7 tips on keeping customers for life


By Jeff Wuorio

It's the frozen heart of winter and the pipes in your home are as icy as the arctic air outside. Trying to find a plumber seems less likely than arranging an on-the-fly papal audience.

But not if you're a regular customer of Benjamin Franklin Plumbing, based in Rogersville, Mo. You may be part of the company's "front of the line" program, which means the plumbing shop gives you priority status. You will be the first one called and, if need be, will be serviced the next morning — no waiting in line not knowing when the call will come.

Sound cool? Even cooler than your pipes in winter? Sound like the kind of perk that could make you a lifelong customer? Indeed.

Programs and strategies akin to Franklin's "front of the line" program can be just the thing to transform a one-shot sale into a lifelong customer. Granted, there are scads of ways to do that, but here are seven that may be just the wrinkle that fits your business:

1. Deliver what you're say you're going to do. "If the business can't deliver on basics, then any other steps will be wasted effort," says Ruth Stevens of eMarketing Strategy, a New York consulting company. In other words, don't swing for the fences when you can't even lay down a bunt. It may seem ludicrous, but far too many businesses focus on ways to keep customers, only to lose sight of the fact that their product or service simply isn't what it should be. Make certain that the core of what you do is deserving of long-term customer loyalty, and then look for ways to nurture it.

2. Expect the best. Another stumbling block to establishing customers for life is turning the tables. Many businesses wait for customers to "prove" their worth before they start to take steps to cement the relationship. Instead, approach everyone as a potential lifer: "Don't adopt the mindset that a customer must 'earn' their way into your good graces as a business," says Erin Duckhorn of Crucial Technology, an online memory upgrade provider. "Instead, we assume from the very beginning that this new customer is going to be a long-term loyal customer and treat them as such." By treating your customers respectfully from the start and expecting that they will pay on time — rather than prodding them about payment deadlines before it ever becomes an issue — can engender long-term customer loyalty, Duckhorn says.

3. From there, go beyond the usual. Once the basics are clicking, one way to win a customer for life is to consistently exceed the expected. Establish a baseline of good, and make it policy to climb to better and beyond. For instance, E.D. Foods, an online provider of soups and other food products, wins plaudits for placing orders for items that customers want but can't find in its online catalog. "It's really simple," says co-owner Leslie Eiser. "Have great products and provide customers with service beyond what they were expecting."

4. Watch your customer, not your bottom line. A continuing element of lifelong customer loyalty is more attention to the needs and preferences of your clientele and less on your earnings growth. Of course, profits are crucial. But long-term solvency derives from customers who are also there for the long haul. And that stems from a business which listens in any number of ways. "I've always asked my customers' opinions of new product ideas," says Ellen Cagnassola of MaryEllen's Sweet Soaps, an online soap retailer. "Keeping them a part of the process can inspire them in more ways than one."

5. Nurture lifelong employees. An effective strategy to win long-term clientele doesn't exist in a vacuum. Treat your employees as you would a customer who you want to see year after year. Not only does that encourage staff to also do their bit to entice customer loyalty, it's simply a good idea to maintain a consistent emphasis on a supportive, responsive environment. "Southwest Airlines insists on capitalizing both customer and employee in all of its correspondence," says consultant Rich Gallagher. "As a result, they're a top-rated service quality leader as well as an employer."

6. Make customers want to stick around. Great service or products are terrific, but it never hurts to stack the deck to lure customers into the long-term fold. In Franklin Plumbing's case, that means discounts for repeat customers. For Fern Reiss of PublishingGame.Com, an independent resource for readers, authors and book publishers, it's a 25% discount on updated titles if customers send in the cover of an old title. "Because my books are updated every three to six months, and because the publishing industry changes so quickly, many people who like the book end up re-ordering it on a regular basis," she says. "They get the latest information, for sale — and I get the repeat business."

7. Be picky about your lifelong customers. Saying some people aren't cut out to be lifelong customers seems akin to saying you despise Bambi. But the fact is that some customers are more trouble than they're worth. Monitor what goes into keeping a customer satisfied; if it's too costly or simply too much work, it's probably better to put your lifelong-customer building muscle elsewhere. "Look at your service costs. Some clients mandate expensive sales coverage and some always insist on face-to-face meetings with a sales rep," Stevens says. "If they're a problem, give them a competitor's number or manage the relationship more carefully. But it's a myth to say that everyone should be a lifelong customer."

 
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