Atlanta Business News 1:05 p.m. Friday, March 19, 2010

Develop army of loyalists

Cost-cutting alone won't work for the future. Personalize, hustle and "be your own customer" to build free marketing

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For The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Every day, I speak with talented business leaders who are stuck in a recessionary holding pattern.

To cope with narrowed profit margins and what feel like diminished horizons, they have shifted their energy and talent toward cost-cutting and retrenchment --- avoiding even the slightest whiff of initiative. In the long run, this stance takes a real toll.

Here's a better approach for hard times: Refocus your company's energy on converting your customers into an army of true company loyalists. This shift in strategy is creative, affordable for a company of any size and makes superb business sense. It positions your company for growth --- growth that can improve your balance sheet even before the national recovery is complete, and can be reliably sustained long afterward.

With so much else to worry about during these rough times, why focus on customer loyalty? Because of the dramatic contribution that loyal customers offer. They're forgiving of your foibles. They cling to their relationship with your company even if offered a cheaper price across the street. And they become your pro bono marketing team, sharing their good opinions of you with the world.

For all these reasons, loyal customers provide a staggering financial and competitive advantage. Creating an army of loyal customers doesn't happen overnight. But it's easy to begin the process. Here are five steps to get your customers squarely in your corner:

1. Personalize all encounters with customers: Even the electronic encounters.
To wildly misquote classic rocker Bob Seger, a customer hates feeling like an anonymous, interchangeable account ID number.This is true face to face, and it's true in online interactions as well.So, to build customer loyalty, it's essential to get past the misconception that online service equals impersonal service. For example, avoid sending e-mails to your customer list from a "please do not respond to this message" e-mail box. Instead, work with an IT expert to allow any recipient of your mass e-mails to respond to your message and reach an actual individual at your company.

2. Be aware of each returning customer's individual preferences and circumstances.
Strive to achieve the personal impact of a beloved mom-and-pop operator --- you know, one of those who make it clear they know each customer's individual preferences and life circumstances.Of course, quite unlike Mom and Pop, if you're running a larger company, you'll need to rely on computerized preference tracking systems to help you recognize each of your customers.The best of these systems, implemented properly, can work beautifully and can be adapted to any size or type business.

3. Choose your words wisely --- companywide.
Develop and implement a set of vocabulary words and expressions that give your customers a consistent sound scape they can depend on --- and excise the language that doesn't.For example, customers won't find it jarring at an informal company such as Bose or Best Buy if a clerk uses quasi-surfer lingo like "no worries!" But the phrase will sound strikingly off-brand coming from the staff of a five-star hotel.Even more importantly, weed out vocabulary phrasing that is likely to harm customer feelings.

4. Be your own customer. Literally.
We have all visited businesses that give the impression that no living employee has ever been a customer there: hotels where the should-be blackout curtains have never actually met each other in the middle; luxury-car showrooms with bitter coffee in the customer lounge; electronics resellers with online shopping carts that crash endlessly. All these issues would likely get fixed --- and pronto --- if these companies had actual feedback from employees who had experienced these indignities from a customer's point of view. So, find a way to have your own business' services and products regularly used and tested by your employees, in addition to the other surveying and testing procedures you use.

5. Do the hustle.
Modern customers expect speedier service than did any generation before them. In service and product delivery today, you might as well not show up if you're going to show up late --- and "late" is defined as later than the customer expected. With the wolf howling outside the door of your business, it can be hard to find the will to concentrate on customer loyalty, especially at first. But building loyalty becomes habitual with practice, and the payoffs are extremely motivating: Businesses with loyal customers are uniquely positioned to survive in challenging times like these. And they easily outpace competitors during good times, including the ones that --- fingers crossed --- are just around the bend.

Micah Solomon is an entrepreneur, business leader and author. He's also the founder of "The College of the Customer" Web site.

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