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Relationships key to customer retention (11/01)

By Ian Ross Most company marketing and customer service representatives talk a good game about creating customer satisfaction, but many do not have a clue as to how to keep customers.

By Ian Ross

Most company marketing and customer service representatives talk a good game about creating customer satisfaction, but many do not have a clue as to how to keep customers.

If anything, businesses constantly generate negative emotions instead of creating good vibes to keep customers for a lifetime, says James Barnes, an internationally acclaimed expert in marketing strategy.

Though most CEOs believe customer loyalty is the single most important management issue they face, a vast majority of business leaders have no idea of what drives this loyalty or where it comes from, Barnes says.

The marketing professor of 30 years at Memorial University and author of six books was in Timmins Oct. 18 at the Northern Ontario Business Awards as a keynote speaker during the NOBA Back to the Basics in the Digital Age conference. He provided some decidedly low-tech advice to delegates in speaking about customer retention in the digital age.

IKEA, the Swedish furniture maker and retailer, has the right idea, he says. IKEA is a company with an intuitive understanding of what the consumer wants and feels. Their best customer is not the one who buys the most, but those who like them the most, he says.

The idea is to develop "emotional loyalty" ties versus simply "functional loyalty." Offering free parking, flexible hours and customer points programs only goes so far with consumers until something better comes along, Barnes says.

Genuine relationships "come from the heart" and strike an emotional chord with customers instead of just providing "great products at great prices."

Demonstrate you will go the extra mile or give them something totally unexpected.

Barnes relayed the story of his stay at a Delta Hotel in Halifax. As a long-distance runner, he went for a 45-minute run and came back sopping wet, dripping through the lobby. A hotel employee immediately called him by name, offered to take his running gear, then washed, dried, ironed and left them folded at the foot of his bed.

"You ought to surprise the hell out of them, create a "wow" experience. Because if you're doing everything expected of a hotel, you're not doing enough.

"If you're doing something that everybody expects of your business, you're very ordinary. And ordinary doesn't cut it," says Barnes bluntly. "You've got to exceed their expectations."

What places exceptional companies above their competition is not only having a good core product and living up to promises, but being courteous, helpful, responsive, speedy and connecting to them on an emotional level.

Technology, for all its advantages, can actually "weaken" a business relationship if left in the wrong hands, Barnes says.

One of the best Internet Web sites that he says he has come across is FedEx. Their site allows customers to track a package around the world. "Whenever you involve the customer you've got something going," Barnes says.

One of the worst Web sites, he finds, is Mercedes-Benz. Wanting to e-mail the car maker to feature some of their advertising in an upcoming book, Barnes says he became frustrated when he had to first fill out a mandatory questionnaire along with his name and address in order to send an e-mail to Mercedes-Benz. The trouble was, there was only room for an American-style zip code, not a Canadian alpha-numeric postal code. He was unable to send his message and the site provided no fax or 1-800 number.

"You have to get beyond the functionality. Customer relationships is not the job of the IT department or the marketing department, it's everybody's job."