In small businesses—as in small towns—healthy relationships are key.
“We feel that customer service is the backbone to small-town entrepreneurship,” said Scott Amundson, executive director of Glacial Lakes Area Development, Inc. “It’s critical to retaining customers.”
GLAD has developed a system of customer service training for use in the Glacial Lakes area of South Dakota—greater Marshall County—and presents that to businesses in that area and elsewhere, focusing on frontline employees such as waitresses, hotel clerks and gas station attendants.
“One bad experience can trickle down and really have a poor effect on the overall business and their bottom line,” Amundson said. “It costs seven times more to attract a new customer than it does to train your employees and keep your current customers happy and coming back and telling other people. The disgruntled ones are the ones who tell five or 10 other people and have the loudest voices. The happy, content customers typically don’t tell very many people, and you can’t afford to slip in a small town and get a bad reputation.”
The friendly nature of small towns increases customers’ expectations of good service, according to Amundson, and so should be equally important to business owners.
In the event that a customer becomes dissatisfied, Amundson said good service is even more important.
“You don’t get too many second chances in this day and age, and if you blow it, you want to be sincere and apologize and fix it,” he said. “Hopefully you’ll fix it and get a second chance, but sometimes you can’t.”
Amundson said businesses that value positive customer experiences will make that evident to employees early on.
“(Customer service) is part of a business’s culture. If it’s important to them, they’ll see that it’s important to their employees when they hire them, when they train them, and (in how) they retain them. Once people are hired, and in the interview process, it needs to be known that customer service is the top priority and part of our culture, and this is what we do,” he said.
Investing in customer service training—especially for the youngest employees—is more important now than ever before, and that “customer service” is necessary in more than just employment.
“With the conventions of social media and texting and Facebooking and emoticons, it’s hard to get a complete sentence out of a teenager anymore, let alone a professional, polite sentence,” he said, adding that many are incapable of visiting with friends or family, or even sleeping, without being immediately accessible to text messaging and social media. “I just think it’s taken over some of our quality of life and we need to get back to the basics, know how to have a conversation, shake a hand, appreciate a veteran and assist a single mother by opening a door or not always parking in the spot closest to the door. … Common courtesy trickles over into so many parts of your life and helps you to become successful.”
Amundson stressed the importance of all individuals working in a service-oriented job at some point in their careers—preferably early on.
“If you can teach the basics—especially to high school and college students and those who don’t have a lot of experience—that can really transfer over to many different careers,” Amundson said. “It could be how you interact with your boss or interact with your customers or your suppliers. All of those are very important, to build positive and professional relationships.”
In fact, learning positive customer service skills as a young worker can help build up a future entrepreneur.
He added that the skills learned while working in the service industry spill over to all facets of life.
“You have to be able to show your values and what’s important to you and be able to communicate effectively and professionally,” he said. “It’s a big part of small-business success, whether you’re in the big city or the small town, but it has a bigger impact in a small town, because you know everybody.” ⎨