Friday, February 8, 2013

How Well Do You Know Your Customers?

Small businesses often try harder to cozy up to their customers because each relationship is so valuable, both in terms of short-term transactions and over the entire period of their business connections.

Community banks, for example, generally have deep roots in local areas and can get to know consumers and commercial customers very well.

Noah Bank, a tiny four-branch bank that targets Korean-American businesses, talks the talk (see newsletter at left) and walks the walk. It understands the complex professional and personal relationships that keep its business customers going and contribute to their financial success. Its officers are always out and about in the community, meeting with customers and listening to them talk about their situation and priorities.

Close customer contact like this also demonstrates a deep interest in customers and builds a strong foundation of mutual trust and respect.

Banks of all sizes, in particular, are seeking to rebuild trust and differentiate themselves in a meaningful way to retain customers and attract new ones. Citibank's European marketing director recently said that banks must "try harder." Consumer brand leaders such as Apple, she points out, can be good role models for banks, because these firms are known for their ability to identify and satisfy customer needs: "We need to elevate our holistic product to the level of leading consumer brands-to meet and exceed requirements. Give people a reason to choose you over rivals."

How can a marketer (especially a small business) find out about customer needs? Start by doing your homework on the customer, the industry, and the overall business environment. Think about the value your goods or services might add, depending on what individual customers need. Be knowledgeable and prepared before you see any customer.

Sales expert Geoffrey James suggests a few strategic questions during conversations with customers, such as: "Please tell me how your company uses widgets [insert your product category]." Then you can ask about challenges, based on your knowledge of this industry, such as "In my experience, inventory of widgets that are stored for some time might degrade before being used in production or operations. Have you experienced this?"

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