Why the ultimate customer experience need not cost the earth

How many times have you heard that the customer is king? Countless, no doubt.

At the risk of continuing with platitudes, it is also often said that...

How many times have you heard that the customer is king? Countless, no doubt.

At the risk of continuing with platitudes, it is also often said that a business's customer relationships are the only thing that a competitor cannot replicate. So why then, if this is given wisdom, do so many businesses not only treat their customers so poorly but also not appreciate the extent to which they can make their lives so much easier by implementing a few simple tools?

When I first started my own small business I was concerned only about profit and loss and how best to market my business. To me a website was a tool to drive awareness and sales of products and I never considered that it could actually become a reason why a consumer might not buy a service.

Even now I see examples of SMBs that think e-commerce customer service begins and ends with a basic website. Often these websites will have no hosting partner to ensure the site is up 24 hours a day, no online customer relationship management (CRM) in place, a lack of disaster recovery support, no e-mail facility, and offer non-secure methods of payment. In some cases the website will not allow consumers to actually buy the products online.

What you should try keep in mind is that offering good customer service through your website does not require a large IT budget. New processes and technologies available through hosted providers and third parties can not only impress your customers and make your business appear far more sophisticated than it actually is, but also reduce the internal administrative burden for your company. For example, Microsoft's Office Accounting Pro offers a PayPal service which allows businesses to communicate with their customers seamlessly through their website but also, crucially, in a format that is known and trusted to them. At the same time the system will tie processing payments directly into the business' back-end accountancy systems which makes life easier for everyone.

Once you have data on your customers, it is imperative that you keep a track of them. Having customer data stored in an Excel spreadsheet or on e-mail is great for basic contact management, but as you grow you may find it too rudimentary for an office-wide database that needs to supports sales, marketing and service activities. You need to be sure that when a customer is in contact with you they can always talk to someone who has their details at hand and for that you should consider a way of sharing information amongst your staff.

A great example of this is Business Contact Manager, included in the Microsoft Office Small Business suite. You can drag and drop Outlook contacts into Business Contact Manager to create a single place for a customer's information, where each person interacting with that account can view e-mails and record actions related to the job. It also allows you to track sales opportunities and service management issues, as well as enabling synchronisation with mobile devices and the ability to set up basic marketing campaigns.

A final consideration for businesses is how you interact with your regular customers. By using online collaboration tools such as Microsoft Office Live Workspace, you can provide your customers with facilities to share information which will help improve your working relationship and cut down on administration on both sides.

Good customer service is something that is well within the grasp of every business given the right tools. Given the impending economic slowdown you need to make sure that every potential customer to your website has the best possible experience that you can offer, and that need not cost you the earth.

Read more on IT for small and medium-sized enterprises (SME)