Customer Service

Part 5. Be Open

This is the final entry in a 5 part series: Big Picture Ideas for Small Businesses.

My previous post was on buzzwords, those groan-inducing terms that often do little more than spread hype without actually describing substance. The argument I tried to make was that buzzwords were, in some limited cases and when taken with extreme grains of salt, could actually be utilized as thermometers for how to craft a marketing message.

However, I know that doesn’t make them any less annoying. The irony of ending this series with a post on “openness” is not lost on me because as far as technology goes the concept is almost as cliché as the term “multimedia” was in the 90’s.

With that being said, being open truly is an incredible asset to any organization, and while it may not make sense in the literal concept for every business out there, it’s principles are universal and should be installed where possible.

Make your corporate culture open source

Creating an open source culture for your company has very little — if anything — to do with software. An open source culture is simply a set of guidelines by which a company communicates with its employees and its customers.

If your company has employees (don’t laugh, I know plenty of successful companies that are really just one person at a desk), an open source culture allows you to have an open channel of feedback between your staff and the decisions made by management. Each employee is contributing to the company not merely with their time and productivity, but with their insights and their intellect. The blood, sweat, and tears poured into the daily goings on at your organization can often be made better and faster by simple observations from those on the ground.

This immediately goes back to my post on seeking feedback, having a mechanism by which your staff can hold you accountable is critically important and you shouldn’t be afraid to hear constructive advice from direct reports.

But the real take-aways are the benefits you’ll receive from increased morale and the intelligence you’ll gather about your day to day business. Those are benefits that correlate with your bottom-line.

Open up your customer communication

There are a lot of things, for better or for worse, that can add strain to a customer relationship particularly for a small privately owned business. Communication shouldn’t be one of them.

Business on the internet can very often be transactional instead of relationship driven, it can be difficult to develop a report with customers that may live an ocean away. While every business is different in general, engaging your customers should be an everyday affair.

Taking a 5/30/90 approach to sales and customer service can help in more ways than one. It not only allows you to catch problems before they develop into serious headaches, it also opens the possibility of further sales and better support.

My favorite customer communication initiative by far has been Dell’s Ideastorm site. It takes a social approach to R&D by taking the traditional concept of support forums and opening it up to user submitted product ideas.

In the case of Ideastorm, any user can post an idea for a product, feature, or service. Other Ideastorm users can then vote the idea up or down if they like it, much like Digg. The advantage here is that users have a direct say in what the company’s products are. Even though many of the posts have not come to fruition, a few have, including Dell’s line of consumer PC’s with Ubuntu pre-installed. The release of Dell’s Ubuntu pre-loaded Inspiron line was a huge success from a marketing perspective as commenters worldwide lauded Dell’s “crowd sourced” take on customer feedback.

The crux of the initiative wasn’t so much that it was taking customer’s suggestions and actually producing them…it’s that it was doing this from a relatively open and transparent forum. Why deal with focus groups when your own customers will voluntarily vet bad ideas for you, and for free no less?

Another example of open customer service is the popular support service GetSatisfaction.

The idea behind their service is deceptively simple, users post problems with a product or service, and both company employees and other users help them through it. It works primarily by quickly identifying problems in a product, and by easily publicizing resolutions to them with input from both the company and the community. The site was such a success that its users include some of the largest and most influential companies in the world, companies like Nike, Microsoft, and Amazon/Zappos.

The take away from this is fairly straight forward, be as open and transparent as your business allows you to be.

Now, THAT is a big picture idea.

Photo by Jay Divinagracia

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