Personal contact with clients reaches beyond the responsibility of just business owners and partners. For many service providers across the nation, it's a company mission, a way of differentiating yourself and a means of survival in a harsh competitive landscape.
Sure all of this sounds familiar. But it can be a daunting task. After all, there are barely enough hours in the day to service your accounts, much less do the hand-holding required to ensure each and every customer's satisfaction while attracting new ones. But it's essential to the success of your business — and for future growth. So you need to make sure what you're doing counts. Use these tips and reminders to insure you're on the right path and that you're getting the most out of your personal customer contact and relationships. With a little work, you can maintain good client relationships and improve on iffy ones.
EVERYONE IS ACCOUNTABLE
That's right, everyone is responsible for customer contact — be it good or bad. So each member of your crew needs to make a good impression. A lot of the business you do is new business, so you and your staff should look at it as a job interview: be on your best behavior, make sure clothes or uniform is neat, comb your hair, smile and say please and thank you. Show up on time, be sure to call them back and thank them for their time. If there's a problem or you are running late, give them a heads-up call. While this is all common sense, it's sometimes easy to fall into the mindset that because you are providing the service, it's you who are interviewing the potential client. But you should keep in mind that, while you have the final say in who your clients are, it's better to turn down business than be turned down.
Personal contact is serious business. It's a responsibility and commitment that should run as deep as the roots of the trees and shrubs you're planting, recommending and tending to for all your customers. And it's one that should run company wide. Just ask Peter Murray of Hidden Lane Landscaping in Fairfax, Va.
“Personal contact with our customers is everything,” says Murray. “We are really in the people business as much as the landscape business. People want to do business with people they like and trust. We enjoy getting to know our clients on a personal level. After all, that's the main reason we're in sales. The better we know our clients, the easier it is to help them and the more enriching the experience is for both parties.”
Yes, listening is what customers really want. Sure, they want seven trees for the price of five. And yes, they want the job done right. But when your staff listens and is good at doing so, it can make all the difference to a customer. It's what can make them a repeat customer. Look at your database and your books; you'll see that difference right there in the bottom line with add-on sales and services.
This is what Rick Schmidt, president and owner, and Michelle Neal, customer service manager, of Valley Tree Feeders in Phoenix, Ariz., refer to as “relationship selling.”
“Customer retention is one of our most important goals. We are starting to use relationship selling,” says Neal. “Listening to our customers about their lives and empathizing with the mother of the adult son who just went to Iraq makes you the service provider, a phone friend, and they are very likely to continue using your service and to recommend you to others.”
Neal adds that listening is a big part of training. Training then allows for additional opportunities to seek out negative situations and turn them into positive ones — lucrative ones.
“Sometimes a customer needs you,” says Neal. “You have to be somewhat of a chameleon. We need to build the rapport quickly. Just now I got off the phone [with a customer]. We were over an hour late, due to traffic, and after apologizing to the customer, he increased his order from us servicing only two trees to seven on our next visit. Assessment is shown in the bottom line. The monthly numbers have gone up by 30 percent over the same time period last fiscal year.”
The other great thing about listening to customers is you don't have to be physically there to be communicating. In fact, many companies listen effectively when they are away. They do it with effective direct mail communications and other correspondence throughout the year to their client and prospect base. It's a great way to stay in the client's mind, especially just prior to key seasonal peaks. When you consistently talk to your customers, you are welcoming two-way communication, which includes listening. So if you are not consistently mailing, e-mailing and calling existing and potential customers, get on it — or someone else will.
E-mail is one form of communication that is working well for companies because of its ease, timeliness and its ability to be quickly updated and formatted to a company's ever-changing database. In addition, automated phone messages and printed collateral pieces placed in association with real estate partners such as “welcome to the neighborhood packets” are other services businesses have experienced success with.
COURTING IS KING
If listening is important, courting is king.
Courting a client simply means being consistent, being available and having a plan of action. Be present in your customers' lives. Call them regularly to see if they have any problems you can solve or a need you can fill. Call them to make sure they are happy with your service and to give them the chance to let you know if they are unhappy with any aspect of your service. Initiating the conversation can help you avoid losing a client who might not otherwise give you a chance for remediation.
Direct mail has a proven track record. It keeps you in touch with existing customers and reaches out to potential ones. Sending out coupons and notifications of special offers are effective attention-grabbers. The potential for pay-off is high.
IMAGE IS ADVERTISING
Show your logo, company slogan or tag line, phone number or Web address on your uniforms, T-shirts, and trucks. Many companies said they get calls from new customers sitting right next to them at the same stoplight because their digits are right on their truck. It puts you in touch with potential clients while servicing existing ones.
PROBLEM SOLVE, DON'T FINGER POINT
Finger pointing is for four-year-olds. It's easy to do, and sometimes makes you feel better — in the short-term. But take the higher, well-manicured ground. You'll feel better about it and your customers (not to mention your crew) will take notice.
Problems are going to occur. Many times, it's out of your control. But what you can control is how you handle a problem or a customer call-back.
Craig Crim, co-owner of Quality Creative Landscaping in Birmingham, Ala., like every other landscape service provider and lawn care operator reading this article, has received a call-back.
Crim and Quality Creative Landscaping, however, have an interesting philosophy regarding how to handle call-backs before they even happen.
Before a call back even occurs, Quality Creative attempts to make two to three personal calls to each customer throughout a calendar year before there's a problem. This could fall into the category of courting. This effort is done with both existing and prospective customers.
“For us, it's about consistency and offering that to our customers,” says Crim. “We want to set our customers at ease and make contact with them before there's a problem. It's about problem solving before there's ever even a problem. And then there's always, always follow-up.”
In addition, Quality Creative always makes sure a point person is available to communicate with customers and its staff of 25 to 35 seasonal employees. Crim says this helps alleviate any breakdown in communications between customers and staff, cutting down on problems and call-backs.
Crim adds that the quicker you are to respond to a customer in any kind of situation, the better off you are. When in doubt, get on the phone, get in the truck, go shake hands with someone and talk through it because at the end of the day, it's personal contact and whole lot of listening that's going to get you to the next job.
Susan Donovan is a freelance writer who resides in Kansas City, Mo.
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