About the author: Laurie McCabe brings more than 25 years of experience in the IT industry to her current role as Co-founder and Partner at SMB Group. Laurie is a six-time Small Business Influencer Awards winner; she has been recognized as one of the 50 Most Influential People in small-business marketing by AllBusiness.
Long gone are the days of "Mad Men’s" Don Draper, when brands controlled the lion’s share of the narrative.
The internet, smartphones, and social media have shifted power from brands to buyers. With information about companies, products, and services at their fingertips, buyers have formed an opinion about your brand before you even know they’re considering buying from you.
People have always asked friends, family, colleagues, and advisors for recommendations and referrals. But many small businesses probably don’t realize how often they’re voted in or out of consideration before they even have a chance to talk to a potential customer.
Broad access to digital word-of-mouth has exponentially expanded the power of current customers to influence buying decisions of prospective customers: 86% of customers trust word-of-mouth reviews and recommendations.
Buyers turn to community Facebook pages for recommendations about local plumbers and contractors, to Yelp for restaurant reviews, and to software review sites such as GetApp for peer guidance about software solutions.
Ninety percent of U.S. buyers report that customer service is a key factor in deciding whether or not they’ll do business with a company.
CFI Group reports that 36% of consumers will share their customer service experience, whether good or bad. More than a third report posting on Facebook, followed by Instagram.
Nearly nine out of ten (89 percent) of consumers read reviews before buying products.
This makes the quality of customer service—educating customers about how to use your products and services, answering questions, and helping them solve problems—critical to wooing new customers. Great customer service can serve as a powerful marketing tool to engage new customers.
The reverse is also true. Provide a terrible customer experience, and not only will your existing customers not come back, they’ll spread the word and discourage other people from even considering you.
Large companies such as Amazon continue to raise the customer service bar. To compete with these behemoths, small and midsize businesses (SMBs) must be able to quickly and efficiently move a customer from an inquiry to an answer, or from a problem to solution.
COVID-19 has only heightened demand for better customer service. It’s changed what, where, how, when, and from whom customers want to buy.
Of course, SMBs have addressed these new realities. Sit-down restaurants began offering curbside pickup. Plumbers and electricians changed service areas, and put new safety protocols into play. Retailers and manufacturers had more problems with shipping delays, troubleshooting, returns, etc., which led to customer service issues. SMBs also had to cope with a rising number of support tickets, seeing an average monthly rise of 20%, according to an SMB Group study.
But, if your business is still relying on phone, email, and a patchwork of manual processes, it’s tough to provide great customer service. Service requests or commentary about your company can come in from anywhere—email, social media conversations, phone, self-service options on your website, etc.
In addition to allowing customers to schedule and pay for services online (28%), small businesses say sharing brand messaging to customers via social media (29%) has the biggest impact on their business.
People are looking for everything from answers to basic questions, such as whether a medical office takes a particular insurance brand, to complex problems, such as help to fix a product that stops working.
Trying to provide good customer service without the right tools also ends up being a drag on the business. Repeatedly answering calls and emails from different customers with the same question, toggling back and forth between different tools to resolve problems, and not being able to solve problems the first time a customer contacts you results in a big time drain.
If your business is growing—and many are as we move past COVID—these problems will only compound.
These realities have made customer service a top priority for SMBs, who ranked customer service as the most important business function to automate in 2021, according to SMB Group’s SMB Technology Directions for A Changing World survey.
But, knowing that you have a problem is often easier than solving it. GetApp's 2021 U.S. SMB Post-Covid Changes Survey indicates that fewer than one-quarter of SMBs currently use a dedicated customer service application. (See the survey methodology at the end of this piece.)
Instead, SMBs are most likely to provide service through the phone. But phone-based service is decreasing in popularity. Customers don’t want to wait or to go through an endless string of “press 1 for this, 2 for that”—especially for a simple inquiry or issue. Long wait times lead to frustrations—frustrations that they are likely to share.
For instance, many SMBs already use email for customer service. Customers like this option because they can still get personalized service without having to wait on hold. Look for solutions that provide email templates to provide faster responses to common issues.
GetApp's survey also found that more than a third of small businesses (36%) are boosting customer service with new training, more reps, and dedicated software. And nearly half of SMBs (48%) plan to increase the methods of engaging with customers, including chat (17%).
Self-service solutions, such as messaging support (via SMS, messaging apps, and social media), chatbots, and knowledge bases can all help you to dramatically streamline services. They enable customers to answer their own simple questions (such as how to reset a password), find information about billing, see appointment reminders and status updates, or figure out how to change an order.
Knowledge bases within a customer service tool are also a great place to post articles and videos to spark ideas about different ways to use your products and services. Vendors are starting to infuse many of these self-service tools with artificial intelligence—making it easier to keep information accurate and up to date.
The good news is that there are hundreds of customer service solutions on the market. Many are cloud-based, which means no IT expertise is required to set up and maintain them, and you can pay for the solution as a subscription service. Just as important, there are now many customer service solutions designed specifically for small businesses which are affordable, easy-to-use customer service apps.
The bad news is that sorting through so many choices can be daunting. SMBs cite “figuring out what solution will work best for my business” as the biggest barrier they face in implementing new technology solutions, according to SMB Group’s SMB Technology Directions for A Changing World survey. Not a surprise when you consider that there are hundreds of different solutions in almost every solution category.
But you can avoid getting overwhelmed by following these guidelines:
Start by conducting an internal evaluation of how you handle customer service today. What do you need to do differently to better serve your customers, streamline the process, and free up time? Get input from employees and customers to understand bottlenecks and areas that need improvement. Determining key priorities and goals of the business upfront will help bring focus to your search for a best-fit solution.
Take advantage of peer review sites like GetApp to identify applications that align best with your objectives. For instance, you can look at the category of customer service and support applications, narrowing your search based on your specific requirements. GetApp gives you user reviews of different solutions, and you can filter these reviews to find those that are from businesses like yours—such as other small businesses—or from a specific industry. This can help you uncover solutions you may not have heard of, but that could be a great match, and help you eliminate those that aren’t.
Test-drive the solutions that make it to your shortlist. Make sure you involve the people that will use the solution to kick the tires. Revisit the issues that set you on this quest in the first place, and assess whether and how well potential options will help you to better serve your customers, improve productivity, and save time.
Assess the customer service vendors’ ability to provide great customer service! Are they responsive, transparent, and easy to do business with? Can they provide you with reference customers to speak to one-on-one? The odds are that vendors that provide you with great service before you buy will also provide you with better service after the purchase.
It takes effort, but the effort is worth it. Modernizing and improving the customer service experience will encourage your existing customers to return for more, and motivate them to spread positive reviews to potential prospects. Your staff will have more time to focus on complex cases, and your business will be able to get more done with less manual effort.
GetApp conducted this survey in May 2021 of 601 small-business owners and leaders in the U.S. to learn how they are pivoting marketing, sales, and customer service following COVID-19. Respondents were screened for employment status, business size, and area of responsibility.
Laurie McCabe - Guest Contributor
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