#483  from Innovative Leader Volume 9, Number 8          August 2000

Customer-Focused Creativity
by Donna Greiner

Ms. Greiner is co-founder of The Business Reader, a business-to-business bookseller in Williamsburg, VA (email bizbooks@gte.net).  This article is based on her books The Basics of Idea Generation (Quality Resources, New York, 1997) and 1,001 Ways to Keep Customers Coming Back (Prima Publishing, New York, 1999).

Better, cheaper, faster. These days, it's a common corporate mantra, but the catchphrase leaves out a significant element. Better, cheaper, and faster for whom? If you are thinking about long-term business success, the missing "whom" must ultimately be your company's customers. It's odd how often existing customers are forgotten in the rush of daily business. Sales and marketing is paying attention to bringing potential new customers into the fold. Operational departments are working hard to efficiently, effectively fill orders. Customer service and support teams are busy putting out fires.

Meanwhile, existing customers are walking, unnoticed and uncared for, out the back door. It's true: Almost two thirds of customers who stop doing business with companies say it's simply because they feel ignored. They feel like their business doesn’t matter to the companies they are patronizing.

That's why it is so important to focus creative efforts on the customer. Better, cheaper, and faster has to always be judged from the customer's perspective -- even internal cost-cutting efforts have to translate to lower prices, faster service, or better products for customers.

When we collected actual customer retention ideas, we found that they could be organized into a series of broad retention strategies. We’ll convert the strategies into questions to help you focus your creative efforts on customers.

How can you build an unbeatable bundle of products and services? Your bundle is the products and services you offer your customers. The more comprehensive that bundle is, the less reason customers have for doing business elsewhere.

Amazon.com is a fine example of bundle building. The company started selling books; but today, it keeps customers in its online store by adding greeting cards, music, videos, tools, toys, software, and with the zShops initiative, as many small, independently-owned stores as the company can cram into cyberspace, to its product bundle.

Idea jogger: A simple way to start thinking about bundles is to ask your team what other products and services customers need to use with the things that they buy from you. Ask how to best fill those needs; should you provide them yourself or create a partnership to provide them or deliver them in some other way?

What kinds of incentives can you offer customers to return? Be it a gift, a discount, special financing, or a chance to win what's behind Curtain #1, customers come back for incentives.

Fast food chains are experts at using incentives to drive repeat sales. McDonald's, for example, cashed in on the Beanie Baby craze by offering a series of specially designed Teenie Beanies with its Happy Meals for kids. The promotion generated so much business in 1998 that the burger giant ran it again in 1999.

Idea jogger: Think about how your company can entice customers with incentives. How about a discount for a second sale within a fixed period, a free pamphlet that shows creative new uses for your product, or extended financing for a repeat purchase?

How can you tap into the communities of interest in your customer base? A community of interest is simply a group of people that share a common interest. Tapping into such communities, whether your company controls them or not, is a good way to build repeat business among the members of the group.

Harley-Davidson, for example, has built a community out of its owners by giving a free one-year membership in HOG (Harley Owner's Group) with each new bike purchased. To get a feel for how strong, and how valuable, that bond can be, just drop in on the 60th annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota in August 2000 and suggest to a Harley owner that some other company builds a better bike.

Idea jogger: Examine your customer base. Can you create a group that brings customers together around the products and services you offer? How about sponsoring a group that shows people how to use your products most effectively? Or, can you tap into an already established group outside of your business?

How can you build trust into every transaction with customers? If your customers don't trust you, they won't come back. Period. But, if they do, you can survive the roughest seas.

There’s only one maker of refillable lighters left in the U.S., the Zippo Manufacturing Company. What makes Zippo so special? The company's simple, unequivocal lifetime warranty: "It works or we fix it free."

Idea jogger: Guarantees and warranties are the most effective trust-builders. How can you back your work with the most compelling guarantee possible? Examine your pricing, products, and services to find ways to eliminate any reservations about buying from your company.

How can you do good and do well at the same time? Chances are good that your company is already actively working with non-profit and charitable organizations but, does that work take into account your customers' philanthropic interests? Doing well by doing good can be a powerful loyalty builder.

