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Q & A: Two Small Businesses Share How They Use Great Customer Service to Beat the Competition

While it may seem impossible for a small business to compete with major brands, we found two fantastic examples of businesses competing and gaining ground on organizations many times their size. Bonobos, a men's fashion retailer, and Boloco, a Boston-based burrito chain, are both customers. We asked John Rote, VP of Customer Experience for Bonobos, and John Pepper, Founder and CEO of Boloco, to share how they used great customer service to differentiate themselves in the marketplace and beat the pants off of bigger companies.

Here's the full one hour session and below you'll find a transcript of highlights.

Matt Trifiro: How was your business founded and how did it grow?

John Pepper: [At first] it was just about this obsession with burritos. A year in we really realized it's got to be more than just about burritos. And so the very first thing we focused on was…when a customer says something we actually listen and we respond. I spend my time trying to figure out how can I treat our employees like they are our most important customers and giving them things that will actually change their life beyond Boloco.

John Rote: We started when one roommate at a business school just hated his pants. He thought, There's got to be a way to have better fitting pants. So he started making them out of his living room. [Turning] customers into promoters is one of the ways that we were going early on when we didn't have that much money.

Matt Trifiro: That's great. So, John Pepper, I mean 15 years, I don't even know if the Internet was around when you founded. And yet here you are a leader in customer support over every medium, including social media. How did you get there?

John Pepper: I think it was every opportunity we had to listen and take feedback and respond to it.

Matt Trifiro: So, John Rote, a four-year-old company, you sort of grew up in the age of the Internet and yet when you first started, social media wasn't a day in and day out core part of your customer support strategy. And yet you had a transformational moment. Can you tell us a little about that?

John Rote: We realized that there were a lot of people that had been customers of ours for a while but had never engaged with us. They actually had no relationship with us until we talked to them over social media. There were other people who never would've heard about us at all if it wasn't for the fact that we were engaged in conversations with their friends. But they overheard through social media. They then came into the brand.

Matt Trifiro: Scaling is hugely important; both your businesses are growing very quickly. Another important concept is what we call Whole Company Support, this idea that you're pushing support to every employee. I'd love for you each to address that idea of involving your whole company in support.

John Pepper: What we've been able to do is give people the ability to actually build a skill of customer service that they wouldn’t have had simply because they'd never been taught the skills. We’re doing it together. It’s very public internally. It works very well. It wows our customers when multiple people can be working, tag-teaming on an issue for one customer, and the customer gets that. They feel it immediately.

John Rote: For Bonobos, we didn't want to deal hiring seasonal people because we really don't want people talking to our customers unless they really are an employee and really understand our company. We thought the only way we can do that is to scale up the rest of the company. And what that's led to now is a more formalized program…where people early on do a month of service.

We have around 70 or 80 percent of the people right now at our company that are white belt certified (in Bonobos’ Ninja training), which means that they've gone through that training program, they've received feedback about how they're interacting with customers, they've learned the systems. And culturally it ends up being really one of the things that brings everyone in the company together.

Whether you're on the accounting team, the marketing team, the production team, ultimately you're here for customers. So when we have the guy who's on our golf production team—who designs our golf polos and our golf off pants—when he sees a question about it on social media he'll add in his own viewpoint, which is pretty great if you're a customer reaching out about a generic question about a product and you get a response back from the guy that actually designed it.

Matt Trifiro: Any other tips you’d like to share for creating an environment focused on customer service?

John Pepper: We treat rudeness, literally, like theft. We would rather that you went into the register and attempted to steal cash, than be rude to a customer, because it is so much more expensive.

John Rote: It's not how many emails do you crank out. How quickly do you get this person off the phone? How do you up-sell and sell them four pairs of pants instead of two? It's really, what did you do to slightly nudge them in the direction of telling their friends and family about us?

Now that we’ve heard some amazing insights from two business leaders that have successfully outmaneuvered larger firms with their customer service strategies, we would love to hear from our readers. What other customer service strategies have been effective for your own small businesses? What can you do that larger businesses can’t? How do you give customers a truly personal touch or otherwise let them know they are important?

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