Any business that relies on customers for their income whether it’s product or service based needs to prioritize its customer experience. Many small businesses are often started by people, who don’t necessarily have a business degree, or for that matter, may have never even worked in a retail position at some point in their lives. Having great customer service is an easy way to set yourself apart from your competition. Even as artists, offering commissioned artwork or print products, your approach to customer service could be the very aspect than can make or break your business.
Prior to my career as an artist and graphic designer, I mostly worked in jobs that were retail or customer service-based positions. Anyone who has worked one of these jobs will tell you how challenging and downright soul-crushing it can be at times. It was an extremely valuable experience for me, however, because it taught me how to problem solve when it came to customer experiences. Let’s look at 5 ways you might be failing at customer service in your business.
Not Having a Great Online Presence
There once was a time when it wasn’t a requirement for a business to have a website. Now, at a bare minimum, you should have some sort of online presence whether it be a full website or a free social site like a business page on Facebook or Instagram. The internet has replaced the yellow pages. Most people will Google a business now when they want to know something about it. If your customers can’t easily find basic information like what your business hours are, where you are located, how to contact you, or how to buy what you’re selling, this can be the one thing that makes them choose to spend their money elsewhere.
I understand that websites can be costly, but there are many ways to set up relatively inexpensive websites for around $100 a year. If you’re not tech savvy you may want to enlist the help of a friend or relative that is. Depending on what your business sells you could arrange a services trade as a form of payment. For example, I have a services trade agreement with my hair stylist where I help her with all of her website and branding needs in exchange for her hair services. We track the cost of each service we each provide on a shared spreadsheet as well to make sure that the exchange is fair.
As I mentioned earlier, having a free Instagram or Facebook business account is a great place to start as well and is really easy to set up. Many people don’t typically think of a website as an element of customer service, but it’s likely the first experience your customer will have with your business.
Unprofessional Email Etiquette
It’s common for many businesses, especially those targeted at younger women, to speak to their customers in a very casual tone. This is done as a marketing tactic and is different than how you should speak to a customer when it relates to a complaint or issue with the product or service you are providing. While a customer may be fine with you calling her “girl boss” and “babe” in your marketing language, they are less comfortable with the casual girlfriend talk when they need a refund or something has gone wrong with their purchase.
It’s not that you have to do a complete 180 and resort to uber-professional jargon, but you need to find a balance between making them feel like you are taking their concern seriously and still representing your brand authentically. You don’t want to come off completely emotionless to their concern either.
A great best practice is setting a standard of how long it will take you to reply to emails and stick to it. This can be as simple as having a line of text on the contact page on your website saying it typically takes 3-5 business days for you to respond, or whatever is realistic for you. Occasionally legitimate emails will end up in spam folders or missed altogether. When you do finally come across the email make sure you still respond with a sincere apology for the lateness and an answer to their query.
Thinking the Customer is Always Wrong
Listen, there are some cranky people out there. Some people have a bad day and take it out on the first person they come across. I once had a lady make me feel 1 inch tall because I accidentally directed her to the wrong area of the store where a jacket used to be two days prior. We were doing our seasonal changeover and I forgot in the moment that the jacket was now in a different location.
Was she right to make me feel totally incompetent because of it? Heck no! Was her displeasure likely about me directing her to the wrong spot? Probably not, but I’m not her therapist so I didn’t go down that rabbit hole with her. I apologized and guided her personally to the right area where the jacket was.
The normal human being in me wanted to retort and tell her she was being unnecessarily rude, but what would that have accomplished at that moment? There are times when you should definitely not accept abusive behavior even from a customer, but at that moment I had to make an assessment on whether I thought the battle was worth it or not. I was also an employee representing a company that wasn’t my own.
When you start running your own business there’s probably part of you that thinks “I’m never putting up with anyone’s negativity ever again” But guess what? Unless the whole world gets a frontal lobotomy, that isn’t going to happen. There will be times when you have to assess whether it’s worth fighting someone or finding a way to defuse the situation. You are only in control of YOUR actions. If you meet your irritable customer back with equal irritability what do you think the outcome will be? In your personal life has that ever gotten the other person to back down or does it make the situation worse?
Being able to take a situation where your customer is irritated about something and doing your best to understand their issue and be able to diffuse it can be the difference between them telling all of their friends how big of a jerk you were or how they were upset but you were able to make them feel differently by the time they left. Word of mouth can be as valuable as any money you spend on marketing so you have to treat it with the same level of value in your business.
Arguing With Customer Reviews or Comments
There’s advice out there saying that you should never delete bad customer comments because it’s an opportunity to show how you deal with customer service to other customers. This DOES NOT apply to people who are clearly trolls and are not actual customers. I say delete those all day long. If someone legitimately has a complaint with the service or product you provide, however, and then decide to contact you publically about it, you have to put your best face on.
