Have you ever called a supplier or service provider with a question and gotten passed around the company from one person the next? Or maybe you’ve met with a product rep, and he acted as if he was anxious to get on with his day and get you out of the office?
It’s that kind of experience that led retail consultant Rick Segel to write Becoming the Vendor of Choice. “I was just mad as hell and couldn’t take it anymore,” he says. “Sometimes I felt like shaking vendors and saying, ‘Don’t you get it?!’ ”
Segel worked in retail more than 25 years before starting Rick Segel & Associates, so he knows what it’s like to work with vendors who have no concept of an effective relationship. And the problem is pretty pervasive. For most providers, “it’s more about the lowest price and the best product,” he explains, but even with those advantages over the competition, you can lose customers (or fail to get them to begin with) if you don’t have the “likability factor.”
In his book, Segel writes in depth on how to make the customer relationship about more than just purchasing merchandise. “You don’t want to do business with people you don’t like,” he says, “no matter the price, incentives or product. If Al Gore or Hillary Clinton were more likable, they could have been president,” he adds.
Are you buying it?
If not, consider the Apple Store. “Nothing has ever come close to it in the history of retailing,” Segel argues. “Imagine bringing people to the store to teach them how to use the product.” No other computer company manages relationships the way Apple does, and that’s why the company has a devoted fan base.
Does Segel’s argument hold water in an age when experts claim there is no such thing as customer loyalty? Absolutely. “Relationship-building applies to any industry,” he says. “Today the key word is ‘free.’ What kind of creative, innovative and educational things can you come up with to make your customers loyal?”
Segel’s Top Tips for Relationship-Building
Get one-on-one. Nothing beats face time. Be a consulting partner, not just, say, the company that provides office supplies.
Offer education and expertise. If you can offer advice on your industry or related products for free or as a value-added service, do it. Remember the Apple store. Customers will flock to you if they feel they’re getting a product as well as an education in using it to improve their lives.
Use the web as a history lesson. Feature success stories of specific businesses you serve, how they use your product and service, and how their success could apply to other businesses.
Recognize your customers. Offer competitions and awards that honor them for their business and thank them for their loyalty.
Become a networking resource. Bring your customers in similar industries together to compare best practices. They may not know each other, but you know all of them. Help them get connected to learn from one another.