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Can You Repeat That? Hone your customer satisfaction skills, and you'll bring in a ton of repeat business.

By Marcia Layton Turner

entrepreneur daily

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Marketing experts have said for years that there are really only three ways to grow a business: Attract new customers, sell higher-priced items to existing customers, or sell more frequently to existing customers. Note that two out of three of those strategies focus on building repeat business, while only one has to do with finding new customers. That's because holding on to satisfied customers and encouraging them to buy from you again is much more profitable than trying to identify and attract totally new buyers. Yet pursuing new customers is what so many businesses do.

If you focus on customer satisfaction, you will be rewarded with additional business, reports internet research firm Vividence, which discovered that satisfied customers are twice as likely as dissatisfied customers to do business with an online seller again. And good customer service begins with communication.

Speak Up
Just as it's better to be overdressed than underdressed, it's better to overcommunicate with your customers than to undercommunicate. Once someone has won an item or used Buy It Now to purchase something from you, take every opportunity to stay in touch about your payment process, shipping, anticipated delivery date and follow-up, recommends Gary Kamikawa, marketing director at Mpire.com, which provides research and support tools to eBay sellers.

From start to finish, you have a number of opportunities to communicate with customers, says Kamikawa, including:

  • Providing a customized invoice that reiterates your payment and return policies. eBay generates its own end-of-listing e-mail to buyers, but this is your first opportunity to brand your business by name so they think of you next time they have a need for a similar product.
  • Payment reminders, which Kamikawa says are opportunities to show how helpful and friendly you are. You can provide a gentle nudge without coming across as a jerk, winning you points with buyers.
  • Sending a quick thank-you e-mail when payment is received and indicating when you expect to ship the item.
  • Sending an e-mail with shipping details, including any tracking information, once the product is on its way.
  • Sending a thank-you note when you receive positive feedback.
  • Being proactive and trying to anticipate what information a buyer might need is what customer service is all about, and it can significantly improve the chances of a customer looking to buy from you again.

Don't limit yourself to e-mail communication: The telephone can be just as effective, maybe more so. According to Aurelius Ransom, general manager for Infinity Enterprises of the East Coast Inc. (eBay User ID: infinity-enterprises), when a buyer e-mails a question, his goal is to get them on the phone. Infinity Enterprises, which is based in West Palm Beach, Florida, specializes in selling off-lease luxury cars--BMWs, Jaguars and Mercedes-Benzes--on eBay Motors. And Ransom has learned that "we do not sell cars bouncing e-mails back and forth," especially when the average transaction is about $30,000.

Ransom and the owners of Infinity Enterprises, Jennifer and Jeremy Smith, 33 and 36, respectively, have found that customers are much more comfortable on the phone, and "we try to make them feel comfortable from the very beginning" as part of an effort to offer "just outstanding customer service," says Ransom. Once a level of comfort is established, a relationship can ensue, he explains.

That approach appears to work well for Infinity Enterprises, which had a 100 percent feedback rating at press time and generated $6 million in sales in 2006. Considering that 90 percent of its customers live outside Florida and 75 percent have their cars shipped directly to them, customer satisfaction levels that high are quite an accomplishment. The Smiths attribute it to quality customer service and honest communication.

But communication is just one tool you have at your disposal to impress your customers and win their loyalty. There are other ways to set yourself apart from your competition, which includes fellow eBay sellers and brick-and-mortar retailers.

Distinguish Yourself
Many sellers handle the basics of doing business on eBay just fine, but they miss out on the opportunity to really differentiate themselves. Take a look at some of the ways savvy eBay sellers stand out.

They say "Thank You." Although you may have e-mailed your appreciation for their business, why not tuck a brief, handwritten thank-you note into each customer's shipment or enclose a business card to remind the buyer who you are?

They surprise their customers. "Add an extra surprise in the package," advises Kamikawa. Depending on the type of product, you could enclose some free stickers or some candy--a little bonus to put a smile on the customer's face when he or she opens your box.

They package their shipments with care. One seller, for example, neatly ironed some fabric that Kamikawa's wife had purchased and then wrapped it in tissue paper and plastic. "It was a very nice presentation," he says.

They personalize their feedback. Rather than typing what you always do for feedback, tailor your message "to show you care about this particular purchase," says Kamikawa. So instead of writing "A+++ buyer" like everyone else does, you could say, for example, "I loved the illustrations in this book. Hope you do, too."

Be Responsive
"The key is to get the right information to the buyer as quickly as possible," says Steve Yeich, CEO of Hosted Support, which supports several hundred eBay sellers. Believe it or not, "a lot of sellers don't answer their e-mail," he says. "That's a recipe for disaster."

As your business on eBay is ramping up, more e-mails will be generated, which will increase the amount of time required to deal with them, says Yeich. "Sellers are frequently overwhelmed by e-mail."

