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How the customer has changed

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Your customers have permanently changed the way in which they buy ‚ whether you deal with consumers or other businesses, writes customer loyalty specialist AKI KALLIATAKIS, managing partner of the Leadership Launchpad.

Who knows when the gloomy financial crisis of the past few years will in fact improve, or get worse? But I’m willing to put my head on a block and say that your customers have permanently changed the way in which they buy ‚ whether you deal with consumers or other businesses. In fact, one of our clients, referring to the pressures they were under, recently said: ‚Now we are competing with everyone, from everywhere, for everything.‚

Is there any good news? You bet there is, or I wouldn’t be writing this right now. You see, as the business world cuts as much as possible in costs just in order to survive, this has a serious impact on customers. So this is a great opportunity for your business to be the opposite, to look good, and to do something extraordinarily special for your customers.

Here is one example. After a seventeen year contract with our original photocopier company – a contract, I might add, which guaranteed a four-hour turnaround time for repairs, for which we paid an extra R168 every month ‚ we cancelled the contract and went with another company. Why? Because one day the photocopier broke down, and as usual we called the company to send a technician. I asked about when we could expect to see him, and the answer was, ‚Well, maybe late tomorrow afternoon, or maybe the day after tomorrow.‚

I was furious! How could this be, I asked, when the response time was guaranteed to be within four hours, and was part of the deal?

‚Oh,‚ replied the young lady on the other end. ‚Didn’t you notice that the R168 came off your account months ago? And, you know, with the economy being the way it is, we’ve had to retrench some staff, and unfortunately we are all really under pressure.‚

When the total photocopier invoice is for about R4300 a month, you don’t notice that R168 unilaterally came off, and as you can imagine, we are now the proud new owners of a competing brand of photocopier with a brand new three-year contract ‚ including a fast turnaround time on repairs.

The question is, where do you start? A good place is to understand that the foundation on which your customer’s loyalty lies must be strong and solid, otherwise no matter what you do, it will be the equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig. It makes the pig more attractive ‚ but it is still a pig.

There are two ways to look at the needs of your customers. At its most simple, your customers are probably looking for one of three possible responses from you. First, they may need a Pit Stop: In and out as quickly as possible, no hassles, no fuss, just pure efficiency. Second, they may need an Emergency Room: they have a problem, and they want you to solve it as quickly and urgently as you can. Finally, they may want a Five Star Hotel: they feel neglected, unappreciated or alienated, and are looking to be pampered and acknowledged. And sometimes they need all three.

Respond to these basic needs appropriately, and you will be three-quarters of the way there.

However, and more specifically, there are not more than a handful of additional needs that your customers have, and if you and your company understand these and take care of them, then you will be successful. These are listed below, and probably in order of importance, (although this may change depending on the customer’s situation.)

¬∑ How can you make them or save them money? In times like these, just about everyone is under financial pressure, and how can you help your customers here? I’m not suggesting that you give your customers more and more discounts, but rather asking you to identify ways in which you can make them more effective at what they do. Are there shortcuts they can use? Can you share some information that will help them? Do you offer something that improves their efficiency or productivity?

¬∑ How can you give them some more time in their busy lives? What are the things that are their time wasters? Would they be happy to pay you to help them with these? Can you give them some simplicity and convenience in their lives, or arrange for a ‚one-stop-shopping‚ experience?

· What keeps them awake at night, or causes stress in their lives? What do they worry about? What are their fears and uncertainties and insecurities? Are there some legal problems that they face? What are the perennial headaches that they have to deal with? And how can you help?

· How can you make them look good with others? It may be their colleagues, or their families and friends. What can you do that will make them feel honoured, or proud? What can give them status or power in the eyes of others in their circle? What will make them boast or show off? How can you make them feel important?

¬∑ What will make them feel good about themselves? Is there some role you can play in their personal growth so that they become ‚better people‚ ? Can they feel good because they have given back to the world, or done something nice for someone, or prove how environmentally friendly they are? Is there some way in which you can help them to be the best that they can possibly be, and achieve their potential as a person, or even as a business? Don’t underestimate the value of these personal desires that customers find it difficult to admit or acknowledge.

¬∑ How can you give them a sensational personal experience? In what ways can you bring a smile to their faces, or let them experience an exceptional and memorable experience? Is there something that you can help them to do that they would never have considered doing on their own? As Seth Godin recently wrote, ‚You can get my attention if your product is unreasonably well designed, if your preparation is unreasonably over the top, if your customer service is unreasonably attentive and generous and honest. You can earn my business or my recommendation if the build quality is unreasonable for the intended use, if the pricing is unreasonably low or if the experience is unreasonably over-the-top irresistible given the competition.‚ Be interesting, or be invisible.

Prepare yourself and your business to listen for and uncover these needs of customers, and then to respond to them. Make it as easy as you can to do business with you, at physical, intellectual, emotional and time-effort levels. There will be no way to stop your success when you do so. It will distinguish you from your rivals as they fumble with their problems, and it will create fantastic levels of loyalty in your customer base.

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