8 Ways Small Business Owners can Improve Customer Satisfaction

Inspired by Wedding Planning

The average person has very few opportunities to invest so much money (so, so much Customer Service for Small Businessmoney) into local businesses as they do when they are planning their wedding.

From the photographer to the DJ to the caterer to the florist to the wedding planner to the limo company to the wedding cake baker to the hair and makeup artists and quite possibly including your venue, bridal dress shop, tuxedo rentals and the travel agent who books your honeymoon, weddings pump thousands (and thousands and thousands) of dollars into local and small businesses.

If it’s one thing I learned from planning my own wedding, it’s that if a small business owner can work successfully and satisfactorily with a bride, then there is probably very little you can teach them about customer satisfaction when it comes to working with the average (less stressed out) customer or client.

Unfortunately, too many small businesses miss the mark on how to provide customer service in the 21st century and it is detrimentally affecting their business.  Here are some lessons for small business success that I picked up from the vendors I’ve loved (and hated) during my own wedding planning experience:

1). Communicate: Nothing is more frustrating when you are stressed out than contacting a vendor or company and not hearing back from them in a timely fashion…or ever. Even if you don’t have time to answer your customer’s 10-page email right now, send them a response (not an automated response, but an actual human response) letting them know that you received their message and give them a date by which you will respond. Then, make sure you really do respond by the date you have given them. Communication builds trust, while lack of communication makes you look unprofessional and incompetent.

Continuously respond to your customers, preferably within 24 hours, follow up throughout every stage of your project and, should you anticipate any problems or issues, let them know immediately and be prepared with an acceptable remedy.

2). Never Miss Deadlines: The concept of “under promise and over deliver” is a vital one in business. When giving customers a deadline of when you will respond to their email, have a proof for them or will be shipping their product,  allow some time for things to go wrong or for life to throw you a curve ball or two. Then, when things actually go smoothly and they receive what you promised before you promised it by, they’ll be all the more impressed.

Again, nothing looks less professional, or is more detrimental to trust, than missing a deadline.  A good policy is to never, ever miss a deadline. Not waiting until the last minute to get started is a great way to ensure that unforeseen circumstances don’t interfere with your timeline.

3). Keep it Positive: One of the first wedding DJs my fiancé and I met with came highly recommended by another friend. This is why I was shocked when he had a reason for not being able (or not wanting, probably) to do many of the things I asked for, all of which were things I had witnessed being done at many, many other weddings.  I ended up hiring a great DJ who was open to all my ideas, gave me honest feedback and said that, no matter what I wanted, he would make it happen.

While you should, by all means, share your professional advice and opinions with your clients and customers, be careful that you are making their wants and needs a priority and not your own. If you continuously spout the word “no” to them, they will find someone with a better attitude. The obvious exception to this rule is if what the customer is asking for compromises the integrity or legality of your business.

4). Don’t Make Excuses: I hired a woman to create a custom cake topper for us. I hired her in November and gave her all the way until the end of April to get it to me, even though it’s something she could make in a day (according to her). I paid her upfront, as requested and it was no small fee. However, I wanted the custom topper and, after researching many different artists, chose her to make it for me. I emailed her the first week in April, asking if we were on schedule for delivery by the end of the month. She said “yes.” The last week of April, the week my topper was due by, more than five months after ordering it, I sent her another email asking her for an ETA.

And here’s where it started to go wrong.

She asked for a couple more weeks as her parents, for whom she is the primary caretaker, were both sick with the flu. I am not heartless so I agreed to two more weeks. Three weeks later, I contacted her again. She had broken her leg and needed more time. Then she was behind on orders, then her dog died, then blah, blah, blah. I was beginning to think she had stolen my money and was never going to give me my product.

At the end of May, a solid month past her due date, I asked her for a refund, telling her, as politely as possible, that I thought it best that she focus on her personal life while I burden someone else with money.  This was, after all, a project that could have been finished a hundred times over between when I placed the order and when her parents supposedly got sick. Under threat of a poor rating on Etsy, she begged for one more chance, I gave it to her and I had my cake topper within a week. The cake topper was beautiful and I would have bragged about her to all my bride-to-be friends had she not been so horribly unprofessional.

The thing is – and this is going to sound cold – to your customers, you are nothing but a way for them to get something they want or need in exchange for money. Parents get sick, legs get broken and dogs die.  Factor these inevitabilities of life into your work plan. A valid excuse here and there accompanied by extreme professionalism in handling it is acceptable. Keep in mind that, no matter what good or service you provide, there is someone else out there who can also provide it, without the delays or the complaints.

5). Have a contract: We were all set to hire a photographer until he asked for a deposit and then told me he “doesn’t have a contract.” Not having a contract for the services you provide, especially if it is standard in your industry, makes you look amateurish and, for someone who is about to write a check for thousands of dollars, it’s downright scary.

A contract protects both you and your client. Never do business without it.

6). Have a website: Not having a website is also an amateurish move and can cost you a lot more business than you realize. Invest in a quality website designer and quality website copy. Most customers don’t hire anyone without checking out their website first.

7). Take charge: My favorite vendors are the ones who think of everything. While I had to request that my makeup artist bring a backup airbrush gun (“you mean you don’t do this already???”), had to remind my caterer that I still haven’t done a food tasting and had to tell my wedding cake shop that they offer free groom’s cakes with orders over $500 and that I qualify for this, my photographer, DJ and day-of coordinator have all emailed me at regular intervals reminding me to fill out their well-organized informational forms, schedule follow-up meetings and even remind me of when my next deposits are due. With these latter vendors, this all happens automatically and, because they are so organized and on top of everything, I trust them and their abilities immensely. These are the vendors I will refer to other stressed-out, overwhelmed brides.

Remember, you are responsible for leading the customer through the process, not the other way around. If you have trouble staying organized, detail-oriented or on top of communication, invest in an assistant who has these strengths.

8). Go above and beyond: My wedding photographer, DJ and the event manager at my venue have all given me referrals, advice and suggestions for everything from how to wear my hair, to whether or not I should have children in my suite as I am getting ready, to what type of shoe inserts I should use, to who should hold my lip gloss while I’m busy tying the knot.

These vendors have answered endless questions in endless emails and have helped me with items that are clearly beyond the normal scope of their jobs. At times, this attention and honesty in fulfilling my needs has resulted in successful up-selling, making the investment of time well worth these vendors’ efforts.

While the service you provide is most likely offered just about anywhere, real customer service is much harder to find. Specialize in going above and beyond with your services and you will have a happy customer who can’t wait to sing your praises.

Last note: Don’t forget that, when people are making large financial investments (very, very large), such as they do for wedding vendors, they depend on referrals from their friends. Impress a customer with your professionalism and service and you have created a walking advertisement for your business that no money can buy.