Getting customers to buy into your brand is always going to be a challenge, but how do you make sure they return? Verity Gough argues that creating customer loyalty is down to good, old-fashioned common sense.
Competition for customers has never been fiercer and as the battle to attract and retain consumers heats up, small businesses can steal a march on their larger rivals by fine tuning their own customer services. But when it comes to nurturing brand loyalty, where do you begin?
The Wow factor
"Blow them away with legendary, remarkable service," enthuses Robert Craven, managing director of UK-based business consultancy The Directors' Centre. He believes that going the extra mile is the key to keep them coming back for more.
"We are in a world of mediocrity where we are competing with similar products, similar companies, similar people, and similar prices," he explains. "In that world of bland, beige, mediocrity, you have to step up to the mark, be distinctive, smarter, faster, brighter, harder, cleverer, and get closer to the customer. If you are the same as the competition, why should people bother to buy from you?"
Plenty of books have been written about customer service and loyalty, but here are BusinessZone.co.uk's recommendations:
The Richer Way
by Julian Richer
The must-read book by millionaire entrepreneur Julian Richer whose unconventional approach to customer service has been emulated the world over.
How To Market Your Business
by Dave Patten
A practical guide to advertising, PR, selling and direct and online marketing.
The Loyalty Link: How Loyal Employees Create Loyal Customers
by Dennis G. McCarthy
Very well-researched book focusing on internal strategies.
The Best Service Is No Service: How to Liberate Your Customers from Customer Service, Keep Them Happy, and Control Costs
by Bill Price and David Jaffe
Comprehensive book full of tips and advice.
According to Craven, the art of good customer service is about getting under the customers' skin, understanding what their problems are, learning why they bought from you in the first place, and then looking for ways in which to add value to the customer experience - without ending up out of pocket. "Make the customer feel special," he adds, "not just a number - it's really important in the current climate."
Another key element to providing top-notch customer service is to make sure you keep your promises. "Under promise, over deliver," says Dave Patten, author of How to Market Your Business and founder of marketing agency, Merry Marketing. With over 30 years experience in helping small companies boost their sales, he believes the art of good customer service is keeping things simple.
"It's all really obvious stuff but a good trick is to say you will deliver something in 10 days and deliver it in seven so the customer thinks you are wonderful and have beaten your target." But, he warns, "If you can't make your deadline, make sure you tell your customer - communication counts for a lot."
Tips and tricks
There are, of course, many industry sectors such as hotel and catering, for which good customer service is the deal breaker. It's a given that your clientele will expect the best and complain if they aren't getting it. But for the rest of us, what can we do to make sure the customers leave happy, promise to return and tell all their friends about us?
"It's easier to sell more to your existing customers than get new ones because it's easier to foster an established relationship. Introducing new product ranges or improvements to your services is one way of keeping customers engaged," says Patten. "It doesn't matter if your product is niche, often that means it's easier to establish new ranges, but if you serve your core customer base well, then they will remain loyal," he adds.
Today's consumers have ever-increasing demands and higher expectations, so much so that they are often disappointed. Being able to tick the boxes by delivering a remarkable service is all very well but unless you monitor it, how do you know what you are doing is right?
Customer satisfaction (CS) metrics are now big business, in particular for large corporations which will happily invest millions of pounds into pin-pointing exactly why people return. From running surveys to employing mystery customers, using CS metrics is one sure way of knowing what you are doing right, and maintaining it, as well as discovering where you are falling short. "What gets measured gets done," reflects Craven. "So measure the speed of delivery, and people will deliver very, very quickly."
He suggests a good way of understanding the customer experience provided by your company is by mapping it. "Follow every single step, from seeing the advert and visiting the website to making a purchase and receiving a follow-up call. This enables you to compare it to your competitors â are you worse, the same, better or 'wow'? If not, look for things you can add to the experience to improve it and remember, often it's the small uninteresting stuff that matters to customers; in fact, the customer experience for small independent business should be miles ahead of the large lumbering companies."
So what about loyalty schemes and other such initiatives geared towards snaring more customers? Often the domain of big supermarkets and multinationals, the loyalty scheme has been in operation for years. However small companies often feel they are too small to compete.
Patten suggests keeping things simple, such as a stamp on a card each time a customer purchases a product or in the case of a web-based business, voucher codes which can be typed into a box at the checkout.
Newsletters and customer offers emailed out to your database is another good way of making people feel exclusive, providing the offers are worthwhile. This type of customer communication can help create a close-knit community of customers who feel valued and in turn will provide feedback to help you tackle any issues or complaints in a structured and considerate manner.
The human touch
There is no doubt that people like to deal with people. So if you are a web-based company, you may think that once a purchase has been made, your work is done. No so, says Patten. "You have to work even harder," he says. "Offering product tracking like Amazon does is a good way of keeping the customer involved and running a review service like eBay can create a community spirit around your products and get your customers communicating with each other, wherever they are in the world."
"Often it's the small uninteresting stuff that matters to customers; in fact, the customer experience for small independent business should be miles ahead of the large lumbering companies."
Robert Craven, The Directors' Centre
One way of ensuring that customers are engaged is to get the service right from within. If your staff are loyal, then the customers will follow.
"See your staff as your internal customers," advises Craven. "How you treat them gives a very clear message about how they should behave towards customers. Managing their expectations, delivering on your promises and going the extra mile sets up a healthy mindset."
"Product knowledge is also key," adds Patten. "If your staff are up to speed, helpful and understand the customer's needs, it will create ambassadors for your brand, rather than just customers."
There is no black art to creating an environment that encourages customers to return: keeping promises, listening to customers and knowing your market, but not doing it could seriously damage your reputation and cost you business. Fostering loyalty is about seeing things from the customer's perspective, monitoring their experience and improving on areas of weakness. Get this right, and the rest is sure to follow.
This article originally appeared on our sister site, BusinessZone.co.uk