Sage North America just wrapped up its 50-day Sage Listens Tour across the United States, meeting with small businesses. Along the way they created an extensive Flickr library of photographs. We thought we’d use some of the photographs to extract seven lessons about customer service that small businesses can replicate.
Before we jump in with the lessons, a little background may be helpful. Sage, if you’re not familiar with it, is a large global technology company that sells accounting, ERP and related software to small and mid-sized businesses. It’s part of the UK-based Sage Group, a $2+ billion business with 6 million customers worldwide. In 2012, Sage North America set out to become a better-known brand  in the United States. They also want to deepen relationships with existing customers, as recurring revenue streams are a key part of the company’s business model.
Back in early July we held a live interview  with Sage NA Executive Vice President Connie Certusi. At that time, she told us the objectives of the Tour, which was just about to kick off, and a related initiative called the Shop Local Challenge:
“Not only do we want to meet with the small businesses and understand their journey … what keeps them up at night… and [take that information back to Sage].. but we want to shop locally on this tour. We are buying gas from small business customers, we are staying at hotels where we can of small business customers, we are eating at [small business-owned restaurants].
We want them to know that we are championing them in the community. [The Shop Local Challenge is where we] are asking everyone to shop local at least one day a week. Make a concerted effort to find a small business in your area … to shop local at least one day a week. We are putting out the Challenge to our employees to do the same across the United States.”
So with that backdrop, here are 7 lessons about customer service that you too can use to deepen bonds with customers:
1. Get outside the 4 walls and visit customers in person
Email and phone are essential. Online communities are terrific. But nothing takes the place of meeting customers in person.
More than 30 Sage executives and leaders were involved in this Tour. They crossed 6,300 miles. Company representatives spoke with 73 customers. They included customers like Ventura Coastal, a producer of citrus juices and oils, and MuckerLab, a Los Angeles incubator.
“It may be unrealistic for businesses to get out and meet all their customers, but if you are a business that sees your customers regularly, treasure those interactions — and your customers’ unique stories — and learn from each one,” said Brad Smith, Executive Vice President for customer experience at Sage (pictured above).
Tip: Make an appointment to meet some of your clients or customers face to face for lunch. Don’t do it when it’s time to renew or it will feel like a sales call. A sales pitch will change the dynamic. You want this to be about what they need, not what you need.
2. The senior leadership team should visit customers
The Tour included several of the company’s executive leaders. Here’s CEO Pascal Houillon in the doorway (above). It’s a reminder to all of us not to limit customer visits just to sales and support staff.
Tip: Schedule regular on-site customer visits by you and members of your executive team. Some companies actually set quotas, requiring executives to go on X number of customer visits per year or quarter. Customer attitude starts at the top. Customer visits are a “lead by example” symbol internally to employees. They also result in better decisions — with so many demands on your attention, you can get out of touch in a changing marketplace without even realizing it.
3. Nothing makes a customer happier than showing you appreciate them
And one way to do that is to sing their praises. Instead of always looking for customers to give testimonials to you, how about recommending your customers for a change?
A recommendation can be as simple as a hashtag such as #amazingfood. Here Sage gave a shout-out to a customer, El Pinto Restaurant, on Flickr.
Tip: Help your fellow small business owners who are your customers, and they will help you. If you use and enjoy their products and services, be sure to let other people know. Recommend them to your peers. Or do something even simpler. Retweet your customers on Twitter. Share and Like their content on Facebook. Small gestures talk big.
4. Live in your customer’s shoes (and helmets) for true understanding
Sage employees donned protective gear for a visit to the King’s Hawaiian Bakery facility. You may think you know what challenges your customers face, but seeing them in their element can add insights you might never know otherwise.
Tip: Make in-depth visits to your customer’s work site or offices. Ask for a facility tour (better to schedule in advance so you don’t disrupt them). Get a look at their business processes first hand. As they say, a picture is worth 1,000 words. Seeing the customer’s place of business brings understanding to a whole different level.
5. Make it easy for customers to know how to reach you.
In the closeup of the Tour RV (see image at top of page), you can see how the URL is painted on the side. The URL also appears on the front and back. It’s not small, either. It leaves no doubt how to find Sage on the Web.
Tip: If possible, include your website URL right on company vehicles, and even on the sign out in front on the street. Keep the URL as simple and memorable as possible. Make it big enough for people to see while driving. Not only is it helpful information, but symbolically it says “we want to connect with you.”
6. Customers actually love to talk to you. Use their feedback!
Sage stopped at businesses like Hammond’s Candies in Denver — and found them happy to see them. Small business customers value their vendors and want a dialogue with them.
“Many customers were so excited we came to visit, and quite a few were shocked their software and services provider had come especially to learn about their business and say thank you – not to sell them anything,” said Smith. “The executive director for a 200-employee not-for-profit using Sage 50 Accounting — U.S. Edition for more than two decades – who started at the organization as a teenager — said, “We’ve been waiting 22 years to talk to you guys face-to- face.” It really struck a chord realizing the interactions we were having during the tour were so vital to our customers’ success, as well as our own.”
Tips: Fear sometimes keeps business owners from reaching out to customers. You may simply be uncertain about the relationship with the customer. (Will we get a cool reception? Are they full of complaints? Did we screw up and not fix it right?) Initiate a conversation – you may be pleasantly surprised – and learn a lot. Anyway, fear is no way to run a business.
7. Make your customers your suppliers
If you really want to get customers’ attention, buy from THEM. Stronger relationships are built when it’s a two-way street. Here they stop at Mom’s Diner, in the small town of Pahrump, Nevada. The Flickr caption says in part “we’re shopping locally.”
Brent Leary, Partner at CRM Essentials, visited the Tour on the Atlanta leg. He made this observation, “I really like Sage’s commitment to supporting their small business customers by incentivizing their employees to buy local. They even went so far as creating a mobile app for employees to identify Sage small business customers to make it easier to buy from them.”
Tip: While you probably won’t be creating an app for that, you can seek out customers to do business with them. For instance, bring up the topic in your staff meeting. Encourage your team to cater meetings from the local restaurant that is your client. Or order gift baskets from that gift basket professional who is also a customer.
In conclusion, to get closer to customers, you don’t need to customize an RV and go on a cross-country tour. But you certainly can set goals to deepen relationships with customers, using the Sage Listens Tour as a case study of sorts.