Even before you meet a prospective customer, you should be implanting memories of what it is like to do business with your company, says Windsor, Ont., marketing consultant Noah Fleming.
"Businesses think the experience starts with when they have a sale, but a customer is experiencing your business from before that time and then through the various stages of doing business with you," he said in an interview.
The appeal will inevitably be to the emotions, sensory inputs that turn into hopefully positive memories. It occurs through your various interactions with customers, since you will want them to purchase again. That sounds obvious, but he is always amazed at the number of organizations who enjoy the chase so much they prefer to hunt for new customers rather than focus on keeping existing ones.
He breaks the relationship – The Customer Loyalty Loop, as his latest book is titled – into four stages:
Imagination before persuasion: When we book a trip, we start to anticipate the experiences ahead. Similarly, businesses have to focus on the anticipated memory.
Back in 1919, marketer Claude Hopkins did this for Schlitz beer. In ads for the company, he highlighted parts of the process that evoked purity, even though all other beer manufacturers had similar processes. But Schlitz gained by tying itself to purity.
Mr. Fleming suggests brainstorming with your team the three best compliments a customer might offer your business, and figuring out where you need to improve to receive those plaudits. Also, rid your closet of skeletons, looking with your salespeople at your product's shortcomings and then seeing how to turn those negatives into positives. If prospects find you too expensive, bring it up early in the conversation and explain why that's necessary for their benefit.
Conversion not coercion: Trust-building continues as you move to the sale. Often you need to slow down here to build that bond, giving the prospect a sense of security, rather than trying fancy influence techniques, and avoiding a gap between expectations and reality post-sale. Again, you are building a memorable, positive experience.
In his book, Mr. Fleming mentions the importance of language for bonding – Starbucks created a lingo for its customers, while Tim Hortons adopted its customers' language for the brews, but in both cases the short forms enhance the experience.
It's critical to watch for resistance, which Mr. Fleming says comes in three main forms according to psychologist Erik Knowles. There's reactance, which is resistance to the sales process itself; skepticism; and inertia, which stems from the buyer and their situation, not you. Test your sales processes to see which experiences work and which don't – and keep testing. He tells of one manufacturing firm that had a dramatic increase in its ability to win deals – and get approvals faster – by FedExing rather than e-mailing its proposals.
Experience choreography: Everyone in the company should know what experiences customers are to receive and everything should be aligned. That didn't happen with one Toronto luxury hotel where Mr. Fleming was hosting an event; it blew him away with its many indulgences but had one-ply toilet paper in the bathroom.
You want to create remarkable moments, not gimmicks but valuable benefits, like the Bentleys or Lexuses some hotels make available for guests.
Often he finds companies fighting tooth and nail with competitors but the top execs have never even been on their opponent's website. "Try to experience what they are doing to see if you can do it better," Mr. Fleming advises.
Audit your customer journey, studying the process, testing your employee's understanding, talking to your customers to hear their stories, playing "undercover boss" by experiencing it yourself in some way, and creating a hierarchy of horrors, the worst eight areas of the experience that you must fix.
Happily ever after: To help the relationship continue forever, it's important to remind customers of the value they received and the hard work on their behalf. He recommends a strong follow-up process, such as making sure sales reps contact the top 10 per cent of customers every 45 days and that every 90 days any customer who spent a dime with you is contacted.
Also consider his "Pick 3" process, listing various activities to boost your business and taking 15 minutes every day to, say, handwrite notes to three customers or ask three clients for referrals.
"We spend a lot of time focused on new clients rather than existing clients. You need the right process in place to nurture existing customers," he says.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter