After a company survives its first few years of operations, priorities shift from getting customers to keeping and growing its clientele. While the Small Business Association estimates that half of businesses fail during the first five years, it’s easy for things to go south for an organization approaching middle age.
For smaller organizations, stagnation is often attributable to a failure to differentiate from the competition. Business owners going through the motions of running their stores day-to-day are destined to forfeit market share to competitors that either outcompete or disrupt them entirely.
While it’s tough or even impossible at times to compete on the basis of price, a business can always make a better effort to improve customer relationships. Successfully forging and managing these over the years can help a business survive the driest of sales spells.
Here’s four techniques I’ve seen work for a small business entering its thirty-first year of operations.
1. Handwritten Thank You’s & Tactical Direct Mail
In an age where most communication is conducted online, it may seem aggressively idiotic to engage with customers using physical mail. It’s increasingly expensive to spend, takes time to assemble, and has dismal response rates. Right?
While the first two concerns levied are valid, the last is not always necessarily true. By sending mail that doesn’t scream “advertisement,” you greatly increase the chance that someone will take the time to open your letter and consider its contents.
In particular, people appreciate it when you acknowledge their support or patronage. “Thank you” are two words that people probably don’t hear enough during the day. As a result, it stands out when a business shows their gratitude in a sincere, personalized manner.
For added customization, you can also consider addressing envelopes by hand for select recipients. In an ideal world, everyone gets this treatment – but you may not have the time or interest in doing this work for everyone. My recommendation is to provide greater levels of personalization for customers who spend above a certain threshold or were memorable in another manner.
You can also condition customers to welcome repeat mailings if you pair a thank you with a coupon that grants them a small discount on some of their favorite items.
While discounts and thank you cards can be digitally distributed online in a fraction of the time, bear in mind that most inboxes are inundated with messages daily. As physical mail volumes decline, it’s easier to stand out in physical mailboxes if you craft a distinctive direct mail campaign.
2. Recognizing customers online and in-person
In the perennial classic, “How To Win Friends and Influence People,” Dale Carnegie advises people to make people feel important. These days, there is no shortage of ways to accomplish this task in both the digital or physical realms.
When you walk into my father’s store, you’ll quickly notice photographs nicely adorn every inch of wall not taken up by products. Each features a hot rod owned by a customer, often right after they’ve made a purchase at the store. While visiting the shop, I’ve seen longtime customers come in and search for their picture on the wall to make sure it’s still there.
When someone has a sense of belonging, they’re much less likely to stray from a brand unless you’re losing badly on price or another key factor. Why shop elsewhere when a company recognizes your role in its success?
If your business lacks a physical location, it takes little effort to create a dedicated customers page on a website where you can feature satisfied clients. A little recognition online goes a long way for some people – it can give them the same excitement that a child might feel if he or she were featured on the local news.
To compound this recognition effect, consider hosting competitions on your social media pages. Competitions on platforms like Facebook can easily solicit participation when you dangle a small prize for people to win. If your brand is sufficiently established enough, the prize can be free (e.g. featuring somebody on your homepage for a week).
Of course, monetary incentives or product discounts are generally most effective, but you don’t necessarily need to use either every time. In fact, changing prize types is a good idea as it often changes the composition of competitors; it gives you an idea of who values what and which reward motivates the masses the most.
My father’s business has a customer base that’s rather tight-knit – many have gotten to know each other over the years at racing tracks. To capitalize on their camaraderie and competitive spirit, his competitions take the form of Facebook posts challenging followers to guess the car featured in a photo. The car featured almost always belongs to a customer, past or present. In fact, his source material is often the photos that he keeps on the wall in-store! Others were from his personal collection built over the years.
Seeing which customers engage online in these sorts of competitions will allow you to determine prime targets for direct mail campaigns, as suggested above. If they’re already interacting with your brand and company online, it’s likely that they won’t ignore a deal and thank you that you send to their mailbox.
It goes without saying, but good customers are one of the greatest assets to a business - doubly so if it’s small and growing. Satisfied clients will sing your praises for free and facilitate the organic growth coveted by all businesses. Don’t lose them.
Another great way to recognize people, should you see them in-person, is simply greeting them by name and remembering conversations. Carnegie noted that there’s no sweeter sound to a man’s ear than his or her name. Keep that in mind when engaging them on the phone or through e-mail, too.
If your business has expanded to the point where you do not greet customers, make sure that those on your frontlines follow this advice.
3. Seeking customer feedback on everything
The customer isn’t always right, but it’d be wrong to not consider their opinions as a whole when looking to implement larger changes to your business.
To make people feel important, regularly collect and value their input – even if it’s patently wrong. While you’ll sometimes receive suggestions that make little sense, you can also get some great insight sometimes for free while demonstrating a sincere interest in customers’ needs and wants.
If there are repeated issues that arise when people review your company, make a conscious effort to address them publicly and demonstrate how you are working to resolve them in a timely manner. Again, social media platforms are tremendous tools that allows companies to maintain open lines of communication when things go wrong. Use them!
As a shopper, I’m always impressed when a storeowner or company representative takes a time to address all reviews – negative and positive. Even if they don’t completely rectify the issue, I think companies get proverbial points for trying; many simply don’t care enough to ameliorate any bad situation.
Instead, they pad their business with fake reviews. Don’t engage in a slimy practice of this sort – valid criticism will eventually take its toll; you’ll have wasted your time with this sort of endeavor and will look fake in the process.
Just as transparency is rewarded, so too is deception punished.
Getting actionable feedback can be difficult depending on the industry. As a consumer, I’m generally not inclined to provide companies feedback even when a small reward is offered like a discount or free add-on item. A free donut or soft drink or taking a survey isn’t worth it – my time is worth more than $2 or so in goods.
If many of your customers share a similar mindset, consider gathering opinions in a more personal, targeted manner. Instead of attaching a survey at the end of every receipt, simply ask people in person – if you’re online, write them a personal e-mail.
Getting a message from the founder of a company or from an employee is often enough to get people to share a valuable thought or two. Feedback often arises naturally through dialogue, which is started more often by companies that care sincerely for customers.
If people give you a suggestion that works or is ultimately implemented, be sure to thank them – the second point in this post (recognition) can often open up chances to get feedback.
4. Delivering consistently
Integrity. Quality. Cutting-edge.
For better or for worse, businesses seem to draw from a narrow list of trite adjectives to describe their core values. That said, a common one of these descriptors is actually key to making a business thrive.
Very often, customers you’ve treated well will reward you by returning. What a company chooses to do when that person comes back is what separates the good from the bad. Organizations in decline will take this repeated patronage for granted, whereas their better counterparts will meet this chance for another sale with the same zeal they gave previously.
Associates at my father’s store over the years implicitly follow a process that predictably leads to the best results for customers. While it’s hard to distill every ingredient for this success in a sentence, winning a sale often comes down to the following:
In their own ways, my father’s colleagues and associates on the floor wove those three aspects into a customer experience that was almost always positive – even if the store didn’t get the final sale.
Believe it or not, some customers who were recommended to go elsewhere eventually came back when they needed something the store. When asked why they came back, many say it was because they appreciated honesty and clarity in every interaction.
Beyond providing reliable customer service, it’s also imperative that goods delivered or services rendered match customer expectations.
Expectations are elevated when you’ve already demonstrated competence, so there’s a small margin for error when dealing with repeat customers. View each returning buyer as another rock in your foundation – as an opportunity to cement your brand in your community and beyond. In my life, I’ve found that getting to the top isn’t the hard part.
It’s staying there.