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3 Free Ways to Amp Up Your Customer Service Today

Many business owners think that the tools needed to provide exceptional customer service are out of their reach. But even the smallest company has access to everything it needs to serve and delight. It's not about voice-recognition or other NASA-level tech systems -- in fact, those are usually the tools of customer abuse. I'm talking about incredibly simple but effective ideas that cost little or nothing, and can be implemented before you leave the office today.

Of course, the No. 1 determinant of the quality of service you provide is people. Without the right people, there isn't a tool, technique, or training manual in the world that can make your company a service superstar. So unless your people are happy, enthusiastic, supported, informed, genuinely motivated, enabled and empowered to make others happy, and free of unnecessary constraints and obstacles to doing so, don't bother reading this. You must have GREAT people first.

Humanity check completed and passed? If not, stop here and get your people house in order.

OK, now here are three ridiculously simple tools and practices you can put into place right now, to help make those great employees even better and your service even more polished:

1. Make strong response promises and never fail to keep them. Statements like "we make every effort to return email within two days" or "most orders ship within three business days" are pathetic non-commitments. Do you like it when the cable company gives you the infamous four-hour window to sit home and wait for service? You can do better.

Decide that you will return calls and emails within one or two hours, but no later than same business day, and do it without fail. Don't make excuses. If you ship products, maybe it's something like, "all in-stock products ordered by 2pm EST ship same day." Decide what promises you can reliably make (come on, push yourself), and keep them. Solid, specific assurances give customers confidence and encouragement, convey the image of a hard-charging company, and hold your business and employees to a healthy, high standard.

If you can't make consistent service promises, then something in the way you do things is broken.

2. Put your phone number prominently on your website. More and more companies, including all-stars like Zappos, Best Buy, Apple, and Angies List, have found that customers respond positively to this small touch. For smaller companies especially, it engenders trust and credibility, which are critical factors in a visitor's decision to buy. We have our toll-free number at the top of every page of my company's website, and customers have told us they appreciate that we make ourselves so easily available.

Some companies may have legitimate reasons for not providing a phone number. But most have no excuse; chances are they are just hiding behind their web pages, FAQs, and self-help tutorials. Make yourself aggressively available.

3. Add a live chat feature to your website: I was skeptical when we added live chat to our site, because I didn't think anyone would use it. Now I love it. Customers use it every day; it allows anyone in our office to jump on and speak to a visitor in seconds, link that visitor to the info he needs, and basically "walk him through the store." It also gives us real-time information about who is on our site at any given time, lets us push messages to visitors ("there's free shipping today"... or just "let us know if we can help"), allows us to keep written records of discussions and more. We pay a modest annual fee for Click and Chat, but there are several providers (Volusion, Comm100, and others) that offer free basic versions.

Just make sure if your site says "Live Chat Available", that someone is actually there to chat. Offering it and not answering is worse than not offering it at all.

In an era when real service is so rare, customers increasingly want to know that they can connect with a real person if they need to. Like providing a phone number, offering live chat lets them know you are there for them and happy to help.

Note that the common thread here is not throughput, ROI, or upsell rate. It's human connection. It's promising someone you'll return her e-mail today, listing your phone number in case she needs personal help, offering a live chat option in case she doesn't want to email or call. As with so many other customer service issues, the concepts are almost embarrassingly simple, yet the vast majority of companies just don't get it -- much less do it.

There are, of course, many other useful small business tools and practices, but this trio is a great, fast way to start. Tell us about other simple and free (or cheap) ways you've made the customer experience the best it can be.

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(Flickr image by Kainet)