As a small business owner, you want all of your customers to leave your establishment happy and satisfied with their purchase or service – and tell their friends about your great business. In reality, sometimes no matter what you do you will occasionally have some unhappy customers. Even five-star rated places have a couple of outliers. Many companies would like to identify dissatisfied customers as quickly as possible, because how you deal with them now could be the key in whether they become a very satisfied repeat customer, or go badmouthing you all over town. Below are some tips and tools that may help you determine what your customers think about your business and how to change negative customer experiences into positive ones:

Set customer expectations early. A service level agreement (SLA) helps to set the expectations of your customers. It may sound like cheating, but you should always set your SLA lower than you know you can deliver. By doing so, it makes your customers feel like their issue is a priority. For example, if you know you can respond to customer inquiries in less than ten minutes, your SLA could say you will respond in an hour. This way, you can still respond within five minutes without causing undue stress to you or your employees, plus the quick response gives the customer the impression that her issue is important to you. It may seem like a small thing, but something like this can go a long way toward taking some of the sting out of a complaint.

Become an expert. One of the ways to ensure repeat customers is to become an expert in your field. Whether you sell jewelry, serve Lebanese food or offer other businesses your communications counsel, becoming your customers’ trusted advisor in your field will build loyalty and help other customer retention policies become more effective. It takes time and focus to become an expert, but you want to be the first person your customers think of – and tell their friends and colleagues – when they need what you provide. Taking classes, reading, attending conferences, writing articles and starting a blog are all ways of establishing yourself as an expert.

Use technology to engage with customers. There are several platforms and apps that let both customers and small business owners engage with each other and offer solutions to issues that inevitably pop up from time to time. Two of them, Loop and Listenport, let small business owners fix problems before they go public, often while the customer is still within the business. Loop is targeted to restaurants and hospitality, and allows guests to rate their experiences, which management can view in real time, giving them the chance to rectify a bad situation before the customer leaves the establishment. Listenport enables you to engage your customers via SMS, often intercepting bad reviews before their posted online.

Build relationships online. Accounts for social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram are all free, and can be a fun way to engage directly with your customers in ways you never could before, really taking your message straight to your current and potential customers. But you need to be attentive – don’t create social media pages, post a few status updates and photos, then ignore them. Someone needs to be regularly monitoring your social media pages for any customer questions or complaints, to ensure they are dealt with in a timely manner. You will also need to continually generate content, as keeping fresh content at the top of your news feed is imperative. You might want to look into establishing accounts on Snapchat, Periscope and Instagram – these newer platforms were barely on the radar a couple of years ago, and your participation with them will help you look like a forward-thinking business owner. This post from Social Media Week discusses optimal social media frequency for some platforms, as well as the best times to post.

Listen actively. Just because people engage with technology via smartphones, tablets and computers more than ever, doesn’t mean you can simply discount what they’re saying. It’s even more important than ever to pay attention to what your customers say because one bad online review can live forever on the internet, and be quite damaging. So, when you find yourself confronting an upset customer, take time to listen to her complaint and give her your full attention. You also need to set aside any defensive feelings of “this isn’t my fault” or “the customer doesn’t have a valid complaint.” Start off the dialogue by saying, “let’s go over what happened,” or “please tell me why you’re upset.” Be empathic and apologize, present a solution and then make sure you follow up. Lastly, take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Keeping customers happy in the era of Yelp and other online review platforms can be difficult, but it can be managed. Small business owners especially need to be vigilant in getting to negative posts and reviews before they can do much damage. Establishing a rapport with customers and showing that you are willing to rectify whatever negative situation comes about in a timely manner will go a long way in reducing the impact of a bad customer experience. If changes are needed to your business, don’t just pay it lip service – look into making the changes so the bad reviews don’t keep coming. A little effort and expense now will win over more customers later.

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