There is no question COVID-19 has impacted the world and left many casualties – and in business terms, customer service seems to be one of its biggest.

Here are some examples I recently encountered: I stayed in a major hotel that was full but had only one desk clerk — no one ever answered the phone and no towels, the list went on and on; I bought a smoker that doesn’t work, and no one returned calls to help me; we called seven five-star rated landscapers for yard maintenance, no one returned a call; I have special status as frequent flyer, but it still took me one hour to get someone on the phone. 

It can take years to build a positive brand name and a couple of months of bad service to destroy it all. As a small business, excellent customer service can be refreshing to your customers. Big businesses just give lip service to customer service. Such businesses survive on mass volume and as a small business you just cannot afford such a luxury.

Utilize good phone practices. It does no good to advertise and then not return calls. If nothing else, simply phone people back and tell them you aren’t currently taking new customers. Train phone personnel on how to screen and chat with customers. Too many merely want to schedule an appointment with no regard as to the quality of the lead.

Some people are amazed when I promptly return their call. That’s my job. Not everyone is a phone solicitor or trying to sell you something. Years ago, I uncovered massive theft and fraud at a mechanical contractor. It also included an electrical contractor. I left two messages for the owner to call me back — I had confidential information I could not relay by phone. He never called. Several months later he was out of business. 

If you feel a customer doesn’t have the money or is merely price shopping, there are several potential responses. You can simply schedule the estimate 30 days out and they will probably just go away. Have them email pictures of the job; if they will not bother to do that, they probably are not serious. Google their house or office on Google Earth and give some ranges. The more you probe, the more you find out. Be quick to gather information and slow to just run out and do an estimate. 

Ask questions of the customer and develop a checklist for crews to follow. Ask where to park. Decide where the Dumpster might go. Look out for pets — it’s nice to know about the Doberman before opening the gate. Walk the job at the end of the day to make sure tools and trash are picked up. The more courteous you are to your customer, the more likely you will get referrals.

Use simple, common-sense practices. If your schedule changes, call or text the customer to let them know. Simply say a job is running over and you cannot leave the job unfinished any more than you can leave their job unfinished. Give customers a few days’ warning before you show up. Have your foreman walk through the job at the end of the job to see if anything was missed. Pass out flyers to neighboring properties letting them know you will be working with a number to call if there are any issues.

Don’t oversell your production capacity. Finding labor is an ongoing challenge. Extra unemployment, lack of desire to do physical work, and immigration are just some of the reasons. For most contractors, 2021 leads look strong, and contractors can probably sell more than they can produce. You may be better off to increase prices rather than try to sell volume. Selling jobs you cannot get to ruins your reputation and creates major anxiety. Remember, a 5% price increase goes straight into your pocket. It requires no more cash, no more production and no more headaches.

Handle complaints with empathy. When the hotel was sold out and the service was truly unbelievably bad, I complained to the manager. His response was, “We are sold out and don’t have enough employees.” My response was: “Then limit the number of rooms you sell. It’s not my fault you can’t accommodate the business.” The proper response to a complaint is to agree with the customer and not make excuses. It should go something like this: “I can appreciate your frustration and regret the service has been bad and we will try to do better. What can I do to help the situation?”

Yes, some people are crazy and difficult, but not most of us. Most people become difficult when they feel they are not being heard or are being mistreated. As a small business, all you have going for you is your good name. Make sure you keep it.