Subscribe to Entrepreneur for $5

You Can't Beat Habit

Learning how to alter customers' routines likely means making significant changes to your own.

This story appears in the July 2009 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Let's face it: Your regular customers are on autopilot. When a purchase is repeated enough times, it becomes . However, market shifts can disrupt even the most powerful habits, and the current financial meltdown is the single biggest market disruption we've ever lived through. Customers are altering their because of uncertainty about the future: laying off employees (maybe even your contacts), hoarding cash and postponing routine purchases. All purchase decisions are now up for conscious review.

This is a daunting challenge, but it also creates opportunities. Here are some ways to get your customers back in the habit of buying from you.

Heads up on habit

Five behavioral changes that could mean your customer is getting ready to turn away from you:

1. Decreased order frequency

2. Adjustments in order volume (up or down)

3. Change in communications patterns

4. New organizational structure

5. Increase in complaints

Get your existing customers to buy something--anything. You want to grease the wheels of habit formation by getting your customers to once again get used to doing with you. Even if it's selling small volumes or items with low margins, write orders. Once you have customers buying from you, you can look for ways to sell bigger and more profitably. Remember, your goal is to reestablish purchase behavior, so be flexible.

Recognize that your original value proposition may no longer hold. Perceptions of value have changed along with perceptions of need. Spend time with your contacts inside the company to determine if you, your products and your services have maintained their reputation and relevance. Make sure you know who the new influencers are, and spend time with them to uncover new directives.

Go for the throats of your competitors. Their customers have changed their purchasing habits, too, so now's the time to get your products and services into the mix. Get in front of potential customers and pitch strongly. Again, get a foot in the door by getting a sale--any sale. Get into their systems so ordering becomes easy. Create repeatable processes that will lead to long-term relationships.

<insert ad here>

Reinforce your value. This means not only delivering on your promises, but also understanding the sequence and timing of rewards and the removal of punishments. Salespeople often treat their prospects better than their clients. This is bribery and doesn't lead to habit. Reinforcing behavior means providing the reward after the targeted behavior occurs.

Pay attention to customer feedback. Your customer is trying to train you as well. Pay attention to the feedback. What's the preferred method of communication? This may vary by the context; for example, e-mail for documents and work flow, phone calls for complaints, and text messages for quick questions. Work with it.

By becoming your customers' habit, you will create a strong competitive advantage. And we all know how hard it is to break a habit.

A noted author, speaker and consultant, Neale Martin works to bridge the gaps between marketing and sales as well as between the scientific and business worlds. Neale's latest book, Habit, updates our understanding of marketing and sales based on current findings from neuroscience and cognitive .

Continue reading this article - and everything on Entrepreneur!

Become a member to get unlimited access and support the voices you want to hear more from. Get full access to Entrepreneur for just $5.

Entrepreneur Editors' Picks