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"How you treat your smallest customer is the true measure of your success and your values." -Dave Lavinsky, President of Growthink, Inc. and Guiding Metrics

Today, there is no such thing as a price or product advantage; as the old song goes, "Anything you can do, I can do better." If you compete with low costs, competitors slash theirs. If you have the most innovative gadget, knock-offs will be hot on its heels. The only way to gain - and maintain - a competitive advantage is through people. Your customers are your edge; don't dull it by neglecting small and mid-level accounts.

Seeing Beyond the Invoice

In showbiz, they say, "There's no such thing as a small part." In business, there's no such thing as a small customer. According to Vistage, "This is the era of increasing customer empowerment." Excellent customer service isn't a bonus. It's a must-have, and that extends to those in the "middle of the pack" as much as it does to the high-ticket accounts.

Dave Lavinsky writes, "Focusing your attention on your smallest customer reveals that you care for all the people aligned to your business. This speaks to your integrity and it creates a foundation for very strong customer loyalty." And this can have powerful, bottom-line, results. Consider these statistics:

  • Loyal customers are worth up to 10 times as much as their first purchase.
  • The odds of converting a new prospect are between five and 20 percent. The chances of selling to an existing customer: 60 to 70 percent.

Satisfied mid-range customers may not bring in millions, but they will - if engaged properly - bring in consistent, and consistently healthy, sales. The question is how do you engage them?

Leverage Technology

Tools from email to social media to SMS offer powerful - and relatively low-cost - avenues to interact with customers. But, as Brandon Evans writes in Fast Company, "Customers don't want ads, they want a conversation." Companies need to "shift from marketing 'at' consumers to marketing 'with' consumers.'

Open the lines of communication. Educate customers about your industry and solutions and ask for their feedback. According to Vistage, "Invite suggestions, ideas, and complaints." One of your most powerful tools are questions: ask what people enjoy about your products/services. Ask about what you could do better. Ask about your customers' interests and needs (even if outside your offerings).

Be prepared for an onslaught before you do this. How are you going to monitor posts, mentions, and buzz on social media? How will you acknowledge - if not answer questions and comments? Create a plan to post, monitor, and respond across all your platforms. Also consider investing in customer relationship management (CRM) technologies to help you interact and track customer engagement and facilitate strategic improvements.

Promote Valuable Feedback

Show your customers that you're listening - rather than just trying to curry favor by appearing to listen. When customers make suggestions that result in positive changes to your practices or operations, promote that. Tell your customer community that you're committed to improving your service and offerings.

Reach Out

Select three mid-level customers and make an effort to visit (or at the least, call personally). I suggest asking the following questions:

  • What do customers think of your company?
  • Are they satisfied with your service? What about happy?
  • What do they think of your competitors?
  • What could you do to make their lives/work easier?
  • Do they fully understand your products, services, and materials?
  • Do they have any questions for you? How about suggestions?

Besides addressing critical areas, this will help mid-level customers feel appreciated and included in key business decisions.

Survey Says...

Surveys are valuable sources of data - with traditionally poor response rates. Increase the odds that your valued customers will return data by offering an incentive. Offer even bigger bait if they're willing to chat with a customer service representative (or executive) about their answers.

Online technology makes this fast and easy; SurveyMonkey, SurveyGizmo, SoGoSurvey, and other tools allow you to create engaging surveys that people can complete quickly and conveniently. This, as much as incentives, is the key to success.

Rethink Your Complaint Process

According to the White House Office of Consumer Affairs, a dissatisfied customer tells between nine and 15 people about their poor experience. Thirteen percent tell 20 or more. And then there are the tweets, Facebook posts, and YouTube videos that go viral.

Bill Gates said, "Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning." To prevent backlash - and to improve your offerings and service - listen to them. Try contacting the last 10 customers who complained about your business. Ask what the problem was and how it was initially addressed. If they're not satisfied with how they were treated, how can you address the situation?

Also ensure that you respond to complaints in a timely and appropriate manner across channels (e.g. on your website or social media pages). Letting a minor issue fester can create a much larger problem. A proper, and respectful, response can turn an angry customer into a loyal brand advocate, so get it right.

Make Your Customer Service the Stuff of Legends

Say you're a FedEx employee, committed to doing a great job. A blizzard has just knocked out the telecom system of a local branch, leaving it without a way to communicate with its customers. The storm also rendered roads to the mountaintop location impassable so delivery of a necessary part seems out of the question.

Naturally, you pull out your AmEx, rent a helicopter, jump onto the snow-covered mountain, trek nearly a mile in knee- and chest-deep snow, deliver the parts, and restore telephone service.

This story has become a legend, and that's exactly what resonates with people. Maybe your salespeople never jumped from a helicopter - but what have they done to go above and beyond for customers? Remember, customers don't want ads; they want conversations - and stories. What narrative does your organization have to share?

Entrepreneur and author Tony Allesandra once said, "Being on par in terms of price and quality only gets you into the game. Service wins the game." Are you winning? What do you need to do to get - and stay - ahead of your competition?


Larry Hart

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