Growing Pains: How To Manage Customer Service As A One Person Enterprise

Published by 33 Comments

customer-service-growth.jpgIn my previous post about Starbucks reputation management we looked at how a few good customer service systems can be used as a marketing strategy to encourage word of mouth and result in a competitive advantage.

In the case of people like me and many of you, my readers, we operate Internet businesses that largely are a product of our own personal brand. We are entrepreneurs, bloggers, consultants, contractors or freelancers, and much of the customer service responsibility rests on our shoulders.

Being an independent operator or small business owner does not mean you can let the ball drop on good customer service. In this case reputation management is just as important since your business lives and dies on your ability to deliver what you promise and leave a lasting impression.

For a small business with a limited marketing budget, good customer service resulting in an above average reputation in the market, can result in acquiring new customers through existing client referrals – a “free” form of marketing.

During the start-up phase you have limited funds and one of the best strategies to survive this period of business growth is to use your existing clients as a marketing tool to bring in new clients (actually – this is a good strategy at any stage of business growth).

The cornerstone of achieving that outcome is good customer service, since your existing clients will not be willing to help you, nor will they feel compelled to talk about you and refer you to others, if they are not significantly impressed by – and benefit from – their interaction with your business.

Good customer service combined with a superior product can evoke a sense of reciprocity from your customers. They genuinely want your business to succeed, so much so that they go out of their way to endorse you. People like to spread things they consider valuable because in turn they enjoy the perception of being valuable as well. Most humans desire recognition from other humans – it’s a core human drive – and if you can loop your business into this motivation you have tapped the secret of word of mouth marketing.

Growing Pains As A Solo Business Owner or Blogger

I’ve worked independently all my life. Most of the first five years of my business experience were completely solo because I had the mentality that I needed to do things myself in order to save money.

In more recent years things are different as I rely on other people to help me to run my business (I’ll talk about this with examples in the sequel to this article). I think it’s important to put things into context, especially because most of you reading this are probably independent operators yourselves and are a few steps behind me on the business lifecycle.

If you run a blog or blog network, or you have a new start-up Internet business based on your expertise and labor, or you are a consultant or freelancer – basically any form of business were you do the work and personally provide the service or deliver the product – then it is you responsible for the experience your customers go through with your company.

For Internet business owners, much of the customer service role is in the form of email communication. You might operate a help desk script of some kind and perhaps a forum. For bloggers you can include responding to comments as another area where you need to manage communication. Phone and Skype/Voip consultations are also relevant. Any time you interact with a prospect, reader, client or customer in some shape or form is an opportunity to deliver good customer service and enhance your public reputation.

When you start out, you don’t have contact with many people, but assuming you do something right – you land your first client or make your first product sale or provide valuable content on your blog and attract readers – then you begin to interact with other people.

Over time, what begins as something exciting and new, becomes a daily occurrence. Then suddenly you find it takes several hours a day just to respond to email and moderate and reply to blog comments. Eventually, if you excel at what you do, there will come a time where you simply cannot keep up with the communication you are required to do every day to just respond to people who contact your business.

It’s at this point when the customer service problems tend to happen. The solo entrepreneur, who used to love talking to his or her readers and customers, suddenly hates the idea of looking at the inbox. There’s too many emails, too many blog comments to reply to and moderate and everyone is vying for his or her attention.

Let’s not forget during this time the business has grown too. You might be working on creating new products, or satisfying the contracts in place with existing customers or starting up new projects. Simply put – everything magnifies in volume yet you don’t get any more time to handle it. You have to try and maintain good customer service with an ever increasing pool of people demanding your attention.

When this happens the first thing that usually suffers is email replies. Response times drop, you start ignoring anything but the most critical emails (and even that can be difficult at times), you certainly do not have time to reply to comments made to your blog, or respond to forum posts or people just asking basic questions via your help desk or public email.

In short – you have lost your ability to provide good customer service at all points of contact with your business.

So what can you do?

Can You Still Deliver Personal Service When You Can’t Personally Do To It All Yourself?

I can vouch for the scenario I just painted above because I’ve been there. Actually, I’m still there in many ways.

I started small with a part time business, then added a blog. The blog became a business itself and I added more blogs to it. I created a membership site, bought and sold websites, started an email newsletter, attended events, traveled and began new projects as quickly as I dropped or sold others.

It all just got out of hand and naturally as expected, I wasn’t able to keep communicating like I had when my business was smaller. What made it worse, I stopped enjoying the process of communicating with people online, which is not a good thing.

It is important for good customer service that you keep it as personal as you can. People want to feel the person-to-person connection, not “corporate outsourced robot” or “automatic email response” communication that is so prevalent today. If like me, your business brand is your name and face, people especially appreciate it if you personally make yourself available.

It becomes impossible when you have hundreds of contact points with people every day, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still deliver personal service, at least where it counts the most.

One of things I’m most proud of with my business is the comments I receive about my ability to make myself available when it comes to my most important relationships, those with my students.

