D_Strom.jpg (7967 bytes)A general axiom in business states that it costs at least 3-5 times as much to acquire a new customer as to make a sale to an existing one. Consider the following examples:

  • Upon coming in to get your vacation film developed at a busy film-processing outlet, the person at the counter remembers your name, has it spelled correctly on the slip before you reach the counter, and has you on your way with a smile in less than 30 seconds.
  • In seeking a particular part for a home repair project, the hardware sales person not only shows you what you need, but demonstrates a tricky obstacle that might be encountered. After you get home and finish the project, you suspect the salesperson saved half your Saturday.
  • Your family’s ATV breaks down only days before Memorial Day weekend. When you tell this to the person from whom you bought it, he has it picked up, fixed and returned by Friday night.

These are examples of both small and large gestures in the name of customer service. All of the acts inspire admiration for the competent person performing the job, a person who has an obvious appreciation for the nuances of the field in which he or she works. These people have the initiative to take pride in what they’re doing—whatever they’re doing—and the common sense to apply their knowledge to real world situations. Moreover, their actions convey an understanding of the customer’s circumstances. And this is one of the key determinants for establishing customer loyalty.

One would think that in today’s wired-in world, more of this type of service would be occurring. Currently, a store from which you purchase bluejeans can tell if you’ve gained an inch around the waist in the past year. Unfortunately, this type of information is rarely used for anything other than flooding your mailbox with solicitations to join Fat Guys Club International, or to buy knickers so enormous that they could double as a parachute. Rarely, at least at this point in the evolution of data-mining, do these rather intrusive types of information collection translate into a personalized benefit for the individual consumer.

But most marketers predict this will change, and that this change will be a pivotal force in the retail marketplace. Firms are becoming more desperate than ever to keep “prime” customers. Larger retailers will start thinking more clearly about the information they collect, reward people for sharing that information with them, and provide real, personalized rewards for being a loyal customer. Different deals for different customers will be offered, with special incentives for loyal customers being offered more frequently.

However, the advantages of data-mining and clever technology can go only so far. It has been estimated that about one-third of all customer-relations management programs undertaken by corporations fail. Stated simply, nothing takes the place of a person with initiative, who solves problems, stands accountable and is a crusader for the customer.

Nowhere may this be more true than in the hearing care field, where the customer often comes into an office highly vulnerable and anxious, and in need of some hand-holding. While the retail landscape of hearing instrument dispensing continues to change, and the future will almost certainly see larger dispensing networks and increased competition from sources like direct mail and the Internet, the basic tenets of customer satisfaction and professional service will still carry the day for independent offices.

Karl Strom