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6 Signs You're Failing to Put Your Customers First

While you paid attention to running your business day-to-day, your focus on customers may have slipped. Here's how to get it back.

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You built your business--and found success--on how well you serve your customers, right? Maybe so. But in the day-to-day crush of getting things done, most business owners and managers let their attention drift away from customers, according to Joseph Callaway, co-author with his wife JoAnn of the bestselling book "Clients First." The Callaways, known as "Those Callaways," have sold more than $1 billion in real estate, and he says they did it by keeping customers front and center, even though that can be hard to maintain.

Does your current strategy involve any of the following six principles? If the answer is yes, it's time to reorient your priorities.

1. You're laser-focused on profits.

Yes, your business needs to be profitable to survive. But, "The money comes from customers," Callaway points out. "Sam Walton used to say there was only one person who could fire everyone in his company including Walton, and that was the customer."

Some companies try to focus on maximizing revenues, promoting their brands, and other goals, and the customer becomes just one of many considerations, he adds. Keeping the company front and center will make you more successful, he says, because it's the only way your company can grow. "Some people try to cut their way to abundance but it never works," he says. "The only way you can grow is by increasing the number of customers."

2. You let the little things slide.

When you first landed customers you took lots of extra time to make sure everything was as perfect as you could make it. You communicated all the time. Are you still putting in that same effort?

"Often, just as in a marriage, it's the little things not the big things that erode a relationship," Callaway says. It's important to keep the same level of service and engagement. "We have a rule here: We don't go home with any calls unreturned," he says. "That's an easy thing to do in business--'Oh, I'll call him them tomorrow.' But by tomorrow that customer has been anxious and frustrated overnight from not hearing back."

3. If it ain't broke, you don't fix it.

Following this bit of conventional wisdom can destroy your forward momentum, Callaway says. "You won't innovate," he says. Instead, he advises, always be looking for ways to do things better. "If you take the position that if it's not broke you won't fix it, your business will stagnate and your competitors will blow past you," he says.

Callaway believes business owners who say things like, "I'm happy right where I am," should be especially concerned. "If you think by being complacent and not doing anything your business will stay still, it won't," he says. "Businesses slip when you don't think about moving forward. If you don't go forward, you're going backward. There's no such thing as a business that isn't moving."

4.  Your philosophy is that the customer is always right.

They're not, and when you see a customer acting against his or her own interests, you must say something, Callaway advises. "If you're operating a sporting goods store and a man comes in and says, 'I want this lure,' and you ask where he'll be fishing and he tells you and you know those lures won't work well there, you better tell him. Because if he goes fishing using those lures and doesn't catch anything, the chances he'll come back to your store are slim."

5. You avoid problem customers.

"Not everyone is wonderful," Callaway says. "A lot of customers are challenging and a few are what we call 'evil people.'" He adds that his business has seen about half a dozen of those in 15 years, and still works with them whenever they call.

Many business experts (including me) recommend firing bad customers in order to focus more attention on the better customers--the ones who really help make your business a success. Callaway strongly disagrees. "I think that's the road to the poorhouse," he says. "You have to serve every client." You never know when a good customer will become a bad one or vice versa, he adds. "It's not our job to fire customers, it's their job to fire us if we don't do things right."

Besides, he notes, hanging in there with a difficult customer can bring big rewards. Often they'll recognize that you went to extra effort to help them when it wasn't easy, and they'll give you a powerful recommendation to their friends and colleagues.

6. You're not always completely honest.

Complete honesty in business is rare. But even a small lie, such as blaming a missed delivery date on supplies that supposedly didn't arrive, has the potential to cause trouble. "You have to learn to trust the truth," Callaway says. "People often want to make themselves look better or avoid the trouble of explanations, and they put a spin on things." But then you have to struggle to remember exactly which version you told to whom. It's better to be honest all the time, especially since getting caught in a lie is almost guaranteed to lose you a customer.

Callaway recalls arriving at an airport car rental late one night to pick up the Cadillac he'd reserved. The woman behind the counter explained that they had a Lincoln for him instead because that location did not have Cadillacs. As she was telling him this, a Caddy pulled out of the lot. It turned out to be the last one they had, already rented to someone else. "That happened 12 years ago," he says. "And I still remember it."

Last updated: Aug 28, 2013

MINDA ZETLIN is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
@MindaZetlin




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