Small Business Planning: Manage Changing Customer Expectations

The customer is always right, right? If only it were that simple. These days, your small business customers aren’t only right, they’re also connected and empowered in ways that you may have never imagined, even a decade ago.

If customers or clients like something, they can let everyone know — via Twitter, Facebook, and an ever-increasing number of social networks. If they’re not happy, watch out. Negative reviews can go viral and spell big trouble. Just ask any restaurateur who has experienced a string of complaints about food or service on Yelp or UrbanSpoon.

The way customers interact with businesses has changed dramatically, and it’s likely to go on changing, but one change seems set and irreversible: Customers expect immediate information, interaction, and responsiveness from the businesses they choose to buy from.

Adapt your business-customer interface

These days, people expect every kind of business, including restaurants, diners, even sandwich shops to have websites — viewable on the largest to the smallest screens — where they can peruse the menu, check hours, and make one-click contact for directions and reservations. If people can’t quickly find an eatery online, most of them will assume it has gone out of business. If it hasn’t, it soon will.

If you don’t have a website for your business, now is the time to consider developing one. Dozens of website design programs are available to help you do it yourself, assuming you need a fairly simple website. If you’re planning a complicated website, one that involves accepting orders and payments from customers, for instance –– or you just don't have time to develop one on your own –– hire a website designer.

One function that websites serve is providing a direct link between you and your customers. In fact, beyond access to information, customers expect to be able to communicate with companies 24/7 via FAQ answer pages, help desks, and online support. And their expectations affect every business sector.

More and more, people expect to be able to email their doctor with a question, to compare automobile prices and features online, and even to tour homes for sale via webcams. Heck, more and more people expect —– or at least hope — to get hitched that way. In fact, one in eight couples who got married last year met via social media, according to one survey.

Every business has its own unique interactions with customers. In almost all cases, those interactions are changing in the increasingly screen-connected world. Your business plan should summarize how you interface with your customers today, and how that interface might change in the future. Your marketing plan needs to detail how and when customer communications takes place and how you monitor and interact with the feedback they generate.

Respond to changing customer demands and desires

Be ready for your assessment of customer attitudes and expectations to upend your own long-held expectations. If your company depends largely on advertising in print and other media, for example, take note: Research suggests that customers are more likely to trust peer reviews on sites like Amazon and Travelocity over messages in paid advertisements.

The take-home message for you and your company’s marketers: Keeping your customers satisfied and encouraging them to speak up in great online reviews may be more effective than paying for expensive ads.

If you don’t know what your customers expect, find out now. Spend time reading online reviews. Read reviews for your product or service, if they’re available, but also read reviews of your competitors and others in your business category. Keep a list of the key things customers are saying they like and dislike. If online reviews aren’t available, consider sending out customer surveys, either by mail or email.

Managing changing customer expectations is an ongoing process. Use this guide to help you.

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A small music-based app developer used a customer expectations form to explore the way customers' wants and needs could change.

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After you identify a change in what your customers want or expect, consider how best to respond. Three questions can help guide you:

  • Is the complaint or suggestion reasonable? Your business can’t be everything to everyone. Assess whether you can and should respond. A sports bar that gets dinged in an online review because it’s too noisy may decide that being noisy is the nature of its business. However, a software developer that gets a lot of customer suggestions for a new feature may be want to seriously consider adding it.

    After Nissan’s new electric car, the Leaf, was released, customers harped about the way the onboard software calculated miles left on the battery. The company wisely responded with a software update.

  • What’s the best way to respond? Consider your options for addressing a change in what customers want or desire. You may discover that there are several ways to respond. For example, a company that gets a lot of complaints because its product is difficult to assemble can decide to redesign the product or simply improve the assembly directions.

  • What specific steps do you need to take? After you settle on how you want to respond, create a list of the action steps to take. Establish a timetable for responding so that you address your customers’ expectations in a timely fashion.

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