Providing outstanding customer service and increasing customer engagement are two of the main strategies the participating small businesses are using to get a competitive edge.
"...(T)he ability to maintain a commitment to outstanding customer service that ultimately engenders customer loyalty to the business (especially in businesses where the business owner's primary ware was him/herself and his/her expertise, such as health care or real estate)" was seen as an "important differentiator" to the small businesses participating in the study.
Three Ways to Build Customer Loyalty
So how do you go about building that kind of customer loyalty?
The participating small businesses found these three strategies particularly successful:
- being personally accessible to customers/patients, getting to know them and understanding their needs and communicating with them on an ongoing basis;
- targeting specific sectors with very focused messaging to emphasize key competencies;
- offering something different than larger businesses such as being faster or less costly or having less bureaucracy.
Examples of Building Customer Loyalty Strategies
For instance, Aaron Van Gaver, owner of the Downtown Wellness Centre said, "Every month I go through everything. What clients do I need to follow up with? I call about 15 to 20 every month or email to see how they are doing and to let them know even if they are not coming in, someone is checking on them. I find it is very important. It reminds people to come back."
Jamie Schneiderman, owner of Clearfit emphasized the service in customer service: "...large corporate clients chose us to work with versus huge companies because they knew they were important to us and they will get service. When they call we answer the phone. If something goes wrong, we will fix it. So having great product and providing service!"
Newsletters and email were frequently mentioned as ways to communicate with customers and attempt to provide customer engagement. Some participants mentioned using email to present special offers; others suggested using email after each transaction to figure out what they're doing right or wrong and let people have their say.
Social Media as a Tool for Enhancing Customer Service
The participating small businesses viewed social media as another valuable tool for enhancing both customer service and customer engagement. They realize how social media provides opportunities for immediate communication with a large audience and were quick to come up with examples of how social media could be used to generate more business or provide better customer service, such as using social media to remind customers or limited time offers or advise clients of appointment openings due to cancellations.
"I spent time this winter looking at Twitter and social media. I had time to see how it would work with me. I'm not the only one - there is a whole community making a living off of social media. Forward thinking realtors are on Twitter sharing information and questions, promoting clients' properties," said Blair Smith, realtor.
But while the study participants see the value of social media, most of them are at the wading stage rather than all the way into the pool so far.
"Virtually all participants were involved in some way on Facebook. Twitter use was popular, but to a lesser extent. Some participants felt that Facebook is a private tool, whereas Twitter is more useful for business purposes. Consultants to small business noted heavy inquires about social media uses and applications in the past year. However, small business owners' familiarity and comfort with these tools varied."
Study participants do plan to do more with social media in the future though. Their long-term goals for social media include:
- "Learning more about and beginning to use Twitter - to announce openings, new products, sales and services, and limited time offer items (See these Tips for Promoting Your Business on Twitter)
- Increasing their use of texting to customers - to provide a time savings benefit and the opportunity for customized messages/specials targeted to individual needs, to encourage membership in mobile updates
- Blogging - to connect with customers as well as other entrepreneurs, to engage viewers; posting YouTube videos to introduce staff and explain various services or setting up online communities where customers could share their stories/product experiences"
(Interested in using social media to promote your own small business? Learn how to create a social media plan.)
These small businesses are very representative of most small businesses at this time; they appreciate the potential of social media and are experimenting with it, but have yet to implement it at a level that actually improves customer service or customer engagement.
It would be especially interesting if Telus would re-interview the participating small businesses a year from now to see how their social media goals have progressed and if they found that their social media efforts had any effect on their level of customer service.
In the meantime, though, the results of this study provide a lot of suggestions for improving customer service and building customer loyalty that all small businesses can use.
*The study involved one-on-one conversations with small businesses in Western Canada and discussions held at a Toronto focus group with local small business owners to find out how Canadian small businesses are differentiating themselves in order to remain profitable in the current economic climate.