Providing exceptional customer experiences could be the only thing separating your small business from the competition. Here are 10 ways to do it that cost little and pay you back in repeat business, cross-sells, and viral recommendations.
An unfortunate consequence of worldwide technology and the Internet placing abundant choice at every human being’s fingertips is that most products just look alike. If not yet because yours is new, they soon will when the competition rips off your look and feel. What’s left to distinguish your small business? More than likely it is customer experience, and there is great news. The only people who talk about your exceptional service that count are your customers. What you say on your website is irrelevant without them. With social media all the rage, it’s easier than ever to get viral and put your business past the tipping point if and only if your service is truly legendary.
Years ago, my wife and I went to the eastern shore of Maryland for one last celebration for the summer (we now live there). We decided to treat ourselves to a stay at a relatively upscale hotel with it’s own beach right on the bay front in Ocean City. Our room had a view of the bay and, while it was pretty nice, it was obvious that the $170 a night price tag was due to the location and that view.
Well, check-in was OK and the hotel staff seemed friendly enough–so far so good. On the second evening, though, our problems began. You see it was Labor Day weekend, and on our floor we just happened to have some holiday partiers, or in layman’s terms, drunks. At 3 a.m. we awakened to loud screaming, slamming doors, and language that would cause sailors in a pub to run for cover. On night number three it was more of the same, this time with a fistfight thrown in for good measure. I thought for a moment about stepping right outside our room door and asking for quiet, but thought better of it and called security. That would have been like getting between two leopards tussling over the same fallen antelope to make sure each one got equal portions.
Now I knew that the behavior of these jerks was not the fault of the hotel. They can’t control how people act. But I had to complain to someone, and I did so early the next day. After three trips to the front desk, I got to speak with a manager empowered to do something to placate me, the upset customer. She did, and you know what, I was satisfied… but I wasn’t WOWed.
Folks, today competition is too tough to simply satisfy customers. If that’s all you do they’ll be in a state of perpetual searching, searching for that perfect buying experience and relationship that your business failed to give them. Here are ten steps to WOWing customers and helping transcend them from a state of satisfaction to one of ultimate loyalty, impervious to cheaper offers and external threats.
1. Listen. Oh sure, you listen, don’t you? You hear every word the customer says—or do you. Listening means treating them like they want to be treated, a la Tony Allesandra’s Platinum Rule. In my search for a personal watercraft (jetski for land lubbers) I told the salesperson I wanted a three-seater that didn’t go faster than 50 mph. He proceeded to pitch me a two-seater that did 70, so fast it would “feather my hair and clear my sinuses all at once.” Nice try, but no sale. My business went to the competition down the street that provided what I was looking for.
2. Be Proactive. If problems are lurking on the horizon, solve them before you’re asked to. The hotel in Ocean City satisfied me when I complained (after three tries); that’s good service. What would WOW service have been? Well, if I managed that hotel, every room on the fourth floor (scene of the nightly ruckus where police were called, so the hotel knew of the problem) would have gotten flowers the next day with a hand-written apology from the hotel for allowing the behavior of a few bad eggs to ruin their day. I wouldn’t have waited to see what patrons complained.
Here’s a good example. I purchased a signed copy of Evander Holyfield’s autobiography from QVC a few years ago. I read it and I wasn’t complaining. QVC discovered that all the signatures weren’t authentic, some were electronically created, and so they sent out a replacement copy with original signature and a postage paid envelope for me to return the old copy. They included a personalized note heavy on apologies for the screw-up. I was WOWed.
3. Solicit Feedback. Ask customers what they think of your business and how they would make it better. Encourage them to use a suggestion form and, even better, reward customer suggestions that you use by sending them giveaways or discounts (hmmm, sounds a lot like an employee suggestion program). You’re showing a desire to partner with the customer and then proving how much you value her opinion. People like to be asked for their opinion if it is believable that you really value it. Loyalty builds.
4. Contact Repeatedly. Once someone purchases from your business, that person should be in your database and contacted repeatedly over time unless he asks you to stop. If the contact is right, that won’t happen. Send coupons, deals for past customers only, and items of interest specific to that customer. For instance, if you own a ladies clothing store and you just got in a fancy red handbag collection, you might want to contact all of the ladies who purchased red shoes in the last two years and let them know this might be a match. You, of course, are advanced in your data mining and can track the type of items each customer purchased, right?
