How to hold on to your customers and their critical revenue

By Chris Freeburn

Attracting customers is one of the hardest tasks a small business owner faces. Keeping them can be just as tough. Unlike large businesses, which can sometimes sustain a high turnover in customers, small business owners often don't have the luxury of large marketing and sales budgets to continue to acquire new customers. "Businesses succeed or fail based on their ability to bring people through the door and convincing them to spend money once they are there," says John Tschohl, president of the Service Quality Institute. "How the customer is treated once inside determines if they will ever come back."

One way to generate repeat customers is to give them a specific reason to come back. "If the consumer feels that he or she is getting something concrete whether that is in terms of savings on an item they want, or some sort of added good or service that may be enough to draw them back to your business, and hopefully to get them to spend some money," Tschohl says. Incentives can come in a variety of forms. Discounts are always a good draw and can be customized to fit a variety of needs. Try handing out cards offering discounts on specified items to customers whenever they purchase something. Small gifts with certain purchases are also a good idea. It's also a simple fact of human nature: People like to win things. So in store contests that offer interesting prizes are a good way to draw customer interest as well.



Give your best customers the best rewards
It seems obvious, but many businesses, both large and small, do not expend the effort to offer a graduated reward system. Without different levels, your low and high value customers are treated the same way, leaving your best customers feeling under appreciated. With only one level of award, there is also no incentive for low value customers to aspire to a higher tier by continuing to purchase. Setting up a system that begins with a simple "Thank you for your business" personalized note and progresses though periodic coupons, up to permanent discounts or automatic service upgrades can be easily accomplished by businesses of almost any size.

One of the most power ways to advertise your business is by word of mouth. Potential customers are much more likely to visit a business that has been recommended to them by a good friend, family member, or colleague. You can convince your customers to spread the word about your business by rewarding them for doing so. Those rewards can take the form of discounts on specified goods or services or small gifts for each new customer they bring to your business.

Make the Experience Count
Keeping customers happy is the best way to bring them back. A satisfied customer is a hundred times more likely to come back than a customer who had a so so or negative experience. The keys to success in customer experience are simple. Keep your place of business clean, professional, and attractive to the eye, and keep customer interaction with your employees easy and cordial. "Be attentive to customer complaints and be willing to go the extra mile within reason to handle any problems," advises Tschohl. Make it easier for your customers to do business with you than with your competitors. One of the best ways to find out how your customers feel about your business is to ask them. What do they like? What don't they like? Are there any products or services they need that your business doesn't provide? You can ask customers their opinions at the time of sale, or provide them with occasional questionnaires for their feedback. Making changes based on customer input can keep existing customers coming back.

Reach out and touch your customers
Another critical means to draw customers to your business is to make sure they keep you in mind. Your small business may not be able to afford a radio or TV marketing campaign and even newspaper ads can be pricey. Nevertheless, most businesses can afford a mailing campaign, targeted at their most frequent customers. Sending out discount coupons or news of recently added products or services, or community activities in which your business participates is a good way to remind customers about your business and prompt them to come back. Email is also an extremely cost effective means of reaching your customers. Many small businesses use email to alert customers to discounts and promotions, or provide ongoing information about products or news about the business itself. Such emails can keep your business in your customers' minds, even if they aren't considering an immediate purchase.

Make It Easy for Customers
A sure way to keep your customers coming back is to make it as easy as possible for them to purchase goods and services from your business. Increasing the number of ways a customer can access your business is a good start. Do you have a website? Can your customers order goods or services and pay for them through that site? Since most customers begin the product research on the web, your company should have at least some sort of web presence. But just having a website that advertises your business on line won't cut it anymore. Increasingly customers expect to be able to research and purchase online. If your website isn't able to handle ecommerce, then you have already lost potential customers. Setting up an ecommerce website is relatively easy; your web hosting company or ISP (internet service provider) can usually walk you through the process of turning your website into an online storefront. The frenetic competition between traditional phone carriers and new players, including cable and Internet companies offering VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) telephony options, has lowered the price and range of services available to small businesses. Adding a professional phone network to your business, or a 1-800 number, is now relatively inexpensive. Companies that advertise 1-800 numbers are more likely to attract customers, who may infer a larger sized business from a toll-free number.