Satisfied customers: a growth strategy for today
Even in economic times that seem to be flashing a "Caution!" light for business owners, one opportunity all companies can pursue is a commitment to satisfying customers.
Customer satisfaction goes beyond warm-and-fuzzy feelings. Abundant evidence shows that building strong relationships through well-managed customer interactions creates real economic value. Investing in customer satisfaction leads to higher sales and profits - even richer stock prices among public companies.
As entrepreneurs look for ways to hit the accelerator while limiting risk, pressing forward on customer satisfaction is a strategy with low costs and high long-term returns. Once the slow-moving recovery gives way to a more robust economy, that base of satisfied customers will drive more rapid growth.
Building an approach focused on satisfying customers is key-organizing associates around client relationships, offering a steady long-term presence and making changes to improve satisfaction along the way are a few proven strategies.
J.D. Power and Associates, experts in measuring customer satisfaction, affirms that people care about knowledgeable and friendly staff, products tailored to their needs, clear communication, good experiences when they visit a business and quick resolution if problems occur.
Customer satisfaction isn't automatic - it comes from a strategic commitment and repeated decisions to put customers first. Three keys to customer relationships are people, consistency and understanding.
Getting the human factor right
Satisfying customers is all about relationships, putting two people together to do business. Clients in many fields want to deal with knowledgeable, skilled staff - and people they know - in each encounter.
When an employee remembers a customer's name and uses it, satisfaction gets a boost. When a client gets to know a staff member over time, a relationship grows. That employee can cater to the customer's individual needs and wants. For this reason, keeping employees in the same customer relationships for the long haul rather than moving them around, even when they are promoted, can be extremely beneficial.
Owners and managers should also study front-line interactions. Who is the company's face to the customer? What do employees say and do, day after day, to build relationships? Are employees just selling, or are they becoming trusted advisors to the customer? Managing these interactions makes a world of difference in whether customers come back - and even increase their purchases.
Being consistent in relationships
One of the qualities customers love is consistency. Relationships are more valuable if they are steady and enduring. A business can provide consistency for customers, through good times and bad, by not turning product offerings or business policies on and off when reacting to short-term circumstances.
For example, in the recent financial crisis some businesses found their banks changing the rules for credit or other critical needs. Firms that created long-term relationships from the start, avoided the need to retrench on their commitments.
Customers who experience consistency will return loyalty ... and do more business as they grow.
Understanding what customers want
Finding out what matters most to customers makes a big difference. It's a matter of listening. Both formal surveys and informal conversations provide useful feedback - and the business can make changes to match its services or products to customers' needs and wants.
For example, accessibility has been pinpointed as a key desire among bank customers. Business owners want a "go-to" person, someone they can call or visit about an issue, a banker who is there for them. Depositors value ready access to financial information, so they see 24/7 online and mobile banking as benefits. For another business, the keys that unlock satisfaction might be reliable product quality or on-time delivery.
Finally, when a customer has a problem, what happens next makes the difference between frustration and happiness. Employees must listen to the customer's issue and respond quickly. Front-line people should be encouraged to resolve problems or escalate them for rapid solution. Successfully resolving a problem, without hassles, shows the business cares - and creates a lasting bond of customer satisfaction.