Personalised service: the beating heart of SMEs

Wherever you look, customers are expecting a better quality of service from businesses than ever before. At the same time, tolerance of poor customer experiences is at a low. The evidence is hard-hitting: according to the latest Vodafone Perspective series report, 85% of customers avoid companies where they’ve had a bad experience. Not only that, they were increasingly likely to tweet and Facebook all of their friends, as a result.

Right across the globe, service has never mattered so much. Today’s customers not only have wider choice than ever before, but they also have free access to communication channels to share their experience – instantly – with hundreds or even thousands of other potential customers. Which begs the question: what are businesses doing to retain their most valuable customers?

The answer seems to be ‘not enough’. Take these stats from Genesys, about the global spend of businesses: in 2012, $500 billion was spent globally on marketing and advertising, $50 billion on CRM and just $9 billion on customer service. Now consider a recent report from Adobe, revealing that while online retailers spend as much as 78% of their marketing budget on online advertising, 41% of their total online revenues come from existing customers who make up just 8% of visitors to their website. In other words, it pays to look after the customers you already have.

The news for smaller businesses is that they have a clear advantage when it comes to customer service. The American Express’ Global Business Barometer shows that 81% of British people think small business is going to serve their needs better than the larger competition. It goes on to say that UK customers feel small businesses really understand their needs and 66% of the UK population would spend a little more to get better service from their supplier (most people would spend around 11% extra in monetary terms, with a minority happy with 20% extra).

A big part of customer service is about listening; both to your customers but also to other businesses and even competitors. How are they engaging with their customers in the ever changing and increasingly digital world? And what can you do to build that personalised service?

Saif Bonar heads up Matthews Yard (, a collaborative workspace in Croydon aimed at fostering new start-ups. His facility has been reviewed on TripAdvisor and he makes a point of responding to whatever anyone says – even the positive comments. “In my opinion replying on TripAdvisor to the positive and negative comments is the only way to counter the damage from the negative ones,” he says. “I also think it’s just courteous to respond to people that have taken time out of their schedule to write something positive about their experience and give us valuable feedback (good or bad).” TripAdvisor, he suggests, is an “underestimated marketing tool.”

But it’s not just about the online space. It’s also about extending good service in the real world, something Bonar believes is often forgotten. “I try and get to know my customers, and probably know well over a hundred by first name, as do many of our staff,” he continues. “The lack of customer service and the personalisation of the user experience are big things that are missing from the high street in the UK. The retail experience in the US and continental Europe is miles ahead.”

Jonathan Main, proprietor of the Bookseller Crow, a popular independent London book shop in Crystal Palace, agrees. “In our physical shop I have customers I have known for sixteen years or so. Many become friends. The electronic world becomes part of, not a replacement, for this level of service. Twitter, blogging and Facebook are extensions of this. In return people get to know me and my taste, if they like it, a kind of trust develops.” Clearly this is basic marketing, and it follows that Main doesn’t distinguish particularly between e-service and in-person service. He has extended this to a mail order system, incremental business that could not have existed without this service and trust: “This in turn becomes the basis of something wider: a book club selling our carefully chosen stock to a bigger world, often on an individual basis.”

As Bonar goes on to say, “Many businesses, like the high street supermarkets, have focused on, and invested significantly in, personalising the shopping experience online [but] they have lost sight of the physical shopping experience on the High Street with their drive to reduce costs and increase profits through, for example, the automation of customer-facing jobs like checkout staff. The feel-good factor of a smile and a kind word are increasingly rare. At MY business we will always treasure that element of customer service!”

So what can you do to make your service more personal and effective on and offline? Well, sometimes it’s best to start small. For instance, a local Chiropodist in Croydon has installed a “please call me back” button on his website so people can be contacted as and when they want, regardless of office hours. Facilities like let you place a contact form on your homepage, so people can make appointments to speak to you when you’re both ready. If you ever survey your customers for advertising purposes, add a question about how they prefer to be contacted – and listen.

It can be little things like this that help retain clients as well as encourage new ones. After all, as US research organisation Flowtown’s infographic shows, finding a new customer costs 6-7 times more than keeping an existing one.

Defining what will be effective for your business will be intrinsically personal to your brand. But the value of happy loyal customers should never be underestimated, and it’s why personalised customer service should always be at the heart of your business.


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