I went to a cheap and cheerful Persian restaurant on Friday night, and despite having booked a table, it was pretty obvious none were available. No fear - the waiter was profusely apologetic and said that he didn't expect one of the big boozy tables to stay as long as they had. He said he didn't really want to kick anyone out as they were obviously all having a great time but would try to create a table for us out of nowhere - or if we preferred we could go for a drink nearby for 15 minutes. Yes, it put us out a bit - but his honesty and politeness made up for it.
Being honest with customers if you've slighted them in any way, even if it's not your fault, is crucial - but it means nothing unless it goes hand in hand with a big smile, a big apology and a heavy dose of politeness. You need your customer service engines on full throttle to recover from a mistake.
Then yesterday I went out for a pub lunch (it truly was a weekend of business research) and ordered a Virgin Mary (apart from the in-between distinctly un-business-researchy bits that demanded the need for copious amounts of tomato juice). It was a bit of an arty-farty gastro pub, so the chef had decided to snazz up the humble Virgin Mary mix - going beyond the oh-so-normal Tabasco Sauce realms and into the edgier lands of mixing in horseradish, mustard and, er, garlic. But who wants massive lumps of raw garlic in their pseudo-cocktails? Not I, that's for sure. Crunching into a quarter-clove on a hangover is nothing short of devastating.
Luckily, the waitress was a customer service star - immediately and cheerily offering to remake the drink herself however I liked it, and saying that she'd tell the chef to tone it down a bit for future customers. Key lesson: make sure the customer gets exactly what they want, and pass on all feedback so you can refine and perfect your product offerings.
Service with a massive smile and a few jokes never goes astray either. My pub waitress yesterday wasn't afraid to have a laugh with the punters, and it really made a difference. You want to spend your money somewhere you feel comfortable, that emanates good feelings. You want to believe that staff and business owners are having fun. It makes the buying experience enjoyable. Whether you're a newsagent owner, an antiques dealer or a jeweller, a sense of humour makes your memorable and likeable - which makes repeat custom that bit more likely.
You can still capture the same effect online, by the way. Check out this great article on the most creative error pages out there for just a slither of the scope for inducing smiles through ecommerce.
Customer relationship management (CRM) software is a must. CRM lets you keep track of your relationship with customers - you record every time you speak with them or they order from you or any interaction you have. You can set up reminders so that, say, six months after a purchase, an automated email goes out to the customers checking everything is good with their product. Or you can automate reminders to organise follow-up meetings with clients. And so on.
It's crucial for staying on top of your relationships. And it shows you who your most valuable customers are (the ones you need to invest most of your customer service efforts into), how many repeat customers you get, and alerts you if you're not getting much repeat custom (always a sign you need to change the way you do things, fast).
Another big idea that came out of the small business roundtable I attended last week was that big brands are moving towards offering lots of free business advice (not just technical support) for their business customers - mainly through online articles and free helplines. This, they believe, is all part of improving customer engagement - creating value for the customer above and beyond just products.
If the world's biggest brands are doing it, you should be nicking the idea. (They have armies of research bods investigating what consumers like.) You don't need to have a free helpline - that's far too resource- and money-intensive to be possible. But you can put videos on YouTube, tweet and have a blog on your website helping customers get more out of your products and giving them advice on all things related to your niche that they'd find useful, and that you are uniquely positioned to help them with. Position yourself as the most helpful expert in your field around - and watch customer loyalty soar.