The achievement of customer loyalty and retention seems to be the brass ring that nearly everyone in business is striving to reach.
By far one of the most talked-about topics in business today, keeping your customers once you've sold them, is a concept that seems as complicated as it is elusive - everyone wants to do it but very few understand how.
After myriad requests from my own clients as well as magazine and journal editors and professional organizations of service workers, this seems to me to be a code in desperate need of cracking.
The key to retaining your customers, in actuality, is not very complicated.
In fact, it can be quite simple: Customers come to you when they have problems.
In order to both serve them well and keep them coming back, you have to provide better solutions than do your competitors.
"Provide" is the operative word, however.
Any company can tout a mission statement or lofty philosophy of striving to offer effective solutions. Many companies spend millions of dollars advertising how committed to service and solutions they are. Advertising may bring customers in initially but it is only action that keeps them coming back.
The first step on the road to effective customer retention is investing in the right people.
When it comes to choosing your team, skills and experience aren't nearly as important as attitude and interest. Skills can always be taught and experience can always be gained but attitude is inherent.
Everyone on your team must embrace and be striving toward the same goals - being of service to the customer - every hour of every day. The process by which they'll go about doing that is something you can teach them. Their desire to do it, however, is something that comes from within.
It is imperative then to choose your people wisely.
Once you've assembled your team, you'll want to outfit them with high-quality customer service training.
"People are definitely a company's greatest asset," Mary Kay Ash, the founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, once said. "It doesn't make any difference whether the product is cars or cosmetics. A company is only as good as the people it keeps."
This means that everyone in the company who has any contact with customers whatsoever should go through training. If you've ever gone shopping during the holidays and encountered retail staff hired just for the season you can appreciate why it is so important to train everyone to the same level of proficiency.
The frustration and even fury that customers feel when they cannot find a single knowledgeable person with any kind of decision-making authority to do anything more than swipe a credit card for a purchase should be reason enough to get your people trained.
Service reps need to be more than money-takers. Even temporary staff requires proper training so that they can be a help to your valued customers - not a hindrance.
The key element in the training in which you invest should be role playing. No representative can be expected to handle problems and create solutions if they have not had extensive practice doing so.
Within the training, service reps need to be taught to exercise good judgment and take initiative in problem solving. As we well know, customers do not want to hear a script or canned answers when they call with a problem. They want their problem solved, they want to see results - they want action.
In addition to role-playing-centered training, representatives need to be given the latitude to find or develop clever, resourceful and creative win-win solutions to the problems customers face.
They need to have the tools available to offer customers as many options as possible. If they are not given the authority to make certain decisions or offers, they must, instead, have the resources and information available to quickly find the person who does.
By the same token, managers need their hands untied and to be given the authority to make decisions in the best interest of the customer - not just the company.
To that end, company policies must be examined to see if they benefit the needs of customers. If they do not, steps must be taken to adjust them until they reflect this new focus. Many of the outdated business practices still in use today grossly underestimate a new, more sophisticated customer.
Consumers today are smarter, better educated, have access to unlimited information and are more product-savvy than at any other time in history.
Therefore, to win them - and keep them - your company must shift its values and approach to appeal to the needs of these smarter, savvier customers. You must let go of outmoded ideas that company policies should only benefit the company. A policy that benefits the customer will always benefit the company.
As the adage goes, today's customer wants you to "Show, don't tell".
Customers want something measurable - something they can see and touch. Therefore, give them the tangibles they desire.
You can entice them to keep coming back by utilizing a variety of small and relatively inexpensive gestures including incentives, add-ons, discount coupons for future purchases and loyalty discounts.
As we know, common practices such as reciting from a script, passing customers and their problems off to another department or countering a customer's concerns with, "That's not company policy," are not, and will never be, effective ways to retain customers in today's marketplace.
People choose to return to companies whose representatives impress them and serve them well.
They appreciate someone who cares enough to go out on a limb, spend extra time helping and understanding them, who offers compensation as well as incentives, and who can make decisions or who is willing to advocate with a decision-maker on their behalf.
In essence, to keep your customers, you must, above all, keep them happy and toward that end, it is your actions, not your words, which will speak most loudly about your commitment to that goal.
Roy Chitwood is an author, trainer and consultant in sales and sales management and is president of Max Sacks International, Seattle.