Be Your Own Boss, Fall 1999

How much are your customers worth? Without them, your new business could fail to get out of its starting gate. According to Joe Girard, renowned sales guru and author of the bestselling How to Sell Anything to Anybody (Warner Books), every person you meet knows at least 250 other people who may need your products or services. That's great news for start-up entrepreneurs, right?

Unfortunately, it's the flip side of Girard's principle that hurts. Should one client leave you dissatisfied, you lose more than that person's business--you sever ties to as least 250 prospective customers or referral sources. And incurring such a significant loss can stop a start-up in its tracks.

So what entrepreneur would knowingly allow such a loss? That's the problem. Many fledgling business owners don't realize which critical mistakes push customers--and their referrals--away. And as a result, it's only a matter of time before they're forced to give up their entrepreneurial dream. So before opening shop, make sure you know exactly what keeps customers coming back for more, or better yet, what keeps them from ever returning again.

Loyalty Is Job One

With time, money and, perhaps most important, the freedom to be your own boss at stake, what can you do to influence customers to stay with you? Begin by learning from what other entrepreneurs have done wrong.

Here are six mistakes new business owners make that keep clients from coming back:

J. David Harper Jr., ChFC, president of The Harper Financial Group LLC in Atlanta, has been helping entrepreneurs achieve their business and financial goals for 20 years.

Making Excuses

Suppose you own a public relations company and you've missed an important deadline. How should you handle your client's complaint? Don't make an excuse like "I've been swamped with projects, so I haven't had a chance to get started on yours yet." Customers don't care about your work overload. They care that you made a commitment to complete the project by a certain date but failed to follow through.

Rather than make excuses, admit your error upfront. Then do whatever it takes to make things right for your client. Offer to work after hours to complete the order at a significant discount and deliver it to your client's home that evening. When you take full responsibility to correct your mistake, a potentially volatile situation becomes an opportunity to win the customer's loyalty.

Neglecting To Seek Customer Feedback

Most customers won't tell you they're dissatisfied. They'll just quietly take their business elsewhere. Stop them! Set aside time to get their input. Schedule a one-on-one meeting or focus group. Contact your customers by phone or send them a questionnaire. Ask questions like:

  • What are your reasons for buying my product or service?
  • What led you to buy from me and not from my competitors?

What would you change about my products or services if you could? Discovering the answers to these questions will enhance your business. You'll find out what you're doing right--and what needs improvement. If a client is unhappy, you can take action before that person decides to switch to a competitor. When you ask customers for feedback, you demonstrate that you value them, giving them an incentive to come back.

Thinking Negative Thoughts

Who said running your own business would be easy? Be prepared to live on an erratic cash flow and wear many hats as you strive to get your business off the ground. No matter how hard it gets, hold your head high. People want to do business with those who are confident. Stop the cycle of negative thinking by focusing on your goals and believing you'll achieve them regardless of the setbacks you encounter. Your unshakable confidence in yourself will give your customers confidence in your business.

Insulting The Competition

What you tell prospects and customers about your competitors can backfire. When asked how your company stacks up against the competition, say something like "Competitor X does excellent work [or sells excellent products], but let me show you why my customers buy from me." Then hand your prospect a few endorsement letters from happy clients. This way, you take the focus off your competition and place it on your business, allowing your best customers to do the bragging for you.

Taking Customers For Granted

If you snooze, you lose. Don't assume because you've gotten customers to buy from you once, they'll be customers for life. Even as you read this, your competitors are designing strategies to lure them away. What incentives are you giving clients to keep them coming back?

If you own a coffeehouse, for example, you could implement a "frequent sippers" program that motivates customers to buy nine cups of coffee so they can get the 10th cup free. Any business can celebrate customers' special events such as birthdays or anniversaries by sending them personalized cards offering one of your products or services for free, or at a discount within a limited time.

Rule of thumb: Treat your clients so they feel it's to their advantage to keep their business with you.

Resisting Progress

Don't fall into the trap of complacency. In today's rapidly changing marketplace, if you don't grow, you'll go out of business. Be on the leading edge of your industry by taking continuing-education courses, attending relevant seminars and workshops, and reading industry-specific books and journals. When you increase your knowledge of your business, you make yourself more valuable to clients and position your company to be the best choice for your customers.

Protect your freedom to call your own shots. By learning from your mistakes and those of other entrepreneurs, and taking the necessary steps to avoid them in the future, you'll position your business for long-term growth and profitability.