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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 December, 2004, 00:02 GMT
How to protect your firm's reputation
Tommy Cooper
Insuring your firm's good reputation is no laughing matter
For a small business to be successful and grow, it is vital that people are pleased with your product or service and that, as a result, your reputation is sound.

Liz Barclays, presenter of Radio 4's You and Yours programme, takes a look at the two related issues.

QUESTION
Richard Schmidt, UK
As a provider of services, how can I find out whether the customers' perception of 'excellent' is the same as mine, so I can give them what they expect, or at least discuss their expectations?

Secondly, how can I get the customer to understand that this is a two way process and that the service I can deliver may well depend on what the customer chooses to tell me (or not to tell me)?

ANSWER
Liz Barclay, presenter of Radio 4's You and Yours programme
If you are selling a product the customer can see it, feel it, smell it.

They know exactly what to expect from it and if it isn't exactly what they want they can go elsewhere.

If you're offering a service you're at a disadvantage in that they may not be able to do any of those things.

Give them as much of a picture of what they can expect as possible. Are before and after photographs a possibility?

Is there somewhere they could go to see what you've done for a previous customer?

Ask existing customers to rate your service. Ask them if they would be willing to fill in a short questionnaire and rate your work on a scale from 'poor' to 'excellent'.

Make it easy to answer the questions with just a tick or a figure in a box. And ask them to tell you - if they rate the service less than excellent - what would make it excellent.

Make sure they can do this without giving away their identity or they might be less forthcoming with what they really think. Your customers are a wonderful source of ideas and constructive criticism.

This has the twin purpose of giving you an insight into what they expect and making them feel that their views and requirements are respected. And if you do have any complaints, treat them as a way of learning where you're going wrong and how to put it right.

A few potential customers won't take the time to give you the answers, but most will be pleased to find a service provider who really cares about the outcome.

QUESTION
Mike Wrigglesworth, UK
I am in the process of starting my own plumbing business, working as a sole trader with no employees at first. What would you say are the top five things I should do or have in process to start my reputation off well and keep it?

ANSWER
Liz Barclay, presenter of Radio 4's You and Yours programme
Even though you're just starting the business you've probably done dozens of jobs for people already.

Choose a couple who were very happy with the work you did and ask them if they would be willing to act as referees for you should prospective customers want proof of your competence.

Don't be tempted to opt for family members or to ask people to go over the top with their praise.

You want people who, in giving assessments of your work, will be able to say in all honestly "Mike will do a good job".

Work out very carefully what your aim to deliver to your customers and be very honest about it. Keep those promises.

If you deliver what you say you will and a little bit extra - cleaning up after you and leaving the place spotless is a very good 'extra' - your customers will be delighted and tell their friends. And your good reputation will grow.

Work out your prices fairly. You have to make the job pay so don't under-price it just to get the work or to undercut the competition.

If you do that, the next time a customer wants your services he or she will expect a similar standard for a similar price and be disappointed that you're charging more.

If you do want to charge less for a first booking make it clear to the customer what the real price is and offer a discount for the first job.

As your business starts to grow, there's a temptation to take on too much work. Then you end up being late for appointments and keeping customers waiting.

Schedule time for over-running on some jobs so that you are sure you can arrive at your next appointment when you said you would. People like value for money and they hate being kept waiting!

And, for good measure, follow up you visit with a call a couple of days later just to make sure all is still operating satisfactorily.

When you do eventually take on employees, make sure they know exactly what your business ethos is and follow it. They have to protect your reputation too.





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