Accessibility is a HUGE thing that most business leaders very quickly lose as their business grows. It’s usually not their fault – they just get too busy – but I believe it’s critical you stay in touch with your customers. It makes sense for all the good customer service reasons discussed already in this article and the previous Starbucks story. It also gives you intelligence direct from your market, which is something that is fundamental to successful entrepreneurship and business growth. You don’t want to lose touch with the group of people that matter most.

Now I’m far from perfect. There have been times when I’ve let the ball drop or simply not met the demands of certain people, whether realistic or not. It’s an inevitability, as your business grows, so does your exposure, and as more people are influenced in some shape or form by what you say and do, you will run into people who don’t agree or have expectations you cannot meet. You just have to accept that a 100% batting average is not possible, but a high 90s is.

With a few good systems and good people you can deliver personal support, responsive general customer support to satisfy most people and even impress some. It takes work and planning and training, but once in place you can free up your time without impacting your ability to provide personal contact to the people you need to give it to.

Next: A Practical Tour of My Customer Support System

In my next article I’ll take you behind the scenes of my customer support system and show you how we manage communication at Yaro HQ.

As I said, my system is not perfect. I’m still not responding to as many things personally as I would like to, but this is probably more a case of personal standards conflicting with the reality of a 24 hour day.

What I can show you is how I deal with the queries I receive, how I can maintain personal communication with my top constituents and how things have changed compared to what it was like when I was the only person in charge of customer support.

Make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed so you don’t miss the next article.

Until then – stay connected with your readers, prospects, clients and staff, and keep things as personal as possible.

Yaro Starak
Personable

About Yaro Starak

Yaro Starak is the author of the Blog Profits Blueprint, a report you can download instantly to learn how to make $10,000 a month, from only blogging 2 hours per day. You can find Yaro on Facebook, Twitter and .

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33 Comments

  • As a small business owner for over 15 years ( Electrical and Computer Consulting), and now working with many people who are starting their business’s online, mainly home based and on a part-time basis, it’s giving me great satisfaction to be able to impart to them business principles that are, as you point out in your post, essential no matter whether your business is ‘brick and mortar’ or online.

    In a nut shell — business is business.

    You must apply the principles, and customer relationships and followup are vital to grow your online business. I always provide email, phone, address and Skype, even in any ad I place, and I make sure I’m around, or back as quickly as possible, to any contact.

    Sure I get some spam, and some reverse marketing calls, but it’s worth it.

    Cheers,
    AllanJames

  • Wow this hit the mark dead centre. Were you looking over my shoulder when you wrote this?

  • Yaro,

    I am, too, experience the saturation point where I’m starting to think about having a personal assitant handling my miscellaneous relationship building activities.

    To tell you the truth, the most resource consuming in my current issue of relationship building is on my online business start-ups – You’re right – more and growing business challenge your ‘distance’ between you and your customers/clients/readers.

    You want to be close to them, but you simply can’t.

    I’ll be very much waiting for your next article regarding your customer service system.

    Cheers Yaro!

  • I’m amazed that so many people who have much bigger blogs than I do are still doing everything on their own. I’m not exactly outsourcing, but I do have help in different areas from different people.

    I have done it all on my own for years until just recently, and when you’re trying to manage so many things all at once, it takes the fun out of everything. But even though I’m slowly beginning to accept help from outside sources, I can still see it all blowing up in my face soon if I don’t start putting some sort of system in place. I’m getting too overwhelmed.

    Hopefully your next article is posted before that happens! I always love to hear how other people are managing their growing businesses.

    • Doing everything oneself is a very common behavior pattern among all kinds of business persons. Size of the enterprise has nothing to do with it!

  • This is the first new post since I subscribed to your feed and you’ve hit my nail on the head!

    This opens up to other issues such as dreading having to become an employer, and what kind of level of customer service and relationship you can you realistically be expected to maintain?

  • I think the way to go is to develop a kind of system how you manage things when the business is smaller so that you could pass it on, outsource if you like, when the business has grown. Haven’t done that myself yet, though :)

    Cheers,
    Chris

  • I can’t wait to have that challenge.

  • You really know how to build up anticipation :-)
    Looking forward to your next post that hopefully brings some real good solutions.
    I own a business myself and i have some people to help me. But the main problem is that the quality is never the same when i dont do it myself. And if it is urgent i do it myself again, and that stops me from doing the real “important” work like marketing, selling …
    It is easy to find someone who does the work for you (if you can afford it) but it is very hard to keep up the quality.

    • That’s my problem EXACTLY! I’m the type of person that thinks “if you want it done right, you have to do it yourself”. I even had a friend offer to redesign one of my websites for me and I was hesitant to accept her help even though I’m sure she could do a great job. I’m just afraid that my quality standards won’t be met. Hopefully Yaro has some tips in that area too :)

    • This is exactly the problem. I know that I need to motivate my helpers to be different and perhaps even train them. The grief is, how? Hope to see some pointers in the next post.

    • Remember no one can replicate you. Expecting that means you will always be disappointed. Perfectionism is an issue here too.

      You have to realize what is critical – what you spend YOUR time on. The rest goes to your support people who can do a brilliant job – even better than you sometimes – if you can learn to let go.

      You have to find good people, train them and clearly communicate what your priorities are. It is possible for other people to meet your needs.

