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Spoonfeedin WOrld

Business – Why Small Companies Are Better at Customer Service

Anthony T Jan

Many of my posts have focused on big company lessons for smaller, high-growth, entrepreneurial companies. But two recent experiences reminded me that sometimes big businesses need to look more carefully at what the little guy is doing. I believe that a small business is likely to deliver better customer service than a large company because of its innate common sense and understanding of the power of empathy.

Here are two personal examples of outstanding customer service: one outstandingly great and the other outstandingly bad.

I’ll start with the bad. Last year, on the day we were hosting a dinner party planned months in advance, I received an urgent call at the office that two men with a police officer had entered our home (by picking our lock) and proceeded to go into our basement to shut off and lock our gas. No warrant, no explanation. After calling our large national utility provider and waiting for a live rep to replace the automated “Silicon Sally,” I was told that we had not paid our bills. After another hour on the phone, I learned that the new post-merger parent company servicing our gas line had been sending our bills to a street with the same name in another town. We were responsible for the bills, even if we did not receive them.

I asked for the amount due and things went from bad to worse. I could no longer pay over the phone and could not pay online because my account was viewed as delinquent. Exasperated, I arranged for a money order and went to the service location only to be told that they could not take a money order for that large an amount. I would need to come back with cash. When I returned, it was late afternoon and no one was available to turn the gas back on. When I pleaded that we were hosting a dinner event and needed the gas to cook, I was told that that was why I should have paid my bills on time.

Contrast that to a local party supply company that delivered our china and glass rentals for a different event. An hour before the guests arrived, I realized that plates and glasses lay broken in several crates. When I called the company, they did not question the fact that they were broken, but apologized and offered to immediately send replacements. When I said that the timing was too tight and so we would make do, one of the owners came to the phone to apologize again. About 30 minutes later, I received a call on my cell. It was an employee from the rental company saying that he arrived with replacements but did not want to ring the bell and cause any distractions. The next business day, I received another message from the owner apologizing for the stress and inconvenience and letting me know that I would not be charged for any of the rentals.

The key difference in these experiences is the common sense and empathy of the small local company. Too much customer service — especially in large companies — has devolved to standard operating procedures and scripted answers delivered with artificial calmness. To an upset customer, these automated responses often seem inappropriate or absurd. When I interviewed my friend Mehmet Oz in a prior post, he said that the opposite of anger is not calmness but empathy. While I appreciate the challenges of cost-effectively scaling customer service, empathy training might help service employees calm angry customers more effectively, increasing their long-term loyalty, and perhaps even changing them into referring fans.

Of course there are examples of large companies with high-touch customer service, such as the well-documented case of Nordstrom. My guess, though, is that Nordstrom and other big companies known for excellent customer service have studied more best practices from small firms than from large ones.

For my money, the two best customer-service practices are sincere empathy over indifferent calmness and common sense over standard operating procedure. These two simple guiding principles remind us how easy it can be to transform the customer experience, and how unfortunate it is that more businesses have not done so.

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September 29, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized |

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