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Long before she became a customer service advocate, Elaine Allison worked as a guard at the Toronto East Detention Centre, a maximum-security jail for men.

Female prison guards were a rarity in those days, and the prisoners responded to her authority by emerging naked from their cells. Ms. Allison, then 19, initially reacted by writing a resignation letter. But the next day, she tried a different approach.

"I kicked on each cell door and said, 'If you'd like breakfast, get up and get dressed,'" Ms. Allison recalled. "And it became a leadership or supervisory skill: Tell people what you mean, without disdain, without anger, even if they're behaving badly, and bring them toward you instead of away from you."

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The approach worked with the prisoners, who never again pulled the naked stunt in the four years she worked at the jail.

It will also work with small business operators as they set expectations for their front-line customer service staff, says Ms. Allison, who has been a self-employed customer service advocate since 1999.

"You sit them down and say these are the expectations I have for the business, this is what I'm trying to portray. And then you'll find that they follow it," said Ms. Allison, who is based in Vancouver but trains and speaks globally.

Small business operators, including professionals such as dentists and physicians, are often so busy that they overlook having those kinds of conversations with their front-line staff.

But they do so at their peril, says Roxann Bonta, an audiologist based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"One of the things that we don't think about is the impression that's made by our personnel. Sometimes they're the unsung heroes at our front desk," Ms. Bonta told the recent annual conference of the Canadian Academy of Audiology in Victoria.

Too often, little attention is paid to how they're dressed or how they appear to the public. They may not be held to the same standard as the professionals in the office, and that's a mistake, Ms. Bonta says. "That front person is the gateway to your office."

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Though she was addressing audiology professionals, her advice applies to any small business or professional office, said Ms. Bonta, a regional vice-president and director of professional development for HearingLife, which operates audiology clinics in the United States and Australia.

Telephone manners matter too.

Two years ago, Julie Johnstone, an accounts relationship manager in Hamilton, Ont., with Transitions Group North America, a dental coaching company, conducted an informal survey of the phone manners at 120 dentists' offices across Canada.

Nearly two-thirds "left very poor impressions," she noted on her website. "I hear it all the time: People are so turned off by that initial phone call."

Much of the time the call goes straight to voice mail or to an answering machine.

"People are looking for a reason not to spend their money with you," Ms. Bonta said. "Inconsistencies in your behaviour and in your office are the first thing that allows them to walk away and not follow up with you."

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Ted Topping, a Vancouver-based customer experience consultant, says the main thing to remember is "we are putting on a show."

The stage for this performance is the front desk. All personal activities, such as staff gossip and coffee breaks, should take place backstage and away from customers.

"I think staff need a personal area, and the personal areas should be hidden," said Mr. Topping, who is the president of Creative Insights Inc., which does about a third of its work in the United States. Personal conversations make the customer "an outsider," Mr. Topping said.

How does the proprietor get that message through to the staff?

"Nothing can change until there are firm guidelines," Mr. Topping said. They should be in writing and discussed with any new or current employee.

Discipline related to those rules must also happen backstage, he says. "It's a quiet conversation. It's not about yelling and screaming. It's about discussing the standards that the business has established," Mr. Topping said.

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Small business owners are very good at creating rules but tend to let them lapse, he said. For that reason, employers should not create more rules than they can reasonably enforce.

As Ms. Johnstone notes, however, what's considered appropriate appearance for front-counter staff can vary widely from one business to the next. "Obviously [at]a tattoo shop, you'd want someone with tattoos and piercings at the front desk," Ms. Johnstone said.

Similarly, a receptionist with crooked teeth would reflect poorly on a dentist. In such a case, Ms. Johnstone would advise the dentist to fix the receptionist's teeth for free.

Differences aside, some customer service rules are universal. Ms. Allison, for example, refers to her Three Cs: courtesy, competency and concern.

Concern not only means caring about the customer and the job – it also means solving problems without assigning blame.

"I teach that there's no stupid people, only a skill or an information gap," Ms. Allison said. "So really strong customer service representatives don't look to see whose fault it was. They just fix it."

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