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Summary:

As web workers, we are at the end of a supply line that brings together Internet connections, software, services and operating systems produced by large multinational corporations. We’re the 21st-century equivalents of the general store proprietors of an earlier age: we choose from a vast array […]

customer-serviceAs web workers, we are at the end of a supply line that brings together Internet connections, software, services and operating systems produced by large multinational corporations. We’re the 21st-century equivalents of the general store proprietors of an earlier age: we choose from a vast array of products and services, and offer those that will best meet our customers’ needs. We repackage those products, add our own creativity, and, importantly, include the service and support that large corporations can’t, or won’t, provide.

Many technology companies have come to the end of the line on providing personal customer service. I won’t point any fingers, but some of the biggest names in software, web sites and online services have no way for customers to contact them by phone or even online chat; even email forms go unanswered. Instead, users must rely on volunteer help on bulletin boards, discussion groups and the like.

We should be taking advantage of our “end-of-the-line” position. Web workers and small businesses can maintain professional relationships with customers in ways that large companies cannot. Clients should know that they can get help from us, and we should make clear what support services we offer. Service is how we can differentiate ourselves, compete with larger businesses, and thrive in difficult economic times.

Unfortunately, saying “we provide outstanding customer service” has become a cliche. It’s up to us to convince current and potential clients that the service we provide is worth the added cost.

  • Provide ways to connect with us. Many of our clients prefer to talk to a human being. As the founder and co-owner of a three-person web development and hosting company, I spend what sometimes feels like an inordinate amount of time assisting customers. But I’ve concluded that providing excellent customer service is the only way that a company like mine can survive.
  • Provide self-help options. In a recent talk, Chip Lackey of J.D. Power and Associates (the people who do the well-known ratings) said that customer satisfaction goes up when self-help options are provided. You don’t need to be a big company to offer such options. My company offers status updates (available on two separate web sites, on Facebook, on Twitter and as recorded phone messages), a knowledge base/FAQ, and a blog. We’re also experimenting with offering technical support through Get Satisfaction.
  • Maintain reliability and responsiveness. We try to answer phone calls immediately during business hours, even when we’re out of the office, thanks to call forwarding. And we respond to emails within 24 hours. We’re also on call after hours; we’ve found that most clients don’t abuse our availability.
  • Stress creativity and uniqueness. Our customers come to us because they don’t want a web site that looks like a tired template from a stock source. And despite our small size, we have the content development, graphic design and programming skills matching those of larger companies; we also have arrangements with others who offer services that we don’t.
  • Make the cost as painless as possible. We have found that most clients don’t want to pay extra for a service contract, so we include the cost of service in the project fee. But we make clear which services are included, and spell out rates for services that are not part of the project cost. We also take credit cards, and set up payment plans when needed.

Like Darrell, I’m not a big fan of personal branding. I have a journalism background, and am skeptical of advertising/marketing jargon. But, unlike Darrell, I do think that it’s important to be visible, so I’ve used the above strategies to stand out in the crowd.

Share your customer service tips in the comments.

Image by sxc.hu user thadz.