Just ask children's clothing maker Hanna. Its "Hannadowns" program encourages customers to return their purchases when their kids have stopped wearing them. The customers get a 20% discount on their next order, Hanna keeps the customer buying, and those in need get 10,000 articles of returned clothing per month. Everybody wins.

Idea jogger: Ask your customers about their favorite charities. Identify non-profits that work within your customer's industries. Think about how your company can align it's charitable pursuits with your customers' interests; how you can involve customers in that work.

How can you show your appreciation to every customer? Our parents were right. Courtesy and thoughtfulness count and that is especially true with customers.

Industrial cleaning products maker, New Pig Corporation, provides its telephone customer service teams with fast access to an assortment of greeting cards. Mention that your favorite football team won on Sunday and a day or two later, the postman delivers a congratulations card from the company.

Idea jogger: How can you build appreciation into every transaction with your customers? Do all team members know the company's customers by name; how can you add a "thank you" to every completed order; can you establish a formal or informal frequent buyer program?

What can you do to show your best customers how important they are to you? If the Pareto Principle runs true at your company, you will find that 20% of your customers contribute 80% of sales. Every customer deserves to be recognized, but that top 20% of customers also deserve something extra.

Japan's Oura Oil turns its trophy customers into service station royalty. Customers who purchase over 5,000 gallons of gas per year get a special club card entitling them to plenty of extra services, such as free windshield wiper fluid, whenever they gas up.

Idea jogger: Identify your company's trophy customers and think about how to reward them for the extra boost they contribute to the bottom line. What kinds of personal recognition can you give to your best customers? Can you show your appreciation with tangible rewards?

How can you make it easier to buy from you than your competitor. It's not good business to make customers jump through hoops. Convenience is king in a busy world and the companies that make it easiest for their customers are the ones that will succeed.

Take United Parcel Service. It created an elegant overnight package for customers, like mortgage lenders, who send lots of documents that require signatures and return shipping. The company made a reusable envelope, so the recipient can simply sign the papers and ship them back in the same package. Via UPS, of course.

Idea jogger: Think about the points where customers come into contact with your company. In what ways can you simplify them, streamline them, and make them more convenient? Can you connect the contact points to provide a single comprehensive access for customers?

How can you reach out to customers? Patience is not always a virtue when it comes to customers, particularly if you are patiently waiting for them to return on their own.

The Country Tree Farm in Sebastopol, CA knows that it's tough to earn the loyalty of customers who only come in once per year for a Christmas tree, so it sends a thank you note with a twist. Buy your Xmas tree from them and a thank you note arrives the following Thanksgiving…along with directions back for this year's tree.

Idea jogger: How can you notify customers that it is time to buy again? Can you build an automatic stock reorder feature into your product? Can you create a new contact point for sales during the order delivery process?

What do your customers want and how can you give it to them? Since customers should be the focal point of innovative thinking, it only makes sense that they are given the opportunity to contribute to your creative efforts.

Worcester, MA's Fallon Clinic began listening to its customers' complaints and found out that many of them centered on one department's doctors. Some fast interpersonal skills training for the staff and patient complaint levels were reduced by almost two-thirds.

Idea jogger: Encourage, collect, and analyze customer complaints and desires. What products and services that you do not provide do they commonly ask for when they talk to sales and service personnel? How can you build customers directly into product development efforts?

Finally, how can you build a workforce of customer focus champions? A strong focus on customers, as evidenced by companies such as Southwest Airlines and Nordstrom's, is an important competitive advantage. Building such a focus means that leaders need to set an example, organizational systems need to be aligned with that goal, and excellence in customer service be celebrated.

Witness America Online president Bob Pittman. Pittman refuses formal training in the new member features that AOL offers its subscribers. Instead, he figures out how to use the features on his own -- exactly the same way, AOL customers must.

Idea jogger: How do you, as a manager and leader, demonstrate the importance of customer focus in your own actions? How do you communicate that focus to employees? Are your reward systems aligned to customer satisfaction? How can you celebrate excellence in customer service?

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