Since its inception in 2011, Cool Ideas has morphed and pivoted quite a bit. In its early days, it offered things like a back-up service and cloud storage, but these days it’s very much a niche business that provides Fibre Internet Service. That should not suggest, however, that Cool Ideas has stalled. Quite the opposite, in fact. Over the last few years, the company has grown impressively and now competes successfully against much larger service providers.

Entrepreneur spoke to Cool Ideas founders Andre Jooste and Paul Butschi to find out how the company has carved out a place for itself in a very competitive market.
1. Stick to a core business

“We’ve made the decision not to diversify too much,” says company co-founder Paul Butschi.
“You never want to get involved in things that are so far outside your core focus that it damages your business. We’ve been very careful in our expansion — we haven’t started selling a whole list of products or services, even though it can be tempting at times.

“As you grow, you want to increase your revenue streams, but not at the cost of your primary business. It requires a careful balance, though. There are certainly additional services that it makes sense for a business such as ours to offer.

“For instance, as a service provider, customers often want you to host things like domains, websites and emails, since it simplifies things for them — they have one provider, one point of contact and one bill. So, diversification is not a bad thing, but you need to find additional products and services that make sense.
“Hosting makes a lot of sense for us, since we have greater control over the service we offer customers.” In addition, Paul and Andre have grown the business geographically, offering fibre services to homes and businesses nationwide.

2. Always being honest
“Whenever you’re dealing with sophisticated technology, issues will crop up. As a service provider — or any kind of business — you will sometimes run into problems that affect customers. What is important, however, is to handle this the right way.

“We believe in always being honest with our customers. If there is a problem, we make sure that our customers are aware of it. Hiding issues or shifting blame is not the solution. Customers are amazingly tolerant, as long as you’re tolerant and communicate with them,” says co-founder Andre Jooste.

“We also aim to always deliver on what we say we will. As the saying goes: You should under-promise and over-deliver. Never make promises that you can’t keep. It all comes back to being honest with your customers.”
3. Be accessible
We don’t believe that social media communication should be handed over to an agency or to a single manager,” says Paul.

“We feel that social media should be a tool that enables customers to get real answers. This means that social media has to be the responsibility of everyone in the company, including top executives.

“We’ll often personally respond to a Facebook query at 10pm. We value that sort of direct contact with customers, and we also realise that customers appreciate knowing that their thoughts are truly being heard. Social media can be a powerful tool, provided you use it for more than just marketing. It should empower your customers and give them a voice.”
4. Automation is crucial
“Despite the growth we’ve enjoyed, we’ve managed to stay quite small in terms of staff. At the moment, we have 25 employees,” says Andre. “We’ve managed to do this through automation.

“Customers now have the ability to create and manage accounts through an automated process that doesn’t require a sales agent. Had it not been for this, our expenses would be much higher, since we’d need more people, bigger offices, and so on.

“That said, you don’t want the whole thing to become so cold and faceless that customers feel unimportant. We’ve tried to create an automated system that actually empowers them — that puts more power in their hands, and allows them to manage their accounts as and when they wish.”
5. Don’t lock customers in
“We don’t lock customers into contracts, since we don’t believe this ensures loyalty,” says Paul.

“You don’t want customers to stay with you because you’ve forced them into a contract — you want them to stay because they genuinely like the service you’re offering. If the service you offer is good enough, you don’t need to lock people in with contracts.”

Of course, it goes without saying that if customers are cancelling contracts, there is something wrong with the business’s current offering. Astute owners will watch for these signs and address problems instead of forcing customers to remain locked into contracts.
6. Train for customer service

“Your employees are primarily responsible for the service that you offer customers. So, we think it’s very important to offer continual training to everyone in the company. We have training every Tuesday and Thursday, during which we’ll review examples of good and bad interactions,” says Andre.

“If you want to keep your customer service at a high level, you have to keep working at it. Delivering great service is not a box that can ever be ticked. It’s a never-ending pursuit.”
Author: GG van Rooyen is the deputy editor for Entrepreneur Magazine South Africa.

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