The following is an edited transcript of a conversation between GetApp general manager Thibaut De Lataillade and co-founder and partner at SMB Group, Laurie McCabe, that occurred in April 2021. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Thibaut De Lataillade: As part of our "Rebuilding Your Small Business" series, we’re interviewing expert contributors to offer practical business advice about how to improve the overall customer journey. For those who don’t know, GetApp helps businesses like yours discover and compare great software.
Today, I have the honor to interview Laurie McCabe, who 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 and she has been recognized as one of the 50 Most Influential People in Small Business Marketing by AllBusiness.
Watch Thibaut De Lataillade and Laurie McCabe discuss why customer service is the new marketing in this episode of the GetApp Contributor Network: Rebuilding Your Small Business series
To kick this off, can you share your story as an entrepreneur—what is your background, and what has been your journey as a small-business owner yourself?
Laurie McCabe: Absolutely. I started my career working for a technology vendor, primarily in marketing and competitive research, and quickly changed fields as an analyst, going to the other side of the business. And I worked in a couple of different analyst firms. Then in 2009, as a result of the Great Recession, I got laid off like a lot of people did. I looked around and said, "There probably aren’t going to be a lot of companies hiring right now." So myself and my co-founder partner, Sanjeev Aggarwal, decided to start our own research firm, SMB Group. We wanted to serve the small to medium business (SMB) markets because we felt they were underserved in terms of analysts and research.
TDL: What is your personal definition of customer experience in the small-business landscape?
LM: In my mind, customer experience encompasses every interaction the customer has with your brand—from when they initially start their exploration process through the selection and sales process and then service and support.
What companies need to keep in mind is that customer experience with a brand often starts before you even know a customer may be considering buying from you. Depending on what they’re looking for, people will be asking friends, family, colleagues, and advisors for recommendations and referrals in real life and digitally through social media and review sites—like Yelp for restaurants or GetApp for business software.
I think small businesses don’t realize how often they’re voted in or out of consideration before they even have a chance to talk to a prospective customer, based on word-of-mouth feedback they are receiving about their brand. So providing a great experience to your existing customers is really like a marketing tool—we call it "the new marketing", customer service. Providing a terrible customer experience discourages customers from coming back and discourages others from even considering you.
TDL: Recent research you ran showed the top reason why small businesses invest in customer service solutions is to better meet customer expectations. Why is this so important?
LM: In our most recent research study, SMB Technology Directions For A Changing World, SMBs ranked customer service as their number-one priority for automation. Look at HR, financials, sales, marketing—customer service came out on top. I think that’s because customers increasingly expect and place a higher premium on good service and support. Service and support can really help you distinguish your brand.
And customer service requests can come in from anywhere—email, social media conversations, phone, self-service options on your website, chatbots, etc. With COVID, all of this only got more important. Many businesses were changing how they did business—think about sit-down restaurants offering curbside pickup, business changing hours, service areas, safety protocols. And there were new problems with the pandemic: shipping delays, troubleshooting, returns, etc. All of this led to customer service issues. The more quickly you can move a customer from problem to solution, the more likely you are going to make that customer stick around and recommend you.
TDL: Can you elaborate on what has been the impact on customer support interactions during COVID-19?
LM: From another study we did, we found that on average, monthly support tickets rose by 20%. That’s a lot. And in that same survey, customers told us they were expecting faster response times, faster resolution to problems. And if customer service doesn’t meet their expectations, they’re likely to take their business elsewhere.
So all of a sudden many small businesses had to provide more support and better support. Customers today are used to dealing with Amazon, which provides a terrific level of support whether you are buying or returning something. So that’s the benchmark for comparison. No one wants to wait and they don’t want to go through an endless string of “press 1 for this, 2 for that” —especially for a simple inquiry or issue. So the bar is raised, and it's not coming back down. If your business is growing, you will naturally have more requests for service, and more inquiries. As that volume scales up, you need to think about how you can automate things, otherwise you aren’t going to keep up.
TDL: Do you have some examples for how businesses are dealing with uncertainty and communicating with their customers?
LM: With COVID, many businesses had to make many changes—to their hours, occupancy, safety protocols, and shipping policies and customers needed to know what was going on. Many small businesses that rely on the phone or email for support found themselves inundated with calls and emails because they didn't have a way to automatically update knowledge bases or chatbots to answer simple questions.
All of this resulted in long delays and responses which led to frustrated customers. This is a time drain for the business too—if you are repeatedly answering support tickets from different customers with the same question, having to toggle back and forth between email and phone to resolve problems, and not being able to solve problems quickly the first time a customer contacts you, it's all a big drain. It's very labor intensive for businesses and it’s easy for frustrated customers to take their business elsewhere.
TDL: It shows that businesses were lagging behind changing customer expectations. So what would you recommend to our audience to better anticipate customer needs?
LM: Think about how you want to be treated as a customer—you want easy access to information you need and when you need it. You want easy access to support if you have some problem or issue.
Think of how you can automate inquiries and service requests such as how to reset a password, or about billing, or how to change an order. When you can help customers find answers to these kinds of questions quickly, you can do more with less. That’s what automation is all about. Automation can sound cold and sterile but when you think about it, you make these customers happier and then you have more time to spend on resolving more complex cases.
TDL: About your first point on automation, do you think those tools are accessible to small businesses today? Many might think they are costly and difficult to implement.
LM: I think the cloud has really made these solutions accessible to any size business. Back in the dark ages, before the cloud, it was mostly expensive, difficult to deploy, on-premise, and a lot of them required complicated phone systems—it was really optimized for large companies. So most small businesses just handled issues by phone and email.
