Few disciplines have evolved as quickly as customer experience (CX). But with continually shifting customer behaviors, emerging technologies, and rising expectations, it’s not been an easy ride. For enterprise-level companies, armed with well-resourced CX teams, CX represents a significant obstacle. For small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), however, the challenge can be massively more complex.
Smaller organizations typically lack dedicated customer experience teams. When one is in place, it’s often less mature, under-resourced, and toothless. Despite their vastly poorer resources, they still have to deal with the same malleable landscape and shifting demands.
Even though the deck is stacked against them, SMBs are achieving great things. They’re fighting back against larger competitors, carving out market share, and achieving long-term growth.
We recently caught up with four diverse SMB leaders to learn about where they’re investing their resources, how they made their decision, and what results their efforts drove.
Bootstrapped Voice of Customer programs
“Honest feedback gives you an unbiased and brutally honest picture of your weak points.”
That’s Ian Sells, founder and CEO of business cashback platform Rebate Key. While some SMB leaders are content to focus on their strengths and successes, Sells is constantly looking for areas for improvement. While he doesn’t have the budget for a fully-fledged Voice of Customer (VoC) function, he successfully bootstrapped a basic version using review platforms.
While he doesn’t have the budget for a full-fledged Voice of Customer (VoC) function, he successfully bootstrapped a basic version using review platforms.
He began by crawling a single review platform, manually reading through each piece of feedback, extracting helpful ideas, and reporting back to his team. His insights were surprising.
“Most of the time, what we thought to be useful or necessary was not deemed important by our customers,” he says. “Allowing them to give their genuine feedback gave us an idea of what matters to most of our customers.”
Sells recently expanded his makeshift VoC program to include extra third-party review sites. With more content to parse, he’s tapping dedicated VoC technology to lift the burden.
Real-time support—around the clock
Stephen Light knows there are many complex factors that go into choosing a mattress: Open spring or pocket? Memory foam or latex? Double, king, super-king, or emperor? What about softness? Or toppers? In a store, knowledgeable retail assistants are there to help. But online, it’s a different story.
Light founded the direct-to-consumer mattress brand Nolah Mattress in 2015. Since then, he’s designed a lot of on-site content to answer common questions like those above.
However, self-service research only serves part of his audience. “Consumers are often looking to have specific questions answered rather than scroll through pages to find it themselves,” he explains.
Recently, Nolah Mattress began offering real-time support via chatbots and live chat. The former triages user questions and collects basic information. Human agents quickly provide answers via the latter.
But efficient support is table stakes. Today, great customer experience means communicating with customers on their preferred channel and on their schedules. In the future, Light plans to complement his high-touch support with low-touch automation.
By converting his existing knowledge base into a knowledge graph, Light could deliver automated responses via AI-powered chatbots. With bots solving simple fact-finding queries, he can free up his human agents to deal with more complex customer communications.
Empathy and empowerment
Business leaders have treated customer service as a cost center for decades. The quintessential goal has been minimizing the average cost per contact. Steadily more aggressive KPIs have incentivized lower handle times, higher occupancy rates, and agent absence. To drive progress towards these goals, blunt automation—IVR, frustrating self-service, and so on—became the norm. Unfortunately, so too did customer frustration.
But that’s all beginning to change.
Gavin Johnson, managing director of an electric vehicle accessory retailer, recognizes that endless optimization has created an unenjoyable, frustrating, and alienating support experience. Like other SMB leaders, he’s pushing back and leaning into what makes smaller businesses special: authentic relationships.
“How many times have you felt better about a potential grievance just because the other party involved listened to you right away?” says Johnson. “When a customer service representative can show genuine empathy for an unhappy customer, even if it’s simply by repeating the problem, it can help to both appease and actively satisfy the customer.”
Overhauling decades of customer support dogma is a long-term process—but Johnson is making progress. He’s rolling back impersonal contact centers and nixing rigid support scripts, replacing them with highly trained, naturally empathetic, and empowered agents.
Human touches—at scale
Vested Finance was the first to market with a U.S. investing platform for Indian investors. While they enjoyed all the advantages of being the first mover, they also faced a unique challenge: trust. Unlike players in a pre-existing market, Vested had to build trust in their category and engender trust in their product. That’s no easy feat. To earn the confidence of their users, the Berkeley-based startup prioritized human touches.
“At every step in our user journey, we include a human interaction,” says Nidhi Vora, Customer Success Manager at Vested Finance. “From day one, we’re holding the user’s hand.”
The first touch occurs when a user first enters the Vested ecosystem. Because they’re opening a brokerage account, there’s a verification process with stringent rules and regulations. Here, a dedicated operations team helps new users collect, approve, and submit documentation. It turns a potentially daunting process into something supportive and engaging.
When a user’s brokerage account is approved, Vested triggers its second human touch—a 24-hour review by a customer support team member.
“The team member reaches out—maybe through WhatsApp or call—and introduces themself,” says Richa Jain, a Customer Success Manager at the startup. “Within the first 30 seconds, they explain that they are the customer’s point of contact for the rest of their journey.”
Beyond activation, that point of contact is always there—easily accessible via live chat, phone, and WhatsApp. Each subsequent interaction isn’t just a human touch. It’s a conversation between two people who know each other. Each call, text, or message deepens their understanding and strengthens their relationship.
Constraint is the mother of creativity
With fewer resources and shallower financial buffers, the SMB sector shouldn’t be a hotbed for customer experience innovation. And yet, it is. From what we’ve seen, SMB leaders are framing their limitations as creative challenges. They’re building their business practices around customer experience. Unlike enterprise companies where CX investment is a strategic choice, for SMBs it is a fundamental way of business.
They’re baking customer experience into their natural advantages—relationships. Through VoC programs, enhanced support, empathetic service, and consistent human touches through the user journey, they’re creating deeply personal relationships with their customers. Those connections are the strongest weapon in their arsenal. It’s how they’re achieving healthy ARR, attracting inbound leads, enticing referrals, and driving growth in their business.