Customer service is an investment, but unlike other equity, it's nearly guaranteed to return substantial dividends.
In my company's early days, I ran a 10-person customer service team. I quickly found that being honest, genuine and empathetic could turn a two-minute phone call into the highlight of a client's day. Those personal connections translate to word-of-mouth marketing - satisfied buyers telling friends and colleagues about their positive experiences with your business.
Today, I frequently say to clients, partners, media and employees that customer service is a profit center, not a cost center. That may put me in the minority, but the top companies always invest heavily in customer service. Consider Apple, Southwest Airlines, Virgin and American Express as examples. It's no coincidence that they are some of the world's most profitable companies.
One particular example of stellar customer service convinced me that investing in it can be profitable and sustainable.
Back in 2011, I signed up for an American Express credit card. Everything went fine; I completed the form, got approved and received my card in the mail. A few weeks later, I decided to cancel the card because I found a better deal, but I had already paid the $395 annual fee.
I called the American Express customer service line, was connected to someone in billing and requested to cancel. After being asked whether they could do anything to make me reconsider and politely saying no, the woman on the other end of the phone proceeded to cancel my card. Things went smoothly, and I was ready to end the call when she said, "I notice you've paid our $395 annual fee. Let me go ahead and make sure that gets refunded to you in the next few days."
I hadn't expected a refund, nor did I ask for it, but she offered it without prompting. It was deposited into my account 48 hours later.
Now, I canceled my AmEx card, but how many people do you think I've told about this positive experience? Besides my friends and colleagues, I'm now sharing this experience in print. AmEx could, of course, attribute part of their marketing spend directly to me signing up for a card, but what did it cost them to have me describe their amazing customer service to my personal and business connections, to say nothing of all of you?
Zero. Zilch. Nada.
Like their competitors, this company could have outsourced its customer service to a remote location with a primary focus on reducing call time and increasing calls taken per rep, per hour, but they didn't. Instead, each of their customer service reps are trained extremely well (not to mention empowered), and they put the customer experience above everything else, including revenue.
Does your business take every opportunity to meet its customers' needs, or does it fight tooth and nail to stop every refund request? Will your customers tell people that you're an amazing company or just another self-serving business?
It's easy to outsource absolutely everything with the false belief that saving money will allow you to grow your business faster and increase your margins. But consider the intangible benefits of word-of-mouth. What do your customers say about your products and customer service and support?
If you're not sure, ask them. Send an email survey to your customers using tools like SurveyMonkey, Cvent or Snap Surveys. Best of all, you can always improve if the survey response isn't what you'd hoped it would be.
Here's an example from business experience:
In 2010, my company's CSAT (Customer SATisfaction) was 82 percent, which meant that 82 out of every 100 clients rated our support Good, Very Good or Excellent. This was OK, but we could do better.
Fast forward and our CSAT is 96 percent and climbing. That's higher than most of the companies I mentioned previously in this article. I'm not bragging; I just want to prove to you that if you're dedicated to increasing your customer satisfaction ranking, you'll find a way.
Here are a few things we did to boost our CSAT rating, which you can put to work at your own company, too.
1. Listen more than you talk. You can do this with surveys, focus groups or by including a way for customers to give you feedback after every transaction. The best companies listen more than they talk. We have two ears and only one mouth for a reason.
2. Set CSAT goals at three-, six-, 12- and 24-month intervals. Let's say your CSAT is currently 63 percent and you want to get it to 85 percent. It might sound like a huge jump, but what if you set achievable goals for the next 24 months and work diligently toward them? Aiming for a 65 percent CSAT within three months, 70 percent within six months and so on, are incremental successes that add up.
3. Be the face of customer service. The company attitude on customer service has to be "the buck stops here." When a customer isn't happy, you have to go out of your way to personally contact them and correct the concern. Zappos built a $1 billion business with this simple concept, maybe you can as well.
4. Model other successful brands. Think of the businesses you buy from regularly. Which of them impress you consistently with their customer service? What do they do differently from others? Model their ideas, because there's no point in reinventing the wheel.
5. Surprise every customer. What would happen if you thanked a customer for their order with a handwritten note? Your word-of-mouth would sharply increase, because no one else does it. It's so simple, so why not try?
6. Care. Why do so few business owners care about customer service? If you respect your customers and are sincere in your approach, you will build an amazingly loyal group of customers who will tell everyone they know about you and come to your defense when things sometimes go wrong.
In the end, investing in customer service is often the same as investing in marketing. The goal of marketing is to drive targeted leads to your business who then turn into customers and give you money in exchange for your product. By investing in customer service, you can turn one-time purchasers into lifelong customers who bring others with them.
Mitchell Harper is the co-founder and co-CEO of Bigcommerce, the world's fastest- growing SaaS ecommerce platform that helps power over 35,000 small businesses online. Contact him at email@example.com, Twitter handle @mitchellharper.