      The biggest frustration is finding good people, because the vetting process usually takes time and often requires you go through the not-quite-right people before you find the good people. They are out there though (cue X-files theme music).

      • You are so right Yaro, no one can replicate you . That may be a good thing though , if we were all the same we would not have the expansive thought processes to develop new ideas in marketing or providing services to our clients. Finding good people does take time and often requires you go through a large number of prospects. I don’t mind if my clients/prospects are so different to me as long as the desired result or aim is the same . After all not everyone has the same aspirations and goals . I know that I could not possibly deal with more than 50 clients a week . I would set a limit of 50 because I would expect that a maximum of 10 contacts a day would be all that I would be able cope with and maintain quality communication . Buy using the same training program and teaching others the same system is about as good as you can get . Time and skill leveraging .

      • Perfection! That is a major problem I have to battle with. I love things being done perfect. But often times, that attitude causes a lot of problem.

        As a new online entrepreneur, I lack the fund to outsource most of the technical aspect of my website, but at the same time, I want the sites looking professional.

        Last week, I spent hours searching google for answers to queries about CSS and HTML codes because I wanted a part of my blog to just look PERFECT.

        After 3days, I realized I have failed to make any post and I have piles of emails and comments that I have not responded to.
        This post is a great reminder. I look forward to the subsequent posts on this issue. Thanks for sharing.

  • I can assure you about one thing though. All, yes all, wisdom is by hindsight. All of us businesspersons keep solving problems as they arise and hardly ever find the time or the inclination to be proactive.

    • Nicole,

      That’s exactly what happened to me – When I finally have the chance to sit down and think, all I see is me, trying to swat all the problems myself while opportunities are actually there, up for grab – I just can’t see the opportunities.

  • Yeah..I came across a book which showed the organization structure of a small business owner.. the center point (the CEO) was marked as YOU.

    And all the other people in the organization..copywriter, marketer, support staff, product developer..were marked….guess what….
    .
    .
    .
    as YOU :)

    That is the problem with majority of small business owners. They tend to work on every part of their business..result? Loads of Frustration.

  • [...] the joys of entrepreneurial growing pains. Yarak Starak writes in his post :Growing Pains: How To Manage Customer Service As A One Person Enterprise: For a small business with a limited marketing budget, good customer service resulting in an above [...]

  • Wow this is a great post.

    It just shows in a clear manner that outsourcing is getting more and more important. And that’s what a lot of small business owners are not doing. They think they gonna save money if they do everything by them self. But that’s wrong. There are so many parts of your business which can be outsourced for a very small amount of money.

    Looking forward to your next post.

    Daniel

  • As a person who has done online customer service, for online business owners in the past, I can tell you that while outsourcing your customer service is a good idea, you must do so with the understanding that you really can’t hand it over to someone else and forget about it.

    During my experience as an outsourced customer rep, I found that there were many customer issues that required the business owners input – simply because they were issues to which I had no answer for.

    Outsource..yes…walk away from it…no

  • I also struggle with keeping up with all the email, blog comments, etc…. I have considered a virtual assistant as one way around it, but I’m also trying to set up some self-service tools and auto responders and see if they’ll help.

    Great post.

    James
    blog.jvf.com

  • Your comment on the accessibility of the owner is very important. Being able to talk to the owner of the business makes the customer feel important to your company. I customer who desn’t feel important to you, does’t buy from you. Just think of your typical restaurant experience. Nothing makes you feel better than when the owner visits your table for a brief chat. The owner should never be too busy to talk to any customer about any issue. In my 37 years of business experience, I have seen business fail because the owner did not understand prioirties.

  • Hey Yaro, I think a lot of businesses are going to start using Open source CRM solutions like SugarCRM as they ultimately will save a lot of time in the short term for any small business owner.

    I noticed you are no longer the owner of YARO.com what happened there?

    P.

    • I never was the owner of Yaro.com – it’s always been a shipping company. I got Yaro.com.au and YaroStarak.com though!

  • Yet again, another fantastic article.

  • “use your existing clients as a marketing tool to bring in new clients”… very good advice, I liked it a lot. Very good article. However, as you said, you can spend some years before you start needing help to manage your business :)

  • Yeah controlling customer service with one is not an easy task but you should give the customer good service which they will remain with you for a longer period.

  • I think that there are many ways to put up a successful website which will bring a good income without the need of customer service.

  • You aren’t the only one with this experience. Things started snowballing for me too. I’m interested in the techniques that you used to not lose touch with people.

  • I have yet to experience the snowballing effect :-)

  • Hi,
    it is really nice post on this nice article.A good way to approach this situation is to place the desire for resolution on the shoulders of the person calling to complain. You can do this with a very simple statement “I know you are frustrated and I am frustrated that you have not been taken care of the way you would like.

  • I agree. Managing the customer service by one person is a challenging task. But to my opinion, customer service is outstanding area where one need to concentrate inorder to build the customer(user) base and only with satisfying their questions we can make them to come again.

    my two cents!! :-)

  • I can assure you about one thing though. All, yes all, wisdom is by hindsight. All of us businesspersons keep solving problems as they arise and hardly ever find the time or the inclination to be proactive.

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