For Nina Orlando, the lesson hit home a few years ago when she was using 150 pounds of hamburger to make patties by hand at Alexander & Polen, a gourmet shop in Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich.
For Raymond Trella, it boiled down to taking care of some longtime customers down on their luck by giving them discount cards worth 25 percent off their dry-cleaning bills at his Oakland County, Mich., cleaners.
Like small-business owners across the land, Orlando and Trella have learned that the keys to surviving when competing with bigger, deep-pocketed rivals are focusing on stepped-up service and going the extra mile for customers.
Trella, who started Trella Cleaners in 1991, says he has had to adapt to the economy.
"Two years ago, we really began to feel it as more auto layoffs took place and a lot of my customers were out of a job," Trella said.
He responded by giving them discount cards worth 25 percent off dry-cleaning bills.
It is critical to let employees know what customer service is expected, Bill Kalmar says. Kalmer is a former Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award examiner, where he judged firms for annual U.S. Commerce Department awards.
He offers other suggestions for businesses on ways they can shore up customer service:
- Ask for customers' e-mail addresses and send them special offers.
- Empower your employees to handle customer disputes.
- Meet daily with employees to discuss customer issues and invite input from your staff on how each should be handled.
- Finally, keep an eye on the competition.
"Benchmarking one's customer service against the competition is one way to pick up some ideas," he says.
Photo by Lorri37.