Now, the cloud has made it easy to deploy and use more modern customer service solutions—the cloud is really "no IT required," you don’t have to install hardware or software, and the pay-as-you-go subscription-based pricing models make it easier to afford. Just as important, there are now many customer service solutions designed specifically for small businesses—narrow your search for those companies trying to serve small businesses, and I think you’ll be surprised with how many choices you have.
TDL: In your opinion, what are the must-have features of customer service tools for small businesses? Do you think different businesses require different features?
LM: First of all let’s start simple: Do you have a Facebook or web page? Do you have easily available information? Do you have information about hours or special safety protocols? I think those are sort of mainstays.
The next thing I would think about is chatbots. Chatbots are great for automated answers and FAQs. Another is SMS messaging. This is really great for all types of businesses but especially service businesses. Sending people automated reminders, automated scheduling, confirming an order or delivery—all of those things make it easy for customers.
The other thing is social media—there's a lot of information being shared, lots of people praising companies or complaining about companies on social media. So you want a way to bring all that in so you can resolve or reply to any problems that somebody is broadcasting out there.
One other thing I would mention is small businesses tend to use different solutions for each of these things so I would consider a solution where you can unify all of these messages in a more streamlined way. In terms of different businesses needing different things, I think all the things I mentioned are very relevant across the board.
TDL: Can you share some examples of businesses that turned customer knowledge into a more successful experience?
LM: One that comes to mind is a subscription-based digital food ordering company. They had a huge spike in sales—and support tickets—when the pandemic hit. Orders had ramped up like crazy and it’s tough to scale like that. Of course more customers were ordering online, with their phones, and they wanted online service too. So this company started providing chat and SMS support to customers.
Through this, they were able to cut wait times in half, which is a big deal since people don’t like to wait. Another company added AI to their FAQ page—instead of having a static FAQ page, they now can learn what the top search queries of customers are and refresh and update their FAQ accordingly. By responding faster, with better information the first time, you can really create a better customer experience that will serve you well.
TDL: What are your recommended do’s and don’ts for small-business owners investing in customer service?
LM: You should be thinking about how you handle customer service now, what some of the gaps are, and what you need to do differently to better serve your customers, streamline the process, and free up time. You need to think about what your objectives are upfront before you start looking for solutions. Don’t put the cart before the horse—get to the meat of what you are trying to do and service and what you’re trying to improve first, and then it’ll be easier to look for solutions later.
It’s overwhelming sometimes—there’s phone, there’s email, chat, SMS, all these social channels—but thinking about who your customers are and how they want to be served helps narrow things down a little.
For social media, maybe you are a B2C company so it's a lot of Facebook and Pinterest, where B2B might focus more on Twitter and LinkedIn. Use a cloud-based solution to automate as much of the repetitive types of service inquiries as you can with bots. Save the phone for the more complex issues that you can handle one-on-one. Another benefit of the cloud is that it makes it easier for your team to provide support from anywhere.
TDL: What are the biggest hurdles companies face when implementing such technologies?
LM: In any technology area, it’s always a big step to make that leap from knowing you want to automate something to finding the right solution. In the survey that we ran in March, small businesses told us that just figuring out what solution will work best for their business is the biggest hurdle they face when trying to implement a technology solution.
Wading through all of that can be challenging so that’s really where peer review sites like GetApp can really help. You can look at different customer service and support applications and narrow down your search based on your requirements. Then GetApp will provide you with reviews of different solutions. You can also filter these reviews to find those that are from people with businesses like yours—such as other small businesses, or a specific industry. Small businesses can’t always try a lot of things so having these solutions vetted by other companies like them is a very important thing.
TDL: This is the premise for having created GetApp 10 years ago and it has not changed a lot since.
LM: If anything, this problem of figuring out what's going to help your business is only going to get harder since people are coming up with new applications every single day. By being able to narrow your search, it really brings things into focus. From there, you’ve got to figure out what solutions you have on your short-list based on peer reviews but also which solutions you want to try out.
Cloud solutions fortunately are easy to take for a free test drive—you really want to make sure that all people who will be using this solution get a chance to kick the tires. Another tip is to really take into account how responsive and transparent that vendor makes it to answer your questions or concerns. What I've learned is that the vendors that provide you with great service before you buy will also provide you with better service after the purchase.
TDL: It’s true that customer service has been around for a while, but it sounds like it’s even more important for businesses moving to digital.
LM: Absolutely! Customer service really is the new marketing. Social media and the digital age created this viral word-of-mouth—people share their experiences far and wide. For example, a company I found that’s great is Ruggable—I recently got a puppy so we had to take up our nice rugs and Ruggable actually makes pet friendly rugs that you can throw in the washing machine. Ruggable made everything easy: They answered my questions via live chat and they made it easy to find out info about returns. I've sung their praises all over social media, in addition to buying more rugs.
TDL: I’d like to hear from you any final thoughts or remarks on the topics we discussed today.
LM: Just to recap, the way you treat your existing customers really counts towards getting new customers through recommendations, referrals, and ratings. As the digital world makes the physical world smaller, it's very important that you are serving your customers well and putting out positive experiences. Tools that we have now for small businesses to serve customers are available and out there for you to provide the best experience.
TDL: Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights, Laurie. I deeply encourage business owners to really think through what you shared about customer service being the new marketing and how it can help them win the customer satisfaction race.
In our GetApp software catalog, we list over 250 customer service tools to help your business manage all types of customer interactions. Stay tuned for the next exciting interview! In the meantime, if you’d like to share your opinion about a software you use, please leave a review on GetApp.com. Or follow us on LinkedIn.