Granted, they may have the best of intentions to answer a buyer's question about shipping or the product's condition when they get a minute, but by then it may be too late. The customer may have already bought from someone else or be dissatisfied with the lack of a timely response. "The competitive battlefield is immense," Yeich explains, "and customers can easily move on to another provider if you don't respond."

One solution is to automate the process of responding to frequent questions, says Yeich, which can positively impact customer satisfaction. In general, higher efficiency yields higher customer satisfaction, which generates more customer relationships.

Automation isn't always the answer, says Alan Zdon, 31, co-owner of Auction Cruncher Store (eBay User ID: auctioncruncherstore), who emphasizes the importance of customer service. Auction Cruncher, based in a suburb of Buffalo, New York, specializes in consumer electronics like MP3 players, sound systems and household products. The company's strategy has been to offer "good, honest listings and good customer service, which includes responding within minutes of receiving an e-mail." In fact, a live person responds to every one of the 300 to 400 e-mails the company receives each day--"nothing is automated," he says, because he doesn't believe that automated messages are personalized enough. And in most cases, an automated response can't answer the specific questions Zdon receives, such as, "Will this cable work with my TV model?"

Timeliness extends to shipping policies, too. Ninety percent of customers providing feedback have commented on Auction Cruncher's fast shipping, says Zdon. And

11.5 percent of those providing feedback are repeat customers, as indicated by the difference between the total number of positive feedback marks--18,426--and the number of members who left positive feedback--16,297--divided by the total feedback, which is more than 2,000 customers and 11.5 percent of purchases. Given that Auction Cruncher generated between $70,000 and $200,000 per month in sales last year, that repeat business adds up fast.

Special Offers
That doesn't mean that Zdon isn't interested in boosting business even more, however. The company makes use of the blank space at the bottom of each packing list that accompanies completed listings, filling it with coupons for discounted shipping or ads for the company's other websites.

Auction Cruncher has also been collecting names and e-mail addresses for a newsletter it will soon introduce. Using an opt-in newsletter tool that is part of the check-out process, Zdon and his team have been inviting customers to provide their contact information if they want to receive news and offers from the company. In the past six months, more than 1,000 customers took them up on the offer. Those customers will soon receive regular e-mails announcing new merchandise and offering special deals, such as shipping discounts on orders over $200.

But even before an item is shipped, eBay sellers have the chance to try to entice customers to buy more. Cross-selling has been an effective tool for Craig Zimmer, president of MobilePC (eBay User ID: mobilepc) in San Diego. MobilePC has more than 20,000 positive feedbacks and is a Titanium PowerSeller, meaning the company sells at least $150,000 a month on eBay. However, profit margins are slim on the computers and consumer electronics the company sells, explains Zimmer. "In our industry, upselling is very important--add-ons are very important."

With the cross-selling feature in the automation software from eBay that he uses, every time a person bids on an item, the software runs photos of related items across the bottom of the page. If a customer just bid on an iPod, for example, accessories within that category will appear. "We try and make it easy for people to find related products," Zimmer says. The software can also show images of similar products available through Buy It Now in case the customer doesn't want to wait for the auction-style listing to end. Zimmer also lists Buy It Now merchandise on eBay Express for customers who want to make a Fixed-Price purchase.

Ultimately, what you want buyers to do is to add you to their Favorite Sellers list, which is the best way to get repeat business, according to Kamikawa. Once you're on a customer's Favorite Sellers list, eBay will help market your latest offerings to them by sending an e-mail with a list of your most recent listings. With that new information, a past buyer is encouraged to do business with you again.

Cross-Promotion Tools
After buyers have bid on one of your items or have just purchased something, make sure they're aware of all the other, perhaps related, products you're selling, as well as any multiple-item shipping discounts you may offer.

If you intend to build a busy business on eBay, you'll likely get to a point where you need automated support. These are four great options.

  • Auctiva.com: Auctiva's eBay listing tool is free when you register at the site.
  • HostedSupport.com: Try the company's ezSupport Pro software free for 30 days.
  • Vendio.com: Check out Vendio's Sales Manager, which has a two-week money-back guarantee.

Building a Brand
eBay is the brand that brings buyers to your online items for sale. But once you've earned their business, you'll want to take steps to establish your own brand so customers remember you the next time they need a similar product.

Some of the basic elements of a brand are:

  • Name: The name of your business on eBay should convey what you specialize in, such as Michael's Math Manipulatives or Stickley Collectibles.
  • Logo: You can include your company's logo on everything from invoices to e-mail correspondence to packing lists and thank-you notes, so make sure it looks professional.
  • Design template: The background colors you use in your listing template, as well as the font and other graphic elements, can all support your brand image, whether it's ultratrendy or strictly business.
  • Style of communication: The type of language you use, such as friendly and casual or techie, also conveys your brand image.

A consistent message coupled with a consistent brand is easier for customers to remember and can help bring them back to buy from you again and again.

Marcia Layton Turner's work has appeared in Woman's day, Health and Black Enterprise. She is based in Pittsford, N.Y.

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