I have a routine I follow with people who visit me at my company in Brooklyn. When they have to leave, I put on my jacket and walk them to their cars. Often the visitors will say, "Oh, that's not necessary. You're too busy. I can find my own way."
I say, "No, it is necessary, and I'll explain why on the way down." Then I tell them about my meeting with King Hussein of Jordan. It was eight years ago, during a trip that had been arranged by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, on whose board of directors I serve. The king had invited us to see his country and to meet with him and his wife, Queen Noor. Seven board members -- led by Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center -- had traveled to Amman, thecapital of Jordan. We'd been there a few days, taking tours in limousines provided by our host, when word came that the king was ready to see us.
Our chauffeurs drove us to the royal compound at the appointed hour, and we were shown to a room in one of the buildings on the property. In the center of the room was a large, oblong table with a chair at the head for the king. As we awaited his arrival, the chief of protocol arranged us in a sort of receiving line. A few minutes later, King Hussein, Queen Noor, and their entourage showed up, and the introductions began. Working his way down the line, the king greeted each of us by name. "Oh, Mr. Brodsky," he said when he came to me. "You're a businessman from New York, I understand."
I had two reactions. First, I was deeply flattered. It made me feel warm and fuzzy all over to think that the king of Jordan knew who I was and what I did. Second, I was floored. I figured he must have 20 or 30 such meetings a week. Did he prepare for each one as he'd obviously prepared for ours?
Following the introductions, we took seats around the table and for the next hour or so chatted with the king and queen. Finally the king said, "I'm terribly sorry, but I have another appointment that I must go to now. I want to thank you all for coming. Please enjoy the rest of your visit to my country. Let me show you to your cars."
Now I'd never been shown to my car by a head of state before. King Hussein strolled along, talking with us, as we went down a hallway and descended a flight of stairs. Outside, in front of the palace, he stopped to let us take pictures before sending us on our way. "This is unbelievable," I said to the chief of protocol.
"What's unbelievable?" he said.
"The king walking us to our cars," I said.
"It's only common courtesy," he said.
I thought about that for days. If it was only common courtesy for a king to walk me to my car, and only common courtesy for him to find out who I was before we met, couldn't I do as much for people who came to see me? King Hussein had made me feel about him and his country exactly the way I want my customers to feel about me and my company -- warm and fuzzy. I want to send the message that I care about them personally. That's how you develop long-term relationships. Now, when people I don't know come to visit, I make sure that I have some background information about them, just enough to establish a bridge. And at the end of our meeting, I walk them to their cars.
I'm often asked where my business ideas come from, and that's a pretty good example. I pick them up wherever I go. Here's another example:About seven years ago, I found myself in Princeton, N.J., and I decided to check out a local clothing store. I hate to shop, but I love to watch salespeople in action. The salesman who waited on me at the Princeton store was one of the best I'd ever seen. He wasn't pushy; he had a friendly, easygoing manner; he made me feel as though he really cared about having me look my best. I'm a finicky clothing shopper, but when I get a good salesperson, I'll buy anything, whether I need it or not. In this case, I bought two suits and a sport jacket, which I had shipped to my office.
Three days later, I received a note from the salesman, thanking me for coming in, expressing his pleasure at helping me, inviting me to let him know if he could be of service in the future. It wasn't a form letter. It wasn't computer-generated. It was a personal, handwritten message.
"Isn't this fabulous?" I said to my wife, Elaine.
"We have to start doing this," she replied. Ever since, she has written personal notes, by hand, to all of our new customers, welcoming them to the company and urging them to contact either one of us directly should the need arise.
Some people, I know, will question the importance of such gestures. Customer relationships are based on price, service, and benefits, they'll say. If you can't compete on those issues, you're not even in the game. I don't disagree, but there's more to a long-term relationship than the basics. Anyone can match, or beat, your price and benefits, and everyone promises great service. If you want to hold on to customers, you have to do more. You have to give them reasons to stay. One of the best reasons is that they like you, trust you, and want to do business with you. You create those bonds by doing the little things that build loyalty and trust -- calling customers, visiting them, caring about them, treating them as well after five or 10 years as you did when the relationship was new.
It's also important to avoid alienating customers unnecessarily. Business owners shouldn't have to be reminded of this, but it happens more often than you'd expect. A few years ago, Elaine and I were in Louisville for a conference and wanted to have dinner at a good restaurant. On the recommendation of the hotel concierge, we went to a place that turned out to be terrific. The food was great, the setting romantic, and the service phenomenal. Then I got the bill.
"If it was common courtesy for a king to walk me to my car, couldn't I do as much for people who come to see me?"
The price of the meal was, in fact, quite reasonable, but there was one charge that leaped out at me. I'd had my usual drink, Beefeater on the rocks. According to the bill, I owed $7.50 for the Beefeater -- and an additional $1 for the rocks. I had never heard of restaurants charging for ice, and I was curious. I called the waitress over. "Is there a problem?" she asked.
"I think so," I said. "Are you charging me for ice?"
"No, no," she said. "When we put ice in the glass, we have to give you more liquor. We're charging you for the extra liquor."
That made no sense to me. When I put ice in a glass, there's less room for liquor, not more. Besides, why call attention to the matter? Who would ever know the difference? I asked to speak to the manager. "I understand there's a problem," she said.
"Yes," I said. "I don't understand this ice charge. If you want to charge me $8.50 for the drink, fine. But why should I pay extra for ice?"
"The waitress explained it to you," she said.
"What the waitress told me makes no sense," I replied. "If I ordered Beefeater straight up and then asked for a glass of ice on the side, would you charge me $7.50?"
The manager was completely taken aback. I guess no one had asked the question before. After stammering for a moment, she said, "I'm sorry. That's our policy." Then she turned and walked away.
I paid the bill and left a generous tip, but over the next three days I must have told the story to 50 people. I didn't say how great the dinner was, or how wonderful the atmosphere. I talked about having to pay for ice. For a silly charge that constituted less than 1% of my total bill, the restaurant had turned a positive interaction into a negative one.
And that's the lesson: Don't let your policies drive a wedge between you and your customers. After all, every company has policies that seem reasonable in theory but that can cause confusion in real life. In my storage business, for example, our contracts allow us to add a 2% surcharge to bills that aren't paid within 15 days. We use the surcharge to encourage faster payments, and it works. Since we began enforcing it, our cash flow has improved, and we've reduced collection fees. But occasionally customers complain that their accounting systems don't allow them to process invoices quickly enough to pay within 15 days. For those customers, we waive the surcharge.
There is, of course, no mystery in any of this. It's simply a matter of treating customers the way you would want to be treated. And you don't have to look far for tips on how to do that better. Just pay attention to your own experiences as a customer -- or, if you're lucky enough, as the guest of a king.
Norm Brodsky (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a veteran entrepreneur whose six businesses include an Inc. 100 company and a three-time Inc. 500 company. This column was co-authored by Bo Burlingham. Previous Street Smarts columns are available online at www.inc.com/keyword/streetsmarts.