Back to Basics

Date: September 13, 2013

The Internet has revolutionized the way customers shop. With instant access to information and a growing number of tools online, customers are empowered to research, review and compare products and companies. That means they have more control over the market than ever before. 

In a 2013 Deloitte survey, 60 percent of consumers surveyed say they go online to search for products and services. 

To respond to that trend, many small businesses are learning that they can deliver tried-and-true customer service strategies—from building customer loyalty to handling customer complaints and personalizing experiences—by engaging customers and prospects online. 

“As more customers control the conversation, and more information is available out in social channels, the challenge for small businesses is to create a presence [online] that furthers the need for their brand,” says Ed Abrams, vice president of marketing at IBM Midmarket, a business solutions company in New York City.

Here’s how several small businesses are putting a new twist on tried-and-true customer service strategies by bringing them online. 

Start the Conversation 

Content marketing can position you as an authority who’s there to help, allowing you to add value and connect with customers. 

How can a small business satiate consumers’ desire for information? By adopting a content marketing strategy, Abrams says. 

Content—whether it’s how-to articles, videos, blogs, podcasts, photos or social media posts—is the perfect avenue for providing exceptional customer service for two reasons: It delivers valuable, tailored knowledge to consumers, and it creates opportunities for customer service by starting conversations, Abrams says. Tailored content successfully engages customers: 61 percent of consumers think more highly of a company if it offers custom content, and they’re more likely to buy from those companies, according to a 2011 study from the Custom Content Council. 

For example, Critical Cycles, an online-only fixed-gear bicycle company based in Los Angeles, provides daily blog posts on its website on topics such as bike safety laws, personal fitness and commuting tips. The company also encourages customers to share photos of their bikes on Instagram, a photo-centric social networking platform. “This keeps customers engaged, brings in new business and helps us better understand who we should aim to serve,” says Lynn Maleh, a PR and social media specialist at Coalition Technologies, a Los Angeles-based agency that provides content for Critical Cycles.

Content has given Critical Cycles the opportunity to add a deeper level of customer service online. When a loyal customer had his bicycle stolen, for example, Critical Cycles blogged a letter it received from him, shared photos of his bike and asked readers to contact the Critical Cycles team if they found it. When the bike didn’t turn up, Critical Cycles called the customer to give him tips on safety measures—and they replaced the bicycle. 

“Content marketing has been incredibly beneficial for Critical Cycles,” Maleh says. “It builds relationships with customers and also drives Web traffic.” In January, when the company began its content strategy, the website saw about 3,930 organic visitors per month. That increased to about 4,700 by June. Since implementing the content strategy, Critical Cycles saw an increase of 52 percent in new website visits, Maleh says. (Maleh declined to say how that has affected sales.)

To conceptualize your small business’ content marketing strategy, focus on your customers’ interests, Abrams says. Then determine the medium your customer base would prefer, and consider how different types of content can work in tandem with one another. A neighborhood grocery store might send weekly e-newsletters with recipes featuring items on sale, for example, and a yoga studio might feature videos showcasing poses along with articles that explain them. 

Demand for Service

83 percent of consumers say they need some form of support during their online experience.
Source: LivePerson Connecting with Customers Report, 2013

60 percent of consumers go online to search for products and services.
Source: Deloitte 2013 survey

85 percent of consumers say they’d pay more for superior customer service.
Source: RightNow Technologies 2010 Customer Experience Report

Extinguish Fires

Social media can help you identify and appease dissatisfied customers—in real time. 

In the past, there was little you could do for unsatisfied customers who did not formally complain. But these days, there’s a good chance that people are talking about your business on social media and review sites such as Yelp. That gives you the opportunity to respond to disgruntled customers—even if they don’t contact you directly. 

When small businesses break down barriers on the Internet to resolve issues, they engage customers on a level not available through old-fashioned hotlines, says Stephanie Abrams, CEO of Socialfly, a New York City social media agency that provides digital marketing and public relations services for small businesses using platforms such as Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, YouTube and Google+. 

Stephanie Abrams says if a customer sends a tweet on Twitter or posts on a company’s Facebook page to share a problem or concern, many times the brands that are quick to respond and properly take care of the issue are able to turn a negative experience into a positive one. 

For example, there was a customer who previously had a bad experience at a spa that Stephanie Abrams works with. “He wrote publicly on the Facebook page about it. We responded and said, ‘We’re sorry you had a bad experience. We’d love to find out what went wrong and make it up to you. May we invite you back for a complimentary treatment?’” 

The real-time nature of social media can also help you prevent potential customer service disasters. NFIB member Gail Lindley, owner of Denver Bookbinding Company in Colorado, says having a Facebook business page has allowed her to fortify her customer service tactics. “This spring, we had to cancel a bookbinding class we offered through LivingSocial due to snowstorms,” Lindley says, referring to the deal-of-the-day website. “LivingSocial didn’t provide the contact information of the participants, so I made an announcement on Facebook. Thankfully, everyone saw it.”

