(October 11, 2002)

The care quotient
Make your customers feel important – ask them how you’re doing

Robert Grede, For SBT

It’s part of the human condition. We all want to feel important. We all want to feel as if our business, no matter how meager, is important to the store where we shop. We truly want to feel as if we are valued customers.
No matter what our business, from hobby shops to hospitals, car parts to consulting, if we don’t make our customers feel important, they will leave us for a competitor without a second thought.
Don’t let that happen to you.
Here’s a little test to determine how valued your customers feel:
1. Has it been a year or more since you provided an opportunity for your customers to tell you how they feel they are treated?
2. Are repeat customers becoming fewer and fewer?
3. Are they buying less frequently and spending less when they do?
4. Do you seem to be stocking the wrong items? Wrong sizes? Wrong accessories?
5. Are you losing customers to competitors?
6. Do your customers seem surly and uncooperative?
7. Have you received any unsolicited complaints from unhappy customers?
If you answered yes to some of those questions, I’ll wager your "care quotient" is too low. And at least two times out of three, I’d be right.
Research shows that two-thirds of customers leave a regular supplier for a competitor because they think that supplier doesn’t care about them, doesn’t respond to their needs. Not because of better prices. Not because of better selection or better quality. Simply because they don’t feel important to that supplier.
One of New York City’s most colorful and popular mayors in recent memory, Mayor Koch, was famous for asking his constituents, "How am I doing?" He didn’t always hear widespread praise. But New Yorkers loved him because they felt he cared enough to ask their opinion.
You may need to do the same thing. Periodically, ask your customers, "How are we doing?" You’ll be surprised at what you can learn. Your customers will be delighted you asked.
The first thing you’ll learn is your customers feel reassured that you took the time to ask them their opinion. Everyone likes to offer an opinion. The second thing you’ll learn is that you should ask more often.
There are many ways of getting feedback from your customers. One way is by simply asking them while they’re buying something from you. The information you learn is immediate and may help resolve a problem quickly before you lose a customer.
Restaurants use this technique effectively. For instance, did you ever notice that within five minutes of being served, your waiter or waitress will stop by your table (usually just after you took that huge bite of pizza) and ask, "How is everything here?"
It’s standard practice in the restaurant industry because restaurants know that fickle customers won’t return (and won’t brag about the restaurant to their friends) unless they’re made to feel important.
Here’s another way of soliciting feedback, often used by retailers, but equally adaptable to many types of business. Sometimes customers may be reluctant to tell you face to face if they have a problem. They may feel uncomfortable telling you your prices are too high, your merchandise is faulty, or you’re not open at convenient hours.
Offer them an opportunity to sound off anonymously by distributing a questionnaire. A questionnaire serves several purposes. It offers anonymity to the person complaining. It identifies trends, pinpoints problem areas, and may even lead to a new product or service that hadn’t occurred to you before.
Most importantly, it shows your customers you care about them, lets them know you value their opinion. It gives them a chance to let off steam, too. It’s better they tell you what you’re doing wrong rather than never calling you again for an order.
One client, a video production studio, distributed self-addressed questionnaires to all their customers over a period of three months. Among other things, they learned that their customers wanted longer hours and lower prices.
Based on this input, the studio decided to offer evening hours at reduced rates. This change not only better utilized their capital equipment, it better served their customers’ needs. Revenues jumped 28%.
When distributing questionnaires, consider mailing them out to your database of customers rather than simply handing them out with every purchase. First, you reach the customers who haven’t purchased from you in awhile, the very ones you most want to ask, "Why?"
Second, you’re likely to receive more responses. Selling business-to-business, your chances of reaching a decision-maker are better when you use direct mail. If you’re a retailer, it’s too easy for your customer to throw away a questionnaire along with the bag and the receipt as soon as he gets home with his purchase. Most people are more likely to answer their mail than a questionnaire casually tossed in among their purchases.
Questionnaires have many uses. Some companies use periodic questionnaires to determine the effectiveness of their advertising and the mood of their customers.
McDonald’s queries the public quarterly. "What’s your favorite fast-food restaurant?" and "Who makes the best french fries?" are typical questions asked. Results are tracked and compared. If any category dips too low, they know they need to bolster their advertising in that area.
However you choose to query your customers, let them know you care. Periodically ask them, "How are we doing?" It’s a great way to build your "care quotient."
The more often you ask, the better you’ll like the responses. And the better you’ll like your bottom line.
Robert Grede, author of Naked Marketing – The Bare Essentials (Prentice Hall), is president of The Grede Company and a part-time faculty member at Marquette University;
Dec. 6, 2002 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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