Organise your phone messages
Phone messages are a good place to start. A thoughtful voicemail message explaining when you will respond, and what to do in real emergencies, is far better than a generic “leave a message”. Services such as Telstra's DOT (Digital Office Technology)™ can send voicemails to your email inbox, so you can collect all your customer support requests in one place. DOT can also ring all the numbers on your business’s account at once, to allow a rapid response. Or perhaps you want to set a sequence of responders, so that if you're with a client any calls to you go to the office. And if the office is closed, to your second-in-command who expects the odd out-of-hours call. DOT can do that, too.
"Self Help" customers to answer questions themselves
Your website and social media channels are where you can provide customers with “self-service options”, and help take a lot of pressure off yourself.
The most basic self-service tactic is a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) article explaining solutions to customers' most frequent queries. Your FAQ should be a prominent feature of your site. To write it, pick your own brain, but also consider asking your best customers what they think new buyers need to know about the best way to work with you. Ask in private: you don't want social media trolls answering that question in public!
A library of self-help articles, sometimes called a “knowledge base”, is another great self-service tool for your website. If it's easy to search, a knowledge base can help satisfy lots of customers.
Don't worry about a FAQ or knowledge base appearing a bit impersonal; some customers will be happy to get the help they need online rather than having to phone or message you through a social network. Remember, some of the world's biggest and most successful companies – think Google, Facebook, Microsoft and more – use FAQs and knowledge bases.
Don’t try to build everything at once. Start with the four or five most-needed articles and prioritise the rest, adding one a week so your knowledge base grows into a useful set of resources. Remember to keep answers short and to the point; this saves time writing them and also customer time when it comes to getting the answers they need.
Include an email form on your site
It's a good idea to add an email response option to your FAQ and knowledge base. The best way is for your website developer to add a form to your web site. This makes it easier to customise the subject line for emails generated by the form – such as “Customer Support” – so you can quickly identify those messages that need urgent attention in your inbox. Using a form also lets you send an automatic response that acknowledges the customer’s message: “We've received your email and usually respond between 9am and 10amAEST, Monday to Friday.” Work this way and you'll end up with a list of identifiable customer support emails and consumers whose expectations have been set, and who you have already responded to promptly and with courtesy. That's far better than emails going to several people and customers with no idea when they'll receive a response.
Set social media expectations with automatic messages
Your social media properties should also explain the hours during which you will respond. Telstra's Twitter account, for example, says “We're here 24x7 to provide customer support and answer any Telstra questions you might have.” Write your own version and don't be afraid to say, “We're a small business so we answer tweets 8am-6pmAEST. Outside those hours, perhaps our FAQ can help?” Then link to the FAQ.
You can also use automated social media tools such as Hootsuite and HubSpot, which can read your social feeds and post pre-written responses. Customer relationship management and marketing software can do this stuff, too. Again, be sympathetic and courteous with your automated responses.
Whatever automation tools you choose, make sure you set the right expectations and be as classy as you can be, even in the face of unfair social media rants. And above all, remember that being in small business doesn't mean giving up the rest of your life.