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Spotting Good Customers, Nurturing Great Customers

customer quality improvement

Good customers for good businesses.

Is it really possible to do customer quality improvement?  Can we dream like this?

“I’d really like more good customers.  I dream of having great customers.”

Today we’re going to talk about what good customers can do for our business, describe the good customer, and then discuss a few things we can do help our good customers become great customers.

What Can Customer Quality Improvement do for Us?

First and foremost, good customers inspire us.  Here’s a quote from Waldo Howland’s memoir of his years as the owner of the famous Concordia Company:

“For reasons I don’t fully understand, these built-in advantages we offered had the effect of making the Concordia boatyard and its crew more and more anxious to please, rather than motivating us to seek special advantage from our customers.  With good customers relying on us, it seems we felt compelled to return the confidence.”

If we let them, good customers can inspire us to provide ever more valuable products and better services.  The goal of higher sales and profits can certainly inspire, but the inspiration of good customers always keeps our focus on offering ever-increasing value.

The good customer increases our sales in two ways.  It’s no secret that word of mouth advertising is the best kind.  When our good customer gives us a positive reference and backs it up with a referral, he’s doubled our profits because we didn’t pay advertising or sales costs to get that new business.

Further, when we’ve earned his trust, the good customer comes back to us for products or services that stretch our abilities.  He’s handed us an opportunity to expand, safely, because we can work with our honest, trustworthy good customer to get it right.

The good customer is our canary in the coal mine.  When things don’t go well, our good customer lets us know it, and gives an opportunity to make things right.  (Below you’ll find some advice to good customers about the art of constructive complaining. Our good customer might already know it, but if not, why not gently share with him?  Both of you will be better for it… really.)

Even better, our customer brings us news about our competitors. It’s true… even the best customers feel the urge to confirm their judgement by comparison shopping. Sometimes they’ll bring back the news via a backhanded compliment (“You’re hiding your service light under a bushel…”), and sometimes they’ll bring us a gentle warning (“Are you sure that’s the right price?”). Customer observations are better than any competitive analysis, because they come prefiltered through the customer perspective.

Spotting the Good Customer

Let’s talk about customer quality improvement by starting at the beginning.  What are the essential qualities of the good customer?  We ought to think about this because it would be a shame to let the good customer slip by unnoticed.   Here are the five essential qualities of good customers; if we spot them, we have, at the very least, a diamond in the rough.

The good customer has a need we can fill.   This might sound obvious, but many businesses spend a lot of time force-fitting their mission to their customer, or vice versa.  It’s always hard, sometimes painful, and almost never leaves the customer happy with the result.  Forced fits are almost always the result of (a) a business niche that’s too narrow to attract a critical mass of customers or (b) poor marketing, which brings the wrong, or too few of the right customers through the door.  (That’s a separate challenge.)  Now, I only want to point out that the good customer wants to buy what we want to sell.

The good customer’s buying style meshes with our selling style.  Hard-sell tactics don’t endear us to soft-buy customers… and they don’t usually work, either.  It’s also frustrating for soft-sellers who believe in “touching them lightly” to contend with a hard-nosed buyer’s low-ball initial offer and argumentative negotiating style.  When both sides don’t feel comfortable, there’s little room to develop the mutual respect and trust that’s an important bond with the good customer.  (However… that doesn’t stop us from becoming flexible sellers with a broader skill set to mesh with a wider set of buying styles.)

The good customer is honest with us.  I don’t know how many times I’ve walked out of a store with a different product than I thought I needed… for good reasons.  It usually happens when I’m honest with the sales person.  They’ve probably seen lots of folks like me and understand what I need better than I.  I don’t realize that a different product or different features might better suit my purpose.  Because I was honest, I ended up better served.  My moral is: good customers are those whose needs are truly served, but they make the opportunity by honestly sharing their need with us.

The good customer seeks and trusts our advice.   This is a follow-on to honesty, and two matching golden keys deliver outstanding service.  The customer’s key: after honestly describing their situation, good customers follow-up with questions like “what have I forgotten?” or “can you think of a better way?”  Our business key: everything we did, from the moment the customer introduced themselves, was calculated to build a bond of trust between us.  Now we’re both in a position for us to give good advice and have it accepted.

