By: Constance Lee Menefee

I recently won the Bad Customer Service Lottery.  Grand prize was no access to my PC for eleven days in a six week period. My frustration was compounded by a series of just plain inexcusable mistakes and omissions by the company. I had to be dogged and vocal, but the problem was finally resolved.

Small business owners have plenty of customer service experience - both as recipients and purveyors. Being on the receiving end of bad experiences can teach you valuable lessons applicable to your own business.  Or, so I tell myself.

Customer service is a multi-dimensional experience defined by product (or service) quality, level of product (or service) delivery, level of employee skill and training and adequate customer follow up procedures.

Excellent customer service starts with a clear customer service plan in writing. Give copies to all your employees, not just those who have direct customer contact. Include your entire staff in discussions about service.

If you don't have a plan yet, or if you are a manager in a business owned by an absentee owner, you can still take steps to improve overall service:

  •  Make it easy for customers to communicate with you. Display your manager's or customer service representative's name prominently. Let customers know where to call or fax or send e-mail or write.
  • Tell customers what to expect from your company - this includes posting business hours and stating business hours, as well as the business address, on your answering machine messages.
  •  Always follow through.
  • Don't make promises you cannot keep.
  • Be clear about your fees and return or repair policies. Let people know about restrictions (kept to a minimum) ahead of time.
  • Be fully accountable for all product or service problems that stem from your errors or poor performance. If customer error is the problem, work with the person. Sometimes customers have incorrect expectations about products or services. Part of your business is educating the customer.
  • Welcome customer complaints. Over 90% of customers will not complain to you - but they will tell at least nine other people about their bad experience with your company.

  Article originally appeared in the Cincinnati Post, June 11, 1996