Customer Service

Anyone who’s spent part of their lives living and working in a small town will tell you it’s often something of a microcosm of the country at large. Small-town politics, for example, despite being centered around arguably more mundane matters than those on the national stage, tend to carry for local residents the relative gravity of the sausage-making wrought on C-SPAN.

But it’s only been recently that the methodology of doing business in a small town has had such relevancy to companies with larger markets. As technology has allowed us to reach more customers on the national level, it’s also brought those customers closer to us — and not acknowledging precisely how close is one of the biggest mistakes a company can make. With the advent of social media and customer-controlled websites that talk about companies for better or worse, the customer-business interaction you’d typically get in small towns is suddenly everywhere.

The result has been something of a renaissance for the particularly old-fangled notion of customer service, specifically great customer service. And the reason is simply that no marketing force a company could ever hope to exert is more powerful than the collective will of its customers — and if they’ve been treated better than they expected, they’ll communicate that far more effectively than any ad buy in any medium. We’ve discovered here that a more-than-satisfied client base is our biggest single source of new customers; we deliver better service than they’d ever hoped, and in turn they spread the good word.

Blowing away expectations to create new customers might seem like an innovative idea, but again, if you’ve lived in a small town, it’s old hat. One small town I lived in years ago had two liquor stores; one allowed people to bring their dogs in with them, and the other didn’t. Considering the dog-to-people ratio tipped in the pooches’ favor in this town, word got around. When it got back to the first owner that her customers appreciated the courtesy, she started keeping a tin of doggy treats behind the register, and forked one over to every pup. It was more than people expected, and it made the customers feel valued; they would always choose her store over the one just a few blocks over, and they told their friends so every chance they got.

Another example: there were also a handful of restaurants in this town, all doing a fine job of feeding folks good food. But at one of these restaurants, every night the chef would come out and visit with every single table in the place — periodically, and for (apparently) no reason, bringing out samples of desserts he was working on as a “sneak peek” sort of thing. It was more than people expected, and it made the customers feel valued. His restaurant was regularly full, and people recommended it to one another.

Seeing the pattern?

There’s a lot of talk about creating “raving fan” customers by under-promising and over-delivering; the problem with this approach is that most businesses don’t have the ability to manage their customers’ expectations so thoroughly. In order to over-deliver, first a business must figure out what their customers are expecting to happen — and only then can they exceed those expectations and effectively build happy customers that evangelize about their product or service.

Fortunately for anyone who’s looking to this model, the expectation at the moment is that most businesses have just terrible customer service. That’s because they’ve been able to get away with it and still keep customers; years of “press one if you’re calling about a product” produced only the mildest backlash. Indeed, it was only recently those customers have been able to talk to one another on a national level the way they would in a small town.

And to succeed with all that talking going on, you need to think like a small-town business — you need to stand head and shoulders above the competition. Surprise and impress your customers with your level of service and they’ll sing your praises until the end of time.