When it comes to using technology for business, it's easy to get distracted by the latest shiny new object. Social media, tablets and the cloud have created a tremendous amount of buzz about the revolutions each technology promises to deliver to small businesses. But how do we apply these technology solutions to real-world business issues, such as improvement of customer experience?
As any good business owner knows, loyal customers are like gold: precious and highly valuable. The success of most small businesses hinges on the ability to provide a useful service or product for customers in a way that is pleasing and easy for them.
To that end, how can small businesses leverage technology to improve customer experience?
It’s important to first understand what customers want. Here are a few good places to start:
Despite changes in technology, research shows us that 79 percent of consumers still prefer to speak with a customer service representative on the phone, according to Zendesk .
It’s no surprise that people like calling and speaking to real people. But when things get busy and the number of calls goes up, many customers are put on hold for long periods or are forced to leave a voicemail . This is a problem that receives little attention.
My experience tells me that voicemail or queuing has a negative impact on a customer’s overall sentiment and experience. So what can your business do to avoid putting customers on hold or sending them to voicemail?
Inform them. Technology can let customers know how long they’ll be on hold, which will help ease irritation. And if a voicemail scenario is unavoidable, make sure to return calls. Customers might be frustrated when they cannot get through to you straightaway, but they’ll be even more frustrated if they leave a message and you never bother to call back.
I’m a big collector of loyalty cards from the stores that I frequent. But it’s a challenge to keep the cards in a safe and accessible place. Most people keep them in their wallets or purses, but I prefer a slim wallet, so I don’t have much room for the cards. That’s why mobile apps that act as loyalty cards are the perfect replacement for those easily discarded or damaged plastic counterparts.
Loyalli  is one example of the many loyalty mobile apps that have grown in popularity. The app is iOS and Android compatible, and it’s free for retailers to sign up. Belly  is another app that offers similar functionality but also offers plastic loyalty cards for those who aren’t ready to completely part with the tactile experience. With smartphones occupying a central place in our lives, it makes sense to ease the woes of losing stuff by going digital when possible.
Payment systems are ready to be set free from their stationary point-of-sale systems. Whether you are a food truck  or one of the many businesses that frequent festivals, farmers markets, trade fairs and many other events, mobile technology is allowing businesses to move from cash-only operations to ones that can take card payments, better aligning themselves with many of their customers’ cashless lives.
This one is not high tech, but it is technology related. The fact is, customers search, make buying decisions, solve problems, look for self-service options and get to know businesses through the content and information about them on the web. This includes company websites and third-party review sites, such as Yelp.
If you aren’t offering tools and resources that helpful, useful or engaging, then you are missing out on a huge opportunity to create more engagement and better service and improve the overall customer experience. Make sure, whether it’s the website, a mobile app or in the store, that your customers are equipped to do what they need to do on their own, as much as possible. This could mean something as simple posting store hours on your web site, or something more complex, like offering self-service kiosks .
These examples touch on only a few of the real-world scenarios businesses can improve on with technology. My challenge to you, the small business, is how are you going to creatively use technology to improve your customer experience?