On the heels of 2011 coming to a close, it’s fun to leap ahead with educated guesses for what 2012 will hold for small business.

One tie that consistently binds this community is the commitment to giving great customer service (surprised to hear that from us?). This promise of personalized, we’ll-prove-to-you-we-care interactions is a major factor that can set your small business apart from the big guys.

The goal for 2012 is to keep making that distinction crystal clear. How can you be more personal, more WOW, more thankful and more responsive to your customers in the coming months?

Back to Basics

Opinion is split among customer service experts about whether 2012 will be a retro ‘back to basics’ year or the most tech-savvy year to date. The fence may just be the place to land on this one: in an ideal merger, companies who love customers will continue to find innovative ways to meld technology with timeless customer service principles.

But first, one must understand the core of these principles, which is human interaction. Richard Shapiro, founder and president of The Center for Client Retention, is promoting a back-to-basics approach to customer service in 2012. Shapiro says companies must focus on treating customers as individuals with unique needs. How do you go about interacting with a customer in such a personal way? The threshold for achievement is pretty low here: at each point of contact, let customers talk to a real, live human.

To support and excel at this strategy, every single member of your company should be a customer service champion.

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, famously said, “Customer service shouldn’t just be a department, it should be the entire company.”

Take Hsieh’s advice (it seems to be working for Zappos, right?) and begin the year by reviewing your internal customer service architecture. What barriers exist today that prevent real human communication with customers? Are employees aware of their individual responsibilities to customers? An all-hands meeting early in the new year is a great way to refresh your team’s memory about your company’s commitment to providing legendary customer service.

The Cloud Makes Great Online Service Possible

Best practices in old-fashioned, "Back to Basics" customer service revolve around getting to know your customers and building relationships. The cloud (online services) makes it easier than ever to establish authentic rapport with customers using online channels.

In the past, engaging customers meant catching them on the phone or crossing paths at the general store. Social media lets you reach out for a friendly hello, and makes it effortless to set a date. Example: “@livestoshop Miss seeing you at the store! Can I buy you a coffee this Thursday and catch up?”

Even when you don't know a customer personally, the web makes it easier than ever to engage them. A tool like Help Scout creates a profile for every customer, full of public data from around the web. It's a starting point for you to establish that relationship.

The most important element to remember for marrying the old with the new is to either keep it authentic or don't do it at all. Above all, don't fake it. Don’t automate replies. Instead, have your team send thoughtful emails and fun-loving tweets to customers. Encourage employees to let their personality shine through. Even if you start with what we call a “Saved Reply,” take 60 seconds to personalize the message for the customer and further the relationship.

Have you scheduled that all-hands meeting yet? If not, make that one of today's top priorities. You'll never be sorry that you took an hour out of the workweek to make sure your team was on the same page about their responsibilities for giving outstanding customer service this year. 

If you need an extra assist with keeping everyone on the same page, try Help Scout. We promise, the four minutes it takes to set up this mailbox will save you hours of shared inbox headaches in 2012. 

Becky Neely

About the author: Becky Neely is passionate about communications and is a certified grammar nerd. When she’s not hunting errant commas, she indulges her insatiable love of travel.