Gimmicks laid to rest

Smart companies are finding the best promotion is to get close to customers.

One of the fringe benefits of being a journalist is the parade of promotional items sent to pique your interest in a story. And one of the best conversation pieces I ever received from a public-relations type was a pair of handcuffs, with a note imploring me not to lock myself into one way of thinking. The handcuffs made such an impression on me, that for a time I showed them to anyone who stopped by -- even embarrassing myself once by accidentally cuffing myself to my office chair without knowing exactly where the key was. Even that incident made for some great "I Love Lucy" type comedy as I unsuccessfully tried to appear nonchalant while I searched -- one-handed -- for the key.

And yet the funniest thing of all about those handcuffs is this: I cant for the life of me remember the story or company they were sent to promote. The gag is still in my desk drawer, but the message -- along with a fair amount of some PR clients money -- evaporated into the same forgotten ether as all the other ill-focused bulk mailings and faxes and e-mail our office receives.

I mention all this not to beat up on PR types -- some of my best friends, etc., etc. -- but to note the well-deserved passing of the corny promotional giveaway in almost every line of business but PR. Clever or memorable as many of these items were -- a senior staffer here at IW tells me that the magazine once distributed bright orange potholders to media buyers at leading ad agencies to illustrate that IW was truly a "hot" magazine -- they had little to do with actual customer needs. In recent years smart companies have stopped trying to entice customers with sappy bribes and begun to follow four new concepts in customer care:

1. Redefine the customer. For too long in most corporations the only department that thought it had customers was sales and marketing -- and nobody else in the company wanted to talk to those slick-haired, silver-tongued devils anyway. Savvy companies now make sure that every department has at least some contact with customers -- and that the word "customer" now applies not just to purchasers, but to end users, suppliers, and even fellow employees and managers.

2. Measure, measure, measure. Its one thing for you to say that youre focused on the customer. Its another altogether for your customer to agree. Yet even today, most firms make only token efforts at assessing customer satisfaction. Winning companies poll their customers constantly in a variety of ways that include random surveys, focus groups, employee visits, and in the case of long-term contracts, direct connection via phone, fax, and e-mail with line employees.

3. Invite the customer into your business. Everybody knows (or ought to realize) that the easiest way to find a new customer is to already have one -- that is, to sell more to an existing customer. Yet for years many companies have kept customers at arms length, afraid that letting them know too much about the business might lead to requests for price cuts or costly additional service. Forward-thinking executives dont worry about bad customers (see No. 4, below), but instead work on making good customers even better by inviting them into their companies as partners in product development and as advisers on service and industry issues.

>b>4. Dont be afraid to fire the customer. Loyalty is important, but it runs two ways. More and more executives are finding that they can simplify their lives and run their businesses more profitably by firing problem customers -- not necessarily the most demanding customers, but the ones who begrudge anyone but themselves earning a fair profit. Entrepreneur and management author Tom Melohn said it best in The New Partnership (Oliver Wight Publications, 1994) when he observed that we have gone from the era of "the customer is king" to that of "Howdy, Partner."

With strategies like these, you can be sure youll keep your customers close -- even without handcuffs.

Send e-mail messages to John Brandt at [email protected]

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