In the good old days contracts were not the norm. A handshake sealed a deal and one's word was one's reputation. Times have changed. Now many businesses have contracts, lawyers and a more complex method of doing business. But even though the symbolism of a handshake may have lost its significance the elements of trust, integrity and rapport have not.
Like any relationship, good customer rapport requires care and feeding. Customers make or break a business and establishing a good rapport has been shown to be the most effective way to retain customers. As a bonus, numerous studies have shown that satisfied customers tell others who in turn become new customers. The word-of-mouth strategy for new customers has been also shown to be the most cost-effective method for obtaining new business.
When I do intelligence work on a client's competitor I pay a great deal of attention to how the competitor deals with customers. Often customer relationships can expose a competitive weakness that is far greater than weaknesses in pricing, location or marketing. And we have all seen instances where the customer keeps coming back because of the relationship even though the competition may have a superior product or service.
Why? Because the customer feels more comfortable and assured! If you ask them why they will answer they have a relationship.
Of course there does come a point where perceived value affects the decision but a solid relationship can certainly make switching loyalties much more difficult. If you are trying to take away market share from a business that has strong customer-based relationships you will see just how difficult that can be. A business that has a loyal customer base throws up a high barrier to entry for the competition.
The key is to make the customer relationship foremost in the company culture. Businesses become successful when relationships take precedence over everything else. Businesses become successful when they place a higher priority on the customer then they do on cash flow, operations or internal problems. When employees take the time and effort to nurture a relationship they are building a valuable company asset arguably the most valuable company asset. The value formula is completed when the company delivers its products and services.
Customers need to feel the rapport is sincere we all have built in phoniness detectors. Simply giving lip service and a forced smile are not enough. Customers want to be heard, they want their needs addressed and they want value. Being heard, having needs addressed and receiving value are perceptual perceived by the customer, right, wrong or otherwise.
The most obvious business connection is through front-line employees. If the employees do not care then why should the customer care? It is management's responsibility to instill in employees the concept that the customer is top priority. This means that not only is the phone answered by the third ring but is also answered pleasantly and appropriately! How many businesses do we see that cannot even do this simple task? A rude, indifferent employee sends the message that the entire company is rude and indifferent.
However, it is also true that customer service and relationships cannot be forced upon employees. Employees must understand and feel motivated to develop this customer rapport. Management sets the agenda and is ultimately responsible for the results.
The easiest way for management to set the agenda is to set the example. Answering the phone, dealing with an irate customer, explaining patiently to a customer that does not understand these are things that managers can do to set the example. As an added bonus, when the focus goes away from internal problems to the customer, many internal problems also go away.
A good start is using regular meetings to emphasize the importance of the customer relationship by bringing up specific examples. Hiring the right people is critical when filling direct customer contact positions; many applicants are too self-centered to ever be effective at establishing customer relationships. Training, both formal and informal, can also help improve employee customer skills. And direct hands on management is especially effective as it can keep the focus on the customer.
There is no magic formula to establishing good customer rapport and it is very hard work! But it is hard work that pays off if your company depends on repeat business from good and loyal customers.
Strategically, you should focus on your customer rapport before your competitors do.