A lot of businesses spend plenty of time and money to convince people that they treat customers like friends and family. They shoot commercials of happy people and happy employees and everybody hugging and smiling. But I’ve never gotten an invite to Thanksgiving Dinner from my auto mechanic. The fact is treating customers like friends means more than good marketing. It’s even more than just good service. Treating customers like friends is hard work, just like real friendships.
Care About Their Needs
Everybody has that friend that only comes around when they need something. It may take a while to catch on to the trend but sooner or later you put two and two together and stop answering Bob’s call, because you know he only wants to borrow your lawn mower. A lot of businesses are like that because they only really care about their customers as far as the front door, or when there’s money on the table.
In order to treat a customer like a friend you have to care about their needs. That means checking in when you don’t need anything. Is it expensive to “Just Say Hi” via post card? Not really. I recently heard of a car dealership that offers child care in their facility, because they know their customer base is largely comprised of families. A mom and dad need to be able to discuss the pros and cons of the Pilot vs. the Element without being asked for more animal crackers. Granted, not every business can afford to watch the little ones while their parents shop, but the point is they obviously put thought into what their customers need. Not only to have a relaxing browsing experience, but because buying a car is a HUGE deal, one that everyone will feel better about if the decision is weighed carefully and not rushed in a hasty attempt to get a 4-year old in front of Sponge Bob.
The point is that if, as a business, you are only using customers for their patronage without a thought to their personal needs, then you aren’t really treating them like friends. You’re treating them as a means to an end and nothing more.
Keep Your Promises
You know that friend who, every time you make plans, inevitably bails out at the last minute? Yeah, a lot of businesses are like that guy. They make promises and pledges and “give you their word” but when push comes to shove they’ve got a loop hole get-out-of-jail-free card they can’t wait to play. In order to really treat customers like friends you must live up to every word you say. If you say you have “great customer service” then you’d better not have a bunch of surly counter people who are more interested in talking to each other than helping customers. If you promise to “Exceed Expectations” but the subtext is “provided your expectations are really low,” that’s a problem.
When you think about it, the corner stone of keeping promises is integrity. We keep promises to people we care about not because it will be good publicity, or because it’s profitable. We keep promises because it’s the right thing to do. Too many business load their marketing copy with flowery language, words like “Best” and “Exceptional” and “Satisfaction Guaranteed” without any intention of living up to the promises those words imply. But to treat customers like friends you must honor your word, even when it means doing something you don’t want to do once in a while.
Respect Their Opinions and Ask for Advice
We all live our own lives, and don’t need to rely on our friends to make decisions for us. But when the chips are down, who doesn’t turn to a close pal for support? In business, being a friend means asking customers for their feedback. Finding out how your customers see your business is more than just friendly, it’s practical. How else can a company get a subjective view of their quality and service without getting input from those that are on the receiving end of it? It’s much easier to gain perspective on a problem with an outside view, and customers have that vital insight. Comment cards aren’t merely a way to act like you care about a customer’s experience. They are a channel for truly investigating where your strengths and weaknesses lie.
Getting feedback from customers is one of the most important ways a business can grow. Accepting reviews online creates great user-generated content and good reviews will help encourage new business. Bad reviews will shed light on areas that need improvement. Customer comments can also be used for much more than simply singling out individual employees for good or bad behavior. When there is a common theme to the criticisms, that’s a spotlight on where to focus your problem solving energies. On the flip side you can also identify areas of success that can perhaps be built upon. If you are brave enough to ask the question “What else would you like to see from our business,” your customers may actually be the ones to provide you with your next great idea. A good friend is always willing to give advice when you ask, but if they find that time and time again you take their input and throw it right out the window, they’ll eventually decide to save their breath. Customer feedback shouldn’t be a performance to give the impression of wanting to improve. It should be a valued method for enhancing your company’s performance. It also helps to show gratitude to those who take the time to help you out, either via recognition, a discount or some other incentive thanking your customers for being good friends to you.
Being a good friend takes work, and so does being an honorable business. But a lot of the principles overlap and carry benefits for everyone involved. When you care about your customers enough to be attentive to their needs, keep your word, and ask for their advice, you can turn patrons into friends in a meaningful way that goes well beyond strategic marketing.
About the Author: Lindsay is a Corporate Journalist for i-Sight, a Case Management Software program designed to help streamline common business processes like complaint management. Lindsay has worked in marketing as a writer, manager and brand consultant.