Don’t lose touch with your customers

“There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.” — Sam Walton

SMEs Chat with Phillip Chichoni

A couple of years ago a friend introduced me to a new business owner who ended up becoming a customer.

We met and talked once or twice every week while working on a solution for his business. Once the solution had been agreed upon, I assigned two of my staff to handle this customer, working with his staff.

We continued to meet and talk with this client but as the months passed by, the meetings diminished until we were only sending each other emails once or twice a month.

My staff continued dealing with his staff and sending out invoices at the end of each month for nearly two years.

Early last month I received an email from this business owner.

Apologising heavily, he painfully explained that he no longer required my services as he had employed people to do them in-house.

I called him and said I understood. Then I asked if he needed any of our other services, which I described to him. The answer deflated me.

He said I should have asked him earlier as he had already appointed other consultants during the past year to provide those same services. I regretted my loss and started thinking about where I went wrong with a client whom I thought was happy with my services.

The problem was that I had lost touch with the customer. Now in this world of intense competition and fast change, that is a dangerous thing to do. The power base has shifted from suppliers to customers.
Technology allows us to communicate fast and cheaply with customers, but we are losing touch at the human level. To build successful and sustainable businesses, we need to connect with customers, adapting our business around their wants and needs.

Here are some tips to help you not lose touch with customers and keep your business growing.

Keep on speaking with customers

It is easy to send an email to say “Hello, how are you?” But the important thing is to really talk, discussing their business in depth, so as to understand their operations and where they are going.

You need to know as much as possible about every aspect of a customer’s business. This cannot happen through email or on the phone. You need to visit the customer, spend time at his or her premises and see how things are really going. This shows the customer that you really care about their business.

If you don’t do that, other, more savvy suppliers will go and do it and eventually take over your customer. If you watched South African television last year, you would have noticed an advertisement by FNB bank, in which a bank officer visited a banana farmer and spent a few days with him out at the farm. The aim was to find out why, even though he was making a lot of money, he was not banking it.

In the end, the bank offered him an account tailored to his specific needs. That’s a point to learn from about the extent to which other businesses would go to gain a customer.

Change high priority elements
After understanding customers’ concerns and needs, you need to see which elements in your business need to change in order to keep your customers happy. Of course you cannot please all customers; there may be huge differences between their needs and problems.

You need to identify those elements that affect the majority of your customers. Could it be a problem of quality, delivery time or service level? The most frequently mentioned elements obviously should have a high priority. The size of the customers will also determine the priority level of an element. For example, a US$10 000 customer’s concerns will take priority over those of a few US$500 ones.

If you thoroughly understand your customers and keep in touch with them, they will grow with you and help your business succeed.

What problem have you faced and learned from in your business? Share by sending me an email or making a comment in the “Ask the experts” page on my website shown below.

Phillip Chichoni is a strategic business planning consultant who works with entrepreneurs and growing businesses. You may contact him by email on chichonip@smebusinesslink.com, or visit http://smebusinesslink.com

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