Ask SCORE: Plan Ahead to Keep Customers Coming Back
It is well-known that repeat customers provide the backbone of every business.
So it causes concern when one reads about the erosion of customer loyalty and how cost-conscious buyers are putting a higher priority on price.
Fortunately, the repeat customer is not an endangered species. But in today's highly competitive environment, business owners need to do everything possible to ensure that a customer relationship doesn't end with the first sale.
"You need to give your customers something of extra value if you want them to return," says Linda Novey-White, an international hospitality consultant. "Look at your business like a customer would. What could you be doing better, and what is your competition doing better?"
Obviously it's that "extra value" that is critically important. It's the reason people give a bigger tip to the server in a restaurant or to the caddie at the end of a round of golf. And the extra value is what brings the first-time customer back again - and again.
It starts by anticipating the customer's needs. An "extra-value" business will think ahead to what the market will be demanding in the coming months to determine what can be done better. The owner keeps abreast of trends that might influence customers' purchasing decisions. Maybe there are new regulatory requirements or changes in the styles and formats many customers prefer.
Of course, people like to feel good about themselves. Simply asking questions and, more importantly, listening, shows interest. That, along with genuine compliments, can be flattering to the customer.
Too many businesses take it upon themselves to push the next big thing without considering whether their customers want it.
Listening to and acting on its customers' needs and concerns helps a good business make a lasting impression on even the most meticulous comparison shopper.
Adding a personal touch, such as recognizing important events like birthdays or professional accomplishments with a card or other token of appreciation, will also forge a stronger bond between the owner and the customers.
A friendly reminder about an upcoming event that might affect the customer's own business will cement the owner's reputation as a go-to source for more than just his or her product or service.
It's also helpful for the entrepreneur to share news on his/her website or via a customer e-newsletter about products or services and issues that may affect their use.
Finally, delivering what's been promised is critical. "Too many people offer hype and then don't follow through," Novey-White says. "Delivering a product or service that disappoints is the fastest way to lose your customers."
These are just a few suggestions that can increase the odds of having satisfied customers and getting that all-important repeat business.
By the way, in my previous column, my statement that the franchise failure rate "is much lower than for independent businesses" should have read, "It is widely believed that franchise failure rate is much lower..."
A perceptive reader pointed out that studies have shown the opposite - franchises fail more often than other types of small businesses. However, the point remains that the potential for success depends largely on "the personal commitment and drive" of the owner.
If you want to learn more about building repeat business, contact SCORE ("Counselors to America's Small Business"). SCORE is a nationwide nonprofit association of experienced business people who provide free, confidential business counseling to small business owners.
The Sandhills chapter is active in counseling, mentoring and presenting free business seminars. If you wish to speak to SCORE counselors about your business, please register as a client at www.edmisscore.org/0364 and one of our counselors will contact you.
In addition to counseling by appointment, the Sandhills chapter of SCORE has drop-in service for those who have registered from 10 a.m. to noon Tuesdays and Fridays at the Moore County Chamber of Commerce building on U.S. 15-501 in Southern Pines. The phone number is (910) 692-3926.
More information on SCORE's counseling activity can be found at the Sandhills SCORE website, www.sandhillsscore.org.
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