How to Manage a Successful Relationship

The following blog also appeared in the 10-10-14 edition of the Portsmouth Herald newspaper.

I’m afraid those of you who were looking for advice for dealing with your partner will be disappointed. What I’m going to touch on today though, if you’re in business at least, is as important and maybe even more complicated. The kind of relationships I’m talking about are customer relationships; whether you run a restaurant, retail store, machine shop, consultancy or a software company the most important assets you have besides your products are your customers. OK, so that probably rates a great big “Duh!” Can’t be a successful business without customers, right? True, but I want you to pause a minute and consider these two questions: When do you start caring about a customer? When do you stop thinking about one?
For too many businesses, the answer to the first question is as soon as they buy something. For just as many, the answer to the second question is once they pay their bill. I’d like to suggest a different path, an approach that represents a model more reflective of how today’s potential customer becomes a customer. This model is called, rather unromantically, Customer Success Management or CSM. It has its current roots in the technology world where buying habits, information gathering, decision-making, and product use have undergone a profound evolution as the world of “Cloud” software has expanded and vendor-hopping become easier to do, but its applicability is nearly universal.
CSM is founded on the recognition that potential buyers can learn a great deal about what they may want to purchase on their own, long before a pesky salesperson gets involved, and a selection once made, can be changed with a few clicks of a mouse. For those of you who are in retail or other service-oriented businesses, it’s time for another “Duh!” Loyalty has been a challenge since the dawn of commerce (or at least until the invention of competition). The response to finding ways to keep a customer a customer run the gamut from loyalty cards (your favorite restaurant or shopping discount card) to penalty-heavy agreements (think cable and mobile plans) and pretty much everything in between.
But Customer Success Management goes beyond single actions or programs to embrace everything that happens to a customer—before they become one, in fact, and after they’ve signed on the dotted line. The notion is to make the initial inquiry (looking at a website, peeking in a window, reading a menu) a positive experience, one that is continued through the decision-making process (Should we go in? What am I getting? Can I trust this purchase? Is it worth the money?) and extended long past the close of the transaction. Ensuring that the customer is succeeding after a purchase is at least as important as getting paid, because in most businesses, a happy customer can return again and again. Happy customers share the good experience and invite others. Unhappy customers go away without warning—there is rarely the chance to make things right if you’re not paying attention.
Paradoxically, the point of greatest risk for the business is after the transaction has concluded. That’s when applying CSM to make sure the customer remains engaged is so important. Making sure they are successful (read: happy) may require more work but it’s a critical step in getting them to be an advocate, a source of other customers, a repeat purchaser. Depending on your business, that may mean as little as a follow up call to make sure they’re happy with their purchase, to thank them for their business and to make sure they are able to do what they wanted with what they bought.
In other cases applying CSM may lead to training sessions, outreach to help set up the purchase as well as the more overt relationship calls. The key to all of Customer Success Management comes down to one word: proactivity. Acting ahead of expectations, having their information at your fingertips, taking the extra step to ensure your customer is not just happy but successful will make a huge difference for your business, whatever it may be.
Educate and guide a prospect and they’re more likely to decide to become a customer. Make them feel as important after they commit as you made them feel during the selling process by having a vested interest in their success, and you’ve got a great chance of gaining their business for the long term. It’s a lot less expense to sell to an existing customer than it is to continuously find new ones. That’s a relationship worth having!

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