It is no secret this year has been bittersweet for small businesses. We have seen small and mid-size businesses (SMBs) around the world face the heartbreaking challenge of reducing or shutting down operations; and have also seen and celebrated others embracing new ways of working to survive and even thrive. Despite the year’s difficulties, business creation is on the upswing, underscoring the resilience and determination of entrepreneurship in the face of change.

As the number of small businesses continues to grow, and business owners adapt to new needs of consumers, customer experience (CX) is more critical than ever to your bottom line. And unlike large enterprises, SMBs have a distinct advantage in embodying key attributes that underpin CX success—agility, flexibility, and time to value.

You Need Outstanding Customer Experience if You Want a Winning Chance

New research from Zendesk and Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) reveals a growing CX maturity gap, where companies that do not invest early in CX risk falling behind their peers. Those that do, however, experience faster growth and improved business success, including greater engagement, more revenue, and competitive differentiation.

The study, which categorizes businesses as Starters, Risers, and Champions based on how they use support teams, technology, and data to drive better performance, offers key insights for startups and SMBs. Consider these takeaways as you look to boost your investment in CX, and ultimately in your business, to remain competitive.

1. CX Needs to be a Cultural Priority 

Senior leadership at Champion companies – the top tier of CX maturity – invest in CX and are more likely to view it as a key differentiator, strongly agreeing with the idea that it is a critical business priority. In fact, 42 percent of small businesses and 33 percent of midsize Champions review CX metrics with their leadership team on a daily basis.

This is especially important now, when many teams are working remotely, and leaders are working hard to maintain an inclusive and supportive culture that is reflected throughout teams and across their business.

Putting customers at the center of your business as a foundational value and having senior leadership’s hands on involvement from the beginning helps ensure employees feel empowered to embrace these values—and your customers will benefit.

2. Data is Key to Putting Customers First

Key customer support data, like resolution time and ticket volume, plays a significant role in decision making by helping identify gaps that need addressing quickly. It also helps reinforce what companies are doing right and where to double down to increase success.

Champions focus on key performance indicators (KPIs) and metrics to guide support decisions. In fact, nearly two-thirds of Champions (63%) say their KPIs can be reported in real-time. Support agents at Champion companies are also nailing efficiency, which is a direct result of digging into data and acting fast to provide support to problem areas.

Take marketing automation company Mailchimp, for example. As global ticket volume reached a record high of 30,000 per month, Mailchimp needed a way to stay ahead of incoming requests. So, the company began analyzing real-time data to understand changing customer needs and address emerging challenges and opportunities, both in customer service and throughout its business. This data analysis helped Mailchimp automate replies, ultimately saving a whopping 48,000 agent replies in a single year.

3. Do Not Overlook Automation and AI

Staying ahead of rapidly-changing customer behavior is getting harder, especially when operating with limited resources. Automation and AI can be a small business’ best friend.

Investing in AI tools—like chatbots and messaging—enables customers to self-serve simple and more common issues. In turn, this frees up customer service agents to take on more complex requests needing human-to-human interaction, and in doing so means they are ultimately driving greater business value.

It is also worth noting that investing in automation does not mean eliminating personal connection (a key differentiator for small businesses). Rather, AI should enhance personal connection by valuing customers’ time and enabling them to provide answers quickly.

Furthermore, support requests over messaging platforms have surged this year, increasingly becoming the go-to over traditional channels, like phone calls. We are seeing this widespread change across industries and business sizes. Zendesk research shows that since the pandemic, customer requests have spiked across channels like WhatsApp (101%), chat (34%) and social media messaging (30%). Recently, Facebook selected Zendesk to collaborate on investing more in messaging across channels to help brands connect with customers and ensure a seamless, convenient experience.

Champions are embracing the importance of messaging in their CX strategies. They offer an average of two more engagement channels than Beginners and are more likely to implement automated methods of building cross-channel customer profiles that are continuously updated.

4. No Train, No Gain

Continuous training and improvement are crucial for functions in a successful business, with customer support right there at the top. Training early and often ensures your support staff are equipped with the knowledge and experience to succeed.

In the study, Champions anticipate growing their investment in CX tools and technologies the most, whereas Starters see flat or declining spends. With the influx of remote work, investing in your agents by providing necessary tools and training creates better experiences both within and outside your business.

For example, independent music distributor TuneCore saw an increased demand for customer support representatives this year as people looked to pick up new hobbies during stay-at-home orders, and as a mid-sized company they needed to stay responsive while not overtaxing their agents. To address this, its management team created training materials for new hires in its call centers and revamped the company’s internal and customer-facing knowledge bases so employees and customers could get the help they needed fast. By addressing the problem quickly and putting the right support and training in place for their agents to get up to speed quickly, TuneCore created an easier experience for its customers.

During Uncertain Times, CX is Paramount

Business success is rooted in how you engage with and respond to your customers. Even in times of certainty, Champions are increasing CX investment and growing their customer base as a result. In fact, 50% of small business Champions expect their organizations’ spending on CX technology and tools to increase significantly, versus just 6 percent of small business Starters.

Putting in place the above best practices provides the much-needed foundation for your business to thrive. More so, they lead to more satisfied, repeat customers that can help you continue to grow into 2021 and beyond.

Sharon Prosser is vice president, Worldwide SMB Customer Success, Zendesk

Customer Experience stock photo by Semisatch/Shutterstock