How Small Businesses Build Loyal Followings

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With the economy looking like it's heading into a recession, people are tightening their belts and cutting back on all but the essentials. Make your company a necessity by building customer loyalty. Here are 10 ways to fight for every client without racking up any bills.

Examine Your Process: Before you revamp customer service, look at every point of contact between your business and your customer. What are you saying, doing and anticipating to make their experience the best it can be?

Look at the Competition: Not sure how to improve your process? Check out other businesses to help you figure it out. Rich Gallagher, author of "What to Say to a Porcupine: 20 Humorous Tales that Get to the Heart of Great Customer Service" (Amacom), admires Southwest Airlines for how employees are trained to do more than one thing. He also likes how the Phillies baseball team runs its stadium. When he made an impromptu visit during a business trip, he was impressed by how everyone, from the ticket booth to the gates, all tried to help him score a ticket on Father's Day. "Everyone was so helpful that I was happy even though I had circumnavigated about 10 city blocks," he recalls.

Survey Your Customers: Gallagher, who also is founder of Point of Contact Group, a communications and customer service training firm, believes the most effective way to learn how you can improve customer service is to survey 5% to 10% of your customers by telephone. Don't email since people can ignore you. Calling also helps further establish a rapport.

Who's Your Audience? Whether you telephone survey or simply get out of your office to chat with clients, really talk to them. Find out what they need. Learn what they are going through. Offer ways your company can help them. When they can afford to buy, they'll remember your personal attention.

Rethink Salutations: How you talk to your customers can make or break a deal, and we're not talking about the sales pitch. Terrance Brennan, chef-owner of Picholine and Artisanal restaurants in New York City, says one of his biggest pet peeves is when businesses fail to greet customers. "I always say we appreciate your coming in," he says. "Customers are the lifeblood. They pay our paychecks. It's all about the customer."

Offer Added Value: Keep customers coming back by making it worth their while. Offer, if you can, frequent-customer discounts and sales for the more devoted of your clients. Send out cards promising 10% off to spur people to return. Give away something for free. Bob Brumm, a customer service expert who founded The Positive Perspective, offers 25 copies of his book, "Do You Have Money to Burn? Save More of What You Earn, Earn More on What You Save," at no extra cost, worth about $325.

Make it Personal: The simple act of listening to their reasons for visiting you may win over hearts and minds. Brennan says his restaurants try to find out while booking if the meal is for a special occasion like a birthday or anniversary. Those diners will be graced with a special cake and personalized menus. He has also trained staff to use people's names, and keep track of what a regular guest may have had on her last visit so that dishes are not repeated. He also makes a point to visit the dining room regularly. During one such trip, he learned that two tables were celebrating birthdays and another an anniversary. He was able to send over cake.

To encourage dialogue, Brumm recommends having a pot of coffee warming nearby. "You don't have to be Starbucks, just a friendly face that people are comfortable with," he adds. "This will give people a lot of solace in this turbulent economy."

Keep in Touch: Create a sense of community with your customers. Keep them abreast of what you're doing and how you can help them with inexpensive tools like blogs or newsletters.

Train, Train, Train: Once you've pinpointed how you want the customer interaction to go, make sure your staff is on the same page, says Gallagher.

Play up Your Strengths: While it's important to think about customers and their needs, it's also essential to keep your eye on how to grow your business your way. To persuade people to return, and return often, be the best you can be. Because Picholine is a fine-dining establishment, Brennan felt he could not skimp on quality. Prices went up because the cost of goods went up. But Brennan feels that, with all the personal attention and customizing of the menu that he and his staff do, it makes the difference. It doesn't hurt that he loads departing diners with extras like their house olive oil, sherry vinegars and other treats. For Thanksgiving, he's looking to give away flavored salts.

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