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Published on September 29, 1997

TURN BUYERS INTO LONG-TERM CUSTOMERS

Getting customers to buy once, twice or even a number of times can be relatively easy, particularly if you beat the competition on price.
But the strategy is often self-defeating. Once the margins become paper thin, how far can you go until the value of the account disappears? Even more importantly, how much time can be spent on nurturing a customer who gives you less than desirable business?

The major task facing businesses today is turning buyers into believers so that customers do business willingly. This isn't a task that can be accomplished with just a few perfunctory attempts to seem interested and concerned.

What is required is a unified effort to communicate to customers a message of continuing commitment. Here are some ways to transform buyers into believers.

1. Be the source of new ideas. Every customer looks for ways to cut costs, increase productivity and do a better job. Position yourself as this resource for customers.

2. Demonstrate that you have expertise. Make sure customers value you for what you know and not just for what you say or sell.

3. Anticipate needs. When you help a customer to consider what should be coming down the road, you're sending the message you're here for the long haul. Assist customers with a plan and you'll be seen as a valuable ally.

4. Display the right image. If you want to be known as the best, then make sure everything you do reinforces a quality feeling. Talking about quality does not resonate with customers if your proposals, materials and brochures send a contrary message.

5. Get to know the customer's business. Don't assume you know what the customer needs if you don't take the time to learn his business. This means more than being able to ``talk the language.'' What's required is grasping the issues facing a company, knowing the industry and recognizing the problems the customer faces.

6. Demonstrate that you're constantly learning. For customers to remain comfortable with you over time, you must demonstrate you are part of a learning organization that is continually becoming more knowledgeable, sophisticated and competent.

7. Take responsibility. The goal is to develop long-term customers. If something is broken, fix it. If it's wrong, make it right. And do it quickly.

8. Communicate clearly. Maintaining a clear understanding with customers is more important than ever. Watch out for e-mail messages, regardless of whether you're sending or receiving them. Most are so poorly written they cause confusion and misinterpretation. Spend time making sure your messages are accurate and understandable.

9. Become part of the customer's business. The goal today is to be viewed as a member of the customer's team. Whether it's called a strategic alliance or partnering, it's all the same. The objective is to create a seamless relationship between yourself and the customer.

10. Be accessible. Today's customers are dependent on their suppliers. This is an advantage, but it's also a responsibility requiring accessibility. Increase the comfort level and you'll simultaneously raise the satisfaction level.

11. Keep an eye out for new trends. Those savvy enough to identify what may become new trends are in demand. Read, listen and put the pieces together. Then, pass along your ideas.

12. Listen. Let the customer do the talking and you'll discover exactly what the customer wants to buy. Only when you have an accurate picture of the customer's issues and concerns can you meet specific needs.

13. Stay in touch. Absence does not make the heart grow fonder. It only makes a competitor look better to the customer. Spend time thinking of ways to stay in contact. The exercise is effective in keeping the customer in your mind, too.

14. Think like a customer. Focus on what pleases you as a customer, as well as what makes you want to do business with someone else. Resist the tendency to believe that what is good for you is also best for your customer.

15. Never decide what a customer wants. Customers want counsel, not conclusions. Offer options and alternatives, pointing out the legitimate strengths and weaknesses of each situation.

16. Practice paranoia. The CEO of a Fortune 500 company has described his success as the direct result of his paranoia. It keeps him engaged, listening and asking questions. He's constantly on edge and his antennae are always working. Adopt this attitude to avoid surprises.

17. If you can't help the customer, say so. The proof of professionalism is the ability to say no. There's no way a company (or a salesperson) can do everything, and customers realize it. Customers want good, trustworthy solutions.

The job is not simply learning how to close more sales, even though getting the order is essential. For most accounts to become profitable, the task involves keeping customers over a period of time. To accomplish this objective, turn buyers into believers.

Mr. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a communications services company based in Quincy, Mass.

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