March 16, 2010
A corporate-style branding effort requires a corporate-sized budget. But if fancy logos and mass advertising aren’t in your budget, you can try building your brand one customer at a time.
Read one marketer’s recommendations for using personal communications to connect with your best customers. Through simple, low-cost tactics, you can build stronger relationships and establish a brand identity that’s more than just an image.
Too many small- and medium-sized businesses get hung up on corporate-style branding because that’s what bigger companies are doing, says George Torok, President, Power Marketing.
"Small and medium businesses would be far better [off] spending the time and money on relationship building, and the brand thing will come out of it by itself," says Torok. "A brand is not about colors or logos or fonts -- a true brand is about a feeling that people have about you."
Torok’s firm helps owners and marketers at small- and medium-sized businesses develop a more personal touch with customers. Below, we highlight seven tactics Torok uses to establish and maintain those relationships. These efforts require time and diligence, but they are very inexpensive.
Tactic #1. Make company leaders available to customers
Smaller companies have an advantage over large corporations -- there are fewer bureaucratic layers between the top and the bottom. Take advantage of the situation and give customers access to top-level management.
Access can be granted in several ways, including:
o Having executives visit sales floors
o Attending industry conferences
o Having an open-door policy for phone calls
o Attending or hosting live chat sessions, forums, or other industry-related social media events
"That doesn’t mean you spend all your time on the showroom floor or going to networking events, but you need to be seen," Torok says. "You put a human face on the business for your clients, which makes them feel better about doing business with you."
- The door is not always open
Maintaining an open-door policy does not mean customers can reach you at will. But it could mean establishing times for customer calls, such as between 9-10 a.m. on Thursdays.
Tactic #2. Reach out and be heard
Customers feel special when you reach out to touch base. This can be done through:
o Direct calls
o Social media sites
o Handwritten notes and postcards
Postcards can be particularly valuable as a quick, personal way to reach out. A two sentence handwritten message is much more personal than a typed email. You can send 20 or 30 postcards while waiting for a plane. Postcards are waiting for you in the gift shop.
- Not every customer is equal
There is not enough time in the day to call or write postcards to every customer, just to ask how they’re doing. Prioritize efforts around your most valuable accounts and prospects.
Tactic #3. Request introductions from sales
A good way to start building relationships is to have your sales team introduce you to your best customers, Torok says. Good ways to connect include:
o A simple telephone call
o Tagging along on sales visits to their offices
o Being present when they visit your office
- Coordinate customer contact with sales reps
Tactics such as writing postcards and sending messages through social media are fairly innocuous, and do not take much of the customers’ time. However, phone calls and scheduled meetings should be approached more delicately.
Your sales team might be in the process of closing a deal, and you do not want to interrupt that process. Have an open line of communication with sales to avoid any miscues.
Tactic #4. Ask customers about their business
Your natural inclination might be to ask customers if they are satisfied with your product and service, and if they have any complaints or questions. However, a conversation with a customer is also a great time to find out more about their business.
During conversations, ask customers about:
o Opportunities in their business
o Biggest headaches
o Biggest fears
o Plans and predictions for the future
This information will give you a better understanding of your customers’ needs and mindsets. The more you understand them, the better you’ll be able to design marketing campaigns and new product features.
Also, asking for this information shows a real interest in the person with whom you're speaking. You will be gathering important business information while making a strong personal impression.
Tactic #5. Send small gifts
The more relevant and personalized you can make the gift, the better it will connect with your customer.
Torok suggests books. There’s at least one for every topic, so it’s easy to find one that’s likely to interest a customer. Also, you can write personal messages and sign books just like postcards. So if you have five top customers who are interested in golf, buy each a copy of a popular golfing book, pen a message inside, and mail it to them.
"If you receive a book from someone that they personally autographed for you, people don’t tend to throw it away, even if they don’t read the book," Torok says. "They put it in a special place on their shelf and they remember you."
Tactic #6. Manage your time wisely
As mentioned, not all of your customers are equal. Set rules that will determine which customers receive friendly calls, postcards, gifts, etc. Some customers might "qualify" for a gift, while a postcard might suffice for others.
Also, create a schedule for customer outreach. You may plan to send 30 gifts and 200 postcards this year, but you certainly don’t need to send them all at once. Use scheduling software, such as Microsoft Outlook, to program reminders.
If you have a clever IT department, they may be able to build a solution that connects to your customer database, classifies customers to contact and schedules when to reach out.
Tactic #7. Scale back if necessary
This strategy could spin out of control and consume too much time with overly ambitious goals. Remember, you have the rest of your job to consider. If you find yourself too pressed to keep up with the contact schedule and have to scale back, don’t fret.
"No one will really notice," Torok says. "No one expects there to be a regular schedule of postcards. If someone received a postcard two years ago, they’ll still remember it."
If you have to scale back, start by raising the bar for your contact rules. For example, you might have planned to call customers who purchased two or more times last year. Try raising the bar to three or more purchases and see how many calls that leaves you.
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