5. Own the Experience. Your customers want a buying experience that is pleasant to them. That means that as soon as they enter your store, or your website, or wherever you do business, you are responsible for what happens. The hotel didn’t cause those idiots on the fourth floor to get sloppy drunk and make fools of themselves, but since that bad behavior detracted from the customer experience, it was the hotel’s responsibility. Someone trips your on the curb in front of your store, it’s your job to go help that person up, and not because you fear a lawsuit! Take ownership, and surprise customers into unconscious loyalty.
6. Protect the Customer. Who do you protect him from? Many times, himself. The best story I can think of comes from fabled sales trainer Zig Ziglar, who told the story of a bicycle shop owner who refused to sell a bicycle to a grandmother, a lady demanding to be sold to, because the bike she wanted for her grandson might prove dangerous to the child. His legs were too short and his feet couldn’t reach the pedals. Even though in this story the grandma left in a huff, most people will appreciate that kind of integrity. Imagine the impact on the people in the store who witnessed this non-transaction not take place. For you this might mean (OMIGOD!) pointing out a comparable special to a customer waiting to buy an item in your store. The long term effects of your action will more than outweigh the short-term gain of a few extra bucks, trust me.
7. Empower Subordinates. Look, time is of the essence to the customer. The one thing I hate more than anything is when I am overcharged by twenty-seven cents (or some other trivial problem) and the clerk has to go find the store manager to refund my money. That is zero empowerment, and it not only wastes my time but also makes me feel like a schmuck for even bringing the mistake up. At the Ocean City hotel, the reason I had to go back to the front desk three times is because the managers were not empowered to do anything about my situation. I had to wait for the general manager to come in.
8. Continually Add Value. Gag me with a pitchfork, he said Add Value! You can call it anything you like. When a customer buys the suede upholstery, ask them, without a hard sell, if they have considered a method of cleaning and caring for the material. You have a kit that will do the job if she’s interested. When the customer who buys the PC has a confused look on his face, you write down instructions and a diagram of how to set it up when he gets home, even though that information might be contained in the box. “Wait a second, Karl, no one else would do that kind of thing!” Now you’re getting it.
9. Anticipate Unmet Needs. Similar to number 2, this is where you empathize with the customer, putting yourself in her shoes, and ask the question, “What would make this customer experience perfect?” Let’s go back to the hotel. When we checked-in we asked for the available room with the best view of the bay. There were several available that might have qualified, so the clerk tried something on the fifth floor, telling us to come back to the desk if it wasn’t suitable. Good, but not WOW. Suppose the bellman would have entered the room with us when we arrived and went to the balcony. He would have immediately seen that this view was a lot further from the waterline than anyone thought, and offered to move our stuff to one of the closer, more available units. WOW! We did move, but on our own accord. Yawn.
10. Reward Customer Loyalty. Customers who come back, who refer others to you, should be rewarded. For most businesses, that means discounting merchandise, coupons, points clubs, etc. Instead, many businesses focus on luring new customers and forget about those who are already onboard, assuming those folks are loyal for life. I left my last health club because the new member plan was half of what I was paying, a loyal customer for three years. When I questioned it I got the all-too-familiar, “That’s company policy.” Karl’s policy was to find another gym.
Here’s a big watch out. Be careful that your reward of a loyal customer isn’t perceived as having little value. For instance, the hotel at the shore compensated me for my trouble by giving me a free weekend (2 nights). Great, right, and it’s a typical response in the hospitality industry for about a quarter of the hotels. Problem: the fine print said the days had to be used between November and April 1. This is a beach hotel in Maryland folks. November to April is cold and deserted at the shore. There was no way that any hotel would be even half sold out, so from the hotel’s perspective this reward amounted to two nights of maid service on an otherwise empty room. If you are going to reward people for loyalty, don’t put conditions on it.
There are other steps from other authors about customer loyalty, a hot topic right now for any industry. Follow the ten steps in this article, and you will go a long way toward turning fickle consumers into loyal, raving advocates of your business who will buy from you and refer others to you again and again.