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3 Ways To Keep Your Best Customers

You've got three ways to keep your best customers on board. Here's how to manage each.
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In my last column, we discussed three types of customers, categorized by the type and strength of the attachment they have to your company. The biggest category, the “brain” customers, are the most analytical folks, and the ones you need to pay the most attention to.

What you need to do is simple. Accomplishing it is not. You need to have a conversation with your ‘brain’ customers that will address their concerns. Then you need to provide them with the “strokes,” or incentives, that will convince them to stay.

This is tricky. These customers don’t want to feel as if you’ve convinced them to do a certain thing. They want to make their own decisions. So your ‘conversation’ has to be conducted passively rather than actively. It’s not as if you can simply send someone a coupon in the mail. If you’re in an industry where it’s relatively easy to make comparisons between brands, and where customers don’t have strong attachments, your job just got a lot harder. 

There are three large buckets of benefits that you can manage to try to reach and convince these customers. I call them:

1. Where’s the beef?

To borrow from Clay Christensen, the question here is how well does the product or service do its job? You’ll be judged on two metrics: the price/value equation (is it worth it?) and the cost of alternative solutions (where else can I find it?). You should do whatever you can, as quickly and as often as possible, to bolster and improve the customer’s perceptions in these two areas. 

2. Where’s the heat?

The more “heat” or, more accurately, the more friction that is built into your systems and processes, the more likely that there will be direct and negative customer reactions. Anything that takes too much time, requires repetition, or seems to serve only your interests is a risk to your business. Customers buy for their reasons, not ours. Radio Shack has a pretty strong and flexible automatic return policy, but if you want a cash refund, you need to give them your phone number. That’s good for them, because it helps prevent internal fraud. But for a lot of customers, it seems like gross overreaching and defeats the whole salutary basis of the general policy. The customer doesn’t work for us.

Sometimes, businesses don’t even really understand the “job” that the customer wants done. Inadvertently, they make things harder or more expensive than they need to be. Customer loyalty punch cards are a well-intentioned retention device, but they were often more frustrating than rewarding to customers. How many half-punched cards can we jam in our wallets? Encouraging customers to consolidate their spending with you and return often is the holy grail, but only if the process is as painless as possible.

3. Who’s your Mama?

At the end of the day, everything in business is about relationships. The greater the connection and relationship that you can build with each and every customer, the longer you’ll keep them.  Save me time or money, or make me more productive, and it’s going to take a very substantial and persuasive argument to make me walk away. Nine times out of 10, price alone won’t do it. The impression of “belonging”; being a coveted or top-tier customer; or receiving special perks can all improve your connection with the customer.

The best customers are those that “never come up for air” to look at competitors. That’s because you’ve satisfied their past needs and their present requirements, and you’ve anticipated their future desires.

Last updated: Dec 11, 2012

HOWARD TULLMAN | Columnist

Howard Tullman is the CEO of 1871 in Chicago where, at the moment, 260 digital startups are building their businesses every day. He is also the general managing partner of G2T3V, LLC and Chicago High Tech Investors – both early-stage venture funds; a member of Mayor Emanuel’s ChicagoNEXT Innovation Council; and Governor Quinn’s Illinois Innovation Council. He is an adviser to many technology businesses and an adjunct professor at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management. @tullman

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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