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Second Time Around

Build strong relationships and long-term sales by winning repeat business.
Magazine Contributor
8 min read

This story appears in the May 1997 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

To the ordinary entrepreneur or salesperson, closing and finalizing the sale is the completion of servicing the customer's needs. But for the pro, this is only the beginning. Ted Levitt, former editor of the Harvard Business Review, puts it this way: "The sale merely consummates the courtship. Then the marriage begins. How good the marriage is depends on how well the relationship is managed by the seller."

Therein lies the secret to repeat business and building a solid referral system. It all comes down to following up in a way that has a positive effect on the customer. Some examples:

  • Calling the customer to say "thank you" and finding out if he or she is pleased with your product or service.
  • Accepting full responsibility for problems, instead of passing the buck and saying "Such-and-such department should have known better."
  • Telling customers what you can do rather than what you cannot do for them. A friend once gave us a new cappuccino machine that leaked. When we took it back to the store to find out if we were doing something wrong or to exchange it, the salesperson said: "Oh, I remember selling this, but I have no idea how it works. Our floor manager is on a lunch break right now. Do you just want to leave it here and pick it up later?" The saddest part of this story is that this salesperson's post-sale methods are common practice in today's business world.

Many people think it's harder to become successful in business today than it was 10, 20 or even 30 years ago. I disagree. In my business, I have followed certain habits and practices that are so rare today that my consistent use of them over the last 25 years has guaranteed my company's success.

1. The kindergarten follow-up. I learned a simple but effective method of follow-up communication from my daughter's two kindergarten teachers. Every Friday, my daughter came home with a copy of The Kindergarten Kronicle--a sheet of colored paper divided into sections such as nursery rhymes, math, science and special projects. The top of the Kronicle always had an eye-catching statement such as "What a week!" Under each category, the teachers would explain what lessons or activities the children had done that week. When I read the report every Friday, I was reassured that these teachers were doing an outstanding job.

If you are working on long-range projects with customers, write your own version of The Kindergarten Kronicle. We need to spend more time communicating to our customers about what we are doing for them. John Marconi, CEO of Orange Coast Title Co., a title insurance company in Santa Ana, California, explains one secret to getting repeat business: "You have to dramatically point out to the customer that what you are doing for them is brilliant. If you treat all this extra service as mediocre, that is exactly what the customer is going to think it is.

"You aren't being cocky when you talk to the customer about all the work you have put in to please him or her. You just make a phone call and let them know they don't have to worry because you got ahold of the attorney or sent the paperwork to its proper place--one less thing they have to do."

2. The felicitous follow-up recommendation. Ask yourself one question before you begin any follow-up efforts: How can I be sure I'll get the job done? If you know from the start you won't remember to send thank-you notes or make personal visits on a regular basis, then either buy contact management software or sign up for a follow-up program that automatically sends birthday, anniversary and other appropriate cards to your customers for you.

I have always handled my own follow-up work with customers because to me there is no better source of new business than a satisfied customer. In today's marketplace, the primary salesperson seems to be moving farther and farther away from direct contact with customers. The more successful people become, the more they seem to isolate themselves from those they serve.

It always amazes people who call Danielle Kennedy Productions to place an order that I am the one answering the phone and taking down their information. Your goal should be to keep moving closer to, rather than farther away from, those you serve. Here are some follow-up pointers that only you can make work:

  • When customers are pleased with your service, ask them for a testimonial letter. Get permission to use quotes from the letters in your print ads and brochures. Also ask if you can give past customers' phone numbers to certain qualified prospects so they can get a solid recommendation about you firsthand.
  • Write old customers personal, handwritten notes frequently. "I was just sitting at my desk, and your name popped into my head. Are you still having a great time flying all over the country on my detachable wings? If you need any extra wing cleaner, I can stop by with a case any time."

If you run into an old customer anywhere, follow up with a note: "Great seeing you at the UDC Christmas party. You must be running marathons these days. How do you keep so fit? I'll call you in the early part of the new year for a quick lunch or run."

  • Don't sacrifice the personal touch for electronic convenience. A friend of mine who is national sales manager for a window-covering manufacturer recently made this comment: "There is no longer a personal touch in business communications. I haven't talked to a member of my sales staff for weeks. I've listened to their voice-mail messages or received their updates by fax. The sad part is, that's how we're communicating with our customers, too."

I don't count leaving messages on voice mail or answering machines as legitimate follow-up. If you're having trouble getting through, leave a voice-mail message that you want to talk to the person directly or intend to stop by in person at a designated time.

  • Consider follow-up calls business development calls. When you initiate calls or visits to old customers, you'll discover they've been waiting for you to call so they can give you more business. "By the way, Danielle, I passed on your video to Discovery Toys, and they're thinking of hiring you as their next speaker. Here is a name to follow up on immediately."

It makes no sense at all not to call or write past clients frequently. You no longer have to prove yourself with these people. Just show up!

  • Follow up by heeding your intuition. I drop everything when my intuition reminds me to call an old client. A recent incident comes to mind: A few weeks ago, I remembered a customer who I thought might want to hear about my new audio series. How did her name pop into my head? I was reading the local newspaper, and someone with the same last name was in the news. Call me crazy, but it works: She bought the new series and was thrilled to hear from me.

Contact Source

3. Keep those cards and outrageous gifts coming. Under the category of advertising and promotions, never underestimate the power of gift-giving to ensure repeat business. My dad received more client gifts every Christmas than any other person I have ever known. People valued his business and showed their appreciation with cheese baskets, leather-bound almanacs with his name engraved on the cover, clocks, and special jellies and preserves. He loved every minute he spent opening the gifts and explaining to my mother and me who gave him such special mementos.

You don't have to spend a fortune to show people you care. If you are high on creativity but low on funds, you can still come up with some interesting gifts for your customers.

4. Post-sale problem solvers. No matter how good your product is, complaints and problems will arise. How you handle those problems can make or break your chances for repeat business. A few suggestions on pleasing the unpleasable:

  • Let customers vent their feelings. Encourage them to get their frustrations out in the open.
  • Never argue with a customer.
  • Never tell a customer "You do not have a problem." Those are fighting words.
  • Share your point of view as politely as you can.
  • Don't delay taking action to remedy the situation.
  • Imagine you're the one with the complaint. How would you want the situation to be handled?

This month's rules for maintaining a good "marriage" with your customers should give you a better shot at long-term relationships . . . and lots of repeat business.

Danielle Kennedy presents sales and marketing seminars and keynote addresses worldwide and is the author of seven sales books as well as audio and video sales training programs. Check local bookstores for her latest book, Seven Figure Selling.

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