A writer in ‘Fast Company’ magazine recently suggested that companies that prosper over the long term don’t just offer good deals – they exude genuine affection for their customers.
I think this is true. I also think there’s a critical opportunity in there for the small to medium size business.
The smaller business is typically reliant on service to distinguish itself from its competitors and it is in the area of service delivery that affection for the customer – or its absence – is most keenly felt.
The larger business can build its brand through advertising that strikes an affectionate tone – the Bulmer’s ‘Nothing Added But Time’ and Bank of Ireland’s ‘Ask Not What Your County Can Do For You’ ads are classic pieces of communication that suggest a genuine fondness for the customer. Mind you, I find it intriguing that the Bank of Ireland seems to demonstrate a greater regard for the customer as GAA fan than as account holder. But that’s another story.
Despite the efforts of these and many other excellent advertising campaigns, it is difficult for a large business to express affection for its customer in a consistent and credible manner. Superquinn, which once demonstrated extraordinary levels of affection, is learning this to its cost, as it seeks to extend its reach and grow its customer base.
The smaller business has the opportunity to demonstrate affection in a much more immediate way. And yet relatively few of them do. Very often the smaller business is focused so much on product and the mechanics of service that there is little affection in evidence. On the contrary, a great number of relationships with the customer seem to be driven by fear, with the overriding tone one of hostility, condescension or even contempt.
In these circumstances, the customer is often regarded as adversary, a demanding force that must be placated at any cost. Even when this feeling towards the customer remains unspoken, it defines the relationship. Whether the customer consciously acknowledges it or not, it is keenly felt, because it is almost impossible to fake affection on an ongoing basis.
The challenge for the business owner is to establish a relationship that enables real affection for the customer to shine through. In this model, the customer is regarded as partner, co-conspirator, and honoured guest and becomes as committed to the prosperity of the business as the business owner herself.