Illustration by Bronwyn Gruet

The 5 Biggest Mistakes in Small Business Customer Service

Few small businesses have mastered the art of providing service through online channels. Many customers are left underwhelmed, with one study showing that 77% of customers reported a bad experience in the last year.

If you want to avoid underwhelming your customers, steer clear of these five small business customer service mistakes that lead to subpar support.

1. Lack of responsiveness

It should come as no surprise that when a customer contacts you, they expect to hear back. Yet up to 62% of businesses don’t respond at all to email. And with technology shortening the length of time it takes us to do anything online, customers expect to hear back soon: 37% of customers expect a response within an hour.

Great customer service is about meeting and exceeding customer expectations. With customer expectations for responsiveness being so high, how quickly you reply really matters. A correct and helpful answer delivered in one hour is way better than sending the same answer 24 hours later.

To be responsive, you need to study where, when, and how often customers contact you, then have staff in place to answer them. Not having enough people on the schedule to handle the contact volume will lead to long wait times, cranky customers, and burned out employees.

Depending on your size and stage, you may not have the resources to get back to customers at the speed of light, but one way to counter this is to be transparent about your turnaround times. Let people know how long they’ll be waiting by posting this information on your help site or including it in a confirmation message when customers submit their requests.

When you make a commitment to responsiveness, stick to it. So much of great online service is turning up to do the job when you said you would be there.

2. Inconsistency

Many teams are focused on creating the “wow” factor, inspired by companies like Zappos who go above and beyond for their customers with things like their legendary 10-hour call.

There’s nothing wrong with wow. But it’s better to be reliably competent, providing every customer with a good experience, every time, than to create just a few extraordinary experiences with the rest being subpar.

In fact, measuring satisfaction across all of a customer’s interactions is 30% more predictive of overall satisfaction than measuring happiness for each individual interaction. It’s really the sum of experiences that count.

Inconsistent service can lead to customers submitting multiple inquiries as they try to get a reliable answer. Not only is this frustrating for them, it costs your organization time and money to handle the redundant volume. More importantly, inconsistency destroys customers’ confidence in your business and drives them away.

Imagine this: You go to your favorite cafe for a morning coffee and the barista insults you, makes you a latte with dairy instead of with almond milk, and then refuses to replace it with your original order.

I don’t know about you, but insults and dairy tend to ruin my day. Maybe you love this cafe so much that you give them a second chance, but even so, your perception of the business has been lowered. And after another mishap, you’d most likely be searching for a new favorite: 42% of customers stop shopping with a brand after just two bad experiences.

Consistency in support interactions can be driven in part by having clear processes for your team to follow, as well as providing comprehensive documentation and training. Clarifying and writing down procedures for common inquiries helps you make them repeatable, allows you to identify opportunities for variance or error, and gives everyone a common framework to reference.

Training ensures that your team is equipped with the skills and knowledge they need and gives them general principles to work from, allowing them to successfully handle inquiries, even in situations where there isn’t any process documentation.

Customer service conversations will never fit 100% neatly into the boxes you create for them. There will always be exceptions, and training is what equips your team to handle the outliers.

3. Trying to win the conversation

Contrary to the old adage “The customer is always right,” anyone who has worked in support knows that the customer isn’t always right. Sometimes they’re wrong. Sometimes they’re very wrong.

Often, it’s because they’ve been misinformed by the company. Other times, it’s anyone’s guess as to why they think that Internet Explorer is the right browser for running your software. Then there are moments when the customer just isn’t happy.

In these times, some companies have gotten into public fights with their customers. Spoiler alert: It’s never a good look.

Customer support isn’t a competition between customer and company. It’s not a fight. The only way to win is by working as a team. Unless a customer is being abusive, in which case it may be time to fire them, then it’s your job to work with them to get to a solution.

Yes, getting to a solution can be tricky when your customer is feeling angry. But that’s why support people should make the big bucks. Guiding your customer through a tough situation shows them that you’re there for them even at the worst of times. This inspires trust.

In some cases, customers can become more loyal after an issue than they were before it happened.

Remember: Customer complaints aren’t personal. Don’t blame or shame customers or make excuses for your mistakes. That’s what we do when we’re acting defensively instead of focusing on a fix. Keep calm and support on.

4. Rushing to answer instead of understand

As mentioned earlier, getting back to customers quickly is important, but not at the expense of quality or comprehensiveness. When you rush to answer, you may miss key details and not fully comprehend the issue at hand. This can lead to unnecessary back-and-forth where the customer has to keep coming back to get all the information they need.

Instead, take your time and try to really understand. This requires active listening, and active listening requires being present and paying attention. Ask yourself what the customer might really need. Often, there’s an underlying “why” behind the conversation that goes beyond the surface-level issue.

When you can address that underlying “why,” you can resolve the conversation in one reply. When that happens, you reduce customer effort and increase satisfaction. To boot, while first reply time is important, so is time to resolution. Closing a conversation on the first reply means driving down full resolution time, further boosting customer satisfaction.

While you’re at it, take a cue from Apple, a company renowned for their service, and try to anticipate what the customer might need next. Will your response create more questions? What’s coming for your customer? Think a few steps ahead, then be proactive about giving the customer the information they’ll need.

5. Underutilizing support staff

Many support professionals inherently know how to provide great service. With training and experience, they sharpen their skills even more. But knowing how to do something doesn’t matter at all if you’re not allowed to do it.

To be truly effective, support teams need to be empowered to do what they know is best. Often times, support teams are both understaffed and overly restricted with too many rules and barriers. They lack the time it takes to provide exemplary service, and they lack the authority to make decisions.

Have you ever been to a grocery store where the cashier needs managerial approval to apply a coupon to your order? Not only is this a poor experience for you as the customer, but it’s insulting and degrading to the cashier. It strips them of their autonomy and ability to be useful.

Many bad support experiences happen not because the person you’re working with doesn’t care, but because they don’t have the authorization to actually help you.

So hire well, train well, then step aside. Trust that your support team are indeed the experts in support, and let them work their magic. Also, set reasonable targets so your team can spend the time it takes to resolve each interaction rather than speed through.

Another way that support staff get underutilized is by not being included in the larger company strategy. Support spends the large majority of their days talking to customers, where they learn about what customers need, what they like, and what confuses and frustrates them. Support people know a lot about customers. If leveraged correctly, this knowledge can be a vital asset.

However, many companies put support in an isolated silo, a mistake that moves beyond the support team itself and lands on the company as a whole. With that said, support teams can be a catalyst for change by elevating their visibility and highlighting their expertise, in part by sharing successes with the rest of the company.

Support teams can also utilize self-service, automation, and other technology to handle repetitive, low-value conversations. In doing so, this frees up time and attention for more valuable conversations, especially ones that grow revenue. In turn, support teams increase their clout and influence, leading to more invitations to participate in strategy.

The good news

Throughout this article, we focused on what could go wrong with small business customer service, which might seem a little gloomy. The good news is that these are common issues.

Good news? Yes. While your competition is stuck making these mistakes over and over again, you now have the knowledge to avoid them, propelling you ahead of the pack and into amazing online service that drives long-term loyalty and success.

Nykki Yeager
Nykki Yeager

Nykki is a customer-focused leader with ten years of experience in tech startups, currently serving as Head of SMB Customer Success at Qwilr. She’s also a consultant offering career coaching and strategic support for growing businesses. Learn more and connect at

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