The Ten Commandments of Small Business Customer Service, Part 1

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I've been doing customer service for my entire professional life, and luckily, I’ve had the pleasure of working at two small companies that are dedicated to providing quality, personal customer service. Over that time, I’ve gotten a sense of some of the best ways to interact with your customers that will leave them feeling satisfied with your service.

In honor of the Easter/Passover holiday over the weekend, I’ve formatted these customer service tips with a nod to the Ten Commandments. In this part, the first tablet. Note that these are not really in any particular order, with the exception of Commandment #1...

I. Thou shalt not lie

This is the first commandment, and probably the most important. Don’t lie. The last thing you need to be doing with your energy is trying to remember what you told someone that wasn’t true. Often it can be hard to tell someone that you screwed up and you may want to say something that makes you sound less culpable, but in the end, people are mostly forgiving and understanding as long as you’re straightforward. If they’re not, it’s generally better to lose that customer than compromise your business’ integrity.

Developing a reputation as a company that either speaks untruths or doesn’t uphold their promises is poison. Be straightforward, even when it hurts, and even if it means telling someone that your service is probably not right for them -- that person is more likely to tell someone else about your product in the future if you’re honest about it not meeting their particular needs.

II. Thou shalt be consistently grateful

When a new customer writes in with a question, start by thanking them for giving your product a shot. If someone goes out of their way to say they’re liking it, thank them for that, too. Even if someone gives you a suggestion for your company that you decide doesn’t fit your vision, thank them for taking the time to type it up and send it in. I end my emails with the word “Thanks” or “Thanks again.” I like that better than “Sincerely.”

The fact that people are engaging with your product is the reason your company exists, and your users or customers know that. Thanking them for trying your software or taking the time to reach out or understanding when something goes wrong conveys the correct attitude, which is appreciation. And hey, if you do a good job, a lot of the time your customers will thank you right back!

III. Thou shalt actually explain how and why mistakes happened

Things will go wrong in any business. For a business like ours here at Less Annoying CRM, even a few minutes of downtime is a critical problem. We have users all around the world, so the system needs to be ready to go even when it’s the dead of night here in the US.

When downtime does occur (which, thankfully, is rare), we get tickets asking what’s going on. When a user asks you what the problem is, don’t just tell them what they already know -- “The system is down.” If you don’t why it’s down, let the users know that you’re not sure why it’s down yet and you’re looking into it (assuming you have time to reply to customer emails while running around with your hair on fire). Follow up when you determine the cause.

More importantly, if you know the reason the system went down, just tell people! If it’s complicated, simplify it as much as you can, but ultimately making it extremely easy to understand is much less important than just having an explanation. The point is not that everyone wants or needs to know the technological details of why your system is down, it’s that they want to know that you know why it’s down. Even if they don’t understand a word of your explanation, they’ll feel better knowing that you’re on top of it, and won’t worry that it might happen again tomorrow. (By the way, try not to let it happen again tomorrow!)

IV. Thou shalt not use form replies except when unavoidable

Part of the reason interacting with the support teams of most large businesses is so distasteful is that you’re basically talking to a script. This is particularly evident in most chat-based support, where the customer service rep often has a set number of phrases to choose from and can’t adapt to the context of the conversation.

I have zero templates I use for support. I type each email individually so that my reply feels natural and is sure to answer all of the user’s questions, using terminology I think they’re likely to understand based on the context of their original message.

People aren’t dumb. If you send them something that reads like a form letter, they’ll know, and they’ll feel like you didn’t care about their specific case. It’s a key advantage for small businesses that it’s feasible for us to be more human with our customers, so don’t blow it by using canned replies!

V. Thou shalt always stress thy own accessibility

If I send an email, it generally ends with “let me know if there’s something else I can do for you.” If I fixed something for the customer, I always remind them to “let us know if you notice any issues.” With phone calls, I tell people that “if you have any other questions, you know how to find us!”

I don’t think any of this affects whether people actually email us or call us. If we fixed something, but it turns out to still be broken, of course they’re going to call or email us again to let us know. Hammering home your own perpetual availability is about leaving a good impression; you want to make it clear to the user that their feedback, questions, and problems are not an unwanted burden.

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That's it for Part 1. Am I missing anything so far? Anything you're just sure should be on the second tablet of Commandments? Tweet at me to let me know!

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