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Customer Service is Crucial for Small Businesses During the Holidays


The holiday shopping season brings that odd combination of fun, exciting and stressful times. New small business owners may find the seasonal rush to be an eye-opening experience, one that has significant sales opportunities and potential for growth, but also filled with tricky situations. Keeping the customer in mind throughout these moments is essential for small business success.

Here are several ways small businesses can focus on customer service through the holidays.

Preparation is everything

An unprepared employee can lead to disastrous customer-service scenarios during the hectic holiday rush. It may take extra time to make sure the staff is up to speed, but avoiding major issues down the road will make that extra effort worth it. Anthonia Akitunde writes about this for American Express’ OPEN Forum, and features Ali Ryan, owner of a Nashville hair salon.

“To make sure our customer service stays excellent, we start extra training in September,” Ryan says. “My employees practice dealing with extra people in the salon waiting to check out while the phone is ringing, so I can coach them through who to help first and how to speed it up. We run through different scenarios of what could go wrong so we are prepared.”

Akitunde adds, “You can set aside a few hours before your store opens to do a run through, or create a rubric outlining how employees should respond to different scenarios.”

Ensure online support

Customers can easily become frustrated when purchasing items online, from problems with logins and passwords to applying special discounts to purchases not going through. When customers can’t communicate directly with the business, that frustration can get much worse. So small businesses should be prepared with online support, as this story from desk.com suggests:

“The holidays are a time of high case volumes and even high emotions. Keep both at bay with an online support center so customers can find answers to their questions 24/7. A great way to serve more customers faster is to create a Holiday FAQ. Rather than contacting your support team directly, holiday shoppers can solve their own problems.”

Be friendly

This is “the No. 1 rule in customer service,” Akitunde writes. Though employees may find themselves frazzled by the hectic pace of the holidays, a personable and approachable outlook is a must. Akitunde features Tom Byun of online customer-service provider LivePerson to illustrate this point.

“This might sound like a no brainer, but the holidays can stress the nerves of your staff as easily as they do the nerves of your customers,” Byun says. “Consumers might be willing to accept impersonal or even cold customer service at bigger competitors, especially during the busy holidays, but when they come to a small business, they’re coming for more than just a purchase. They’re looking for a connection. Be sure to notice, slow down and welcome them home.”

Set a good example

The proper way to treat customers starts with the small business owner. Employees should always be able to look to the owner to see how to do things the right way. Karen E. Klein writes about this for Bloomberg, saying that owners should be out with customers, greeting them “with the kind of attitude they want their employees to display.” She features small business coach Dawn Fotopulos in the story.

“The holiday rush is a good thing, not a burden,” Fotopulos says. “Get into the shop early, greet your staff members with a smile, and have coffee and something easy for them to munch on when they arrive.”

Keep the place clean

Sounds a little obvious, sure, but a constant parade of shoppers may lead some employees to cut corners in other areas. Keeping a store organized and tidy should always be a priority. As Kate Edwards, owner of a customer-service consulting business, says in Akitunde’s story, “Perception is everything.”

“When something is dirty,” Edwards says, “the first thing people think is ‘Can’t they see that?’ If you and your business cast a blind eye to the state of your operation, then how can your customer trust that you won’t do the same to them?”

Everyone learns support

Here’s an interesting idea, courtesy of Shankar Ganesh on Entrepreneur.com. If all employees learn the basics of customer service — even those who never deal directly with clients — they’ll have a better understanding of the business. So throw everyone onto the support desk for a shift or two.

“Have developers and managers respond to questions, taking some of the load off customer-support reps,” Ganesh writes. “They might even learn something from talking directly to customers. And there is a good chance that they can help resolve issues more quickly with the handoff time between support and the core team becoming nonexistent.”

Discounts and deals

Amid all the noise of December shopping, special sales and deals may get lost in the shuffle, especially after the initial Black Friday rush. That’s when advance planning helps, specifically in terms of building client relationships. Ganesh writes that it is important to acknowledge the customer, even when things get frenzied.

“When a company is neck deep in problems, tracking shipping statuses and trying to pacify customers requesting refunds, remembering to thank clients for their business might slip through the cracks,” he explains. “Customers have probably had a lot of deals thrown at them this season. So give them a discount. Throw in some freebies. Make the service memorable and say thank you.”

Remember your employees throughout the rush

Focusing on customers to maximize holiday sales and keep them coming back is the priority. But how small business owners treat their staffs during this time matters a great deal as well. Employees that are treated well may be more likely to treat the customers well, as Geoffrey James explains in a story for Inc.com.

“Just as your customers are under extra stress during the holidays, so are your employees,” James writes. “As a result, it’s easy for employees to feel too exhausted, frazzled, and overwhelmed to do anything more than the minimum for each customer. Customers are immediately turned off by employees who lack energy to smile or treat the service they provide as a chore. Customers may still buy from you, but they won’t leave feeling uplifted or wanting to return. … Find ways to keep employees feeling aligned, supported, and joyfully connected to your brand, to their colleagues, and (of course) to your customers. Customers prefer working with, and buying from, people who are positive and energized.”