Secrets of Growth: Offering Top-Notch Customer Service, on a Budget

Our wise experts offer tips for conquering your biggest startup challenges.

Colleen DeBaise By Colleen DeBaise

New entrepreneurs have to do everything for their companies — including making sure customers are happy.

Julia Carmona and Lauren Katzberg of The Stylisted, a service in New York and Chicago that provides at-home hair styling and makeup, say their biggest startup challenge is offering top-notch service. “As a two-person team working to provide the best customer experience for both our clients and our stylists, across two different cities, we are a bit resource-constrained,” they tell us.

We asked the impressive experts on our “Secrets of Growth” panel (see their full bios here) to share their best advice.

How can newbie business owners provide the best customer service when resources are sparse?

TSE_JJ-Ramberg_150x150With a company like The Stylisted, where word-of-mouth marketing is so important, the owners cannot afford to have poor customer service. First, they should take a look at all of their internal processes and see if there are any inefficiencies they could eliminate which would free up some time. Generally, this can solve a lot of problems but owners often do not take the time to do this audit. If that does not do enough, either they should hire someone to handle the day-to-day customer service issues that come up (they can find someone temporary through sites like TaskRabbit), or they need to set expectations for their customers that they are able to meet. For example, if they are not able to accommodate last-minute requests, they should make that very clear on their website so that they do not disappoint new customers. Also, little things like a handwritten thank-you note from your team or a little gift from the stylist at the time of the appointment (like a sample of some hairspray they love) can go a long way towards building loyalty.

JJ RambergYour Business and Goodshop.com, follow at @jjramberg

TSE_Emily-Blumenthal_150x150The key is always being available. If you are committed to running a business, especially a multi-city one, then you have to recognize that your time isn’t your time anymore. We have designers at Handbag Designer 101 who go on vacation and then get orders. I call them to fulfill them and then they say: “Oh no,  can it wait?” Or “Can you tell the customer that I will get back to them?” This blows my mind. I come from a long line of entrepreneurs. I remember a conversation I had with my father when I was younger and saying “You are so lucky. You don’t have a boss.” His response stayed with me: “Every potential customer is your boss.” If you are committing to running a business, then that’s how it has to be. If you are running a brand, with a partner, then map out your schedules to complement each other. If you are in Chicago and your partner is in New York, then you MUST have a tight calendar of divide and conquer as to who is responsible for what. Set a time/date for weekly meetings, and hire a virtual assistant to ensure that no opportunities are lost and all customers get excellent service and follow-up.

Emily BlumenthalHandbag Designer 101, follow at @HandbagDesigner

TSE_Nell-Merlino_150x150I have had occasion to get my hair and make up done by hundreds of wonderful women and a few good men all over the U.S.A. I love the luxury your company offers of coming to me. It is a great service that lots of people need for work and special occasions. To provide the best customer services, ask a lot of question before the appointment. Develop a great app with a detailed questioner. Find out details: Does the customer wants false eyelashes, or can she send a photo of herself with a hairdo that she really likes? Is this for a big party, a major presentation, media appearance, photo shot, wedding or an important date? Make sure that you have all the equipment and products you need to make someone look their best. Keep periodically showing your client what you are doing so you know they are comfortable with the direction you are taking with their face or hair. Always plan enough time to make your client feel comfortable, confident and looking fabulous. They will tell their colleagues, family and friends.

Nell MerlinoPersonal BlackBox, follow at @nellmerlino

TSE_Sarah-Kunst_150x150FAQs and outsourcing are your best friends! Have detailed ‘frequently asked questions’ with every question a customer has ever asked, and a directory to search it. This way, customers can often find their own answers. If you frequently get the same questions, consider adding the answer up front on the site since for every question asked, 10 more are thought. Sometimes you will need to deal with questions, so outsource. Use a service like Zendesk to handle your online helpdesk or install a ‘chat’ feature on your site so that customers can ask questions when you’re online and you can give a quick answer. If you go that route, have a list of common answers at the ready so you can cut and paste. Always look at customer service touchpoints as an opportunity to do customer development and/or sell more product. That way, even if you have to spend time on customer service, you are getting value in return.
Sarah KunstFortis, follow at @sarahkunst

TSE_Lori-Horberman_150x150You might need to hire more staff. Remember this: Employees who like to work at early-stage companies are generally the scrappy, courageous type—they’re usually OK with lower compensation, as long as it is supplemented by company equity. That may work to your benefit too, since equity ownership can be a big incentive for employees to go the extra mile. But please don’t give away your company! I’m often asked how much is the right amount to issue to employees. Here are my general guidelines for stock options issued to management (other than founders) and you can work backwards from these numbers to arrive at shares for your staff: CEO = 8%-10%; CTO = 5%-8%; Chief Revenue/Sales/Strategy Officer = 3%-6%; COO = 2%-3% and CFO = 1.5%-2.5%. Remember, any stock options should be subject to vesting. (Check out the Entrepreneur Resource Center of my website for more info.)

Lori HobermanHoberman Law Group, follow at @lorihoberman

TSE_Julio-Melara_150x150Here are three common sense things you can do that aren’t so common. 1. Be friendly. Customer service starts with a smile. When you are in a face-to-face situation, a warm greeting should be the first thing your customers see and hear when they ask for help. And even when handling customer-service requests via telephone, a smile can come through in your voice, so make sure you’re ready to be friendly. 2. Train your staff. All your employees should understand how to talk to and interact with customers. Provide employee training that gives your staff the tools they need to carry good customer service through the entire customer experience. You set the tone and pace! 3. Say thank you consistently. Always remember gratitude is memorable! Regardless of the type of business you run, saying THANK YOU after every transaction is one of the easiest ways to start a habit of good customer service.

Julio Melara, JulioMelara.com, follow at @julio_melara

TSE_Divya-Gugnani_150x150The most important thing: Pick your channels of communication and make sure they are easily visible/accessible (not an 800 number buried 10 pages deep on your website). Choose a few — phone, email, online chat, Twitter or Facebook — and fully own those channels for your customer. That way, customers know exactly how to reach you. Respond in the best time practical. And remember: Customer service isn’t always about solving problems. It’s a time to connect with customers, so you can get feedback on products and services and ask what they’d like to see next. Responses should be personal and not canned answers. There is a lot of value in going the extra mile and developing a long-term relationship with your customers. Remember the Zappos story of the rep who ordered pizza for the customer or the Warby Parker associate who sent a customer a gift certificate for drinks? Small gestures that are genuine go a long way.

Divya GugnaniConcept to Co. follow at @dgugnani

TSE_El-Brown_150x150Customer service is the bedrock of small business. Customers are your business’s lifeline. If you feel you customer-service practices are suffering because of your growth, take time to write a detailed plan of your company’s customer-service policy and procedures. Train your staff on your customer-service culture to ensure that every customer is receiving the quality of service that represents your company and brand. As you grow, be certain to train all persons entering your company on your best practices. Staff training and professional development are key to establishing and maintaining great customer service.

El Brown, KinderJam, follow @kinderjam

TSE_Laura-Zander_150x150Study and mimic: Are there businesses out there whose customer service you admire and aspire to? (For example, Starbucks? White Glove Home Delivery? Pampered Chef or Stella and Dot? A certain hotel brand or string of restaurants?) Once you’ve found them, study what they do. Ask the owners, ask the employees, ask the customers!

Laura Zander, Jimmy Beans Wool, follow at @jimmybeanswool

See how the panel answered last week’s question: How to Build Brand Awareness

Posted: March 18, 2015

Colleen DeBaiseSecrets of Growth: Offering Top-Notch Customer Service, on a Budget