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It's the little things that count.

We all know it to be true. It is a lot easier and cheaper to upsell an existing client than it is to create a new one.

In fact, International Business Machines once estimated that fully 80% of its new business development came from new sales to its existing client base. Our own averages may not be that high, but the principle invariably holds: we can create new and sustained growth for our enterprise much more efficiently and economically by paying attention to our existing client base. And we do that by remembering the little things that count.

Strangely, this fairly basic concepts is often forgotten in the marketing cycle and the market plan. Organizations focus on product development, pricing, packaging, promotion and all the other elements of the marketing discipline, but omit its most important and final stage - customer satisfaction.

In an excellent article entitled "The Role of Marketing" the Royal Bank of Canada newsletter puts this very well: "(What is important is)... ensuring that the customer is happy and is kept happy through servicing, the fulfillment of guarantees and ongoing contact after the initial transaction. "The sale merely consummates the courtship and then the marriage begins,'...writes Theodore Levitt of Harvard University. 'How good the marriage is depends on how well the relationship is managed by the seller'..."

In marketing, as in life, two key things happen to relationships. First, the longer they are in force, the more they tend to be taken for granted by the parties involved. In business, this means that we run the risk of becoming complacent about long term relationships, assuming they will always be in place, that the client will "understand" if errors or misjudgments occur, and that less than first-class work will probably be accepted, if necessary.

Second, relationships change. They are dynamic, living, breathing organisms. The people we once dealt with have retired or been promoted or moved out of town. The market forces that shaped our client's world may have altered for the better or worse, forcing them to make changes which may affect our business with them. "The old order changes," said a wise man, and he was right.

So paying attention, staying in touch, taking care of the little things, going the extra mile and all those other business cliches really are important. Because if we don't practice them, relationships will alter and we may be last to know, to our detriment.

The motto of the famous Squibb Corporation says it well: "The priceless ingredient of every product is the honour and integrity of its maker." In business, honour and integrity are also demonstrated by keeping your finger on the pulse of every client.

The tough news is that this is hard to do. If we are successful and our business grows, we naturally have more people to stay in touch with; but we also have more work to do in other areas so maintaining contact sometimes drops down the priority list.

The good news is, however, that the little things are often very simple and inexpensive. Many of them revolve around basic good manners. Writing thank you notes, sending flowers, remembering anniversaries or special customer preferences, clipping and mailing articles that may interest clients, calling clients to congratulate them on a success, keeping promises, forewarning of unexpected difficulties, eliminating "nasty surprises"; all of these make a tremendous difference to our business relationships.

Many people develop their own "pulse practices". They commit to return all phone calls on the same day, for example, or always send birthday cards. One organization in this market clips every local newspaper for scraps of information about clients - and follows up appropriately. Another makes it a point to explain invoices to clients before they are sent out. A third recalls which customers prefer only small or half size portions of meals served in his restaurant.

Paradoxically, the longer a relationship continues, the more vital it is that we maintain the little things. Our natural tendency is to work hard at the very new relationships, because we want to win, impress and hold on to new customers or markets. But marketing is like a marathon run: he longer you pound down a road with a client, the more effort and energy you need to expend to make sure you can make it to the tape together, and to ensure that the partnership does not erode.

Obviously, customer surveys ("How well are we doing, really?"), regular reviews of the relationship, suggestion boxes, face-to-face conversations about service and satisfaction all go a long way to building and keeping customer satisfaction.

But the discipline goes deeper than that. How many organizations have we encountered that do business for their convenience and not for ours? Banks and trust companies have woken up to this fact and are just two examples of businesses changing their practices to meet client needs. In our business sector, you often hear the line "Sorry, we cannot meet that deadline because our people are on vacation," as if that should be the client's problem. We've probably all stood for half an hour at the check-out counter while the grocery clerk tries to fix the computerized cash register. We need to ask ourselves if we are doing anything, even inadvertently, that may cause inconvenience for the customer just because it is easier for us

Similarly, we should remember the old adage about "assuming" - ("It makes an ass out of you and me"). Do our clients know all the services we provide? Do they understand our practices and policies and why they have been developed - for their benefit, not ours? Are we assuming their satisfactions because we have not heard otherwise? Often, our closest customers are the most reluctant to tell us if something is wrong.

Paying attention to the little things pays off in tangible ways: repeat business, word-of-mouth testimonials to new clients, long term stability, increased opportunities to sell new products and services or to introduce new concepts and, above all, the development of a reputation for professionalism and honest practice.

The Royal Bank of Canada newsletter quotes Lew Young, editor of Business Week: "Probably the most important fundamental that is being ignored today is staying close to the customer to satisfy his needs and anticipate his wants. In too many companies, the customer has become a bloody nuisance whose unpredictable behaviour damages carefully made strategic plans, whose activities mess up computer operations and who stubbornly insists that purchased products should work."

We fail to pay attention to the little things at our peril. Because big trouble can result, if we do.

Peter Barrow is President of Barrow Communications, a full-service public relations, advertising and marketing company with offices in Guelph, Kitchener-Waterloo and Toronto. He is the author of the text "Working with the News Media".
COPYRIGHT 1991 Canadian Institute of Management
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:tips to maintain an existing client base
Author:Barrow, Peter
Publication:Canadian Manager
Date:Sep 22, 1991
Previous Article:Weaving habits of the heart into quality management.
Next Article:How to get out of the mid-management rut.

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