Get Personal

Providing personalized experiences online, and making yourself accessible offline, brings customer service to a deep level. 

A staple of good customer service is spending time with customers to help them find the best solution to fit their needs. With the world at customers’ fingertips, the digital era has driven the need for more personalized products, services and experiences even higher. 

Personalization was the crux of John Lusk’s blueprints when he started Rivet & Sway, a women’s online eyewear store based in Seattle, in 2011. A personalized experience was what the market was asking for: Eighty-three percent of consumers admit they need some kind of support while shopping online, according to the 2013 LivePerson Connecting with Customers Report. 

Because most women are accustomed to buying eyewear at their local optometrist’s office, Lusk wanted to create an informational experience to gain customers’ trust. So he hired a personal stylist to assist customers online and offline and created a blog dedicated to sharing styling tips and educating shoppers on how to shop for prescription eyewear.

“We believe that every customer deserves a personalized touch,” Lusk says. “We show women which frames fit their face shape, what styles match their favorite outfits, what colors complement their skin tone and hair color, and how to order the right size.”

Finding ways to bridge the gap between online and offline service is often the key to creating a personalized experience. (See “3 Easy and Cheap Online Customer Service Tools,” pg. 28.) Customers of Rivet & Sway have the option of calling on the store’s personal stylist to help them choose three pairs of frames that best suit them. “We ask them to submit photos of their faces for our stylist, and they can contact her any way they like: email, Skype or FaceTime, text or a phone call,” Lusk says. Within 12 hours, the stylist ships three pairs to customers for a free, three-day trial period. 

“We treat customer service as a profit center versus a cost center,” Lusk says. “We look at it in terms of helping revenue, not reducing costs.” Rivet & Sway’s personal shopping system doubled the website’s conversion rate to 40 percent in four months, Lusk says. 

Rivet & Sway’s personalized experience is the brand’s major selling point, according to feedback that customers have shared with Lusk via email. Customers have said that one-on-one attention with a personal shopper and the boutique-style packaging, along with the informational shopping guides on the website, make customers feel valuable and attended to. 

3 Easy and Cheap Online Customer Service Tools

Enhancing your online customer service strategy is easy with these inexpensive tools.

Volusion: This e-commerce support team offers online chat box solutions for small businesses to add to their websites. Customers can ask for help whenever you’re online. The free version allows a single operator to manage five simultaneous chats, and prices increase from there. Starts free.

Zendesk: This Web-based customer support system addresses an array of support challenges by channeling feedback from company websites, social media, email, chat and phone into one digital ticket per customer. The service allows your employees to track issues and communicate internally about them. It also provides analytics about team performance and customer satisfaction. Starts at $20/year.

LiveHelpNow: LiveHelpNow combines all of the above—and then some—with four systems: a live chat, ticket system, knowledge base system and callback management. Callback management lets customers speak with a live operator 24/7, and the knowledge base system files customer feedback into one chart that can easily be published online as an FAQ. Starts at $21/month per individual system.

Respond to Feedback

Using online surveys to gather feedback from customers can help you provide better experiences, products and services. 

Public opinion was the catalyst for the inception of NFIB member Ross Kimbarovsky’s Chicago-based business crowdSPRING, a marketplace for graphic design that opened in 2008. To gauge public interest in an online marketplace where business owners could purchase art and designs from artists around the world, Kimbarovsky and his co-founder conducted a variety of surveys that helped them shape their business plan. 

Today, customer feedback surveys remain the basis for most of the company’s “major innovations,” Kimbarovsky says. 

Using services such as Wufoo and SurveyMonkey, Kimbarovsky creates surveys and administers them to a selection of customers (both business owners and artists) in private emails multiple times a year. He also sends surveys to each customer at the completion of his or her project to evaluate satisfaction. “We want to hear as many voices as possible without exhausting them, so we randomize our sample and make sure to represent a wide variety of businesses in our survey groups,” Kimbarovsky says. 

Responses from customers and prospects have enabled the company to make insightful decisions, such as to create a copywriting branch that now constitutes 10 to 20 percent of crowdSPRING’s overall revenue, Kimbarovsky says. 

To encourage participation in the surveys, Kimbarovsky’s employees post one question per day on the company’s Facebook page relating to an array of topics. “We do this to find out what people are thinking about and to engage them on a long-term basis,” he says. “When people are used to talking to you, they will be happy to fill out a quick survey to help you provide a more outstanding customer experience.”

Surveys have also helped Kimbarovsky effectively staff his company. When he first started his company, he figured he’d need 15 to 20 customer service reps. But he realized that using online surveys and other online tools helped him manage a high volume of customer feedback. So instead of hiring 20 customer service reps, a staff of five reps successfully manages crowdSPRING’s 200,000-person customer base. 

“Having fewer employees cut my costs by 75 percent. To do that while delivering great customer service and maintaining revenue is enough to make any business owner happy,” he says.

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