Customer Care and Beyond!

The end user, the person in the driver’s seat, is your real customer – and they want some customer care.

Buzz Lightyear

The headline story in the business section of a major west coast metropolitan newspaper was titled “Buy the Bottle.”

The story told about the boom in bottled water sales in cities that already enjoyed good quality tap water, the City of Seattle was given as an example. Seattle’s water utility had begun to sell the city’s regular tap water in a designer bottle.

Out of the tap the actual cost of the water was less than one quarter of a penny…bottled it was one dollar.

The reporter, naturally, questioned why such a scheme was actually working and for an answer interviewed a number of marketing consultants.

The responses were all along the same line; people weren’t buying water. This “designer” water was a symbol; it meant you belonged to a group with discriminating tastes, that you were successful, and that you were a true “Seattle-ite.” It was a form of group identity. A dollar was a small price to pay in order to fulfill this basic human need.

In today’s business environment people are expecting more from their workplace than ever before, mainly in ways in which their professions augment their personal needs or goals. A good example is the somewhat overdone inflation of work place titles. Folks that were “salespeople” not long ago are now “account managers” or even “marketing executives.”

This is only one of many indicators of a trend that every good manager should not only be aware of, but be ready to exploit. After all, what appears to be good for one’s own people must also be good for one’s customer’s people.

Along this same line of reasoning, we must keep in mind that a “customer” is not only an organization with certain functional needs to be met…a customer is also, at some point, a human being with human needs that must be met.

Any good salesperson knows it will not matter how much you butter up the CEO if you turn around and snub his, or her, receptionist. Angering that key “gate keeper” can kill your deal as fast as any faux pas. Experience teaches us that a relationship with everyone in the customer’s plant, particularly with the folks who actually use your product, is as important as a relationship with the top dog – perhaps more so.

You may play golf twice a week with the in-house buyer, but if the people on his firm’s production line come to him with complaints about your product, you will get cut off at the knees when you try to sell him more. This is nothing new, everyone who has done business-to-business selling knows these simple truths. So how do we push this knowledge upstairs to a strategic level, as was done in the bottled water industry in our example.

The Marketing level is a strategic one, where decisions are made and plans are laid before the sales force takes the field. In some industries the sales force is required to have only rudimentary sales skills, more like order takers than hard-core closers.

For this reason the competitive stance of the firm is more dependent upon public image, the product itself, and in the services and benefits provided to customers. These things come together to differentiate the firm in the consumer’s mind and to help the consumer make a buying decision. The automobile rental industry is one such example.

Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the business traveler, stepping off an airplane with an armful of baggage. You’re tired, you want to reach your final destination, and you need a car to make it there. You don’t much care what make of car it is or who you rent it from. The prices are competitive and every car rental company in America has a booth within a few steps of baggage claim. So how do you choose which company to rent from? More importantly, how do they get you to choose them?

The assorted competitors are well aware of the need to differentiate themselves most importantly to a particular targeted customer…the active business traveler. Years ago these companies set out to define who this choice customer was and came up with some surprising statistics.

Out of some 100,000 adults in the US, only about two dozen of them will rent a car more than ten times in a single year. Only a few of those will rent a car more than twenty-five times a year. At the time of that study I was renting at an average rate of twice per week. This made me one of these highly sought after target consumers.

It also made me a direct participant, kind of a marketing guinea pig, as the rental firms began to experiment with incentive plans based on frequent flyer miles, adding miles to your favorite airline total for each day you rented a car. Once a customer is captured by a recurring incentive, their thinking went, he or she will be a customer for life. This rule is often true, but the incentive has to be the right one.

This particular incentive proved not to be the correct one as to a great extent it did not work, though most firms still maintain similar programs. What they did not foresee was that business travelers receive so many frequent flyer miles, a few more here and there were hardly worth consideration. So it was back to the blackboard, and this time the marketers really took the time to study their customers and their needs.

Soon afterwards, the rental firms began to bombard me with offers, offers that really spoke to my needs. Instead of “things” like free upgrades and flyer miles (still options of course) they gave me status, convenience, and a sense of belonging. Today, I can walk directly to a special section of the car rental lot, show an attendant a card, and receive a set of keys and help with my luggage. I sign no paperwork, no insurance forms, and produce no credit cards. While other customers are back at the terminal filling out those forms I am already on the highway, and I’m paying no more than they.

Do you think I’m going to change car rental companies for a few more frequent flyer miles or a faster upgrade deal…not on your life! They’ve got me as a customer as long as I receive service like that…service that sets me apart, makes me feel like I’m someone special and makes my life a little easier. So how does this story relate to the wholesale distribution industry?

Look again at the idea of automatic ordering as an “upgrade” for regular customers. This is when you forecast your customer’s future needs by studying past purchases, then set up orders automatically for his approval. You are doing for that customer some of what the car rental outfits do for their best customers.

The other half of the equation, of course, is that of status. To really nail this customer down for life, you have to fulfill this more personal need. You have already made his life easier, now make sure he knows you are doing so because you know he is just too important to be bothered with such details.

This is what my car rental company does for me, and what makes me a life-long customer. Once you’ve managed to accomplish this feat with your customer, it will take something pretty dramatic for a competitor to draw him away. When a competitor tries to win him over, their salesperson is not only suggesting an increase in your customer’s workload, but suggesting as well that he’s no longer important enough to be waited on.

Changing vendors, after all, inevitably entails some effort. Unless there’s substantial cost benefit in doing so, why would anyone want to lose out on a relationship that makes them feel good and helps them do their job better?

When another car rental outfit tries to lure me away with prices that will shave one or two dollars off my daily expense account, but don’t offer me the service that makes me feel like I’m special…they are literally insulting me.

Think about the volume discounts you offer, or the special deals you make to retain long time customers. Think back to your reaction when a particular customer switched to another distributor? Did you get back to them with an offer to shave a few points off your margin, in essence trying to bribe them to return, or did you try to find out why they were unhappy?

As often as not, studies show, customers wander not because of price…but because of a perception that the vendor doesn’t care about them or the success of their business.

And it doesn’t matter whether they’re renting a car, or leasing a forklift…the end user, the person in the driver’s seat, is your real customer – and they want some customer care.

About the Author

Dick Barnes is a Marketing Consultant with over 35 years of experience as a Marketing Director, Sales Manager, CEO, and consultant. His book “Marketing Matters” is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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