That way, the same information is available to all members of your team on a moment’s notice, and a consistent approach is adopted, whether contact is made by phone, face-to-face, by email, online, chat, or by way of social media channels. Most importantly, it means staying in touch with your customers after the sale and communicating with customers regularly as part of your email marketing efforts.


The Benefit of Happy Customers

The study also showed that satisfied customers often take positive action. In the study, 61 percent would tell friends and family about their experience, 38 percent would write a positive review, 27 percent would sign up for a loyalty program, 25 would renew/upgrade products or services even if it was not the least expensive option and 17 percent would talk about it on social media. Only 15 percent said they would do nothing.

As you can see, happy customers are vocal customers. They tell their friends, they write reviews, and they spend more. That’s powerful fuel for any business, but for a small local business, it’s a way to level the playing field — even against big brands.

What’s your take on this survey? Can you share how your business provides topflight customer service? Drop me a note at and let me know.


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