Think Like A Customer (written September, 2004)

If you want to improve your sales, then Think ┬áLike Your Customer! The old saying, “the customer is always right,” was never more true than today. People have many more choices in what and how to buy. They can order so-called “mail order” with or without filling out a form: many companies take orders over the phone with a credit card. With Internet access, they can fill out forms at their computer and simply “click” on the items they want. Even in small towns, consumers usually have a choice of buying at big chain stores with discounted prices or selecting purchases from small shops where the price and the level of service are both higher.

If you have a small business and want to capture consumers today, you need to know what these people want. Then give them something more.

#1. Offer Convenience. People today buy at all hours, and realizing this, many of the bigger stores are open around the clock. Most companies that take orders over the phone have staff members or at least voice mail to take calls at any hour of the day or night. If you have a small business where it’s just you and a few employees or perhaps just your family, you probably aren’t eager to be available to customers 24 hours a day. But you can offer convenience that’s custom tailored to your own best customers. First there’s the matter of your published or official hours. For example, you could keep your doors open for customers who need to buy on their way home from work or from school. Or for certain businesses, you could drive your van or truck to where people take their breaks or have lunch, being careful not to violate any laws or regulations of course. If you have to begin work early and stay open late, take your break routinely in the middle of the day.

#2. Make Exceptions. Someone needs something from you on a Saturday night or a Sunday afternoon. Can it wait until Monday? If it can’t, find a way to make the delivery when the customer wants it. Naturally, you can’t do this for every small purchase, so you need to establish some rules. For example, a $200 order may call for an exception while a $10 one would not. Or a customer who orders from you routinely would have earned custom treatment. Perhaps you will also want to make exceptions just because someone’s need is great even if their order isn’t large. It never hurts to do a good deed unless you do too many of them and customers begin to have unrealistic expectations.

#3. Offer Quality. Your customers want the best or they would be buying from the big discounters instead of coming to you. Keep up with what’s happening with the products you sell to be sure you’re offering your customers good quality at a fair price. Stay abreast of new developments too so you can offer the latest bells and whistles or at least have an opinion about them.

#4. Offer A Variety Of Items. Maybe you just have a few things or a single line of products that you sell. In general, it’s wise to focus on a few things and develop some expertise rather than spreading yourself too thin. But there may be related sales that you’re missing because you haven’t considered developing a secondary line. Find suppliers who will give you a discount on a small volume. Look over their goods to make sure their quality is up to par. Try to deal only with the suppliers who offer timely, reliable delivery, and let customers know if there’s likely to be a delay. Maybe you don’t want to order samples of items you’ll rarely sell. Simply having some categories available for your customers can bring you additional sales. Naturally the more you know about these products, the better your sales will be. Sometimes you’ll need to search out a special item that you don’t usually carry as a special service for one of your better customers.

#5. Offer Advice When You Can. Customers come to you rather than the larger operations not because of who you are but because of what you know and what you can do for them. If you can make recommendations that enable someone to save money, or show them how to get additional months of use out of an item they were ready to discard, they’ll probably be at your door when it is time to replace the item. If you recommend a less costly item when they’d been considering an expensive one, they’ll be happy to buy from you. Customers may find more convenience, variety and better prices dealing with large enterprises. But many of them prefer to buy from businesses they can trust. Offer the most convenience and variety you can. When it comes to service and trustworthiness, here’s where you can have an edge. Make the most of it.

The author of this article is Larry Costello, President of All-American Print & Mail, 2200 Wilson Blvd #102-57, Arlington, VA 22201.