Close customer relationships have many benefits. Your best customers help you grow revenue and profits, grow referrals and references, and become a loyal customer base that wouldn’t dream of moving to a competitor.
Anyone in management or sales is familiar with reports and statistics showing that a company’s own customers present the best opportunity to drive the business forward with the most gain for the lowest investment. One Bain & Company study found it costs 5-25 times more to gain a new customer than to retain an existing one.
In addition to the financial win of more sales at lower cost, intentionally increasing your focus on your current customers can net you successes that are harder to measure in the moment. These benefits have long tails that can shape your business for years to come:
- More referrals, so even new business comes in at a lower cost of customer acquisition.
- More reference accounts help close more new business. When you have successful case studies from a wide array of geographies, industries and solution areas, you virtually increase the size of your sales team.
- Customers who see the best of you are the ones you want talking with press and analysts about your new company. They're the ones you want on stage at your marketing events or at conferences and tradeshows
- Customers who feel connected to your people and your brand are the ones who will tell it to you straight when you mess up, who will support you on social media and who will keep you from getting in trouble in the first place by giving you good advice from that invaluable outsider perspective
The tips below are by no means a complete list, but if you get started with these 10 steps you will be building a customer-focused operation that will keep your customers coming back to you again and again.
- Know where you are starting
Measure as much as you can so you know where to focus. Do you know your Customer Lifetime Value (average deal size x transaction frequency x average customer tenure)? Are you tracking Net Promoter Score (NPS), a measure of customer satisfaction and likelihood to recommend you to others? How many of your customers are giving you referrals?
- Know where you are going
Set goals and check in regularly. What will serve your business best? More transactions with your current customer base? Talk with sales. Talk with marketing. Talk with customer support. Align your customer closeness goals with your overall strategic plan, and keep measuring.
If you’re not asking how you’re doing, you’re just guessing. A one-question survey after each transaction will tell you your current NPS. More questions can uncover hidden needs, specific feedback and new opportunities. Make sure to get qualitative as well as quantitative feedback — see strategic planning consultant Graham Kenny in HBR: Customer Surveys Are No Substitute for Actually Talking to Customers.
- Be approachable and keep your ears open
Be where your customers are, make it easy to reach you and listen. Social media is mostly used for one-way conversation; how can you encourage dialogue? Get to events, meetups, conferences and tradeshows where your customers are. Let them know you’ll be there and bring the right people to listen, people empowered to act on your customers' behalf when they get back to HQ. And take some swag with you!
- Build community
A client of mine recently earned tremendous loyalty by running happy hour events that built relationships among customers. These customers are early-stage companies who are generally non-competitive with each other. All of them have certain key elements in common, such as being in the middle of fundraising efforts and facing the challenge of driving operational discipline in their young organizations. These customers traded notes on other service provider relationships — bankers, attorneys, consultants, co-working spaces — and gave credit to my client for helping them learn and grow. My client bought loyalty for the price of a bar tab.
- Help them help you
What is your process for requesting referrals at key moments in your customers’ journeys? How well do you capture and share customer success info so you can always find a reference by the right size, industry, geography or type of problem you solved for them?
- Put them on the payroll
Not literally, but you can engage your customers to give you feedback beyond surveys or point-in-time interviews. Customer advisory councils can gather influencers who are not only happy to share their perspective, they often represent the companies that are most willing to beta test and give feedback, talk with press or analysts on your behalf, join an executive from your organization on stage at an event or sit on a panel.
- Show the love
Nearly everybody wants to get a little love from the boss, even if they don’t work for you. When I was at Microsoft, one of the most consistently powerful tools we had for maintaining good contacts or repairing fraying relationships was executive engagement. Your company leaders can align with salespeople, customer success/outcome managers and others to build relationships with key decision-makers. There are as many ways to align as there are parts of the business and steps on the customer journey.
- Know what they want before they do
Ultimately, the best customer communications and most imaginative customer engagement programs will be most successful when your culture supports these efforts. To paraphrase Horst Schulze, co-founder of the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain: Don’t come to work — come to create excellence. Build a culture that values and rewards solving customer problems and the profits will follow. Build systems that capture customer intelligence and you’ll not only serve each customer better, you will serve customer X better because of something you learned about customer Y.
- Say thank you, a lot
Your parents and teachers were all correct. Saying “thank you” is the simplest and possibly most effective sustained thing you can do to gain patience and grace from your customers. When a vendor-customer relationship is working, you are helping your customers achieve their mission and they appreciate the role that you play in their success; it becomes a symbiotic relationship. It’s entirely appropriate to thank them for their partnership, and it's always gratifying to see how much a simple handwritten card is appreciated.
A satisfied customer base is your low-hanging fruit for more sales, easier new sales, better decision-making and strategic planning. A customer-focused culture is the hallmark of a mission-driven organization. More sales with higher profit margins, more referrals and references leading to more new business — there’s no downside to investing in your customer connections. Which of these suggestions will you choose to start with?
What would it take to bring your business to the next level?
About the Author
Bryan Rutberg has spent his career building productive and profitable relationships between organizations and their customers, partners and employees. His clients use audience-focused communications and innovative engagement programs to increase profits and open new possibilities. Bryan is the founder and principal of 3C — The Customer Connection Company. You can reach him at bryan@3Ccomms.com.
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