A sales trainer colleague of mine from South Carolina asks audiences this question: What have you done recently to astound your customers? ASTOUND. To be astonishing to our customers is not just a noble goal, it's a necessary objective for retailers who plan to thrive into the next century.

Customer service programs are like diets:
(1) There are many books and proposals for how to make them work.
(2) Everyone who has successfully implemented a program thinks his or her way is best.
(3) The erroneous assumption is made that there is a start and end time to the program.

I love the old adage "How many diets does it take to lose weight?" Answer: "Only one, if you stick to it." Likewise, you need only one customer service program if you believe in it and stick with it. Diets and customer service programs should result in a permanent change in behavior, not a temporary reaction to a problem. I can't tell you what customer service program will work for you, but I can tell you that the longevity of your commitment is the most crucial element.

When my colleague talks about astonishing customers, he's talking about a permanent change in how you view customer service. My term has been "customer specialness." What are you going to do to make your customers feel special?

No longer can we simply provide customer service and "get by" with our customers. We can't send them a box of candy during the holidays and hope they'll forgive all the delivery problems the previous 11 months. The days of customer sustenance are over. There's too much domestic and international competition.

Even customer satisfaction is not good enough. Customers expect to be satisfied. They can have their needs adequately met by literally hundreds of your competitors. You need to move further and further toward delivering customer specialness, toward astonishing those who buy from you.

Specialness does not mean price cutting. Price is often secondary to service, quality, and time. When I was in the mattress-manufacturing business, we had a large order to get out and one of our suppliers shipped us the wrong parts. I called him at home and he personally went to the warehouse, saw that the truck was loaded correctly, and had a driver spend the night getting them to us by the next morning. Did we remember that? Of course. Did we mind paying a nickel more for the part than his competitor's price? Never.

My rule for years has been pretty simple: Promise your customers what they want and then deliver more. Does this keep customers? Every time. Buck Rogers' statement continues to ring true today: "Turning over inventory is exciting. Turning over customers is frightening." I challenge you to think about what your company is doing right now to have your customers feel special. Don't stop thinking until you've hit upon an idea you're already using or will implement. Maybe it's something one of your competitors is already doing and your customers will soon be expecting everyone to do.

Now keep thinking until you've come up with another idea. Make it a novel idea this time, something no one else is doing. Then let your customers know! You will gain a competitive edge in your retail industry that yields high regard and higher profits.

Mike McKinley: Transforming Today's Challenges Into Tomorrow's Business

Author's Bio: 

Michael McKinley, CSP, CPAE, is a business owner, consultant, professional speaker, and developer of Gem Gardens near Eau Claire, Wisconsin. As a professional speaker, Mike motivates people to take action and be accountable for the results. He builds and delivers customized presentations on business topics for corporations and professional associations. He owns McKinley Company, Inc., of Eau Claire, whose Alive! Alive! Associates division markets his speaking and consulting services. For more information, visit www.RealMikeMcKinley.com. Mike can be reached at 800-225-4769 or Mike@RealMikeMcKinley.com.