Do you know what your real business is?

Sure, you might make donuts, or sell coffee, or perhaps sell hardware. Maybe you’re an accountant, or a marketing consultant. But what do you REALLY do?

You probably know the answer to this, at least intuitively, but haven’t given voice to it.

All of us, if we’re honest, need to admit that no matter what products or services we offer, are in the customer service business.

That’s what we’re about. It’s that special ingredient that differentiates one business from another. Customer service is what often makes or breaks a business that might otherwise have everything else going for it.

This week is National Customer Service Week, which I first heard about through Adam Toporek via his post on the subject.

Why is customer service so important?

What is it that brings a customer to you for the first time? For most small businesses, the biggest factor is usually word of mouth and referrals. That means that your existing customers are happy with you for some reason, and want to tell others about you.

What brings your existing customers back for the second, third, or tenth time? The fact that they are happy with you as a result of their previous experiences with you.

More often than not, customer service is a big part of that. You have done something that makes them want to talk about you in a positive way. And don’t kid yourself. They would be more than willing to talk about you in a negative way, and in a very public, online forum, if your customer service is horrible.

In his post, Adam linked to the original Presidential proclamation of National Customer Service Week by President George Bush back in 1992. There are a few segments of the proclamation that I wanted to highlight, because I think they are important when it comes to how we, as small businesses, conduct ourselves, especially now that much of our business and public reputation are being carried out online.

the most successful businesses are those that display a strong commitment to customer satisfaction.

We live in a highly competitive world. For most of us, we are far from being the only business in our particular industry in a given location. Take a look around you; how many competitors do you have in your local area? And even if you have no real competitors, and you are in the unenviable position of being the only business providing your particular service or product to your region, customer service is still important.

We spend a lot of time (I hope) on making sure we offer the best possible product at the best possible price. This is what we call value. Customers quite often make their decisions to do business with you based on some combination of quality and cost. They weigh the two and make a decision based on what provides the best value to them. But again, customer service is that final ingredient which might be of utmost importance, and yet we don’t always take it seriously.

In fact, given a choice, I might actually choose a business with great customer service, even if another business provides greater value. Why? I’m only willing to put up with so much when it comes to poor customer service. You might have the best product in the world, at a great price, but if you offer all that, wrapped up in a horrible customer experience, I’ll take my business elsewhere.

Here’s more from the proclamation:

Today foreign competition as well as consumer demands are requiring greater corporate efficiency and productivity. If the United States is to remain a leader in the changing global economy, highest quality customer service must be a personal goal of every employee in business and industry.

Two points here.

1. Our competition isn’t just local –  It’s global. And remember, this proclamation was made in the early nineties, long before the Internet and online shopping had become viable, and in many ways, preferable.

2. Customer service is everyone’s job – Many businesses have customer service departments, but all of us are responsible for taking care of the customer. In the world of small business, this is especially true. Every person we bring on board needs to be hired through a filter of customer service. They all need to be trained in customer service. They all need to understand how important this is.

The proclamation goes on:

A business built on customer service understands and anticipates the customer’s needs. It designs goods and services to meet those needs and builds products that perform to customer expectations. It then packages them carefully, labels them correctly, sells them at a fair price, delivers them as scheduled, and follows up, as necessary, to satisfy the customer. This kind of commitment to service leads to customer loyalty and to genuine improvements at the bottom line.

We tend to think of customer service as what we do in order to get the sale, and then what we do after the sale when our customers have questions or complaints. This is wrong.

Customer service drives everything we do from product development, to quality, to packaging, to sales, to delivery. Everything. Our goal is not to create a product so that we can make money. It is to create a product that people want and need, and that they buy because it meets their needs and desires. If we do this properly, we will succeed in our business endeavors.

At the core of this, are your employees:

A business will do a better job of providing high quality goods and services by listening to its employees and by empowering them with opportunities to make a difference. Customer service professionals work in the front lines where a firm meets its customers; where supply meets demand. With responsive policies and procedures and with simple courtesy, customer service professionals can go a long way toward ensuring customer satisfaction and eliciting the next round of orders and purchases.

I’ve worked in quite a few businesses where the employees weren’t valued. Even though we might be the ones working directly with the public, our opinions and advice were ignored. Do you want to know what your customers want and need? Ask your employees who deal with your customers on a daily basis. Go online and see what your customers are saying about you.

Listen. And respond.

Don’t just think that you know it all. The world is changing, and is doing so rapidly. What worked yesterday, might not work today.

So remember: no matter what you are producing, making, manufacturing, offering, and selling, you are in the business of providing great customer service. This should drive everything else that you do.

How are you providing great customer service? How does customer service driving your business model? In what ways can you improve?