Look across the numerous choices that customers face each day and you’ll see a whole lot of nearly identical options. Peet’s Coffee or Starbucks? Nike or Under Armour? Southwest or Delta?
If we’re being totally honest, there are few differences between a cup of Peet’s or a cup of Starbucks and a flight on Delta or Southwest. But many consumers have vastly different perceptions of these nearly identical companies. The same is true of small and medium-sized businesses across the country. While some of these opinions have to do with price and product, often the deciding factor comes down to the customer experience.
While customer service has always been a keystone of good business, the growing ease of customer choice facilitated by digital tools now makes the customer experience one of the key differentiators between a company and its competitors. Given the ability to compare and research consumer options online, companies will always compete on price and product. So the customer experience is the one place where a company can make a connection with a consumer that will have them coming back time and time again.
Sometimes it is little things that make a big difference— the feeling of opening up the beautifully designed packaging of an Apple phone, the humor of a Southwest flight attendant during flight announcements or the way Les Schwab employees hustle to your car to make sure you are back on the road as soon as possible. These are the times when a company can be more than just a delivery mechanism for merchandise or services, and actually show that they have a personality and a human side.
While plenty of Fortune 500 companies spend large sums of money focused on delivering the best customer experience possible, small and mid-sized companies are perhaps even in a better position to do the same. Their ability to interact with customers on a more personal level can lead to long-standing customer loyalty. Here are three ways small and mid-sized businesses can excel at delivering a customer experience that differentiates them from their competitors.
Know your clients
While publicly traded companies spend tens of millions of dollars on sophisticated business intelligence platforms that personalize shopping recommendations and customize discounts, small and mid-sized businesses can do this the more personal way — by actually knowing their customers as people. Being greeted by name or having your daily order remembered has a big impact on customers. They feel like they are in an establishment that cares about them and remembers them. Small and medium-sized businesses can foster this environment by retaining employees and encouraging personal interactions and special offers for long-standing customers. Happy employees who stick around provide that critical connection between company and customer. And when ownership and management liberate them to go the extra mile for each customer, the results are often measured in years of customer loyalty. Ritz Carlton is a perfect example of this with their legendary “gold standard” of customer service. Their mantra “ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen,” empowers their employees to treat customers with the highest level of service.
Think like a customer
Companies often get caught up in the operational rhythm of running a business and end up with a tunnel vision that only sees things from their side of a business transaction. When you reverse this perspective and take time to look at things from the customer’s point of view, you have the ability to make important improvements to the customer experience. When you think of pain points at your business, don’t just think about what happens in internal company processes, look even more closely at the pain points for the customers. What would make you come back to your own business again if you were a customer? How can you surprise and delight your loyal customers? None of this is overly complicated or new. But it does take commitment to maintain a customer focus. Anyone can see things through the eyes of a customer, but consistently doing so takes discipline and creativity.
Align your culture with your customer
Company culture is often thought of as an internal dynamic that effects recruiting and retention. But it also has a huge impact on how a company treats its customers. When your company culture is aligned with your customer’s needs many of the customer experience issues take care of themselves. Promoting attentiveness, service and relationship-building will create an environment where your employees naturally display these traits in their interactions with customers. Culture often wins over processes and company mandates because it is something that employees across the organization buy into and embrace as part of their commitment to the company. This makes things like the customer-first mentality a natural and authentic trait rather than a mandated policy.
John Solari is the managing partner of J.A. Solari & Partners. He has 25 years of accounting experience and is also a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the Nevada Society of Certified Public Accountants.