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"A product is no more than an artifact around which customers have experiences," writes author Scott Bedbury in his anecdote-rich book A New Brand World.  This is true regardless of whether you work for Starbucks or Nike, where Bedbury worked, or you’re the owner of a small business.

Many small business owners don’t think much about branding, but in this era of intense competition, all business owners should be concerned with how they’re perceived by their customers and that’s the heart of branding.  If your customers have good "experiences" with your product or service, they’ll connect to your brand on an emotional level and they’ll tell other people about it.  That’s branding nirvana.

Bedbury defines a brand as the sum total of everything related to your company.  Every part of your operation – worst and best employee, worst and best product, music that you play when customers are on hold, your restrooms – impacts the customer.  That means as Bedbury states, "everything matters" when you’re building your brand.  Customer service is at the heart of protecting and strengthening your brand, particularly for a small business.  So, how does a small business create and strengthen a brand that resonates emotionally with customers?

Setting expectations with your customers is one way to connect with customers and alleviate future problems.  Let them know when to expect a return email or phone call from you if they leave you a message, whether that’s 24-hours or 48-hours.  Set explicit office hours if you work from home.  Customers sometime think home office workers should be available 24/7.  If you don’t answer your phone after hours tell them that.  Your customers will be happy with you if they know what to expect from you.

Admit your mistakes to your customers.  If you make a mistake, it’s how you resolve the issue that’s important.  If a problem occurs, take responsibility for it immediately, fix it and then compensate your customers with a free sample, free hour of service or a discount on their next purchase.  This lets your customers know that you’re responsive about addressing problems and taking care of them. 

Brands are strengthened by how they deal with problems.  Bedbury discusses how Tylenol survived a madman poisoning some of their products with cyanide by instituting an immediate recall and providing discount coupons to its customers.  Tylenol had a strong brand and they kept it by dealing quickly and appropriately with this disastrous situation.

Communicate with your customers.  A customer retention objective should be in every business owner’s marketing plan.  If you’re customers aren’t actively buying your service right now, don’t let them forget you.  Send them a newsletter, an interesting article you saw that would pertain to them or some type of promotion. Keep your name in front of your current customer base on a monthly or quarterly basis.  That way, they’ll remember you when they need your service again.

Proactively seek out feedback, both positive and negative, on your service from your customers.  Ask for testimonial letters.  If someone hesitates to give you one, ask why and what you could do to better serve them the next time.  Set aside a customer feedback section on your website.  Use the feedback, good and bad, to make your business better.

Plan for incredible success.  Let’s say you start an e-commerce business and 100,000 potential customers hit your website the first day it goes live and it crashes.  You’ve lost those customers forever.  So, think through what would happen if you have that kind of success and prepare contingencies to deal with it.

Finally, make sure your employees know what your brand means.  Training employees is essential.  Write down your mission and goals for your company and create a training manual for your employees.  Make sure every employee in your operation knows what customer service means to your brand and how to execute it.

Remember, everything matters.  So, take care of everything and you have a much better chance of connecting with and keeping your customers.

This Marketing article was written by Vanessa Brown on 3/2/2005

Vanessa Brown is a business development consultant and develops business and marketing plans for small-medium sized businesses. Visit or call 301-515-0015 for more information.