In 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.

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