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from Patio and Hearth Products Report

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by Tony Ramos

Word-of-mouth advertising can either help or hurt your business. With the advent and growth of social media, word-of-mouth advertising is now much more than two neighbors talking across a shared fence in their backyards.

With social-media services such as Yelp, business reviews not only are readily at hand via smartphone, but the number of reviews takes traditional word-of-mouth advertising to the 10th power. As of 2014, Yelp had 132 million monthly visitors and 57 million reviews.

For specialty retailers, reviews from traditional word-of-mouth advertising and social media can focus on location, price, the quality (or lack thereof) of products or services, and customer service. More often than not, positive or negative reviews based on customer service are found toward the top of the list.

There is disagreement over whether customer service has gotten worse over the past few years or whether, instead, shopper’s expectations are too high and unrealistic. Regardless, a negative customer-service review can keep consumers from stepping into your store, while a positive customer-service review will drive and increase store traffic.

Attitude Is Everything

If you haven’t already seen it, be sure to check out Lauren Mickler’s September 19 postgame interview with high-school running back Apollos Hester of the Georgetown, Texas, East View Patriots on “High School Blitz” (‪ Even though he isn’t old enough to vote, Hester has already figured out the importance of having a good, positive, never-give-up attitude.

Working with your employees to ensure that they have (and maintain) top-level customer-service attitudes is paramount in the success of specialty retailers. That’s not just true of your sales force, either. A rude, inconsiderate designer or delivery person can negate—very quickly—all the goodwill that a professional, customer-oriented salesperson has diligently developed with a customer.

Three things that every employee should be doing seem so simple, but are rapidly going by the wayside: establishing eye contact, saying please, and saying thank you. These start at the top, too.

As a business owner, do you take the time to talk with your employees in an unrushed way and to engage them in a sincere manner? When asking something of your employees, whether you’re speaking or using an email or text message, do you say please and thank you? It’s a lot easier to get your employees to incorporate sound customer-service skills when they are being treated, by their supervisors and managers, in the way that they are expected to treat customers.

Field Trip

While it’s certainly important to work with and train your employees to use sound customer-service skills, sometimes it’s easier for people to digest what you’re saying when they see it in action. Take a field trip with your employees.

Identify a business—any business, regardless of size or industry—in your local area that exemplifies superior customer service. Go there to be a secret shopper.

Take no more than two employees at a time. Visit the store or business as if you were a potential customer.

Be considerate. Don’t take up too much of the time of the salesperson you interact with, but give the experiment enough time for your employees to see what good customer service looks, sounds, and feels like.

It’s one thing to read about it in a book, to watch a video, or to listen to a speaker. It really illuminates what you’re trying to accomplish with your customer-service program, though, when your employees see what exemplary customer service is all about—firsthand.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

When it comes to social-media reviews, be sure to share the good, the bad, and the ugly with your employees. While some social-media reviews need to be taken with a grain of salt, many reviews provide you and your employees with an insightful report card on how customers view your business.

Many manufacturers post, in their manufacturing areas, a count of days without an accident or injury. In the same way, chart and track your social-media reviews and share them with your employees.

You can learn a lot from what customers are saying about your business. Just as football coaches watch game footage to help them improve players’ skills, you can make the necessary adjustments to improve your employees’ customer-service skills (which will contribute, in turn, to an increase in sales).

There’s an old saying that people do business with people they know, like, and trust. Elevate customer-service skills in your business, and watch your business grow.

Tony Ramos is publisher of Patio & Hearth Products Report. He can be reached at