If you are like most successful small business owners, you do more than give lip service to quality customer service. Small business owners know that to set themselves apart from the larger organizations, you need to provide excellent and differentiated customer service. Still it’s one thing to be responsive when a customer requests something; it’s another to make a recommendation because you anticipate a customer’s need. You can build a long-standing, trusted – and mutually beneficial – relationship with your customers when you suggest products and services that have their best interests at heart.

Know your customer

Anticipating needs starts by getting to know your customers. Every time you engage with your customer in the normal course of providing your service or product offering, ask questions. Shape your questions to gain insight into your customer’s problems or issues. The conversation doesn’t have to be formal either. You can learn a lot from your customer even during a casual conversation that may take place in the course of conducting business.

If business requires visiting your customer on site, ask to talk to as many of the staff as possible about the daily operations. Also consider conducting an annual survey of customers by email or through your social networking channels to find out about their future plans and requirements.

In addition to asking questions, tune into your customers to pick up cues about their needs. A good time to learn about a customer’s needs is when they call in about a problem or with a question. What your customer is looking for may only be part of the solution. Learn how to listen – and train your staff to do the same – so that you can suggest an additional or more appropriate product or service.

Your customer relationship management (CRM) database also has valuable data that can help you understand your customer’s preferences and behavior – buying patterns; for example.

Follow the market

You also learn a lot about customer needs by paying attention to what is happening around them. Any number of things can change your customers’ requirements including new laws or municipal codes, new technology, or a major provider going out of business. As changes in the market occur, work with your team to plan what customers need. It may even lead you to developing new offerings to meet changing demands.

Effectively cross and up sell

Armed with the knowledge your customer has a need; you have the opportunity to cross sell or upsell at the appropriate time.  Cross selling involves suggesting an additional product or service beyond the one originally requested. Upselling refers to selling a more expensive offering than the one your customer is considering. Though more expensive, the offering may better suited to meet your customer’s needs in the long run.

The key to successful cross or upselling is to be relevant and timely. A telecom systems provider recommending new headsets when a company is implementing a new unified communications (UC) platform is very appropriate. Offering a service warranty when someone is buying a new home appliance makes sense.

While you never want to be pushy, you might even want to make several recommendations and explain the rationale behind each. You’ll find when customers realize you can anticipate and fulfill their needs, they will keep coming back.