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by: Donna Schwartz Mills

If you feel as if you've been living life on fast-forward lately, it's probably because you have. Our Internet-wired, high-speed high-bandwidth high-tech economy enables businesses to do more at less cost, with greater efficiency.

As consumers, we expect instant gratification and nothing less.  As businesspeople, that's what we are expected to provide.

We now live in an era when consumers can choose between many similar products from many different kinds of outlets and the nation's business journals have all been trumpeting the following mantra:

The key to attracting new customers and retaining them is excellent customer service.

The big retailers making their first foray onto the Internet learned that lesson the hard way last Christmas when they got their behinds kicked by upstarts like and Etoys. The big guys thought they could fall back on customer loyalty to their established brands, but they failed to realize they were living in a new world - one where their number one priority was to be responsive to their online customers, who expected speed and convenience when e-shopping.

Although this episode occurred only last year, it is now ancient history. The big retailers licked their wounds and have increased their online presence, with a better game plan for doing business on the net.

It's a lesson that is worth applying to our own home businesses, and the beauty of it is that we're not the ones who had to spend a gazillion million dollars to "get it."

Let's repeat the mantra: The key to attracting and retaining customers is excellent customer service. shows its commitment to the mantra by manning their 800 number with live representatives 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Sure, we may have to listen to a recorded message while we wait for an open line, but we've learned to accept that from large companies - and most of us stick around because we know the payoff - speaking to live person empowered to help us - is imminent.

Responsive telephone procedures are an essential component of good customer service. Whether we are doing the bulk of our business by direct contact or Internet marketing, at some point, our customers will want to reach us on the phone. In many cases, telephone contact will be our first and only opportunity to make a good impression.

I am not suggesting that home business people tie themselves to the telephone 24/7. None of us starts a business with the intention of becoming imprisoned by it. Many of us home-based entrepreneurs have children to care for... and we all have places to go -- lives to live.

But we can still surpass the Big Guys in offering our customers excellent service. All we have to do is set a few basic standards, many of which may seem obvious. However, it is surprising how often companies large and small fail to follow these common sense guidelines:


* If you do not already have a separate line for your home business, get one.

Serious customers expect you to take your business seriously, too. Make it clear to all members of your family that you are the only person to answer the business line. Always answer the business line with your name and the name of your business:

***(Example: "ParentPreneur Club, Donna Mills speaking.")

* Use a system for answering the business line when you are not available.

Most customers call because they want immediate answers, but if you are a one-person shop, you may not always be immediately available. Your voice mail system can be an answering machine, telephone service provider's system, or computer-based (either using software or an Internet service). If your budget allows, look into hiring an answering service with live voice operators.

Configure your system so that calls that come in while you are already on the line will be routed into voice mail. This way, your customers never encounter a busy signal when they call you.

* Establish regular business hours and try to answer your phone within three rings during those business hours.

Today's customers will not wait long for someone to answer the phone. Set your voice mail system to pick up on the third ring.

* Your outgoing message should impress your customers that (a) you are running a very active business and (b) you really want to take their calls.

* Change your outgoing message every day to reflect the time a customer may expect to receive a return call. Something like this:

***"You have reached Donna Mills' office at the ParentPreneur Club. Today is January 3rd. I will be in the office today until 3:00. Please leave a message at the tone and I will return your call as soon as possible."

* Check your voice mail often. Make it a point to return all your calls within 24 hours.

* If you are on vacation, or even if you've just taken the day off to spend with your kids, you should adjust your outgoing message to reflect the fact that you may not be able to return calls right away:

"...Today is March 10th. I am out of the office attending a seminar until the 15th. Please leave a message at the tone and I will call you back when I return."

This message informs your customers not to expect an immediate response, but does not leave you off the customer service hook.  Continue to check your messages daily and return any calls requiring immediate attention.

If your business phone is very busy, you may wish to use a mobile phone/paging system when you are out of the office.  My personal preference is to stick with voice mail. I am completely focused on my work during business hours and find it tough enough to switch gears when I pick my daughter up from preschool.  Voice mail allows me to choose when to shift my concentration back to business.


* As with the telephone, you should respond to all e-mail within 24 hours.

* If you are leaving town for a few days and don't own a notebook computer, make arrangements to check your e-mail daily.

* If you do not have Internet access where you are staying (either at a hotel or with friends or family who are not yet wired), seek out a local library or "Cyber-Café" where you can get online. Know the addresses of your incoming and outgoing mail servers. Write this information down and keep it in your organizer and you should be able to access your e-mail account from any Internet client anywhere in the world.

* If you are doing business on the Internet and are blessed (or cursed) with high-volume e-mail, set up an autoresponder to acknowledge immediate receipt of your messages. It can read something like this:

***"We have received your e-mail inquiry to the NOBOSS ParentPreneur Club. While I try to answer all e-mail within a few hours, there are occasions when we receive so many requests that we get backed up... and it may take us up to 48 hours to respond.

Thank you for your patience. Your business is important to us.

Donna Schwartz Mills"

In the example above, we've given ourselves a window of a couple of days to read our customers' messages and send replies. By responding immediately with this information, our customers know their messages are not being ignored. They will be less likely to become frustrated with us and check out our competition.


Unfortunately, good manners are so rare in our automated world that having them is bound to make your customers sit up and take notice.

* Keep a supply of blank note cards handy. If your budget allows, have some printed up with your company logo.

* Make it your habit to drop your customers a handwritten line after every meeting, large sale, or for other special occasion (i.e., if you read in your industry trades that someone you know has received a promotion or special honor).

* Enclose your business card if doing so is appropriate.

* Hand-write the address on the envelope and use a postage stamp instead of running it through a meter. After all, these messages are personal and will serve to reinforce your image as an entrepreneur who values your business relationships.

THE KEY TO ATTRACTING AND RETAINING CUSTOMERS IS EXCELLENT CUSTOMER SERVICE.  Make this your mantra and who knows?  You may do more than improve your sales - you could make the 21st century a nicer place for all of us.

Donna Schwartz Mills is the editor of the NOBOSS ParentPreneur Club (, an online resource for moms and dads with home-based businesses and those who are thinking of starting a home-based business.  She can be reached at .


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