The first commandment of customer service


This post is part of a series celebrating SmartSign’s 15th Anniversary. In 15 posts, we reflect on lessons learned, good experiences, and company-wide changes that brought us to this milestone of success. You can view the entire series here.

As one of SmartSign’s longest tenured employees, Tahyna Colon, our call center manager, knows customer service and sales. She’s the senior member of a team responsible for around half of all the business our websites do, so if anyone knows how to keep retail customers happy, it’s her.

When we asked what tips she had for nascent e-retail businesses, she said the sine qua non of any successful business is: Know your products. Obvious enough — no teetotaler thinks they’re going to have as easy a time selling beer as a seasoned drinker will. But what’s the easiest way to get to know your products? Tahyna’s four suggestions for making sure you’re never at a loss surprised us.

1. Start with the basics

Since SmartSign sells over 150,000 products, it’s not humanly possible to know everything there is to know about every single one, so Tahyna develops broad familiarity with families of products rather than individual ones. That way, she can refine her understanding on a product-by-product basis as needed, but she’ll still always be able to answer at least some of a customer’s questions before she has to do research and follow up.

Tahyna notes, “When I first started, we didn’t have as many products. There might be different designs, but the base material is always pretty much the same, and it’s just the template that’s different from product to product.” Learning about base materials means she can tell customers a lot about a tag just from a few salient facts, without having to know about every single one in detail.

2. Get close up

SmartSign doesn’t sell software. It’s not a Software as a Service company, or SaaS, and there’s nothing notional about the products on our pages. How the products look, feel, and endure the elements are most of what our customers care about. So Tahyna thinks it’s critical for SmartSign employees to take matters into their own hands, so to speak, before advising customers on their purchases.

Fortunately, “When [our product managers] Sonali and Ray add a product, they’re good about ordering samples for us so we can see it up close and understand how it works. You can’t really get a good idea about a product without seeing it up close,” says Tahyna.

3. Cultivate good relationships with your vendors

No matter what, there comes a point when a customer will ask a question you don’t know how to answer. Some businesses will simply tell a customer “I don’t know” when they reach this point, and that’s perfectly fair and honest, but it also risks leaving sales on the table if a customer comes to your site with unexpected priorities.

Tahyna says that being able to go the extra mile and find out obscure facts about a sign means making sure we’re in close and constant touch with the people who actually make them. “We can ask our vendors a question at any time,” she says with evident pride. “It’s important to have a great relationship with your vendors so you can straighten stuff out quickly.”

4. As you expand, grow your internal expertise, too

Some of the trickiest questions SmartSign employees get have to do with local regulations. Many customers assume that there’s some massive database of parking regulations that we have access to so we’ll know what’s legal in their state (there isn’t), or that we’ll somehow just know what the rules are about where to place accessible parking signs, for instance.

As it turns out, though, the information customers need to put our products to use is spread out over thousands upon thousands of well-hidden web pages and documents. But that doesn’t mean customers don’t want answers.

Tahyna says that SmartSign prioritizes developing experts in-house, which helps the customer service team field the more difficult questions. “In the beginning, we never answered regulatory questions. It was just, ‘Ask your local municipality or your DMV.’ We didn’t have people doing research for us. We were just trying to sell the product. But now since we’ve gotten bigger, if we have any questions that we’re unsure of, we have people who we can ask so we know what’s legal and what isn’t, instead of just saying ‘Talk to your local government.'”

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