The holiday shopping season has begun. Soon our friends and neighbors that have been vacationing in the north over the summer will return.

A lot of the small businesses in our area are dependent on these seasonal sales cycles. The busy times, though hectic, can be highly profitable, however slow periods can create stress until the next sales uptick.

Although the business cycles will come and go, you can’t assume your customers will always be there.

Customer service is one of the most important ways a small business can build loyalty with its customers. You connect directly with your customers, furnish the products or services that meet their needs, help them solve their problems and then follow up after the sale.

This generates more than just sales, it also creates relationships that will not only keep those customers coming back, but also lead to referrals and new business.

Remember how you were treated when you visited a local business. What made you want to come back, or to recommend the store to others? Was it a helpful, courteous salesperson, a clean well-organized store layout or ready assistance when you had a question or a problem.

Make sure the qualities that made a difference to you are adapted and fully engrained in your operation.

As more business is conducted online, retailers are less likely to have face-to-face contact with their customers. But that doesn’t mean you should scrimp on customer service. Online customer service begins with a well-designed, easy-to-navigate, and fast-loading e-commerce website. Make sure the information about your business is clear and easy to find. Make certain product descriptions are timely and complete.

Explain any additional charges and fees up front. It can be frustrating to an e-customer to find surprises during check-out.

Face-to-face or online customer, simply saying “thank you” goes a long way toward securing customer’s loyalty. Say thanks whenever you can. Think about how many times your business interacts with customers. Last impressions matter as much as first ones do.

There are other things you can do to express your gratitude as well. Send a thank-you note. The idea may sound corny. But a handwritten thank-you note, or a personalized email really makes a big impression.

Maybe include a discount coupon or another special offer. Make it clear that there are no strings attached. It’s simply to thank them for their business.

Despite your best efforts, you’ll still have dissatisfied customers. Customer service is about responding quickly to complaints or negative comments. This could include offering to speak to the unhappy customer by phone to get the full story and resolve the problem more quickly. If the complaint appears in a public online setting be sure to post a follow-up note about the complaint on the forum, even if the outcome is not what you wanted.

Regular visitors will see that you’re a business they can trust, because you take customer feedback seriously.

Keep in touch with all your customers throughout the year with email newsletters or a blog. Let them know about new product or menu offerings, facility improvements. Just a note to say “Hi” will keep your business uppermost in their minds when it is time to spend seasonal dollars.

For more information on starting, promoting and growing your business, or to request a mentor from Port Charlotte SCORE go to www.portcharlotte.score.org. Volunteers provide confidential one on one business advice to meet the needs of both start-up and existing businesses at no cost. To learn how you can become a SCORE volunteer contact Don Benjamin at donbenjamin1937@gmail.com. Follow us on Twitter at @charlottecscore.

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