How SMBs can build an affordable, scaleable customer service function

Building a customer service department when you are a small or scaling business might seem like a daunting challenge. It might even be tempting to say, "surely that's something that can wait until we are bigger, we want to focus on winning new logos."

Well there is good news and bad news.

The Bad News

  • There is one golden rule that all growing businesses know and (should) recite like a mantra at dawn on a Byron Bay beach, "You cannot outrun poor retention."
  • In other words you cannot sustain revenue growth if you are bleeding existing customer revenue. As you grow and have more and more customers this law becomes more and more powerful. You have to run faster and faster to offset the loss of existing customer revenue.
  • It is many times harder and more expensive to win new customers than to keep existing ones, so your cost of sale is higher and your pace of growth is slower and burns more precious cash.
  • Bad news travels faster than ever. Losing customers does little to enhance your reputation in the market. In this digitally interconnected world it has never been easier to post a poor review or for potential and existing customers to exchange notes.
  • Offshoring your customer service might provide some relief to the bottom line but rarely delivers an experience that is in line with the company’s core values and tone, or the local culture. Aussies and Kiwis like to speak with people based locally. Off-shore service teams rarely provide this local touch, and usually have little power to fix the issue, being outside of the organisation, but the current shortage of workers in ANZ hiring a local team is an expensive challenge. 
  • Customers don't care (and nor should they) whether you are a small or large business, they expect the same level of service. They want to be able to contact a service representative by phone, email, social channels, the chat function on your site and so on. Being able to engage with customers across multiple channels is table stakes.


You might be thinking, "Wow, that's a daunting list." but here is...

The good news

Planning, implementing and running a good customer experience from the outset - be it for a start up, scale up or established small business - is more achievable than it has ever been. 

Technology is your ally

The cost of the technology required to support a customer service function for SMBs can be as little as A$70 per month. For this you should be able to get your hands on:

  • A fully featured CRM that stores all communications between you ands your customer.
  • Live chat and basic bot functionality on your site
  • A unified inbox across all incoming channels so regardless how a customer choses to contact you, no one slips through the cracks
  • A support ticket system and pipeline so there is absolute clarity on outstanding and priority  issues. 
  • Calling direct from the CRM, keep all comms attached to a central record and is quick and efficient
  • Email templates, to speed up response times and improve quality of support.

For a few hundred bucks more a month you could:

  • Add much more self service and automation capabilities such as a knowledge base of FAQs that customers can access at a the click of a mouse. This allows you to scale the customer service function in a cost effective way. An effective knowledge base allows you to catalogue and share best practices for users of your products and services.
  • Start measuring customer satisfaction formally via NPS and CSAT surveys so you can spot any  problematic recurring issues. Identifying customers who rate you a nine or a ten on an NPS score can unearth opportunities to upsell or cross sell other services and to unearth customers who may become advocates for your business. Equally, rapid intervention when you receive a low score might limit any damage and even save an account that might churn.
  • Set SLAs for the service team to ensure that they are consistently meeting the expectations of customers.
  • Use a dashboard of reports to measure and systematically improve the service function. 


Getting started

Gather everyone who has contact with your customers - including those looking after marketing and sales and document the issues and challenges you are currently facing. Remember to include your internal challenges as well as the customers challenges. It is very likely you will find misalignment between marketing sales and service teams.

Rank and prioritise those problems. It's likely you wont be able to afford to fix all the problems you have identified so knowing which ones are "must haves" vs "nice to haves" is helpful. 

Ask a team member to document or update any current customer service processes - a response framework - so you know your starting point. Customer service teams should have processes and guidelines to respond most appropriately based on the issue and customer. A response framework is also critical in times of crisis. The biggest mistake firms make is to disappear. Companies, even small ones, should prepare their response, and be ready to face customers, who expect authenticity and transparency from organisations. 

Research your peers and companies you admire to learn "what good looks like." What should I expect from my investment? What's the gold standard for service in your sector? Getting advice from your peers in the industry remains one of the best ways to learn the right way forward. With remote working the norm now, it's a great time to cast your net wide and speak with people in other geographies. 

Research technology that can help you. There is little need to engage with the firms sales teams and endure their pesky attentions. Most buyers (75% the research says) prefer to do their research themselves and only engage with the providers in the selection phase. That said, excellent sales reps and their partners are highly consultative in their approach and have excellent tools that can help you generate a list of requirements with which you can go to market. 

What to have on your list of requirements.

A strong CRM that sits at the heart of all your customer records and is the single source of truth for marketing sales and customer service. Being able to track all of your interactions with someone across the customer lifecycle sitting at the heart of building a great customer experience. Having separate databases and email lists sprinkled throughout the organisation is highly inefficient and expensive. 

Easy integration. If the goal for firms should be to have a unified customer experience across their entire lifetime with you, having different and unintegrated systems across marketing sales and service is a surefire way to fail your customers. Your customer service technology should form part of an integrated ecosystem. Tools that have not been designed to work together should be avoided at all costs. Forcing an integration via custom coding is usually expensive to build and especially to maintain. 

Affordable. A technology platform that can start small and can grow with your business and as you build in confidence and scale. Without paying through the nose. Going too large, too soon, is an easy mistake to make. 

Easy to use. A user interface that is well designed and easy to use. The number one reason for failure to adopt new platforms is user resistance. 

Easy to maintain. Learning and tweaking your processes and systems is a never ending task, but is especially important in the first 12 months. Yes, initial installation, onboarding and training might take a few weeks, but optimisation is where the real wins come and that takes months of experimentation, analysis, learning and adapting. So having a partner who is with you across that journey is very important to ensure success.  

Your customer service technology should require no technical specialist skills to run and especially to maintain. There should be no need to drop thousands and thousands of dollars on consultants charging A$500 per hour for technical configuration and update work. 

Ultimately, there are two elements SMBs should look for: automation and integration. Automation because automating some of your customer service processes will save smaller teams time to tend to more customer requests. Solutions that integrate with each other, or better still are built that way from the ground up, also allow for the transfer of key information between them, without needing manual work from agents. This is the kind of optimisation SMBs should prioritise, but they need to keep things simple and avoid spreading their resources. There is nothing worse for small teams than having too many systems. 

If you are keen to discuss this topic further please feel free to contact us, we'd be happy to chat. If you want to research some best of breed tools check out this HubSpot page, or speak with Aircall about their powerful cloud telephony solution.




Topics: customer experience customer service tools customer service