Christie Nightingale noticed last fall that her company, Premier Match, wasn't signing up the usual 20 to 25 new clients a month.
To woo the 30% who were dragging their feet, she dusted off her Recession Special, which offers a discount of 10% off the full year's membership of $6,500 to $25,000. She also offered, for the first time, six-month memberships for newbies. As a result, the company has been able to maintain its rate of new customers.
"Compared to the recession of 2001-02, I find this crisis to be a lot more intense," says Nightingale. "I'm hearing people don't even want to spend money on a date! When I noticed that we weren't making appointments after conducting phone interviews and discussing our normal rates, I decided to offer the Recession Special to everyone who called in, simply to get people to commit to setting appointments and join."
In these belt-tightening times, Premier Match isn't the only company that has had to find creative ways to get customers to commit. How loyal a client is could determine if you'll be in business next year. Here are nine tips on how to keep them coming back.
Foster a sense of community: To get people excited about going to Pilates on Fifth in New York City, owners Katherine and Kimberly Corp started a daily give-away contest in January. Every day, clients whose names are drawn can win things like stretch bands, free classes and free downloads from their UltimatePilatesWorkouts.com.
Make it special: Joining Wegmans Shoppers Club has its privileges. Introduced in 1990, the program has evolved from electronic discounts and faster checkouts to include a free subscription to Menu Magazine, which features dishes cooked by the supermarket's culinary team, and notification of new products.
But the perk that captures the most attention: product recalls. "If we recall a Wegmans brand item, we can place automated phone calls as long as customers used their cards to purchase the products," says Jo Natale, director of media relations.
Offer deals: Something a small business can do at little cost is provide a loyalty card, where you buy 10 cups of joe and get the 11th for free. "I have three of these cards in my wallet forever," says Dan Blacharski, author of "Superior Customer Service: How to Keep Customers Racing Back to Your Business"(Atlantic Publishing). "These things are great. And there is very little expense in getting started: print up the cards and hand them out."
Keep it on the down-low: For Wegmans, the Shoppers Club card program has been a success for 19 years, in part, because the company keeps the list private. Whatever information it obtains from customers is used only for Wegmans business. "It helps us understand our customers and the products and services they are interested in. You have to be very mindful of that in terms of how you handle, store and maintain that information," says Natale.
Change the pricing structure: Sales and discounts are good, but frankly, low prices are the best incentive. That's why companies like Wal-Mart (Stock Quote: WMT) are beating expectations. If you can afford it, see where you can go down without cutting into your profits. Sometimes it requires thinking outside the box. In January, Pilates on Fifth started offering the Streamline Series. One teacher trains up to five students at a time, for $20 a class, a huge savings on the typical $95 private session.
Give them what they want: Fish sauce is simply made from fermented fish. But at a local ethnic grocery that Blacharski frequents, he says the owner stocks brands from every country represented by his clientele. He knows that a Vietnamese shopper will stick to a Vietnamese brand, while one from Thailand will lean toward a fish sauce made from her homeland.