illustration of a young woman retail employee speaking with an irate older female customer/

Small Biz Basics: Customer Service Essentials, I

Small family and independently owned shops and restaurants can absolutely compete with the chains and big box stores — by working their strengths. In an age of automation and corporatization, the personal touch can give the little guys a chance to eat the big guys' lunch.
October 10, 2023

Read Part II

Rosa, the owner of a quaint gift shop, stands near the back of the shop, unpacking a freshly delivered shipment. Out of the corner of her eye, she notices Chloé, her employee, manning the register where a visibly irate customer is venting. Rosa’s first instinct is to step in, but something makes her pause.
She watches Chloé closely, noticing how she takes a deep breath and absorbs the customer’s words rather than interrupting. Chloé leans forward, pointing something out on the box of the item the customer is purchasing. Though Rosa can’t hear what’s being said, she recognizes that Chloé has shifted her communication style. She’s now speaking deliberately, wearing a genuinely sympathetic smile, and making intentional eye contact with the customer.

Within moments, the tension in the air begins to dissipates. Rosa sees the customer nod, with a sheepish look on her face, and then both women laugh out loud for a few moments. The atmosphere changes entirely: their postures relax, the pace of their conversation slows to a friendly cadence, and the lines of stress on their faces smooth away. Chloé carefully places the purchase into a bag, and as she hands it over, the customer softly touches Chloé’s forearm. Rosa is pretty sure she can lip-read the phrase, “Thank you so much,” just before the customer turns and exits the shop, leaving behind an atmosphere completely transformed.

In the realm of customer service, scenarios like the one between Rosa and Chloé are part and parcel of the job. Every day, in various industries from retail to healthcare, employees like Chloé come face-to-face with an assortment of customers. Some can be irate, lashing out due to frustrations that may or may not have anything to do with the business. Others might be overly demanding, leaning heavily on the old adage that “the customer is always right,” and expecting royal treatment regardless of the situation.
On the flip side, not every employee has the skills or inclination to handle these challenging situations well. Some might meet hostility with hostility, thereby escalating the situation into a full-blown conflict. Others might opt for the opposite approach, disengaging and doing only the bare minimum required to complete the transaction. This lackluster approach can often be traced back to a variety of issues—perhaps the employee is burnt out, undertrained, or maybe they just don’t feel invested in the job.

When customer service falters, the ramifications for the business can be immediate and long-lasting. One unsatisfactory interaction can be enough to earn the business a scathing review online, and in our interconnected world, word-of-mouth spreads like wildfire. Before you know it, a single negative experience can deter potential future customers and chip away at the company’s reputation.
But in Chloé’s case, her approach effectively defused a potentially volatile situation and likely left a lasting positive impression on the customer. This likely isn’t by accident. Employees like Chloé often bring a set of naturally ingrained traits to their roles—traits like empathy and active listening skills. These qualities enable them to not only manage difficult customer interactions but to also transform them into opportunities for demonstrating exceptional service and, in turn, building customer loyalty.

Of course, we can’t ignore the elephant in the room: the challenges managers and owners face when trying to implement or improve customer service training. Resources are often limited, especially in small businesses, and the immediate return on investment (ROI) may not be glaringly obvious. Managers might question the value of spending precious time and money on extensive training programs when there are so many other pressing concerns, like inventory management or hitting monthly sales targets.

Looking beyond just the financial expenditure is important, however. Improved customer service can lead to a more harmonious work environment, which can, in turn, reduce employee turnover—a hidden cost that often goes overlooked. There’s also the value of customer loyalty; repeat business and positive word-of-mouth are invaluable forms of advertising that you simply can’t buy. In the long run, skimping on customer service training could end up being costlier than making the initial investment.

In the coming installments of this series, we’re going to dive deeper into the sometimes rewarding, sometimes frustrating world of customer service. Each article will zoom in on specific topics we’ve touched on here, from understanding the psychology of difficult customers to empowering employees with effective communication strategies. We’ll also explore how managers can set the tone for excellent customer service, and how small businesses can get the biggest bang for their customer service buck. We’ll even delve into some of the more unconventional aspects of customer service—things you may have never considered, but can make a world of difference.

These insights can serve as powerful tools for not only improving customer satisfaction but also boosting employee morale and, ultimately, your bottom line. So, come back for each new article, and if you find these pieces as valuable as we hope you will, don’t hesitate to share them with friends, colleagues, or anyone else who could benefit from a little customer service enlightenment.

Jason Velázquez

Jason Velázquez has worked in print and digital journalism and publishing for two decades.
Phone: (413) 776-5125

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