The Prime Effect: 6 Tips for Doing Business in the 24/7, Instant Gratification Economy

It’s getting hard these days to tell the difference between people who are running online businesses and receiving shipments of supplies, marketing materials and inventory, and the average person ordering dog food, Blu-rays and other household items through Amazon Prime: The sheer number of boxes coming into the average household can be staggering!

If you’re a solo or very small business owner, how can you compete with this standard when you have limited resources?

Virtual assistant Bonnie Karpay suggests, “It's helpful to remind customers of the Sacred Trinity: Fast, Cheap and Good. You can choose two, but can never have all three."

With that said, below are 6 tactics you can use to compete favorably against the instant gratification bias.

1. Know your worth.

As a small business, you provide unique value the bigger guys can’t touch. Maybe people love that your company is run by volunteers.Could be that they’re addicted to your handmade items. Or they might just deeply appreciate it when products are made in the United States. Either way, these qualities are what set you apart. The good things in life are worth waiting for, and this’ll be your biggest strength when competing with larger e-commerce companies.

It’s okay to toot your own horn. You should always be looking for opportunities to talk about what differentiates your business and what your customers can’t get from a larger company, from higher quality products to better customer service. Where you can, personalize your interactions with them as much as possible. Case in point, an individualized message thanking a new customer will always stand out from an automated email confirmation..

2. Be transparent.

Providing clear, easily accessible information and setting expectations with your clients is the key to giving them a good customer experience. Doing this will also ensure you maintain solid relationships with them for future transactions.

Customers expect to be able to find the information they need quickly and easily. Social selling expert Phil Gerbyshak suggests sharing as much as you can up front: “If you know the questions people might ask, answer them in obvious places,” he says.

Think FAQ pages and sales pages that clearly detail what a customer can expect, including shipping estimates. If you have a storefront, clearly post business hours, pricing and return policies, along with any other pertinent information.

Salesforce and Southwest Airlines are 2 companies that set the tone when it comes to being customer-focused and transparent. While Southwest prides itself on its “Transfarency” philosophy (fares stay low with no hidden fees), Salesforce publicly discloses to its customers when its cloud services are down or having reliance issues in real time.

“Quick is great, but making sure something is delivered safely, uncrushed and in a nice box is table stakes – and often overlooked,” Gerbyshak says. “Add this in with a reasonable expectation that is clearly stated. Honesty is always the best policy.”

Customers may be more accommodating to a longer shipping window or project timeline, for example, if they’re aware of it (and the reasons why) from the onset.

3. Nip frustration in the bud.

Nothing leads to a client meltdown faster than not getting a response on a question or issue. Big e-commerce companies have huge teams dedicated to answering customer questions right away, but it’s just one of many hats a small business owner wears every day. Despite this, you can still learn from what the big companies do well. Apple’s customer service is considered best-in-class because they’re available by multiple means – phone, email or chat, as well as in-person at their Genius bar.

Bonnie Karpay recommends that her clients employ “the artful use of the autoresponder.” For customer requests while you're on vacation or taking some well-earned downtime, letting customers know when you’ll be gone and when you’ll be back can save you some big headaches. “Customers can only treat you as well as you train them,” she says.

Here are some other tips to help you minimize customer frustration:

  • Reserve an hour a day to respond to questions from customers.
  • Provide a phone number for urgent questions (and make sure someone’s there to answer it).
  • Set up an out-of-office response thanking customers for their email and promising a response in 24 hours.
  • Be personal in your response – let the customer see that you know who they are and aren’t just a messaging bot.
  • Call your customers back instead of typing long emails. A personal touch goes a long way and disputes can be resolved quicker this way.
  • If there is a set period where your business will be unavailable, let your customers know ahead of time with an email or post on social media. If you have a storefront or office, be sure to hang a sign in case a customer shows up while you’re away.

4. Add in a buffer.

Try managing delivery expectations with an “under promise and over deliver” communication strategy. lululemon Athletica quotes standard shipping as 2-7 business days, but according to customer service company StellaService, 90 percent of orders arrive in 3 days.

