by Iris Dorbian.

CustomerExperience_Body.jpgAs co-owner of The Shirt Box, a men's apparel shop in Farmington Hills, Michigan specializing in custom-made clothing, co-owner Ron Elkus prides himself on knowing everyone's name. Borrowing inspiration from the theme song of the classic TV sitcom, “Cheers,” Elkus has made offering customers a personalized experience a key element of his store's philosophy.

"I want to treat everyone the way I would want to be treated," explains Elkus. "I think that knowing someone's name, their family, history and involvement in the community fits in with what we believe in. It's part of that warm feeling [that people notice] when they come in. If you want to spend money, you want to spend it with nice people. And you want to have a good time doing it."

The Shirt Box, which has five full-time employees, also leverages social media to stay in touch with customers and keep them informed about store events. The business has a Facebook page with over 1,300 likes, and sends weekly or bi-weekly email newsletters to customers. Like many longtime small business owners, Elkus knows that cultivating customers is integral for generating repeat business. He also understands that this basic business tenet cannot be mastered without first understanding and measuring the customer experience. Here are some tips from small business owners on the best ways to do just that:

Don't panic if you haven't heard from a customer in awhile

The small business owner/customer relationship is symbiotic, with both parties reaping benefits only provided by the other. Customers receive a far more personal and intimate shopping experience in a small business as opposed to a larger store, while the owner, conversely, increasingly relies on his or her stable of regulars to stay in the black. For this reason, small business owners can understandably go into panic mode if they haven't heard from a regular client in a while.

This doesn't always mean that the customer service was lacking, says Vincent Zurzolo, co-owner and chief operating officer of the New York City-based Metropolis Collectibles, which specializes in buying and selling vintage comics. There could be other reasons at work, none of which have anything to do with the small business owner's lack of customer service skills.

Because of this, “it is extremely important for business owners to reach out to clients in a variety of ways,” advises Zurzolo. This includes “seeing how they rate your website, shipping, ease of ordering, the tone and courtesy of customer service representatives, and the quality of the product itself,” he says.

To bolster his point, Zurzolo cites this example:

“We have over 150,000 vintage comic books on our site,” he says. “We thought the selection itself was enough. But then we learned through surveys, calls, and e-mails that image scans of each book on the website were needed for a comfortable purchase experience. Later we became aware that people also wanted to know what the paper quality was. This may sound like common sense but keep in mind for decades customers bought comics over the phone and through catalogs sight unseen. The world has changed and so has our approach to selling comic books. We continually learn and tweak our system to make sure we are delivering the best all-around experience for our customers.”

Personalize your customer service

The Shirt Box fulfills this takeaway by knowing everyone's name as well as sending customers who have made purchases over a certain amount handwritten thank you notes. They also congratulate customers on personal and professional milestones. This one-on-one approach lets the customer know he or she is valued as a person.

Jason Maxwell, founder and president of MassPay, a 10-year-old provider of payroll services for small- to medium-sized businesses, is a firm believer in this best practice. “We have sent baskets to clients when we are notified of a child being born, for example,” he says. Recently, MassPay offered free payroll service to clients during the recent holiday shipping delays. And to help customers keep abreast of legislative and tax issues relative to their specific industries, MassPay has conducted educational webinars on a variety of  topics.

CustomerExperience_PQ.jpgDon't over-communicate

Being proactive is good, but there's a fine line between reaching out to a customer and becoming a nuisance. Put yourself in your client's shoes when determining how much online contact via social media and/or e-mail is appropriate. You want your business to be front-of-mind for your customers. But you don't want to alienate them with the hard-sell approach. “You can't be [online contacting customers] daily,” cautions Elkus. He says The Shirt Box will do announcements three times a week on Facebook and send out emails either weekly or every other week.

“You have to be conscious that you don't take advantage of social media,” he adds. “Otherwise they'll tune you out and either delete or [unfriend] you.”

If a small business owner wants to remain in business, then monitoring and managing customer service both in-person and online is crucial. At the same time, be careful not to be too solicitous or you might end up losing that customer forever.

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