I have seen artists on Facebook share screenshots of conversations with customers where sure, the customer was being a bit of a jerk, but they decided to also be a jerk back which escalated the situation. It may feel good at the moment that you stood up for yourself, but EVERYONE, even your happy customers are watching how you deal with those situations.
You may have some people that agree you took the right approach, but to others, you are showing how unprofessional and petty you can be. The high road may be a lonely place, but not many businesses survive long term taking the low road. Meeting your customer in that public-facing forum, addressing their concern, and offering a solution or apology – whichever is appropriate – will often solve the problem and show that you care about your customers and their experience.
I saw a google review once for a business that started with how everything initially went wrong with their experience, but because of how that business was able to resolve the situation the customer still gave them a 5-star review. This is an awesome example of how the customer was being really honest in their experience and how great customer service was able to turn a disgruntled customer into a passionate advocate.
Not Clearly Communicating Your Return Policy
If you have a return or exchange policy, make sure you are clear about it on your website, in contracts, or if possible, directly at the point where your customer makes their purchase. This is a common customer service issue for any business whether it is product or service-based.
Having a policy in place not only protects you as a business but also gives the customer piece of mind that their purchase is backed up by some sort of guarantee if something goes wrong. You can also choose to not accept returns on some items, but again you have to be very clear as to what those items are and potentially why.
For example, I don’t accept returns on my digital download products. The nature of it being digital, it isn’t returnable without proving they don’t still have a copy. If the customer is unhappy with their purchase I will work with them to see if there is another solution or a discount I can give them on something else. For physical products like prints, my policy changes depending on the reason for the return. All of this information is clearly stated in the FAQ or return policy section of the website where my customers make their purchases. For my commission clients, everything is explicitly laid out in a contract that they sign before I start work on their project.
Bad Customer Service On All Fronts – A Case Study
A good friend of mine was recently married after waiting three years for it to happen (thanks global pandemic). Like many brides, she had a vision for the floral arrangement on her big day. She had carefully planned what the flowers would look like and the keepsakes she would make with them afterward. Everything was arranged and going smoothly – until it didn’t.
In the days leading up to the wedding, the florist was unresponsive and on the day of the event – no flowers arrived. When her coordinator was finally able to get through to the florist they said that the order had “fallen through the cracks.” So there was a mad scramble to get some flowers together for the wedding. She ended up with flowers she had not wanted and the quality of them was extremely poor as well.
After a lengthy back and forth with the owner, it appeared part of why her order was missed was that they had switched the system that they were using to intake orders partway through the process. This however was after the owner accused my friend of basically ghosting her. This was an unfair and inaccurate accusation on the florist’s part considering there was evidence to the contrary.
My friend did receive a full refund BUT the bad experience did not end there. She left a measured and honest review of her experience for other potential brides and acknowledged that the business likely was just having a bad day. The owner responded back with what felt like an insincere apology because it was followed, once again, by accusing her of being the one that did not communicate appropriately. Having explicit proof this was not the case, my friend responded back politely calling her out on it. The entire review and comments were subsequently completely deleted afterward by the business owner.
Where should I start with where this business owner went wrong? Whether they were switching ordering systems or not, was not my friend’s fault. While it may have contributed to why the error was made and can certainly act as a partial explanation, it didn’t explain the many emails and receipts for payment that proved that the wedding was still happening and the flowers were still expected.
If the business was experiencing technical issues of any sort, it’s THEIR responsibility to check in with their customers. The refund in the full context of this situation felt more like a “shut up and go away” as opposed to an acknowledgment of fault or a “you know what, we really messed up – please accept a refund on your order.” There are so many ways this could have been handled differently. The most alarming thing to me was the continued passive-aggressive assertion that the florist kept making about the lack of communication. Accusing your customer of being the one at fault after already admitting you made the error is a great way to singlehandedly tank your business. The situation could have been resolved so easily with better customer service practices and a little more humility from the business owner.
Some Final Thoughts
I want to be clear that being good at customer service doesn’t mean being a pushover. There are times when you may need to fire a client or ask a customer not to return to your business because they have been abusive, violent, or threatening. There’s no room for that kind of behavior and it should NOT be tolerated. Many minor to moderate customer service issues, however, are easily resolved or at least diffused with a tactful approach.
Take a moment to put yourself in your customer’s shoes and understand where their emotional response may be coming from. You may not be able to solve every issue, but your business will not survive if every conflict you enter results in a burnt bridge. You may be able to delete an unsavory review here and there but you cannot control word of mouth. Gaining a reputation for having terrible customer service could cause people to steer clear of you fast.
You will unfortunately not be able to please everyone, but there are some ways you can mitigate potentially negative situations from accelerating. Investing your time in making sure your customers have a great experience with you and your business is an investment that always yields a high return.
What are some of your customer service best practices? Share in the comments below!