How to Thrive in 2009? Love Your Customers

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Customer Engagement
Customer Experience
Ah, the holiday season. Companies scramble to makes their Q4 numbers and fill the next year's pipeline. This year's bonus challenge: a recession. Every holiday season includes gifts, as well. Mine is to share with you some advice from several of 1to1's colleagues and associates on how to harness customer centricity to stay competitive in 2009.

Ah, the holiday season. Companies scramble to makes their Q4 numbers and fill the next year's pipeline. This year's bonus challenge: a recession.

Every holiday season includes gifts, as well. Mine is to share with you some advice from several of 1to1's colleagues and associates on how to harness customer centricity to stay competitive in 2009. I posed the following question:

What aspect of customer strategy will be the most useful to survive or thrive in this uncertain economy, and why?
The most common response: Act as a true partner. Other advice includes listening to customers, improving the relevancy of communications, increasing retention efforts, focusing on metrics and accountability, and streamlining processes without hurting the customer experience.

I was awed by how many people suggested really putting the customer first, as in, "understanding what their current needs are and helping out in any way we can," says Colin Thom, a technical sales professional. That could be extending credit terms, offering pro bono strategic counsel, or even helping clients move offices. Or "finding ways to connect your customers for the advancement of each of them," suggests Thom Monahan, owner of The Life Purpose Center of Montgomery.

Adds Roy Daya, CEO of Digital-Clay: "It is not just about giving the best price, but more important, really listening to customers and being a friend for them in this time of uncertainty. Ask them how you can help them, take the time to really understand what they are going through, and give them the best advice you can. Not as a salesman looking for a quick buck, but as a friend."

Putting customers first includes acting as a trusted advisor. This means finding ways to help customers succeed in their business and with their customers, as well as helping them to improve their use of your products and services. "Work in partnership with your clients and put their interests first," says Jonathan Treiber, cofounder and CEO of RevTrax. "This will build trust and create a stronger long-term relationship once the economy improves."

Listening to customers, which is integral to the trusted advisor role, was another common theme. Whether during in-person meetings or phone calls, or via social networks and online communities, organizations need to "engage in meaningful dialog" and harness customer insight. Then they must use that information not only to provide better service, processes, and products, but also to further improve communication and transparency. "It's our challenge as customer advocates to make sure the voice of our best customers is heard," says Bill Burris, 1to1 Customer Champion and advertising manager for Toyota Motor Sales, USA.

"Staying close to customers and understanding their needs are critical in any economy," adds Domenick Cilea, president of Springboard PR. "Implementing a social media strategy as part of your overall marketing initiatives is imperative and offers an excellent way to engage customers, attract new ones, and stay close to the nuances of your market."

Listening to customers and going "above and beyond" for them are two great retention strategies--another area of focus for success in an uncertain economy. "We see our smarter client companies shifting budget from acquisition to retention," says Mark Klein, PhD., CEO of Loyalty Builders. "There is less branding spend and more direct marketing to existing customers...for example, win-back campaigns and early warning systems to spot potential defectors, are high on client wish lists."

Other people who cite retention as a focus area suggest exploring creative ways to further existing relationships and building engagement by exceeding customers' expectations. "We approach every project and prospect as the most important one that we will ever do," says John K. Thompson, CEO, U.S. Operations, for Kognitio. "We are supremely focused on customer success and satisfaction...with a zealous commitment that we will help [customers] succeed beyond the level that was envisioned."

No matter what your approach, the first step "is to actually have a customer strategy," says Malcolm Wicks, director of SimplePlans. "The majority of businesses do not have one. They have fine words and sometimes fine deeds, but rarely is a consistent customer strategy understood and implemented throughout the organisation. It requires a joined up way of thinking about every key aspect of customers, from who they are and the customer experiences that they desire to shaping all business strategy and major decisions around the customers. The companies that really get this will be the ones who survive and thrive."

What will you do to succeed in 2009? Several people shared their own plans when they responded with their advice. I've included everyone's complete responses as comments below (thank you to all who participated!). Please add your insight and opinions, too.

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Also, check out "Put Customers First to Win in 2009," which takes a look at the issues everyone raised from another angle.

EXPERT OPINION
EXPERT OPINION