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The Basics of Customer Service

Excellent service can be a determining factor for customers when deciding where they are going to purchase goods and services, and whether or not they return for future purchases. Since a large percentage of revenues come from existing accounts, and it can cost up to five times as much to attract a new customer than to retain an existing one, keeping them happy makes good economic sense.

Customer Service Defined

Customer service captures a whole range of actions and responses. These include your customer's perception of the quality and price of your product or service, delivery, response to questions, problem resolution, and contact with employees or your website. Basically, customer service is a component in all aspects of your business.

According to extensive research, customers expect certain basic amenities. As staff goes, the most important elements are:

  • Friendliness
  • Knowledge
  • Efficient service
  • Reliability
  • Professionalism
  • Responsiveness

The business itself should offer:

  • Product range/appeal
  • Value for money
  • Attractive pricing
  • Positive ambiance
  • Engaging presentation and display
  • Accessibility

Clear Communication Makes a Difference

According to the research, most customers don't follow through on the sale because of a perceived attitude or indifference toward them by the owner, manager or employees. Clear, caring communication will put a positive spin on the customer service experience:

  • Be accessible on all fronts. Your customers may have questions before, during and after the sale. Provide as many avenues for answering their questions as you can. If you have a website, include a range of information. Most sites contain a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) section, where common inquiries can be answered quickly and effectively any time of day. Some customers actually prefer this method. Still, be sure to include either a phone number or email address for questions the FAQ doesn’t cover.
  • Be reliable. Do what you say you're going to do. If you say your product will ship on Monday, then ship it on Monday.
  • Suggest additional products or services. Whether it's a component to what they are already ordering or something they might enjoy based on previous orders, they'll appreciate the extra attention. What’s more, you may be able to sell them something they wouldn't have thought of otherwise.
  • Be responsive. Answer questions quickly and accurately. Existing problems can become bigger - and new ones can crop up - if a customer has to wait too long for your response. Take enough time though. A wrong answer offered in haste is just as bad.

Appreciate Complaints - and Act on Them!

You may not like it, but mistakes, faulty products and service glitches are bound to happen. Use these guidelines to make the experience less painful for your customers - and you:

  • Alert your customers to problems before they have a chance to complain. If your website will be down for maintenance, for instance, let your customers know ahead of time so they aren't frustrated when they can't access your site. Let them know if shipping will be delayed because of a holiday. Tell them up front if you can't quite deliver on something you promised; do what you can to satisfy them, and give them something extra for their patience.
  • Resolve issues quickly and generously. If, despite all your preventative measures, you do have a complaint, do everything you can to set things right. Fix the problem. Show sincere concern for any discomfort, frustration, or inconvenience. Then do a bit more by giving your customers something positive to remember - a token of goodwill, a small gift, a discount on future orders or an upgrade to a superior product. This is not the time to lay blame for what went wrong or to calculate the costs of repair. Restoring customer goodwill is worth the price in future orders and new business.
  • Appreciate your complaining customers. These irate folks can be your best allies in building and improving your business. They point out where your system is faulty and where procedures are weak. They show you where your products are below expectations or your service doesn't measure up. They point out areas where your competitors are getting ahead, or where your staff is falling behind.

These are the same insights and conclusions that people pay consultants to provide. But a "complainer" gives them to you free! And remember, for every person who complains, there are many more that won't even bother to tell you. They just take their business elsewhere.

  • Follow up. Contact your customers to make sure they received their orders in good condition, and that they are satisfied with your product. If all is well, you've created some goodwill; if there is a problem, you can work on satisfying a customer that might otherwise have been lost. Asking for feedback after a problem has been resolved can also help you measure how well your procedures are working and to identify any areas that need improvement.

Train Employees to Care

Good customer care may begin with your products and services, but your staff has the power to bring what you offer to the highest level. Achieving this, however, takes consistent effort on your part - and ongoing communication.

  • Be proactive. Train your employees well, and make sure your policies and procedures enhance customer service. When you do encounter a problem, learn from your mistakes and correct them as soon as possible.
    For example, if employees answer company phones, be sure they are friendly, speak clearly and are knowledgeable about your product, policies and procedures. It is a good idea to post a handy list of frequently asked questions, a roster of phone extensions, and responsible employees, and directions to your business. Make sure all personnel understand the importance of solid phone procedures.
  • Teach your employees to maintain a positive attitude and culture of service all day, every day. Reward excellence. Foster pride in your product and make your employees feel like they have a stake in the success of the company. Treat your employees with the same respect and service that you would expect them to give your customers. How effectively can your employees provide service to your customers if they themselves are stressed-out, overworked and under-appreciated?
  • Empower your employees to resolve issues. Teaching staff to solve problems emphasizes not only your confidence in them, but also your commitment to service by resolving issues immediately. This approach is far preferable to shuffling unhappy clients from department to department for answers to their problems.