2015 has already been an action-packed year for us. We’ve already booked 3 craft fairs (one of them in November!) and we have lots of plans for how we will be changing the business this year. I’ve been spending a lot of time, both personally and for the business, trying out new business services and finding new things and ways to improve the way I spend my time. Work/life balance is a struggle for everyone, and sometimes much moreso for a small business owner. There is no time away from the business when you run it from inside your home!

One thing that has been really effecting me these past two weeks has been the way that I have had to respond to things going wrong. Whether it is a string of bad luck or just a coincidence, I’ve had problems with almost every order I’ve placed since the beginning of the year. From simple mistakes (something was left out of an order) to incompetence (a package wasn’t delivered) to poor packing (items were destroyed in transport), I’ve dealt with it all. I’ve spent a lot of time communicating with customer service. The way that my complaint was handled played a huge role in how I felt about the company after the problem was resolved.

I’ve worked multiple jobs in customer service. I know that it’s not my strong suit, and that’s why it’s not my specialty anymore. However, as a small business owner it’s one of the roles I play each day. I’ve seen both sides of all of these points as both a customer and as a business, and I think it is worth paying attention to things that you don’t do well. Here are my 7 ways that customer service can make or break my willingness to be a repeat customer!

1) On hold: I prefer to deal with my complaints in 2 ways: via email or over the phone. For simple issues, I email, but when there’s a real mistake that needs an explanation, I phone. I really hate having to make phone calls. I hate the 500 questions you have to answer before talking to a human, I hate having to remember long order or customer numbers, I hate having to wait forever, but most of all, I despise wait music. It’s too upbeat and when it’s interrupted every 15-30 seconds with “we value you as a customer, please stay on the line” or “we are experiencing high call volume” it makes me go crazy. Tell me what I can do to make this go faster, like calling back after 1pm. Otherwise, leave me alone. Play something soothing or at least not anger-inducing. Also, tell me my wait time. If I hear that my wait time is 2 minutes, I’ll stay on hold despite the music. If you tell me my wait time is 30 minutes, I’ll try another form of communication or call back later. Bottom line: let me know what I’m in for and don’t keep bugging me. I’m probably doing something else while waiting and keeping you on speaker until the human comes on the line anyway!

2) Deliver on promises: One business I called gave you the option when the wait time is long to leave you number to mark your spot in the line. In theory, when it is your turn, they call you instead of having to listen to the awful hold music. I loved this idea. I followed the prompts and left my number. I waited for over an hour, no call. I called back in. Listened to the message again, and it sounded like I missed the final step. Left my number, did the final step and hung up (what it said to do). Another hour passes, no call back. So I call a third time. Wait 2-3 minutes and talk to a human being. Problem is resolved. Clearly the system did not work. I know not to use it, but I wonder how many people just give up or forget whole waiting. Bottom line: if you give me the option to avoid part of the process, make sure you follow through on what you promise.

3) Don’t waste my time: if you cannot solve or start to resolve my problem, please do not waste my time. If there’s nothing you can do to resolve the problem or if I need to talk to someone else, make it speedy. Everyone is on the clock. My work hours take up a lot of the useful hours of the day, so if I need to call in for a personal purchase, it’s on my lunch break. I don’t have much time and it’s hard to eat when someone may pick up at any time. Bottom line: make sure the service representatives have knowledge of the product and the ability to handle tricky situations OR know when to send the customer to a manager.

4) Make humans available: I love technology. I love not having to leave the house to order online. I prefer to check a box with what is wrong and have it quickly resolved than having to send an email or make a phone call. However, when the situation is complicated, it is so much easier to deal with a live person than deal with back-and-forth communication in any form where something gets lost to technology. Whether there’s a 24 hour live chat option or a phone line, I would rather resolve my issue in one sitting over 30 minutes than spend 6 days trying to resolve something over email. Bottom line: give me computer and human options and let me choose which one I want.

5) Not all customers are stupid: On the flip side of “the customer is always right” is “the customer is always stupid”. I think most of us have had the experience with the person who says the equivalent of “have you tried turning it off and on again? Are you sure?” I know that there are people who call in with questions that could be answered with 2 clicks on the website, but as we become more technologically proficient, more of us will try the computer before contacting a human. If I explain that I have tried the basic steps (turning it off and on again, following the instructions, looking for the lost package, etc), don’t make your first 5 questions the idiot questions. Bottom line: Listen to what I have to say, and then respond.

6) “I’m sorry” goes a long way: this can go either way. Some companies have “I’m sorry” written into the script which is then parroted to the customer, and this does nothing to help the situation. The kind of “I’m sorry” that I’m talking about is usually part of a response like “I’m sorry that [accurate description of problem] has happened. That must be really frustrating. Here’s how I can help you today”. This response, when said genuinely, instantly takes the wind out from under me. Even when I’m fuming after finally talking to the service representative, I am much calmer after hearing this. You are talking to me like I am a human being with a reasonable issue which can either be resolved or started to be resolved. Couple the I’m sorry with “that’s happened to me before” and you have won me over. Bottom line: Even when there is nothing the representative can do to solve the problem, that small piece of humanity makes me feel like my time wasn’t wasted.

7) The human behind the scenes: this is my ultimate make or break issue. I am in a bad mood when I have to call into customer service. If the situation is so bad or complicated that I have to make a phone call, then I have to sit through automated decision making hell (even worse if I have to parrot phrases back instead of finding the number), then I get placed on hold for anywhere from 2 to 45 minutes, and then I get to speak to a human who may or may not be able to resolve my problem – you can guarantee that even on my best days I will not be happy. At the same time, before I make the phone call I remind myself that the human being that I will (eventually) speak to IS NOT the person who caused the problem. I try and add in that dash of humanity because they don’t deserve that anger. That being said, I have experienced the full range of customer service representatives recently. From the bored, overworked person who really couldn’t care less that my order was 25% missing to the gracious, laughter-inducing people who made me decide to become a repeat customer. They all leave an impression. Even if I never expect to need to call in a problem again, they can make me leave a business over the thought of having to deal with them (or someone like them) again. The mood that I leave with is the energy that I think of when considering which company to choose for my next order. One interaction was so wonderful that for me, the minimal extra expense of doing business with them upfront (compared to other companies) is worth whatever they are doing to make their customer service representatives so stress reducing. She resolved a problem in 5 minutes which I had been fighting with another business for over a week. She resolved a problem which I didn’t even know she could solve. I had a cold when I called one person which made me hard to understand. I mentioned it at the beginning of the call, and 20 minutes later, he said that he hoped I felt better soon. Even though he couldn’t fully resolve the problem, that small bit of humanity made a world of difference. Bottom line: quality is key. I will stick with any company that keeps quality customer service representatives!

Hopefully you can commiserate with some of these things! It’s not easy being the problem solver and it’s so frustrating being the consumer when something has gone wrong. When both sides come into the resolution center with a bit of compassion and humanity, everyone comes out better. Come back next Monday for how to turn these issues into a strength for your small business!