7 Customer Service Tips for Small Business Owners

Sometimes, when it comes to operating a small business, it takes a little more than the Golden Rule to keep customers happy. Stuff happens, right?

It doesn’t really matter whether the circumstances are beyond your control or the customer is just naturally disagreeable or cantankerous or unpleasant. As a small business owner, part of your job is providing exceptional customer service by putting out fires and making unreasonable people happy.

Bad things happen to good small business owners, but don’t let the pressure of the moment get you flustered. Instead, be prepared for that faulty product or that employee who rubs your customer the wrong way by remembering the basics of good customer service.

1. Never Be Afraid to Say I’m Sorry

Apologies are miracle workers. A simple “I’m sorry for your inconvenience” right off the bat will often smooth a customer’s ruffled feathers and make it easier to find a workable resolution to any problem. Whether the problem is your fault or not, care about your customer enough to apologize — and waste no time in offering it.

2. Understand What Went Wrong

Give the customer time to explain what happened and air their frustrations. First of all, if you don’t find the time to listen, they’ll find someone who will. And you probably don’t want that. Second, you need to know exactly what happened in order to prevent it from happening in the future.

3. Address Complaints Like a First Responder

Learn the art of small business triage. If you’ve got an unhappy customer at the counter and the phone rings, let someone else pick up the phone or let it go to voicemail. If you receive a customer complaint via email, don’t wait three days to reply. Negative comments and complaints need your immediate attention, so treat them like the emergencies they are.

4. Deliver on Your Promises

Remember what they say about an ounce of prevention. If you meet your clients’ expectations at every turn, you can avoid many problems in the first place. Also, if you promise a free meal for your customer’s trouble, don’t hand them a coupon for 10% off. Say what you mean and keep your promises.

5. Own Your Mistakes

Never assume your customers are blind to what’s going on behind the scenes. Don’t blame others for your mistakes or make excuses for your errors. To do otherwise is to add insult to injury. Just acknowledge the mistake and do what you can to make things right.

6. Empower Your Employees

Nothing is more frustrating for a customer than to hear that nothing can be done to rectify the situation. Give your employees the power to make your customers happy whenever possible. Don’t force customers to go to a manager when a small freebie or immediate discount can be offered by your cashier or waitress.

7. Realize Some People Are Never Happy

Some customers will never be satisfied no matter how many times you say I’m sorry or how many ways you offer to fix the problem. Don’t let these people affect the way you do business with the rest of your customers. Let go of what you can’t change, and greet the rest of your customers with a friendly smile.

Sometimes we all need a little customer service refresher. After all, running a small business is hard work!

You can read about a recent experience I had with poor customer service here. Make sure you scroll through the comments — lots of great tips and advice provided!

What do you do to deal with complaints and keep your customers happy?

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Emily Suess
Emily Suess is a full-time technical marketing writer in the software industry and a part-time freelance copywriter. To learn more about marketing your small business online, check out her copywriting blog, Say It With Me.


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  1. Great tips, Emily! I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve screwed up in the past and the only way to bounce back from that is to (1) apologize, (2) resolve the issue, (3) ensure that it never happens again. Most clients won’t give you a hard time for making mistakes but if they do, maybe it’s time to consider letting them go.

  2. Hi there! Someone tweeted about this, and I wanted to comment on especially #1 here.

    In my previous call center/customer service work, saying “I’m sorry” ought to be used carefully yet appropriately based on the situation at hand. There are times you say “I’m sorry” to apologize for an actual company-caused error, then also “I’m sorry” to express empathy to a customer’s negative situation.

    Also in my experience, there are some people who hear the words “I”m sorry” used so much that they just don’t want to hear them anymore. One can try a variation like “I regret to hear what happened” just to make things different.

    Overall, though, good customer service tips you wrote.

    • David, a great point of “I’m sorry” losing its significance as people do hear it all too often. I like the idea of changing it up. I also like to include “and we would like to make it up to you” with “I’m sorry”.

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  4. Jason has a great point! it’s not enough to be sorry…customers want you to fix the situation, that’s what they will respond to! At any rate, customer service is so important for a business (large and small). Since amazon, the standard has risen and customers want to feel like you really care about them.

    great article highlighting that.

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  7. It’s also important to note that sincerity is also important. Saying “I’m sorry” may not be appropriate in all circumstances, especially if the customer is used to hearing it so much as mentioned earlier. Also, simply using a different word isn’t going to change the nature of the message either. I find it’s best to say “I’m sorry that we…” and give an appropriate explanation for your mistake. Also, never say “I’m sorry, but…” because the “but” effectively negates your previous point and invites the start of an argument. If you do apologize, do it sincerely.

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