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This article was originally published on June 14, 2016.
As an entrepreneur, one of the best things you can learn to do is build a community of raving fans who will always choose your company when they need the products or services you sell. Let’s look at the various levels of community building that companies can do with their customers.
Level 1: Tolerate Your Customers
I actually once had the manager of a business tell me, “This would be a great place to work if it weren’t for the customers.” In other words, customers were pests that got in her way when she had more important things to do. It was a pain for her to take care of them. I’m sure people who patronized that business felt the lack of passion for their presence. The fact is, no one goes to these companies unless there’s nowhere else to get that product or service. In our highly competitive business landscape, however, there are few companies with no competitors. Consequently, this level of service usually only exists in government agencies.
Level 2: Meet Customer Expectations
Customer expectations form an important baseline in the business world. Nearly all customers approach companies with preconceived notions of how they should be treated. If their expectations aren’t met, they’re dissatisfied. They complain, tell all their friends, and never return to that business. If their expectations are met, things are OK. They’re not jumping for joy, but they’re basically satisfied. Level 2 companies go to great lengths to make sure all their customers are satisfied with the service they receive. Since a major objective is to mitigate the negative impact of unhappy customers, they often create a host of rules and policies for handling various transactions to make sure everyone will be satisfied. The problem is, satisfied customers aren’t always loyal customers. They patronize competitors’ businesses as well. In other words, being satisfied is the same as being neutral. Consequently, Level 2 companies have to constantly play the marketing manipulation game to entice customers to buy their products and services.
Level 3: Exceed Customer Expectations
I recently visited an entrepreneur who owns a small lumberyard in the Philippines. She’s doing very well even though she has several nearby competitors. When I asked her about her success, she said, “Everyone likes me more than them.” I asked her why, and she said, “I get what customers want, I cut their wood for free, and I deliver it for free. No one else will do this for them.” This is what it takes to produce raving customers and long-term loyalty: providing more than people expect to receive. I call this “mind-boggling service” because it violates customers’ preprogrammed expectations on the high side. When customers receive service beyond their imagination, they rave about it to all their friends, come back again and again, become advocates for the company, and even feel guilty if they visit a competitor’s business. Successful entrepreneurs understand this concept well. They offer excellent prices, lots of personal interaction, extra services for free, astounding speed of delivery, superb customer support, money-back guarantees, etc. Overshooting customer expectations is a critical step in building a tribe of raving fans.
Level 4: Engage Customers in Business
The ultimate way to build a tribe of loyal followers is to include customers in the actual development of your business whenever possible. When you collaborate with them in a way that meets both their needs and yours, it binds you together in a meaningful long-term relationship. In a small way, they come to feel that your company is also their company. In our frozen dessert company, I created a group of “customers as partners” who came to regular taste panels, helped create our product line, and gave input on other aspects of our business. In return, I offered them VIP cards that entitled them to half-price on all our products for a year. These fans became our greatest advocates with our broader customer base.
Level 5: Create Mind-Boggling Customer Service
It’s easy to provide amazing customer service when you’re the only one responsible for it. It’s harder to maintain that level of service when you’re no longer the solo service provider. Successful entrepreneurs not only provide mind-boggling service early on, but they also create brilliant systems for maintaining dazzling service as their business grows, so every customer will have the same experience regardless of who serves them. This is how successful entrepreneurs accomplish this:
- They hire decent people who also believe in their mission.
- They create a strong culture that focuses on customers as partners.
- They lead by example and serve customers themselves.
- They shun policies that might interfere with great service.
- They give team members the autonomy to solve customers’ problems.
- They have constant dialogue about cases that arise with customers.
Mind-boggling customer service was the top priority for our frozen dessert company, but as we hired hundreds of teenage employees, we realized our emphasis on exceptional service was slipping. Here’s what we did. First, we asked our customers to help us define “mind boggling” service from their perspective. We wanted to know what it would take to significantly exceed their expectations. Next, we created a “Profile of Mind-Boggling Customer Service” that outlined the answers they gave us and committed to do these things with every customer who patronized our business. Finally, we used this profile to drive every human resource process in our company. Here’s how it worked:
1. We hired team members who could naturally perform the behaviors in the profile.
2. We trained all team members to implement the profile with customers.
3. We evaluated team members regularly on how well they were executing the profile.
4. We rewarded team members based on how well they scored on the profile evaluation.
So how did our system work? It was an ongoing challenge because it was implemented through hundreds of teenagers. Nonetheless, we witnessed remarkable efforts to exceed customer expectations on a daily basis.
Competition is intense in every industry. More businesses are providing more products through more channels than ever before, and customers ultimately buy from the companies they like the most. Hence, customer service is the battleground of our era. Successful entrepreneurs first discover ways to give customers much more than they expect to receive and then create systems for perpetuating exceptional service on an ongoing basis as the company grows. The goal is to build a tribe of followers who have chosen you as the place they will always go to get certain products or services. Ultimately, your tribe can enjoy the same sense of community we find in small towns—people know each other, like each other, and help each other.