When I worked up in Town, I remember that one of my secretarial duties was to file away all the business cards that my employer had collected when he attended different industry events/corporate parties/business lunches.
Our small business customer relationship management existed in the form of about four leather-bound books containing several hundred cards, most from different individuals representing the same major players in our niche, but there were an awful lot of bits of thick paper. Very occasionally, I would be despatched to look through the plastic pages to see if I could help my boss to remember the name of the person he had been chatting to about a particular deal a few months before so that he could invite him out to lunch.
In what my kids would term ‘the olden days’, networking was done over lunch or in the pub across the road from the ‘market’ but this was the City and it was not a process that really affected local businesses. Such establishments would get their custom from passing trade, many of whom would be regulars because that shop/firm would be the only emporium of that particular type locally. They might give out a few ‘gifts’ at Christmas to those clients who had supported them the most but, more often than not, they had a pretty captive market because no one was going to travel all the way to the next town on the off-chance that things might be a bit cheaper.
These days, every High Street has two or three representatives for any one type of store – butchers, greengrocers, hairdressers, accountants, solicitors, restaurants, cafes, wine bars, pizza, fish and chip, and other fast food outlets, banks, building societies, chemists, off licenses – and these are all in competition with the giant supermarkets, who seem to have a toe in a vast number of markets that never used to come under their remit. Times have changed and people are no longer confined to shopping locally. Suddenly, the competition is not only right on your doorstep, it’s in every other local shopping centre, as well as on the internet.
This is why it is vital for small bricks and mortar businesses to hold on to their regular clientele, but so many of them have absolutely no idea who these are and no way of contacting them.
I was listening to a webinar recently and the speaker reminded us of the ‘goldfish bowl’ that used to stand at the check out of most businesses in days gone by – well, in small town America anyway. This bowl was a repository for the business cards of the regulars – just in case anyone needed their services. That was what you did. You made opportunities for yourself by leaving your card in places that other people might see it. Nowadays, most shops no longer have such a thing… or if they do, they just dispose of the contents after a week or so, with barely a second glance.
But, said the speaker, if you turn the original purpose on its head, isn’t that a great way to find out who your regular customers are?
In today’s hugely competitive market place, we should be using every method at our disposal to discover and retain the identities and contact details of our customers so, if they don’t return for some reason, we can offer an incentive to make them check us out again. Often, they haven’t come back because they’ve just forgotten the great service that was given. In today’s busy world, there are so many distractions and, if someone else is shouting louder/offering a cheaper service, it is easy to forget the original provider. Loyalty is not really a reliable commodity any more.
By offering your customers an incentive to leave their email address or name and phone number, a business can acquire a list of clients and have the ability to contact them from time to time with the offer of a money-off coupon or just to keep them advised of new business activities/changes of menu.
It’s a far more cost-effective way of advertising because you are preaching to people who have already tried and, hopefully, enjoyed the company’s service. Think about what happens if you put an advertisement in the Yellow Pages or local newspaper. These tend to be grouped together according to service/niche and so your ad is surrounded by all your competitors. If one of them is offering the service more cheaply than you, then you’ve wasted your money on that advert. They also tend to be aimed at a very large geographical area so you can also lose out if you’re too far away from the customer’s locale.
If you can email your customer base with a coupon, that’s a great deal cheaper than putting the same discount promotion in a newspaper ad and also a lot more focussed.
However, small business customer relationship management is still a tricky thing. There are rules and etiquette and codes of behaviour. Certainly in America, there are even federal laws covering ’email solicitation’. And you can’t just keep trying to sell people stuff or they will unsubscribe.
As with all social media, the goal is to provide information and offer good service. To build trust in your brand so that when people do need your product, it is you that they remember.
It’s not a quick process, it takes time. But it is an extremely worthwhile endeavour.
So, where is your goldfish bowl?