Catch And Don't Release -

Catch And Don't Release

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The business processes of a systems integration project can be both comprehensive and time-consuming. The sad part is that with all the time, effort and energy expended, most companies find themselves in a customer cycle that requires a continual effort to capture new customers.

Our story begins with a lead generated by some type of marketing or sales activity within your company. Contact is established with the prospect-Mr. Doe at XYZ Inc., and a meeting is scheduled to qualify the opportunity and determine the true needs and requirements of the project. Things look good: You have confirmed that the prospect has money for the project, and you understand exactly what they are trying to achieve. You return to the office, assemble your project team and begin work on the conceptual system design. A proposal is generated, and your next meeting is scheduled.

Your team meets with the prospects team. You layout your design, position your strengths, review timetables and present your proposal. You leave the meeting feeling good-your concepts were well received, the cost was within budget, and you felt good about how your relationship with John Doe was progressing. As you suspected, the next few weeks consist of minor changes and price negotiations before you receive the contract. Again, life is good.

Your engineers turn the conceptual design into final drawings and materials for the project are ordered. In-shop you begin fabrication, and your installation team begins its onsite activities. For the most part, things are going as planned. As anticipated, there have been a few hiccups along the way, but your continual communication and good relationship with John keep things on track.

The project is now coming to a close. Your team is doing final testing and commissioning of the system. You schedule a walkthrough with John, take care of any punch list items and schedule user training. Your training session is both well attended and comprehensive. John signs off on the project; you collect your money, and even get that reference letter that you requested. Everyone is happy.

Over the next year, John calls with a couple of problems, but they are quickly resolved by your service department under system warranty. You think about calling John several times during the year to go to lunch or just see how things are going, but things are busy (remember life is good), and you just never seem to get around to it.

Fast-forward a couple of years...
Your boss hears a rumor that XYZ Inc. is building a new facility that has a huge requirement for AV. At first, you are a little surprised that you haven't heard from John, but you tell your boss, "no worries," you will give your buddy John a call. Upon dialing his office number someone else answers the phone. You ask about John and come to find out that he left the company a year earlier. You also find out that the rumor was correct relative to the company building a new facility. You do your best sales job referencing the success of your previous project, your letter of reference and your great relationship with John. Although your new contact within XYZ Inc. listens intently, you are quickly informed that they signed a contract with your competitor two days earlier.

OK, so the story could have ended in several different ways, but the bottom line is that an excellent relationship was lost. Not surprisingly, it is estimated that the average American corporation loses half its customers every four years (Harvard Business Review, 1996). Although everyone knows that it costs more to acquire new customers than it costs to service existing ones, most companies continue to focus general marketing efforts on capturing new customers with little being done to encourage current customer loyalty.
So what are the best business practices that could be adapted for your company? Although by no means an all-inclusive list, there are several basic ideas that successful companies are using to avoid the customer cycle described above.

One of the simplest, often referred to as blueprinting customer contacts, is to identify all points of customer contact. Blueprinting customer contacts involves identification of your contact's counterparts, his boss, his bosses counterparts, etc. At the same time, identify your contact's subordinates. Try to gather and document as much information as possible including personality type, career path, hobbies, etc. If your contact leaves the company, he/she may be replaced by a subordinate. If they are replaced from the outside, you know their boss.

Continual updating and maintenance of the information shows appreciation for the customer as well as allowing more relevant and personal communications. Yes, communications is the key, and it can take on a variety of forms from simple to complex including personal e-mails/notes, company newsletter, and technology seminars/events. These types of communication help the customer feel like they are part of an exclusive group and that the company appreciates their loyalty. It also reaffirms the customer's past purchasing decisions and strengthens the ties for future purchase decisions.

True success in changing the customer cycle cannot be achieved without your company's management having a commitment to customers. This commitment not only reinforces the best practices outlined above, but also gives way to a bigger picture that includes a strong vision and strategy for customer service.

I see and hear real-life examples of the customer cycle portrayed in this article on a regular basis. Practicing some of the most basic principles described will help increase your company's profitability, increase your customer satisfaction and change your customer cycle.

Positive Feedback

Another best practice to implement for customer retention is the provision of an avenue for customer feedback. These activities can be both active and passive in nature.

Active activities include such things as traditional customer satisfaction surveys. Don't think of customer satisfaction surveys as only a post-project activity. With large integration projects extending over a long period of time, it is advisable to check customer satisfaction along the way. For example, at the beginning of a project a simple survey to see if preplanning was conducted properly will verify that the project is off to a good start. About halfway through the project, another survey will determine if installation is going as planned. When the project is finished, a comprehensive survey will provide a complete analysis of the customers' satisfaction.

Surveys should include multiple categories ranging from overall satisfaction to the performance of the project manager and professionalism of the installation crew. The results will not only keep the project on track but provide a wealth of data for your customer contact database.

On the passive side of customer feedback, create an easy-to-use process for receiving and dealing with customer complaints. This is one of the simplest but often overlooked methods to help retain customers and change the customer cycle.

-R. Randal Riebe