Mission: Birthday cake. Requirements: Tasty and beautiful with fondant frosting. Turned out to be harder to locate than I expected. But along the way, I wound up with both a cake and a lesson in customer service.

I found several contenders online. My top two choices both got rave reviews. But Cake Place One just sounded better.

So I called the number listed on the website. Even though it was during the bakery’s regular hours, nobody picked up. No matter, I thought. I left a detailed message about what I was looking for, left my name and phone number, and waited for someone to call back.

Two months later, I was still waiting for that call. Meanwhile, with the birthday fast approaching, I decided to look into my second choice. It was late in the day – and, yes, I knew that the bakery closed at 6:00. But I made the call anyway, figuring I could leave another message.

Imagine my surprise when someone picked up on the second ring. She was friendly, knowledgeable, and polite, and we set up an appointment. (Needless to say, I bought the cake from them.)

Every small-business owner and start-up entrepreneur should have a similar system in place. You see, answering your phone during regular work hours – instead of letting voicemail pick up – is a good way to establish a personal relationship with your customers.

If you can’t do it yourself, hire someone to do it for you. And don’t automatically switch over to voicemail the moment your “official” workday ends. Answering the phone five or 10 or 15 minutes after closing time is a small way to exceed your customers’ expectations – and delight them in the process. Bonus: You’ll be distinguishing yourself from bigger companies for whom answering every phone call may be inefficient and impractical.

You may not always get to meet your customers in person. But the way you treat them via telephone is just as important in determining whether they end up buying from you… or heading straight for your competitor.

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