American consumers have more options than ever before. They can choose to shop online or offline. They can choose how they pay for their purchases. And, in many cases, they can choose to do business with a local provider or one from across the country, or across the globe.

No matter how good or affordable your products or services are, there’s a competitor out there somewhere who will claim to do the job better or sell the product for less.

How do you avoid having to continually replenish your customer base? The answer is by creating loyalty among your existing customers.

Most businesses know that it’s cheaper and easier to keep a current customer than it is to find a new one. Loyal customers also tend to make larger purchases and to make them more frequently. They also provide businesses with invaluable word of mouth advertising.

As most businesses also know, customer loyalty doesn’t just happen. It requires work and it requires an understanding of some basic business concepts.

For starters, you need to understand how your marketing can help build long-term relationships with your customers — not just get the cash register ringing during special sales events.

Effective marketing should focus on building your brand. In his book “A Clear Eye for Branding”, Tom Asacker writes that effective marketing should “create and maintain a strong feeling with customers so they are mentally predisposed to continually choose and recommend you.”

Your brand needs to connect with your customers on an emotional level. In short, you need to make your customers feel that you genuinely care about their wants and needs. It’s not enough to simply say it in your tag line – you need to back it up with quality products and services and with exceptional customer service.

If your slogan is “fast, friendly service” but your service technicians keep a customer waiting for hours and then exhibit an uncaring attitude once they do show up, you’re not likely to keep the customer. You can also scratch friends, co-workers and family members who hear about the incident from the disgruntled customer off of your potential customer list.

You need to begin seeing your customers as unique individuals with unique needs and priorities. Creating loyal customers means building long-term relationships with them and providing value as their needs change over time.
Consider what you want your customers to say about your business to those within their spheres of influence (i.e. your potential customers) and then give them a reason to say it.

You must also understand that most customers don’t look at the monetary value of your products and services the same way you do. They don’t care nearly as much about your professional credentials or the high-quality materials used in the manufacturing of your products as you do. At the end of the day, they care that the job was done right, that the product met their need, that the sales clerk or technician made them feel valued and that they felt they could trust your business before, during and after the sale.

Many businesses make the mistake of “courting” their customers in the early stages of the relationship and then taking them for granted as the relationship evolves. The best way to avoid this is by keeping connected with your loyal customers, and by acknowledging and rewarding their loyalty.

More and more businesses of all sizes are turning to social media as an effective way of staying connected. Unlike direct mail and email blasts, social media platforms like Facebook give customers a way to communicate directly with your business and to get involved in a community that’s built around your business.

To acknowledge and reward your loyal customers you might consider a customer appreciation incentive.

When it comes to customer retention, auto dealers are typically light years ahead of most other marketers. They have found that customer appreciation incentives, typically offering discounts on routine maintenance services, are a highly effective way of making customers feel appreciated.

Such events also provide valuable “touch points” for a variety of people within the company.  The salesperson who sold them their vehicle can ask if they’re satisfied with their purchase. The service manager can offer additional services or address any areas of concern the customer might have about their vehicle. The receptionist can offer the customer a complimentary cup of coffee, and the list goes on. By the time the customer leaves the dealership, they feel that their patronage has been rewarded. They feel more connected, not just with the brand, but with the people who represent that brand.

Ask just about any business owner to list his or her biggest problems and they’ll typically include customer acquisitions near the top of that list. By refocusing your efforts on building loyalty among your existing customers you can greatly reduce the amount of time and money you spend chasing after new customers.

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