Small businesses know the importance of customer service; in fact, it's a key differentiator for them. While more than a third of consumers say big companies fail to meet their expectations, only 6 percent say they feel dissatisfied with small companies, according to a recent survey by CreditMonkey.
That said, the best small businesses take the concept of “service" a step further: They see the value in providing equally good service to their vendors, employees, and other business partners. This creates a robust ecosystem of service that can pay off in many ways.
That was the collective view of a trio of successful entrepreneurs who took part in "Power to the Small," a panel discussion sponsored by Windstream, a provider of advanced network communications and technology solutions.
"Service is a three-legged stool," says Michael Tetterton, CEO of Creative Lodging Solutions, which helps companies save time and money on hotel reservations, hotel invoice consolidation, and travel programs. "If you don't have partners or suppliers, you have nothing to sell, so you need to provide service to them. But the real key to good service is having employees who are motivated to consistently perform at a high level, because they're the ones who deal with customers."
Tetterton puts that idea into action by, for example, giving staffers an extra week of vacation if they use that time to serve others, such as reading to kids in elementary school. "We're in the service industry, so it's logical for us," he says. "We believe that service is a noble thing, it's a noble business to be in."
Carey Smith, CEO of Big Ass Solutions, a maker of fans and other products, says that service to vendors is the leg of the stool that most companies overlook. "Capitalism is all about the book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten," he says. "Think about the problem that the automotive industry is having with their airbags: It's because the auto companies drive out every bit of profit for their suppliers. They beat them up, and it's foolish and short-sighted. They force their suppliers to cut too many corners." The results aren't just bad—and, in this case, catastrophic—for the airbag maker, but for the car makers as well, who suffer reputational and financial damage.
Turning his attention to his own customers, Smith says it's also important to provide uniform service to all. "Lots of companies have different levels of customer service," he says. "If you have five levels of customer service, it's too complicated. We tell our employees, 'Treat everyone like they're your mother.' If we make a mistake and have to rectify it to the point where we don't make money with a specific customer, that's life."
While Big Ass Solutions constantly introduces new products, it still services the fans it sold almost two decades ago. While the company invests heavily in R&D and new-product development, Smith says that it's important to realize that customers don't care about the energy being poured into new products if they still own and use the old ones.
Toa Green, who owns and operates Crank and Boom Craft Ice Cream, says companies can create a foundation of service by focusing on their mission."We sell ice cream, but when people come into our shop we want to provide with more than that. We want them to get an experience," she says. "I tell everyone that every person has a childhood ice cream memory. How can we be a part of those memories for our customers?"
One element to that, she adds, is to not let rules or policies get in the way of making people happy. If a customer comes in with an expired coupon, it's honored, because that person took the time and effort to visit the shop.
"If we all worry about others before ourselves, then we will never have to worry about ourselves because someone else will always have our backs," Green says. "Being able to take care of others, including vendors, other staff, our customers, or event organizers creates a culture that is warm and inviting for everyone that encounters us. Our team is able to make decisions based on that mission, and those decisions always ends up being the right thing to do."
Crank and Boom takes this idea of service into a unique customers-helping-customers arena. Its "Share a Scoop" program lets customers pay $5 and post a notice on a bulletin board alerting others, such as military veterans, that they can get a free scoop.
The panel of entrepreneurs concluded the best small businesses fortify their brand and enhance their success by regarding service as a circle that encompasses everyone who works for, with, or patronizes their company.