Meeting Customer Needs
As you consider the best way to run your business day-to-day, start by considering the needs of your customers. What time of day will they expect to interact with you? Will keeping your business open only on weekends work for them? The answer, of course, depends on your business. If you're a contractor, plumber, or electrician, you may be able to establish regular daily work hours, but — depending on the project's deadline — you may have to work some evenings and weekends as well. Your customers may also expect you to be available on a twenty-four-hour basis in case of emergencies.
It's tempting to keep a home-based business open long hours, but you'll be fresher, more creative, and happier if you limit those hours. Track when most of your business takes place, and set your times accordingly: If 9 to 11
On the other hand, if you do business across the country, you might need to make yourself available at different hours to suit your customers' time zones. Or, if you're a genealogist, helping people to track down their ancestors, your customers may find it most convenient to speak with you in the evenings or on the weekends.
Setting Regular Hours
Based on your business, your customers, and even your suppliers (if you're a florist, for example, and need to take delivery of perishable items), there's likely a natural timetable for your business to be open or for you to be at your desk. You may be working on your own, but your work schedule will still be influenced by those other factors. The key is to be predictable.
Even if you're operating part-time, your customers should always know when they can find you. If they have to chase you down or leave several messages before you get back to them, you'll lose their business. Setting regular hours has an added benefit: It lets your customers know when you're not available too. This makes it much easier to establish those much-needed boundaries between your home business and your home life.
If regular hours aren't practical, at least make it easy for people to reach you, perhaps by providing cell phone or pager numbers. Just be sure that when a customer calls, you call her back as soon as possible: You can even leave a message saying that you'll return her call within, say, two hours — whatever's practical.
It's amazing what you can learn when you listen to your customers — that means really listening to what he's saying and valuing it. Not only will he tell you what his needs are, but your approach will send the message that you respect his opinions and appreciate his time.
Try to employ the principles of “active” listening even if you're on the phone: Focus your attention on your customer, lean forward slightly to indicate that you're interested, and take notes if it's appropriate to do so. Perhaps summarize the key ideas to indicate that you've not only heard, but also absorbed what's been said and ask questions to help the customer expand on what she's saying.
Listening to your customers can help you anticipate needs that they're either unaware of or not expecting you to fill. Say, for example, that you operate an auto repair shop. Your customers bring their vehicles to you with the expectation that you'll repair them. Perhaps you're chatting with a customer one morning, and she mentions that one of her concerns is breaking down after hours.
Perhaps this is an opportunity for you to anticipate this customer's needs. If her vehicle breaks down after hours, and she doesn't have some kind of auto club membership, she'll need to phone a tow truck. Maybe, you have a windshield sticker or a travel coffee mug printed with your “24-hour phone response line,” and you've set up an agreement with a local towing company to give your customers a break on the price of a tow. If a customer breaks down, she calls you, and you call out the tow truck, which then tows the vehicle to your shop for repair.
In many cases, when you anticipate a customer need, you're actually finding new and creative ways to help retain your customers — either through the provision of new goods and services that are related to your existing ones or through adding value to those existing products.
It should go without saying that if you make a promise to a customer, you need to keep it. However, businesses break this rule all the time. Perhaps a contractor promises to phone a customer back with an estimate within twenty-four hours, but instead he never calls. Perhaps a retail shop owner promises to call a customer when new stock comes in, but in the rush of activity, the promised phone call is forgotten.
When you make a promise, first ensure that it's one that you can keep. Then make a note of it, so that you don't forget. And if you get busy, the stock doesn't come in, or you're not able to keep the promise for whatever reason, at least call the customer to explain. She'll likely understand and will appreciate that you took the time to let her know.