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Published on January 19, 1998

PUT YOURSELF IN CUSTOMERS' SHOES

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Take off your ``business expert'' hat for a few minutes, put on your ``customer'' hat and ask yourself a few questions: As a customer, what must a business like yours do to earn your recommendation? What great things must happen for you, as a customer, to recommend this product or service to your family or to your friends?

How must these customer contact personnel treat you to gain your trust and confidence? What must the areas that you see here look like to you, the customer? Do customer areas show respect for you as a customer, as a guest? Are they arranged to please the customer or the business owner?

Unfortunately, too many business people are so involved in the day-to-day activities of running their companies they sometimes overlook their customers' needs and wants. Essentially, they do not see their businesses through the eyes of a customer.

They are so busy watching the engine run that they are not paying attention to the fuel needed to run it—their customers' financial support. Without repeat and new customers, a business chokes, sputters and eventually dies.

Because your primary purpose in business is to get and keep customers, your mission statement could be stated as follows:

The purpose of our business is the customer. If whatever I am doing at this moment is not customer-focused, I shouldn't be doing it.

However, more important to you than your customers are your people, who represent you to your customers. If they don't treat your customers the way that customers want to be treated, you will lose the customers' financial support.

Therefore, make up your mind that an investment in your people is more important than your buildings and equipment. A competitor with the same equipment is not a threat if your people are better trained to run your equipment.

The same is true with building strong customer relations. If your customer contact personnel possess and use stronger interpersonal skills than your competitor's, there is no contest.

Your people must also feel a part of the business—not just be wage earners. Ask them to share with you their personal goals. Integrate them with your business goals. This way, you and your people will be aiming at the same target, embracing the same passion and sharing in the ultimate result.

The ``process'' you undertake is the result of your well-thought-out purpose and the people you have selected and trained to help you develop and evolve it. And it all focuses on customer referral.

The first thing to establish within your organization is that the best source of customers is your customers. A referral from a person who has been there and enjoyed it is far more likely to bring you more serious customers than blanket advertising. Ads only present choices. A friend's recommendation is half the sale.

Are you good enough to make each customer feel that you will not let them down when they send their friends to you?

These three steps will guide you through the referral process:

Get them there. Present yourself and your business properly to the market you want to serve. It's difficult to be all things to all people. Focus on what your market needs, what you do best, and be the best at it.

Think like your customer. Whether it's your storefront, your delivery truck, your business card, your letterhead, your attitude or your appearance, the customer is forming an opinion of you and your people that will last until he or she gives you a chance to change it. First impressions can be a concrete block shackled to your ankle or the first stepping stone toward a lasting relationship.

Prepare the stage for your presentation. While your ``business external''—your signage, parking area, landscaping etc.—should say, at a glance, what you do, your ``business internal''—including restrooms, waiting area, showroom—must be a nicer place for your customers to visit than any of your competitors.

Advertise if you must to get customers there, but realize future advertising funds can be used to support your efforts in the sales referral process.

If your business is fast service, then set up your customer areas to look, feel and be fast—and friendly. If your service is one that takes some time to complete and your customers normally must wait, make your customer area a place they'll tell their friends about.

Remember, it's not what's right or wrong, it's what the customer perceives to be true that counts.

Next: How to ascertain your customers' needs—and keep them coming back.

John J. Jennings is a New Haven, Conn.-based business and personal development coach. He operates the Jennings Enterprise and is an associate of The Essex Group, a business consulting organization.

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