The difficult global economic environment continues to pose ever more challenges for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the UK. With budgets being squeezed and competition for customers increasing, the need to manage costs and attract and retain customers has never been more important.

Yet, these cost constraints often mean that investing heavily in attracting new customers is just not feasible. As such, customer retention and, in turn, customer service are becoming even more critical for SMEs, which feel the impact of customer churn much more than larger enterprises.

In today’s tough economic climate, the businesses that survive will be those that can create and retain a loyal customer base. But in a world where customers have more options than ever before -and feel less allegiance to specific companies and brands, that’s easier said than done.

As competition for customers continues to increase, quality customer service is becoming a key differentiator. In the UK, for example, 91 percent of people who stop doing business with an organisation due to a poor customer experience have gone on to buy from a competitor company and 37 percent of people will give a company less than one week to resolve customer service issues before taking their business elsewhere .

Holding on to existing customers is far cheaper than seeking new ones so developing a reputation for delivering excellent customer service will be vital to ensuring repeat sales. That’s why it is essential that today’s SMEs have the IT and communications systems in place to ensure they’re able to deliver the highest levels of quality customer service.

Five to ten years ago, SMEs’ fundamental tools for communication consisted of email, fax and fixed phone lines. There are many more technology tools at the disposal of today’s SMEs that can improve customer service, tools they simply cannot afford to ignore:

Multiple customer touchpoints

Today’s customers want to be able to engage with businesses across multiple channels whether they are using e-commerce to purchase goods and services online, making a query via their mobile or turning to social media channels for information. The challenge for today’s SMEs is to ensure they’re able to respond seamlessly to customer demands 24/7 regardless of the channel of interaction. SMEs need technology solutions capable of addressing all customer communication channels, enabling optimised customer interaction at every point of access.

Guaranteeing a timely response

The importance of providing a timely response to any customer query is essential. However, while customers may demand an instant response, many SMEs lack the resources for a dedicated customer call centre. Nonetheless, through tools such as ‘virtual’ call centres and dynamic voice portals to qualify and appropriately route incoming calls, SMEs can cost-effectively maintain a high level of customer service. In addition, having the right unified communications services in place to be able to identify who is best placed to respond to a particular customer enquiry and ensure that queries are flagged in a timely manner is also important.

Sharing information

The need for responsive customer service means employees must be able to collaborate and share information easily and quickly from any location. For those employees responsible for direct customer interaction, fast access to the right information to effectively deal with queries is critical, both for organisations with single sites and those that operate across multiple locations.

Improved employee efficiency

SMEs require a clever mix of technologies and solutions that directly address the functionalities they need to operate ‘business as usual’ – no matter where employees are located or how services are delivered. Collaborative working tools such as web and videoconferencing have the potential to improve employee efficiency, which in turn can only have a positive effect on customer service.

For SMEs everywhere, providing reliable, high-quality customer service has never been so important. Because they are smaller and more agile, SMEs often have the ability to offer better and more personal customer service than their larger competitors, a strength they should make sure they make the most of. It is easy to see how customer service can slip down the list of business priorities as SME business leaders juggle their various roles and responsibilities, but the rule for SMEs is simple: focus on customer service to survive.