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updated 12/7/2010 4:16:41 AM ET 2010-12-07T09:16:41

Providing friendly, helpful customer service is not only crucial to selling products but also to building a loyal customer base. On the other hand, when you let service slip, your business can take a tumble just as quickly. Here are two recent examples of bad service that I've encountered.

During an excursion to New York City's Lower East Side, a friend and I stopped into a lingerie shop. Inside, we found shelves and shelves packed with boxes, but not a piece of clothing was in sight. The man at the counter glanced up at us and went back to reading his newspaper. When we asked if we might look at a few things, the man barked, “You have to know what you want. Then I'll get it out for you.” So, unless you have the item’s manufacturer name and exact style number handy, good luck trying to buy anything at that store. We stood there in shock for a minute, then we walked out.

Next, we went to a men's hat store across the street. My friend spotted a grey fedora and asked the person working there if it was "crushable," or if it would return to its original shape after being crammed in a bag or pocket. When the salesperson told us it wasn't, my friend asked if there were any crushable hats he could see. “Not any that look like that,” the salesperson said before turning and walking away.

I'm sure no one reading this column would ever consider running their business the way these two establishments operated, but perhaps there are some lessons here. Small business owners need to ask themselves: Is the customer experience you're providing actually sabotaging business? For example, can your customers see your product? Can they touch it, feel it or try it on or use it before they buy it ?

Here are four ways you can improve the customer experience and ramp up sales:

  1. Use pictures: If you sell a service, it's important to provide a list of everything that is included with that service. You should take it a step further by adding relevant photographs to your marketing materials. Those visuals can grab as much, if not more, attention than just a simple description of your services.
  2. Group similar items: Arrange your products in groups that include related or similar items. Customers are far more likely to purchase a second or third product if it's right there and they can use it.
  3. Solve the customer's problem: Just because you don't have the precise product a customer asks for doesn't mean you can't sell them something else. Find out what it is about the item they're looking for that is important to them and suggest other items that have the same or similar features.

    As the business owner, not only should you have the most intimate knowledge about your products/services, you should also know when you can substitute or modify parts of a service to accommodate a customer's needs. Make sure your employees are also aware of these options so that can maintain high-quality customer service when you're not around.
  4. Reward employees: Unless they're working on commission, many employees figure they earn the same amount of money whether they make the sale or not. Praise and recognition are the most common rewards businesses use to recognize outstanding performance. It's often not practical for cash-strapped small-business owners to offer money as an incentive, but there are other options, such as dinner at a local restaurant, a gift certificate or time off from work.

Remember, the fact that someone has called you, come into your store or has made an inquiry on your website means they hope you have the product or service they're looking for. When someone is ready to buy, give them an experience that encourages and motivates them to do that.

Copyright © 2013 Entrepreneur.com, Inc.

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