With technology increasingly intertwined with all aspects of business, CNET@Work can help you -- from prosumers to small businesses with fewer than five employees -- get started.
More than 23 million US businesses operate as sole proprietorships, and many of these are companies run by individuals. Think about the software developer selling their services to end clients; a home cook starting a catering business out of their kitchen; or an accountant running a tax preparation service out of their home office.
The excitement of giving birth to these home-spun, single-employee ventures is that you begin building a book of business and establishing a new source of income. But what happens after you've established some accounts and begin to get service calls and requests that require immediate response or follow-up?
"One of the biggest challenges is that a single-person company is doing everything, and customer service is just one of the things needed for the company to succeed, along with sales, marketing, product development, finance and administration," says Ron Kaufman, chairman of Up! Your Service, a Singapore-based customer service training company.
Individuals running their own businesses can develop service capabilities by considering these six strategies:
Rapidly respond to service calls
"I don't always know the answer to a software bug problem when it first occurs, so I can't know how long it will necessarily take me to resolve it," acknowledges a colleague of mine who runs his own custom software development business. "But I make it a point to immediately contact the customer when a call comes in and to keep the customer updated on progress. Even if I can't guarantee when the issue will be resolved, the customer at least knows that I'm working on it and it has my attention."
I've found this to be true in my own experience as a manager in a large company and as the owner of a sole-proprietor business. If you keep your customer in the loop communications-wise, that's half the battle in relieving customer anxiety as to when an issue will be resolved. Why? Because most customers worry that the problem is not being worked on, and constant communication helps to allay these fears.
Organize and prioritize
"First and foremost, get organized," said Max Paltsev, CEO of Service Fusion, a field service software provider.
"Plan, organize and prioritize your day with every piece of technology available. There is only one pair of hands on deck. You have to make sure that while you are selling you don't drop any balls in the customer service department. And while you are providing customer service, you don't miss out on sales. It's a constant balancing act."
There are simple and free (or low-cost) task management tools available that can help with task listing and prioritization Todo.ly and Centrallo are two options. If you need to organize and prioritize tasks into projects that both you and your outside contractors use, cloud-based project management software like Priority Matrix and Liquid Planner can help. Is time management a major concern? There's software for that as well: consider RescueTime or Tomighty. Most software is now cloud-based and able to run on desktops, laptops and mobile devices, which makes these products readily available in the field as well as in your office.
"Any amount of time wasted on one task will affect other tasks on your to-do list for that day," said Paltsev. "Saving 20 minutes every business day will help you gain back an almost entire day at the end of the month."
Answer the phone
Although technology-based sole proprietorships tend to rely on email for most day-to-day communications, other sole proprietorships -- in bookkeeping, legal or trades -- rely on the phone.
For a customer with a service request or question, there is nothing more exasperating than to encounter a complicated phone tree, or a phone that rings and rings and then goes to voicemail. Yet companies continue to underwhelm customers with these approaches instead of just answering the phone the first time with a real person.
"Every single customer issue you deal with is service-oriented in one way or another," said Paltsev. "It takes a lot to keep your service levels and customer satisfaction high."
There are "live human" telephone answering services available if you yourself can't be available for calls. Or, you can also that comes with administrative support services such as answering the telephone. Intelligent Office is an option.
In one case, an attorney acquaintance of mine arranged with a major client -- a credit union -- to answer his calls for his one-person practice. He was also able to rent inexpensive office space in the credit union's building.
Consider using a customer service help desk
For sole proprietors in areas like software or construction, which can have complicated customer service requests to resolve, business owners should consider engaging a help desk service that can help post, track and show resolutions of service issues. Some low cost, cloud-based systems in this space include Freshdesk and Zendesk.
Hire contractors who align well with your business
Sole proprietors often hire outside contractors to help with work loads. The primary goal is to find someone who can temporarily augment the workforce with the requisite skills. However, sole-proprietor, single-person businesses should also be concerned about the contractor's values and views toward satisfying customers and providing premium service on behalf of the company.
"This is important because many single-person companies work with contractors or freelancers who deliver other parts of the business, and yet the customer/client will consider all work to be the responsibility of the main single-person company owner," said Kaufman. "Also be sure that any subcontractors you use are equally clear about what the end customer truly values, so that you can focus your efforts and deliver."
In short, train your subcontractors on the type of customer care etiquette that you expect them to use. As the owner of the company, it is equally important for you to stay in touch with your end clients. See how things are going and remind them that they are on your radar -- even if you might not be the actual person who is servicing their account.
"The most important thing is to find out exactly what the customer truly wants, needs, appreciates and desires," said Kaufman. "Our definition of service is taking action to create value for someone else. So it's absolutely key to find out what the customer values most, and then make specific promises to deliver key elements of value to the customer. Don't overpromise to win the business. That just sets up both parties for disappointment."
The best way to put this principle in motion is to honestly assess your capabilities -- and your limitations -- when a customer approaches you about doing a major project. For a small business, it can be hard to resist accepting a six-figure or better project.
The small business edge
Because sole-proprietor, one-person businesses have limited bandwidth to attend to customer service, optimizing service performance is critical.
Imagine a worst-case scenario, suggests Paltsev. "While you're in the middle of something with one customer, another customer calls to report a problem, a third calls to schedule additional service, and a fourth calls to pay an outstanding invoice." How do you prioritize? There's no easy answer for this, of course. But the strategies and tools available to you can make the job easier.
And never forget the small business edge: Many large companies have impersonalized customer service with complicated automation systems and employees who often know little about the products and services that they sell.
This makes service an area where small companies can really shine and differentiate themselves from the competition.