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Give `em What They Want
Partnering With Your Customers

by Edwin Richard Rigsbee

Partnering with your customers takes many innovative forms and shapes. The "table stakes" are being raised in business. Customers are looking for value for their dollar and for their existence to be acknowledged by those who desire to release them of their expendable income.

An excellent, but near extinct method is the honor system. Though not at every corner, the honor system is alive at Bart`s Books in Ojai, California. When the store is closed, customers can still browse through, select, and purchase from about 1,000 used books found on a dozen bookcases mounted on the outside walls of the store. A carved sign on the door, as stated in a recent Los Angeles Times article, "When closed please throw coins in slot in the door for the amount marked on the book. Thank You" About this lost practice of community/merchant trust, Owner, Gary Schlichter says, "We feel good about it. It`s a tradition going on since the store opened 26 years ago. Very seldom does someone take a book without paying. It restores your faith in humanity. I`d say at least 95% of the time people drop their money into the box."

Bob Fletcher claims to be the nation`s biggest seller of home organs, and makes money at it, despite a powerful slowing trend (222,400 new home organs were sold in 1977, down to 13,300 in 1991), reports The Wall Street Journal. He`s doing it by reinventing the market by selling solace to the lonely and recreation to the bored. He holds organ classes at his Gulfview Square Mall store in Port Richey, Florida and 20 other mall located Fletcher Music Centers. Every 10 weeks about 9,000 customers, including spouses, sign up for yet another round of classes at his stores.

How does he "hook" a new customer? His stores sells their cheapest model at a loss. After some free lessons (with the purchase of an organ, a lifetime of lessons are included) buyers are encouraged to trade up to more elaborate models that have the advantage of healthy profit margins. From a local bookstore to a small chain selling electronic organs, taking care of customers using innovation pays off.

Ford estimates that women are now spending about $65 billion annually to purchase cars and trucks according to an Los Angeles Times article. Industry analysts suggest that manufacturers cannot afford to overlook the extent of women`s purchasing power. Flora Brooks, a Ford engineer, explained how the company`s partnering with women influenced a design change. After one of the Women`s Marketing Committee members caught her high heels on a seat track in the Mercury Villager minivan, the track was redesigned. Slowly the American auto industry is asking women what they want, and whomever gets really good at asking and listening, will command a lion`s share of the market.

The need to partner with customers, become market or customer needs driven is more crucial today than ever before. Evidence indicates this trend will continue throughout the current decade and lead business into the new millennia. Increasing your market share through partnering is a logical adjunct. Classic Video, an independently owned retailer of home entertainment electronics, located in Newbury Park, California, has an advertising policy I believe is particularly effective. Their claim is to "match any advertised price." If you are a retailer, you might be currently making the same offer and that`s great. However, they go a step further to partner with their customers by displaying all the major, greater Los Angeles area advertisements in the store. Customers know that they are getting a great price and a great service.

Next time a customer tells you how much they enjoy your store, business or service ask them to put it in writing. They usually will! Display these letters in a noticeable public location. You`ll be amazed how many you can collect in a reasonably short period of time. Regular customers will want to have their stories or comments posted they will really see themselves as your partner with their name posted prominently where their friends can see it. The result, a community bulletin board of recognition which will honor you, as well as, your partner customers.

If you`re a manufacturer, consider producing a poster listing the steps you use to produce the "Quality Advantage" or some other message you want to convey to the end user. Give them to companies that distribute or resale your products. Leave space at the bottom for your customers to print their name making it a personalized specialty advertising poster. Retailers will surely display the poster, assisting your positioning efforts and receiving personal benefits by using it as a selling tool in pushing your product.

Unbundle additional services from your basic product pricing. Lower your price to be more competitive and place surcharges on those "extra" services. Be willing to selectively let some customers and maybe even partners "walk." Firms that are anxious about potentially negative consequences should "pilot test" this strategy. By closely monitoring the responses of customers, competitors, and people within your firm; your management team can determine the viability of this alternative. If and when complaints arise, by remaining steadfast, you will be able to sustain the policy, although relations with customer partners may initially be strained. Additionally, you will gain some valuable implementation experience.

Remind your customers it`s time to re-order or inform them that new products are available. A couple years ago I was introduced to an innovation in the automotive service industry which today has become table stakes an electrostatic windshield sticker. The sticker was placed on the upper left-most corner, reminding me when my next oil change was due. The sticker made my life easier because I didn`t have to remember when my car was due for the next oil change. Additionally, with the Unocal name (my first) on the sticker it reminded me where to go for that next service.

Send post card announcements regularly. The reason I suggest post cards is that it`s less expensive than first class letters, and even less than bulk mail. An additional benefit is that you can keep your mailing list clean by printing "ADDRESS CORRECTION REQUESTED" below your return address, and the post card will come back free do it with bulk mail and you must pay first class return postage.

I purchased a small quantity of envelopes mail order and about three months later I received a letter asking if it might be time for a re-order. It was a nice touch and I did eventually re-order from them when I had the need. They stayed visible in my mind as you should in the mind of your customers. Always look for reasons to communicate with your customers (be innovative) and softly suggest they buy because they will!

Partnering with your customers and partnering for increased market share is one in the same, both cut from the same bolt of material. This is not a new paradigm, but an age-old and time tested system for getting what you want while assisting others to get what they want. Adopt the belief that all concerned parties can win, actively pursue with vigor, and you`ll prosper handsomely over time.

Copyright Edwin Richard Rigsbee. All Rights Reserved.

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