We haven’t had a King for a while, so it seems appropriate to modernise the adage I’ve used for the heading. And you don’t need to be a Royalist to appreciate the sentiment – your customer should always come first.
It seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how many firms neglect their customers. Of course the MDs and directors of these places would be horrified at the suggestion. ‘We love our customers,’ they will tell you. ‘We pride ourselves (etc., etc.) on customer support.’ But do they really?
In over 20 years working in the print industry I’ve seen plenty of evidence to the contrary. One firm in particular, let’s call them Puffin Print, has been in business for 30 years. In the beginning the owners were sharp, young and hungry. They hadn’t achieved anything yet. Customers were giving them work and paying well for it. Profit margins were high, and the Internet hadn’t come along. Print was the medium of choice for advertisers and promotions. They appreciated their customers, and they looked after them. Lunches, nights out, visits, extended customer support – all strategies that helped the firm grow, and grow rapidly.
Slowly things began to change. Margins got tighter, customers shrewder. Despite increased pressure on prices Puffin was growing and needed new business to feed the increased levels of staff and overheads. They kept supporting their existing customers, the 20% which, accurately adhering to Pareto’s principle, contributed 80% of the firm’s turnover, but the love was slowly fading to familiarity.
Customers need to feel loved. They are human beings after all. They want to know that you appreciate their custom. They also want you to concentrate on them. And your support should come in many forms. Listen to them, answer their fears. Let them know they are important to you. It is after all easier (and cheaper) to look after customers you’ve got than to go off searching for new ones.
Something else happened at Puffin. The MD and the directors got comfortable. They had made money, been successful and slowly lost their hunger. Then the Internet arrived and the print industry changed. Print runs got shorter. Email and direct mail began to target niche markets with greater effectiveness. So Puffin lost their focus, and the loyal customers that had been with them from the beginning started to fade away.
Of course business is complicated, and Puffin’s story reflects that. There is no one reason why this (imaginary) firm is now in a difficult place. The workforce is shrinking and the company has failed to adapt to new technologies. The website is static – a gesture to the new order rather than a showpiece for vibrant copy and a strategic vision. The original MD is close to retirement. The once hungry directors have either taken redundancy or moved on.
We’ll revisit Puffin later as they attempt to revitalise their business by adopting a more integrated approach to marketing. Their main problem will be developing a strategy and sticking with it. That will mean finding out who their customers are and what they really want from a modern printing business. It’s a cornerstone of modern business and management strategy. Yet ironically, if they’d paid more attention to customer support for longer than those heady, developing years, they would already know.