The good customer has a stake in our business.  What?  In this consumer world of global supply and fully differentiated markets it’s easy to forget that things weren’t always so… but small-town businesses and customers know exactly what I’m talking about.  When we’re in farm country and we’re the only machinery repair shop for fifty miles at harvest time, our customers depending on us to help him bring his crops in.  We fail, he suffers.  We succeed, he harvests and we both celebrate Thanksgiving.  The good customer remembers that mutual need and gives thought to how our business can survive and grow.  (The good business remembers that mutual means “two-way” and gives thought to how its customers can prosper.)

I’ll bet that you know at least one such customer… and probably several.  They may not know it, but they’re very valuable to our businesses.  It’s up to us to help them do right for us.  It’s also up to us, and to our great benefit, to help our good customers become great customers.

Quality Improvement is About Developing Great Customers

Everyone’s writing about developing good customer relationships, building customer loyalty, increasing customer satisfaction, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about a deliberate marketing strategy of customer quality improvement; we can grow great customers. If we find a potential good customer, a diamond in the rough, we can nurture and reinforce their better customer selves.

It all comes down to two words: gentle teaching.  That’s right, our quality improvement mechanism is teaching.

Help them to ask great questions.  It’s so simple to start.  Here are three ways to encourage more and better questions.

After you’ve greeted them by saying “How can I help you today?” you can follow up by saying “I’ve asked you a question, so it must be your turn to ask me a question.”  That old aphorism “there are no dumb questions” isn’t really true; but it’s always, always true that if we treat every question as being clear and honest we help the customer to to ask another one.

At least once during the conversation say “That’s a good question and I don’t know the answer to it.” It’s a great leveler. In a few words you’ve established that (a) you know you don’t know everything and (b) they’re getting smart about the purchase.

If you sense that the conversation is wandering, you can always say “I was expecting you to ask me about…”. It’s a convenient way to introduce another consideration or gently nudge the customer to voice their objections. (Savvy old-time sales professionals always remind me that the silent objection is the one you can’t overcome.)

I’ve found, over many years, that customers who ask a lot of questions end up sharing a lot about themselves.  That can only help us satisfy their real needs and wants.

Help them to see the value.  Time after time, I’ve watched knowledgable, satisfied customers step up to help others.   It’s a joy to see them sharing their experience and making suggests to would-be buyers. Every one of them has the advantage of credibility,   The best combine an infectious enthusiasm with real, deep product knowledge.  It’s a powerful combination.

Real, deep product knowledge… that’s where we can nurture our good customers.  It can start with the explanations we give them when they buy.  It can continue when we include brochures, spec sheets and third party evaluation articles with their purchase.  Later, if they agree, we can send them other customers’ stories via newsletters or other updates.  We can invite them back to the shop or factory to watch craftsmen and talk with them.  In all this, customers come to understand our products and services from the bottom up and the inside out.

Help them to give high quality feedback.  Here’s Paul Hawken’s list of suggestions on how to be a give high quality feedback as a good customer. I think it should be included with every good customer’s repeat order.  Just imagine how much we’d learn if every one of our customers gave us great insight into our business.

Complain.  If you don’t, who will? It takes only a minute, you will feel better, and the company will benefit.
Praise.   This is just as important as criticism. It spurs the business to reward creative and constructive work.
Be articulate.  You know what you want, the company may not. Be as specific as you can about what you want and spell it out, simply and clearly.
Demand quick service.  There is no excuse for slow service today. Technology allows any company to process orders or problems within twenty-four hours. Don’t believe otherwise.
Be quick yourself.  If something is wrong, pounce. Don’t wait four months. After a delay, the company will have a harder time believing you.
Be kind.   When you reach the company, assume that the voice on the other end is a human being like yourself. Let him or her have the pleasure of helping you. If that doesn’t work…
Be persistent.  If necessary, go upstairs. Then go higher. In many companies, the top has no idea what mayhem transpires below.

There’s an old hiring saying that goes “first raters hire first raters; second raters hire third raters.”  The best customers cultivate and refer people just like them.

One more thing.  Great customers tend to be great customers wherever they buy.  That means that a lot of our business friends will benefit from their business, too.  It doesn’t take much imagination to visualize a network of businesses getting better and expanding because they were drawn on by a cadre of great customers.  Wouldn’t it be grand?  That’s why customer quality improvement is so powerful.  It can be shared.

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