MEXICO, Mo. – “Customer service is the best way to distinguish yourself from your competitors,” says University of Missouri Extension professional and business development specialist Virgil Woolridge.

He teaches “Taking Care of Customers” at the Audrain County Extension Small Business Technology & Development Center office in Mexico. The program helps participants avoid the most common mistakes people make when interacting with customers.

Good customer-service skills are especially critical in a weakened economy and when there is competition, Woolridge said. He cites studies that show that it is five times more expensive to attract a new customer than keep an existing one.

He also points to how social media has changed customer-service perceptions. Before social media, dissatisfied customers were estimated to tell 10 or more people of their poor experience with a business. In the era of Facebook, Twitter and other social media, dissatisfied customers can spread the word to mass audiences and damage the reputation of a business with a few keystrokes.

“Today, good customer satisfaction becomes even more important than in the past,” he said. Additionally, customers today have more demands and higher expectations than previous generations.

Unfortunately, many unhappy customers will never complain, he said. Studies show that 96 percent of dissatisfied customers do not complain of poor service. They simply go away and never come back.

“Think about it,” Woolridge said. “When was the last time you went into a store and complained? Most people don’t complain. They just don’t return.”

Woolridge emphasizes that it is important for businesses to make it easy for customers to report a complaint so that the problem can be resolved quickly.

The adage that the “customer is always right” isn’t always right, he said, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is what the customer perceives as being right. “If the customer thinks your customer service stunk, then it stunk,” he said.

Woolridge suggests looking at your place of business with fresh eyes. “What are your coffee stains?” he asks. What does a visitor to your business see that you might overlook day after day, week after week?

If it is an old building, does this indicate that you don’t have the latest technology? If you own a restaurant, is the floor dirty? Diners might worry that the kitchen is dirty also. Are the flowers in the waiting room wilted? Customers might think this indicates a lack of attention to detail that reflects the way you do business.

Customer-service expectations vary from business type to business type, Woolridge said, but the bottom line is that exceptional customer satisfaction leads to a better bottom line for business owners.

Woolridge offers some pointers for those in the customer-service business.

How to speak to customers

Be careful with your words. Avoid words like “policy” or “can’t.”

If the customer is upset, let them vent. Eventually they will need to take a deep breath, and this is a good time to let them diffuse their anger in a second round or for the employee to interject some correctly worded logic.

Use the customer’s name and look him or her in the eye.

Offer to help with phrases such as “I understand, Mrs. Jones. Will you let me help?” This gives the dissatisfied customer an opportunity to be part of the solution.

Offer customers alternative solutions. This gives them a sense of ownership in the outcome.

Don’t be condescending. Pay attention to what the customer is saying. Nod and acknowledge.

Make sure all first-contact personnel greet and acknowledge customers as they enter the business.

Always thank customers for their business and for bringing problems to your attention.

Telephone customer service

Smile when you answer the telephone. The way a telephone is answered also affects how a customer perceives customer service. Answer the last phone call of the day with the same amount of energy as the first call of the day.

Customers being helped in person take precedence over the customer on the telephone. Answer the phone, but take a callback number.

Always ask permission to put callers on hold. They may have time demands that might make them more amenable to a callback rather than being put on hold. Never have someone on hold more than 60 seconds.

Try to resolve the problem. Don’t pass the buck. “The first voice they talk to should be the last voice they talk to,” Woolridge said.

To register for the future classes, contact the Audrain County Extension Small Business & Technology Development Center at 573-581-3231. The three-hour class features interactive lecture and video. The cost is $35.


For more information and resources from MU Extension’s Business Development Program, go to

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