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Bring ‘em Back

“Bring ‘em Back”

Strategies to keep customers loyal to your business.

Repeat business is critical to your company’s success, but the trick is to find out what entices customers to return again and again.Try this: Remove your entrepreneur’s hat for a moment and take the role of customer. Think of one product or service that you’ve bought lately, then answer these questions:

  • Was the encounter one of the high points of your day or close to the lowest?
  • Did you get the service you expected — was it above and beyond or sub-par?
  • Would you willingly do business there again or only if you had no other choice?

Now ask yourself: How would I want my own customers to respond to these questions? And equally important: What kind of service must we provide to draw that response — and boost our repeat business?

Remember: Thinking like your customers is crucial if you expect them to be loyal. Your company isn’t a great place to do business just because you say so. Your customers make that judgment as they decide whether to return or go elsewhere.

Better than best

Meeting expectations is not good enough to ensure loyalty. You must do better than your best. Exceed customer expectations by providing six benefits:

  1. Value. Packaging is one way to enhance your product’s value in the customer’s eyes. Example: An insurance company inserts each new policy in a leather folder embossed with the customer’s name. Customers proudly use their folders for legal papers and other family documents.Another way to add value is through guarantees, especially if you offer a lifetime guarantee. You’ll get fewer returns with a lifetime guarantee than if you set a deadline of, say, 30 days, which forces customers to decide, “Should I return this now before my guarantee runs out?”
  2. Information. Complete information helps customers get the most out of your product or service. Example: At one luxury-car dealer, sales reps give purchasers a “grand tour” of their new vehicle. Reps explain and demonstrate everything from how to program the radio to how to replace a tire.
  3. Speed. FedEx exceeded customer expectations by promising next-day delivery by 10:30 a.m., but actually delivering by 9:45 a.m.
  4. Personality. Customers love to do business with upbeat employees. This type of organizational personality can’t be faked; do whatever it takes to keep your people happy at work. You want them to greet every customer as a friend on the phone, and they should be enthusiastic and helpful in person. Remember: Customers are on your turf and most feel uncomfortable if they’re not acknowledged immediately — and warmly.
  5. Add-ons. Surprise customers with something extra. Example: One Southern hotel delivers freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies to all rooms at 4 p.m. Guests are delighted by this unexpected treat at a time of day when their energy is low and dinner seems a long way off.
  6. Convenience. Win repeat business by making life easier for customers. Example: An Oregon tie store started the Frequent Tie-er Club. Members could call any time during the workday and order a fresh tie for a meeting or replace the one they spilled food on at lunch.

Reinforce emotional bonds

The most loyal customers have a sense of devotion so strong that they feel an emotional investment in your survival and growth. They’ll even urge friends, family and business associates to use your products. To foster this kind of emotional bond:

  • Treat the customer as part of your “family.” Devoted customers may be thrilled to assist in some way, such as helping a new customer fill out forms when you’re swamped. One up-and-coming neighborhood bank recruited dedicated customers to help set up its Monday morning free-coffee station for seniors.
  • Teach customers. Give them something to think about when the sale is complete. Example: A stockbroker always closes with some variation of, “I want to leave you with something to ponder regarding today’s bond market …” Receptive customers depart with the sense that, “He’s willing to take the time to teach me as well as sell.”
  • Show you can be trusted. Customers don’t expect you to be perfect, but they do expect you to fix things that go wrong. Otherwise, they’ll feel betrayed.
  • Trust your customers. Sometimes it’s worth the risk to prove your trust. Example: In one Omaha restaurant, waiters place a carafe of house Chianti on the table, inviting customers to take what they like and then report how many glasses were poured. Occasional losses to dishonest customers are more than offset by the loyalty of those who appreciate the “honor wine” system.

Make yourself memorable

Terrific service impresses customers, but it’s no guarantee they’ll return. They could easily forget about you if they get equally good service elsewhere. Customers also can be lured away by the latest new product on the market — or by your competition’s catchy TV ads. Without being too in-your-face, find ways to make contact with customers and let them know, “We remember you — and we’re always ready to meet your needs.”

Here are seven ways to keep in touch:

  1. Send a handwritten note of thanks the day of the sale. Start with, “Thank you for your business. We’re happy we were able to meet your needs today.” Be helpful: “If you have any questions or concerns about your ABC vacuum, please contact me personally at …” Make it easy for customers to reach you. Include your e-mail address, plus numbers for your direct office line, pager and cell phone.
  2. Find occasions to send additional notes. Some customers are all business, while others love small talk. The latter make it easy to gather personal and professional information you can use for follow-up contact. Start a “customer journal” where you jot down birthdays, anniversaries, upcoming holidays, hobbies or special interests. Periodically send notes or cards that let customers know you’re thinking of them. Example: One entrepreneur sends newspaper and magazine items with a handwritten note: “I found this article on India and thought it might be helpful in planning your trip there next spring.”
  3. Visit customers whenever possible. On every business trip, drop in on at least one customer’s office.
  4. Be a resource for customers. Encourage them to treat you as a networking partner. Invite them to call you when they need information, business connections or candidates for job openings.
  5. Draw on customers as resources. Example: Ask permission if you want to use them as references.
  6. Promote your customers. If they’re in business, recommend their products and services to others. You might also be able to help customers who are retiring or being downsized. Example: When one of consultant Elaine Biech’s executive clients was set to retire, he told her that he wanted to enter a different profession. So she put him in touch with another of her clients who could help him get started in his new field.
  7. Practice memorable acts of kindness. One entrepreneur haunts bookstores while in other cities on business. Her mission: To find books she knows will interest special customers. She sends the books with brief notes: “I recall you saying that you wanted this but it was out of print. Last week in Toronto, I found this copy of a recent reissue. Enjoy!” Acts of kindness, she says, are a “great excuse to stay in contact with your best customers — and keep them coming back to you.”

Writer: Kathleen Conroy