For service companies or project-based businesses that do contract work, this is your biggest pothole on the road to a client deliverable. Your project process may be tried and true, but don’t assume that everything will go perfectly. Add in a cushion of time, at least 20 percent, if possible. This’ll take some of the pressure off you. If you’re a doctor’s office, hair salon, restaurant or other business where your customers may need to wait for an appointment or table, add in a buffer to the estimated wait time.

If you happen to deliver their project early or get them their food quicker, no one is going to be unhappy!

5. Put it in writing.

Rich Gallagher, author of several bestselling books on customer service says, “I see one big issue in common between customer relationships and family ones: unarticulated boundaries. When customers have expectations, and the people serving them haven't helped to co-create those expectations, problems happen.”

Documenting expectations in writing is always a good idea. To meet them, big companies often formalize relationships with their key customers using service level agreements (SLAs). For example, there may be a promise that routine issues will be addressed within 72 hours, and urgent ones within 24 hours. Small businesses and contractors can create SLAs, too. “The time to do it is long before the next deadline — not when the phone rings,” Gallagher stresses.

You may also want to specifically document any contingencies in a project. If the client doesn’t give you something critical that you need by a certain date, it’ll affect the timeline going forward.

You can mitigate your client’s frustrations by emailing them in advance of any potential difficulties. More formally, you can include contingencies in your client contract or on your website. In a service agreement, you should include a timeframe for delivery and a breakdown of the services and associated costs, as well as the obligations of both parties and the remedies (possibly legal) that might be involved. You don’t want to be held to a deadline if the client doesn’t come through on their end of the deal. Every contractor has had this happen to them more than once, and it’s never pretty.

6. Provide progress updates.

According to Gallagher, “Another part of instant gratification is effective customer response systems.”

For example, many theme parks are designed so that long lines are always moving and appear to be getting somewhere. In much the same way, customers want to feel their problem is moving along and didn't fall into a black hole. We already warned you about depending too much on automated messages, but email autoresponders like ConstantContact or customer service apps like Desk.com help you acknowledge inbound customer service inquiries on various social and email platforms all on one interface.

If you offer a service, you can create pre-work, videos or tip sheets with files or links that are emailed to customers as soon as they pay for the service. This helps to alleviate buyer’s remorse and returns because customers can get started immediately while their enthusiasm is still high.

It’s easy to feed the instant gratification beast if you sell a service, but what if your company sells products? Gerbyshak says, “If you have a physical product, offer delivery notifications the way your customer wants them. Do they want a Facebook message? A text? An email? Give them what they want — and do it as personally as possible, even if it's automated.” Big e-commerce companies like Amazon provide tailored email updates and app notifications as each product is ordered, shipped and delivered. They also include a plethora of self-service support through articles and information on their websites.

If you’re a restaurant, salon or doctor’s office, mirror Amazon’s service by providing customers an update on when their table is cleared or the doctor is just wrapping up the last appointment. If you’re a general contractor that may be delayed due to weather or back-ordered supplies, the customer will appreciate knowing that sooner rather than later.

Not sure where to start? Start with a couple of our tips and add additional tactics along the way. To stand out, you should take a broader view on how your business interacts with customers. How can you continue to improve on your customers’ experiences and manage their expectations?

Customers tend to be reasonable if they’re given the information they need and are kept in the loop. They’ll also notice when you go above and beyond for them, and are more likely to be loyal to you when they have an excellent service experience. And don’t forget: it’s easier than ever in today’s digital age for a happy customer to brag about you.

There are always creative ways for small businesses to imitate and maybe even exceed some of the services big businesses offer. Expediting an order to meet a special deadline or cultivating your small business’ personal touch are all ways to get a competitive edge. Where you can’t, remember that you still have a lot to offer that the big companies don’t.

Employing these tactics will go a long way to helping your business thrive in the instant gratification economy.

About the Author

Catherine Morgan is a corporate employee turned entrepreneur. She founded Point A to Point B Transitions Inc to help small business owners get from Point A to Point B in their careers through clarity and confidence.

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