What Do Your Customers Think?

This article first appeared on ezine.com on February 29, 2012.

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In a world of instant communication, world-wide sourcing, and sophisticated marketing programs, the only sustainable competitive advantage is Customer Loyalty. Small business owners often overlook the obvious in pursuit of the difficult – it is far easier to retain a customer and get a new order than to find a new customer. Satisfied customers return again and again to the businesses they trust and often bring new prospects with them. A few good words of recommendation are more valuable in building a business than expensive sales campaigns and discount programs.

Consider your own experiences as a consumer. Where do you shop for groceries, medicines, or clothes? Where do you buy gas and get your vehicles serviced? If you’re like most people, you patronize a limited number of establishments with whom you are comfortable and trust, even though virtually everything you purchase can be bought from someone else for the same or lower prices.

Where do you fill drug prescriptions? A third of Americans shop at either a CVS or a Walgreens located within 5 miles of their homes. Often the two competitors are located across the street from each other. They carry the same goods and products and participate in the same health insurance plans. They are virtually identical in appearance and layout. Aside from periodic discounts on specific products, their prices are almost the same, varying by pennies if at all. But the odds are that you give most of your business to one or the other, rarely entering the doors of the other company’s store. Why? And why do your neighbors follow similar behaviour?

People purchase products and services from companies who continually meet or exceed their expectations, whatever they may be. Most people expect, at a minimum, that the products they purchase will work as advertised, the product will be available when they want or need it, and the price paid for that product is fair. They want convenience, consistency, and a lack of complication in the process. In short, they want to be comfortable that they are getting what they expect when they pay for a product or service, nothing more and nothing less. The business owner who understands this desire has an opportunity to create a extraordinary experience, exceeding basic expectations, and convert a skeptical buyer into an enthusiastic promoter of the business who repeatedly returns and brings his friends.

While attending college in the mid-1960s, I had the opportunity to work at one of Jack Brown’s One-Hour Martinizing Cleaners in Austin, Texas. The University of Texas at that time was one of the largest colleges in the United States, starting 15,000 new freshmen every year. Mr. Brown focused on those new freshmen, knowing that if he could get them as customers their first year, they would remain customers for their college term.

There are a lot of dry cleaners and laundries around every college campus. Clean, pressed clothes are important when you lead an active social life. Most freshmen, living away from home, send out their clothes for cleaning. At the same time, they are strangers in a strange place, knowing no one and feeling insecure about being on their own for the first time.

Mr. Brown understood their situation and recognized their loneliness, particularly the first semester. As a consequence, he had one rule for any employee who worked on the front counter – he expected every customer to be greeted by his first name by the customer’s third visit to the store. Imagine how that lonely freshman felt when he was greeted by a friendly voice calling him by his first name! No one else knew his name, not the teachers who handled classes of 50 students or more, the dining hall stewards or fast food counter people, not even the people in his dorm of 500 or more. He came to the cleaners with the expectation that his shirts would be washed at a reasonable price; he kept coming over the next 3 and ½ years because he found a friend who knew him by name, something he never expected from a local dry cleaner.

Being able to recall and use someone’s first name is not always the reason someone returns to a business, but it can’t hurt. Clean facilities and equipment, courteous employees, stocked shelves, quick deliveries or installations, listening and responding to your customer’s concerns are all part of the customer experience as well as other things.

To determine how you can make a fabulous impression in your business, you need to put yourself in a customer’s shoes. Try to review every aspect of a transaction from his viewpoint, no matter how small or trivial the point. How does your phone system work? Is it easy to get caught in a transfer Hell where talking to a real person is impossible? Are the features of your products or services easily understood? Is your billing excessively complicated for your purposes, not those of your customers? Do you follow up with a customer to see if the product is performing as promised? Think about it and write out your customers and answers for reflection and to find opportunities for improvement.

Ask a friend to go through a customer process with your company and get this thoughts. Better yet, call some recent customers and get their feedback on what they experienced. Don’t settle for vague answers! Ask specific questions about what they expected and what they got. Ask them for suggestions to improve your process before their next visit. Incidentally, calling a customer and asking him for his thoughts will make him feel important and that you care about him – a good outcome by itself.

Have you come to any conclusions about why you continue to visit the same stores? Do your customers feel about you the way you feel about those businesses? How can you improve the experience for your customers?