CNN last estimated that service-based small businesses make up 34 percent of the U.S. workforce. That’s huge, and it means that not only is your business significant; it’s a crucial piece of our national economy.

By Clate Mask

We spend a lot of our time helping small businesses like yours grow, through our smart client management, CRM and marketing automation tools, but technology isn’t the only growth driver for this important segment of small businesses. In fact, customer service and customer follow-up are two of the main keys to success.

So we set out to learn what traits are valued most by the consumers who are hiring these service-based small businesses. We conducted a research study with 3,000 qualified participants in order to identify these companies’ areas of weakness – and ultimately opportunity – to get more sales and strengthen their existing customer experience. And what we found were the top five qualities that matter most to your customers whether they’re deciding to work with you for the first time, or deciding to come back again.

1. Trustworthy

When you think of trustworthiness, what comes to mind? Your mom, your best friend, your business partner? Trust might not be what consumers initially think they look for in a service provider, yet it was at the top of the list for our research participants. When we dug in a bit deeper, we learned that there are two primary ways in which service-based businesses break a consumer’s trust: 1) By making it seem like they’re just doing the job for the money, and 2) By not telling the consumer everything upfront.

If you’re running your business and aiming for stellar customer service (and who wouldn’t be?), then it’s time to think about how your interactions with your customers typically go. Do you make a point to say that the only reason you got into plumbing was because you can make a decent living off of it? From the customer’s perspective, they want you to care that their kitchen faucet is spraying like a fire hose; not treat it like it’s just another part of your daily grind that pays the bills. Do you share certain details of your pricing upfront, but then add on some extra charges when the job is over? Tell the customer everything before you get started instead, so there are no surprises – and no damaged trust.

2. Dependable

We all know that time is money, but there are often honest reasons that schedules get thrown off kilter and we’re not able to be somewhere when we’ve said we will. If you’re in the service business, though, the practice of running late can quash your customers’ perception of your dependability. In fact, the number one issue our study participants cited with service providers and dependability was showing up late.

If you find that you’re always running behind, try to zero in on why that is. If you’re a hairstylist, maybe your clients tend to run late, which pushes back how timely you can be with the remaining clients the rest of the day. Even though this isn’t your fault, consider adding more time in between clients so you have a buffer in case your schedule gets thrown off. Also, get in the practice of notifying your customers if you’re running behind. A simple call, text or email telling them you’re 10 minutes late can save them a lot of frustration – and keep you looking dependable in their eyes.

3. Knowledgeable

Of course you have expertise in your given field, and this is probably why you chose it. But making sure that knowledge fulfills your customers’ needs isn’t always guaranteed. Let’s say you run a financial consulting business. If you’ve grown more rapidly than you expected, and don’t have a good client management system to help you stay organized with customer follow-up, this is probably when some balls are going to start being dropped. Maybe you forgot to update the amount of a client’s automatic investment, and the mistake overdrew their account. Uh-oh. Making mistakes was the biggest no-no cited in our study when it came to expertise in service-based businesses.

Not far behind making mistakes was the complaint that not everyone at a company has sufficient skills or knowledge. This is also one of the common growing pains with small businesses. Again using the financial consulting example, you might have recently hired two junior associates to help you manage your increasing workload. But given your time constraints, training may have been brief and inadequate.

If a customer hired your company because they wanted you and your expertise, but they end up getting your junior associate who is confused about the differences between traditional, Roth and spousal IRAs – you may quickly lose that customer. So make it a priority to ensure everyone on your team has the same level of skills and expertise that you do, or at least close to it.

4. Responsive

This is yet another time-centric quality that consumers look for in service providers. It’s not enough to be on time to your appointments, but you also have to respond to a customer quickly in order to win their business. Our survey participants stated that being slow to get back to them swiftly killed any interest they had in working with a company. If someone wants to get healthy and improve her fitness level, she might contact a couple of gyms and/or personal trainers. Whoever gets back to her first is most likely to close the sale, and earn her business, because she wants to get started now – not whenever you decide to get back to her.

If you’re using a good CRM and marketing automation system to help you manage your clientele and website inquiries, you can set up automatic responses and be leagues ahead in the responsiveness department. If not, you may fall behind and end up losing potential customers due to poor customer follow-up.

5. Professional

You probably know to avoid discussing divisive issues like politics and religion with your customers, but this isn’t all that being professional entails. In fact, our study participants agreed that dismissing their frustrations or feelings was the mark of a truly unprofessional service provider.

So, if a patient comes to your dental practice and needs to get a root canal, but is terrified of the procedure, don’t make light of his concerns. Show some empathy, and explain how you’ll do all you can to make it as painless and positive of an experience as possible.

Being professional can also mean displaying a consistent and appealing image, whether digitally or in-person. Using a client management system that keeps your branding aligned across all channels can go a long way in boosting your professional image.

When it comes to service-based businesses, customers expect you to be trustworthy, dependable, knowledgeable, responsive and professional. Focus on these areas, and your customer service will thrive – with your sales sure to follow.

As the CEO of Keap, Clate Mask leads the company’s vision, strategy and growth. His entrepreneurial spirit was sparked early in his career and evolved into the software industry while he was at Clate then co-founded Keap (formally Infusionsoft) to help small businesses succeed with smart marketing automation tools created just for them.

Service-based stock photo by Waraporn Wattanakul/Shutterstock