Do you ever really have a “customer”?

The thought occurred to me the other day around the concept of a customer… and more interesting the concept of “having” a customer.  Claiming someone is a customer is akin to some kind of ownership or commitment – almost like a marriage or business partnership.  Sure there’s often some level of contractual agreement – but I think the level of commitment is significantly than businesses may even suspect.

We have a sale!

Ultimately businesses are built on the premise of customer relationships.  You work hard, promote your ways, get a lead and after much cajoling, “wining and dining” (at least in service-based industries) you make a “sale”.  Alert the media – we just got ourselves a new customer!

Now typical business practice (if not theory) is that you just “bagged” yourself a new customer and it’s off to find the next one.  Of course you’ve appointed appropriate account managers, set up the customer in your customer service system and recruited some damn fine customer service managers.  In essence, new customer should be readying themself for some damn fine service.  And with all that in place there’s no reason they should ever want to leave you… right?!

Customers don’t stay

The reality is (in the above scenario) that “customer” is almost certainly to leave you.  Not today, not tomorrow – but I’d give it anywhere from 6 months to 3 years – and 3 years is often considered a good stretch!   Have a look back in time and think about all the customers you’re currently engaged with.  How long have they been customers?  Are any with you from the “early days”?  Chances are you burnt a few bridges in the early days as you refined systems & processes… but surely now, with all this in place, you’re customers are as safe as houses…?  They’re not – and deep down inside you know this better than ever.

Change the mentality

The problem is not (entirely) a structural one – it’s a mental one.  Businesses need to move past the idea that creating a sale and “getting” a customer are synonymous.  The reality is you never actually “have” a customer – at least not in their mind.  At best you’re dating.  And the dating may extend for several years… but you’re never getting married.  Ever.  Customers simply don’t place anywhere near as high a switching cost on changing providers (or partners, if you prefer) than they used to.  Even complex IT infrastructure, which used to be costly and time consuming to unravel and replace is now being heavily challenged by cloud-based, SAAS business models which can be rolled out in a fraction of the time (than they used to be).

But the news isn’t all-bad – it just requires a renewed focus on the Customer Experience (CX) as a whole.  Most businesses fall guilty of focusing of significantly too much effort on the Awareness through to Purchase phases of the Customer Lifecycle at the expense of Experience, Loyalty and Advocacy.  In today’s day-and-age it’s virtually commercial suicide.  Everyone knows how much more cost effective it is to retain a customer than get a new one – but we don’t concentrate our efforts (for the most part) accordingly.

It’s time for a change

So how do we change?  The first change is the mindset.  Remember that you’re “dating” your customers and act accordingly (maybe don’t take me too literally here – I’m talking strict commercial dating!)

Start with the basics:

Get re-acquainted with your customer

Remember how much effort you took to learn about them in order to “close the sale”?  Go back to the start and get a comprehensive understanding of their needs & desires.

Start “commercial” dating

Grab a coffee, remember their birthday, send them a get-well card…

Build value

Why did they become a customer in the first place?  Where do they see the value in your business relationship?  Get back to the basics and re-establish this value – whether this be through thought leadership, high-quality service or product innovation.

Extend the relationship

We might only be dating, but you can always ramp it up to multiple nights a week.  Map your service & product offering against their needs & desires.  Offer a free audit.  Run a workshop.  Find the opportunities and demonstrate value.

Keep them abreast

Let’s face it – as a business you do some pretty cool stuff.  But 9 times out of 10 your customers have no idea.  And as a customer (who you are dating) you have every right to be upset this information is being withheld!  So keep your customers abreast of your latest product & service offerings; case studies; wins and interesting facts & figures.  As a customer I may not care today, but chances are I’ll keep it on file as a reference for later if the information is genuinely valuable.

Final thoughts…

The moral of the story: Don’t take your customers for granted.  And change your single-minded sales focus (if indeed you have one).  Your customers (and your business) will thank you for it.