In their book, Start Your Own Business, the staff of Entrepreneur Media Inc. guides you through the critical steps to starting a business, then supports you in surviving the first three years as a business owner. In this edited excerpt, the authors describe the things you can do to make sure your customers understand how important they are to you.
To grow your business, it’s tempting to concentrate on making new sales or pursuing bigger accounts. But attention to your existing customers, no matter how small they are, is essential to keeping your business thriving. The secret to repeat business is following up in a way that has a positive effect on the customer.
Effective follow-up begins immediately after the sale, when you call the customer to say “thank you” and find out if they're pleased with your product or service. Beyond this, there are several effective ways to follow up that ensure your business is always in the customer’s mind.
1. Let customers know what you are doing for them. This can be in the form of a newsletter mailed to existing customers, or something more informal, such as a phone call. Whichever method you use, the key is to dramatically point out to customers what excellent service you're giving them. If you never mention all the things you’re doing for them, customers may not notice. You're not being cocky when you talk to customers about the work you've done to please them. Just let them know they don’t have to worry because you handled the paperwork, called the attorney or double-checked on the shipment—one less thing they have to do.
2. 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? Let me know if you need another set of luggage. I can stop by with our latest models anytime.” Or if you run into an old customer at an event, follow up with a note: “It was great seeing you at the CDC Christmas party. I will call you early in the new year to schedule a lunch.”
3. Keep it personal. Voice mail and email make it easy to communicate, but the personal touch is lost. Don’t count these as a 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 will stop by their office at a designated time.
4. Remember special occasions. Send regular customers birthday cards, anniversary cards, holiday cards ... you name it. Gifts are excellent follow-up tools, too. You don’t have to spend a fortune; use your creativity to come up with interesting gift ideas that tie into your business, the customer’s business or their recent purchase.
5. Pass on information. If you read an article, see a new book or hear about an organization that a customer might be interested in, drop a note or make a quick call to let them know.
6. Consider follow-up calls business development calls. When you talk to or visit old clients or customers, you’ll often find they have referrals to give you, which can lead to new business.
With all that your existing customers can do for you, there’s simply no reason not to stay in regular contact with them. Use your imagination, and you’ll think of plenty of other ideas that can help you develop a lasting relationship.
There are plenty of things you can do to ensure good customer service. And when you’re a one-person business, it’s easy to stay on top of what your customers want. But as you add employees, whether it’s one person or 100, you're adding more links to the customer service chain—and creating more potential for poor service along the way.
That’s why creating a customer service policy and adhering to it is so important. Here are some steps you can take to ensure that your clients receive excellent service every step of the way.
- Put your customer service policy in writing. These principles should come from you, but every employee should know what the rules are and be ready to live up to them.
- Establish support systems that give employees clear instructions for gaining and maintaining service superiority. These systems will help you "outservice" any competitor by giving more to customers and anticipating problems before they arise.
- Develop a measurement of superb customer service. Then reward employees who practice it consistently.
- Be certain that your passion for customer service runs throughout your company. Your employees should see how good service relates to your profits and to their future with the company.
- Be genuinely committed to providing more customer service excellence than anyone else in your industry. This commitment must be so powerful that every one of your customers can sense it.
- Share information with people on the front lines. Meet regularly to talk about improving service. Solicit ideas from employees—they deal with the customers most often.
- Act on the knowledge that customers value attention, competence, promptness and dependability. They love being treated as individuals and being referred to by name.
Excellent customer service is more than what you say or do for the customer; it also means giving customers a chance to make their feelings known. Here are some suggestions for finding out what your customers want, need and care about:
1. Attend trade shows and industry events that are important to your customers. You’ll find out what the competition's doing and what kinds of products and services customers are looking for.
2. Nurture a human bond, as well as a business one, with customers and prospects. Take them out to lunch, dinner or the ballgame. In the relaxed atmosphere of socializing, you’ll learn the secrets that will allow you to go above and beyond your competition.
3. Keep alert for trends, then respond to them. Read industry trade publications, be active in trade organizations, and pay attention to what your customers are doing.
4. Ask for feedback. Survey your customers regularly to find out how you’re doing. Send postage-paid questionnaire cards or letters, call them by phone, and set up focus groups. Ask for suggestions, then fix the trouble areas revealed.