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Street SmartsSM:
Primary goal: Keep customers satisfied

By Steve Schwimmer

If customers are the main reason for being in business, then a business should focus on satisfying customers. As busy merchant level salespeople (MLSs), it is no surprise that this vital component in running a business sometimes takes a backseat; however, there are things that we can do to make sure that we provide merchants with the best possible service.

Often, when customers leave they give little, if any, indication that they were unhappy to begin with. The real work is in the day-to-day relationship-building. From the minute the deal is closed the customer service work begins.

To find out what other MLSs think about customer service, I posted the following on GS Online's MLS Forum:

It is a very competitive marketplace out there, and keeping a healthy bottom line depends on repeat customers, not just new ones. The philosophy for good business has always been to listen to what the customer is saying so you'll know how to respond to meet your customers' needs. Does customer care need to go beyond this thinking?

Based on the responses received, it is apparent that many of you truly know the importance of customer care.

"After I sign a merchant, I try to make sure I frequent their establishment as much as possible," wrote MLS Forum member chett2787. "Whether it is eating at their restaurant or getting my car repaired, I always try to make myself noticed with at least a 'hello' and 'how's business?'

"I have found my attrition rate is low, but I've had to add other services ... and make sure I'm up on all the latest technology. If I don't take care of my merchant, a competitor will!"

By asking customers questions and listening attentively to the answers you will discover ways to meet their needs. Knowing what is on your customer's mind is an intelligent thing to do for your company and your client.

'Do unto others'

On the Small Business Administration's (SBA) Web site the SBA says that customer service is imperative and encourages businesses to follow The Golden Rule:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,' may seem self-evident in the way we try to conduct our personal lives, yet this axiom is assuming new importance as a guiding principle in the world of business.

"Treat your merchants like your family and some of them will treat you as such," wrote MLS Forum member KingJMS. "I think if you have a large MO/TO merchant base then it's tough to keep them 'sticky' with all the other offers being thrown their way.

"But if you work the town [in which] you live, I don't know how any of your merchants could leave unless you made a glaring mistake which cost them money.

"Just go in from time to time. Ask them about their account, changes to their business or future changes to their business. (They love this. I think every business owner is a kid at heart when discussing what they'd like to do with their business).

"Bottom line: Treat your customers right, and they'll know it. When they have a question, they'll call you. When their business-owner friend has a question, they'll call you."

Bad customer relations can be the root of many problems. Deloitte, a leading financial consulting firm, summed up its problems in retail banking by tracing it right back to service:

A retail bank typically loses half of its customers every two years ... a churn rate that would be unacceptable in most other businesses. One reason is that the level of customer service is often pretty mediocre.

The good news is that customer service is a very achievable goal; however, without it, the results can be devastating.

Look for trends

Part of your business strategy should be to review your current business practices. Look for trends and similarities. Have merchants left for no apparent reason? Do certain types of merchants leave over others?

Once these are identified, you will have a better understanding of the past in order to better care for merchants in the future. Many MLSs often fail to follow up with customers who leave. The question is: Will you do it now?

Make it personal

How important is it to put customers first? I asked MLS Forum members about using a personalized approach, which I believe goes along with putting customers' needs first.

"My merchants know that I will always be there for them," wrote MLS-KING. "I do all my installations and make certain I go through all the training and phone numbers they need in case something goes wrong.

"I also send out birthday, anniversary and special holiday cards. I've been known to grab some medicine or chicken soup for a merchant who is under the weather but stuck at his location.

"It's showing the customer you genuinely care for ... their business. This makes me more valuable to the merchant because probably none of his vendors do what I do. We become friends."

If you don't regularly recognize a merchant's important milestones or find other ways to show you care, now is the time to do so. Staying close to your customers, according to the SBA, is what smart companies do regularly.

When it comes down to retaining customers, promotions are also an effective way to stay close to them. These can be anything from free giveaways to loyalty programs.

Promotions work to increase or maintain business transactions. From birthday cards to giveaways, these programs cost money. So analyze where to best spend the money, and adjust the return on investment accordingly.

Know your limits

Keep an eye on from whom you receive the greater response to your efforts and from where the higher returns come.

Over the course of a year, if you decide to spend "x" amount, and you see a return of 10% or more in one area, review your spending efforts. Adjust and invest more where the return is higher and decrease it elsewhere.

It is also possible to go too far, so knowing just the right amount of service to give is critical. The economic environment of today is all about offering value-added services to spending-weary customers. It is important to understand where your efforts are best appreciated and held within your financial limits.

Examine your customer care programs and look for hidden costs to make sure going the extra mile won't limit the mileage of the programs and your company.

There are many ways to maintain customers, and some approaches discussed here will go a long way in maintaining your business goals. Another idea: Conduct a survey. Ask your merchants how well they think you provide them with service. Good or bad, you will benefit from the feedback.

As MLSs, we all have bad days; just don't let customers become a part of them. Although there will always be customers who do eventually leave, in spite of your best efforts, remember that they helped make you money.

Steve Schwimmer is NAOPP Treasurer. He has been serving the payment processing industry since 1991 and works with Renaissance Merchant Services. He is based in New York. Call him at 516-746-6363 or e-mail him at thevisaguy@516phoneme.com .

Article published in issue number 060201

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