Over the past decade of economic uncertainty, the health, success and competitive edge of SMEs has never been more important.
They are the backbone of the UK economy, making up 99.9 per cent of all private sector businesses in 2016 with a combined annual turnover of £1.8 trillion, according to the FSB.
As the influence of global brands begins to wane in favour of more organic companies, the time is ripe for small businesses to develop a competitive edge and expand and take a valuable slice of the pool of customers on offer.
Many have already spotted this opportunity, with the number of new startups increasing each year. However this does pose a problem to budding entrepreneurs; it’s becoming a lively marketplace.
So, how do you become successful? One of the key areas for SMEs to gain a competitive edge is to provide excellent customer service.
Despite the enormous advances made in 21st century life, the principles of excellent customer service have remained fairly constant – be efficient, helpful, honest and polite. Seems simple enough, but high profile mistakes are all-too-common as numerous companies still opt for archaic, inflexible systems.
Businesses must not place their own needs at the heart of each interaction, instead forcing themselves to become customer-centric and viewing feedback as an opportunity to grow and improve.
Fundamentally, business owners should make sure that their team is truly engaged with a customer’s problem or query, recognising them as a person and not solely a transaction, and not purely worrying about how the issue will affect their wider business reputation.
In terms of the competitive edge opportunity for SMEs, it’s never been stronger. Most of us have grown up in a world of big brands and businesses, but perhaps now there are the beginnings of a change in the status quo.
Consumers are now favouring local outlets, with locally sourced products and locally run services. This trend isn’t enough to guarantee success – no matter how appealing something is, sales will plummet with poor customer service.
But SMEs have a competitive edge before they even set out. They aren’t constrained by the cumbersome legacy systems of bigger brands, and can instead offer a simple, personal and efficient service.
There is nothing more off-putting than a member of the customer services team replying with inane, clearly-scripted answers. Big brands often have little choice but to put these systems in place, due to the number of customers and range of issues to deal with.
By comparison, SMEs have the luxury of trusting their teams to deal with consumers on a case-by-case basis – a luxury that more should be taking advantage of.
That being said, there are pitfalls to be aware of. Perhaps the most common and topical of these surrounds technological innovation. It’s tempting to snap up as much customer service technology as possible, in the belief that the latest CRM software or data gathering tool will safeguard your processes, make life easier and improve all round customer service.
There’s certainly a place for this type of innovation, but small businesses should refrain from rushing into anything. There are two major questions that business owners should ask themselves:
(1) Does this innovation fit in with our business principles and ethos?
(2) Will it benefit our customers?
In essence, don’t innovate for innovation’s sake, or you risk de-personalising customer service.
Businesses must also recognise that innovation isn’t limited to technology. Think outside the box in the way in which you set up your customer services team, working closely with them to design a practice that works well for your specific business, whether this be different teams specialising in different services or setting up a video support feature. Systems that work on this basis will be able to deal with most eventualities.
For products and goods, an essential part of the customer service spectrum will be logistics. It’s one of the most complained-about topics and has been under intense scrutiny in recent months.
It really boils down to customer choice and control – two areas that businesses must begin to embrace more willingly.
People want their deliveries to arrive faster and to fit around their increasingly hectic daily lives. With click-and-collect now expected from most logistics providers, SMEs must ensure that their customer service teams are up-to-date with all of the latest delivery processes on offer.
Integrated, dedicated training programmes are also essential in producing quality customer service. Although this might seem fairly obvious, it’s imperative that training spans the entire business, ensuring that each department works directly with the customer service team to ensure that the customer is at the heart of every part of the business.
This, in turn, requires all departments to effectively communicate with each other. Once business owners have the various strands of their business working seamlessly alongside each other, the service provided to customers – and consequently their trust in your brand – will naturally improve.
In a world where consumers can share experiences freely, customer service is under the spotlight more than ever before, with successes and failures resting on businesses’ ability to deal with issues quickly and helpfully. This focus is precisely the competitive edge that SMEs can use to stand out from the crowd. Business owners shouldn’t see it simply as a box-ticking exercise, but as an opportunity to thrive and grow.
Jonathan Smith, CEO, APC Overnight
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