Listening Up

Build a customer-based culture

You can't create loyalty if your employees aren't putting your customers' needs front and center. Here's how to foster a culture that keeps workers focused.

Hire smart. Think long and hard about how you want customers to be treated, and then set firm rules about who you'll hire to work with them. Michael Lavin, founder of European Sleep Works, a 20-person, $6 million specialty bedding retailer in Berkeley, Calif., didn't want his customers to have to deal with pushy salespeople. So his sales employees are paid a healthy salary, a little over $60,000 a year, and don't get commissions. Lavin's ads for salespeople include the phrase, "interest in art and philosophy a plus." He says that helps him attract personable, thoughtful people who tend not to use the hard sell.

Train everyone, always. Continuous training of employees is crucial to keeping them focused on customers, says JoAnna Brandi, a Boca Raton (Fla.)-based customer loyalty consultant. Try having a lunch session once a month on topics such as listening more effectively or handling angry customers. And ask employees to share stories regularly about the creative ways they assisted customers. Employees should also keep a running list of customer complaints, as well as suggestions on improving products and insights on competitors. Gather that information every month, and hold a brainstorming session.

Master the follow-up. Keeping in touch with customers after a sale makes a big impression. Warminster (Pa.)-based Eagle Stainless Container, a $4.5 million engraver and maker of specialty containers, has an employee who is not a salesperson check in with customers after a transaction. That outreach made a big difference to Eagle client Robert Maze. "Nobody gives a crap anymore," says Maze, founder of manufacturing and design consultants Robert Maze & Associates in Springfield, Pa. "So when you find somebody who really cares, it is so unusual."

Save the day. Solving a problem quickly can actually make customers more loyal to your company than they were before. If European Sleep Works customers have a problem with a mattress, Lavin or another high-ranking employee goes to their home to resolve it. "They get someone in their house in two or three days," says Lavin. "That's quite different from AT&T not returning your calls."

Go above and beyond. Give your customers more information, better service, or a higher-quality product than they expect. Lucinda Holt, CEO of 14-person Commerce360, a Plymouth Meeting (Pa.) online marketing company, says her shop routinely provides customers with insight or data beyond what they have purchased. Says Holt: "We show a little leg, and show what we can do."

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