I’m always on the lookout for lessons in business improvement that reveal themselves in our regular “non-business” lives. This weeks’ “aha” moment is not super positive for me personally as it involves the unexpected closure of one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants, a place where my wife and I had dined probably a dozen times in our first 9 months in Chicago. I’m not going to name the restaurant. I don’t want to embarrass or disparage the owners/staff as I know all too well the difficulties of the restaurant business (besides my long career in manufacturing operations & sales, my wife and I founded/built/owned/operated fine-dining restaurants in New Jersey for over a decade).
We loved the space, the general feel of the room, the food, the cocktails, the accessible wine list. The staff seemed reasonably friendly, the music piping over the sound system was fun, and it was in an excellent location in a growing and developing area. All signs pointing up right? Well yes and no. There were too many nights where we could either make a same day reservation or walk in and get seated quickly. Where were the crowds? Plus, the menu stagnated, they stopped running specials or extra’s, and they started apologizing too often for being out of a dish or a wine listed on their menu. In combination none of these were good signs.
But the real thing that struck me about the place, and the one thing that I really think sunk the restaurant in the long run, was their lack of real customer engagement. Like I said, my wife and I had been there a dozen times over nine months, so we were fairly regular customers. Yet in all of the time we went there no one ever greeted us by saying “welcome back” or “good to see you again” or anything even indicating that they recognized us at all. We often were greeted by the same young lady at the door, usually saw the same bartender, typically had the same members of the service team at our table, yet never a flicker of recognition. Always “first time here?” or “let me tell you about how our menu works” they’d say. Sometimes even the manager or owner would stop by to ask us if it was our first visit. We were in their computer system as we’d made reservations more than half of the time we’d gone—all they had to do was look at our customer history. My wife and I would get to giggling, but deep down we really started to wonder what was going on. We were left to feel unseen, unrecognized, unappreciated. As a result, we stopped going there, just dropped off their radar, and frequented other spots that caught our interest. So, when the closure happened a few months ago I wasn’t completely shocked.
Is this type of thing happening with your current customer base? Are some customers just fading away quietly and leaving without you even being aware? If you can’t definitively answer “NO” to that question, then you’d better immediately start working on your customer engagement and appreciation because no business can afford this type of disconnect. And this connection to your customer must start with you. You have to embody a customer-centric attitude for everyone else in your organization to see—you’ve got to model the desired behavior for your team. Get out there and go visit your customers, both large and small. Thank them for their business, ask them questions about how you can improve as a supplier, and show some genuine interest in their future growth. Work with your sales team to identify important customers that aren’t afraid to share their opinions—and then go visit those customers so you can LISTEN and learn.
Secondly you need to engage your sales, customer service, marketing, shipping/transportation, and quality/engineering teams (basically any of your customer facing employees) in regular formal and informal discussions about your customers. Forecasting sessions, innovation and new product development meetings, data reviews of current and former customers, customer trends analysis, etc. Get the whole customer facing team engaged and active in connecting with and understanding all of your customers.
Thirdly you should make sure your customer connection technology and data are up to date. Is your sales/customer service team keeping your CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system fresh and populated with new information? Are you and other senior leaders engaged in this system and reviewing the data? When’s the last time you conducted a customer survey? Do you have current data on customer satisfaction and competitive trends? Technology isn’t a crutch and can’t take the place of good old fashioned face-to-face personal interactions with your customers, but you’d better be taking advantage of at least basic technology to enhance your ability to connect meaningfully with all of those folks who are your revenue stream every day. If you can afford it, a top shelf CRM system fully integrated with your ERP system is ideal. But don’t despair as there are great inexpensive cloud-based CRM systems available to fit any budget. The same holds true for customer and competitive surveys. You can use outside firms to do this work for you, and the data can provide you with a clear roadmap for improving your customer satisfaction scores. But there is a huge network of inexpensive (or sometimes even free) survey apps that can be used to get you started and as long as you pay attention to the feedback and use the data to improve, this effort will be well worth your time.
Don’t let your customers go unnoticed or unappreciated. Don’t let them fade away and into the hands of your competitors. Engage with them, thank them, and solicit their feedback. Engaged customers are repeat customers—absolutely your most important revenue source and the foundation on which you can build top line growth.
Invest in your customers and the people in your organization charged with customer facing responsibilities. Invest in making customer engagement and retention an integral part of your daily/weekly management routine. Invest in your own training and development to harness and build these new customer-centric behaviors, while communicating them throughout the entire organization. You’ll improve your top line and get happier, more relaxed and engaged customers and employees as a result, and your team will have more skills and resources to perform the tasks that drive your business forward every day. Don’t just say it—lead by doing it.
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