Simple Ways to Make Customers Happier

Last Updated Jul 18, 2011 12:31 PM EDT

When it comes to customer service, maybe we should all be thinking small.

That's the takeaway from two reports this morning that shed new light on how big businesses do business.

First up is a survey by Gina-Marie Cheeseman on the Triple Pundit blog that tested the customer service practices of Fortune 50 companies.

In order to test their willingness to interact with customers, she reviewed the homepages of the businesses to see if she could see Facebook or Twitter icons â€" evidence that the companies "get" Customer 2.0 and were willing to interact with them through social media. She also looked for toll-free phone numbers.

Among her findings:

  • Only 13 companies have Facebook and Twitter icons on their homepages and a toll free number listed on their contact pages.
  • Just 7 companies have Facebook and Twitter icons on their homepages, but no toll free numbers listed anywhere.
  • Another 13 companies have toll free numbers listed on their contact pages, but no Facebook and Twitter icons on their homepages.
  • There are 17 companies without either icon on their homepages nor toll free numbers listed anywhere on their websites.
Isn't that something?

The second item that crossed my desk comes by way of the Chicago Sun-Times' "The Fixer" column. In it, consumer advocate Stephanie Zimmerman (I hope she doesn't mind me calling her that) describes the uncaring attitude of big companies that employ large call centers.

One reader describes the working conditions:

Every call she received was timed. Their motto was number one, GET THE MONEY! And number two, GET OFF THE PHONE!

If a call was going past the 'average time,' the supervisor would come over and tell her to get off the phone.

Well, that's troubling.

I wouldn't necessarily jump to the conclusion that a large business will provide inferior service. There are plenty of examples of large companies making their customers happy.

But I think it might be true that thinking small can lead to better service.

What do I mean?

A smaller business has more to lose. A company that is small, or thinks small, feels that every customer is important, and is therefore far less likely to treat a consumer like a number.

At smaller businesses, employees are held accountable for their service decisions. It's a different kind of accountability than, say, at a large business where everyone wears a nametag and identifies themselves by their "extension" instead of by name. There are only a few people you can point fingers at. The buck is more likely to stop with the employee who did â€" or didn't â€" offer good service.

There's nowhere to run when things go wrong. Because small businesses are, well, small, you can't hide in a cube farm or the back office when an angry customer tries to confront you. Knowing that can make an employee far less likely to throw the book in your face.

I think Cheeseman is on to something. It's easy for a big company to lose touch with its customers and to offer inferior service. But the solution isn't to downsize the company; it's to downsize the way a company thinks about itself.

If you're a customer, you probably already know where to find these "small"-thinking companies. They go by names like Amazon.com, Trader Joe's and Apple, and if you look real hard, you'll find more like them.

Related:

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He's the author of the upcoming book Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals, which critics have called it "eye-opening" and "inspiring." You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.
Photo: VividImageInc/Flickr
  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the Mint.com. He is at work on a book about customer service issues.