by Joseph and JoAnn Callaway, authors of “Clients First“
So, you’re building a small business from the ground up, with only the proverbial wing and prayer to keep you aloft. What are you most intensely focused on? If your response is “stretching my shoestring budget,” “establishing processes that work,” or (the biggie) “making money,” you’re not alone. But all of those answers are wrong. Anything that takes your focus off the customer puts your fledgling business in harm’s way.
Whatever industry you’re in, success boils down to this: attracting enough customers, and keeping them coming back — with interest! When you’re growing a small business, you can’t afford to disappoint customers, or even offer them a good-enough experience. You have to ‘wow’ them every time, which means giving them the first fruits of your time, energy, creativity, and focus.
And here’s the payoff When you succeed in putting your clients first, you will find that everything else — growth, a positive reputation, and financial security — all fall into place.
Living and working this way is not easy. Putting your customers’ interests ahead of your own — every time — will seem counter-intuitive, risky, and sometimes even frightening, especially at first. Eventually, though, keeping your commitment to Clients First will start to feel more natural. And by that point, the benefits, rewards, satisfaction, and success will be rolling in — and you’ll be proud of the person and professional you’ve become.
Here are a “dirty dozen” tips that might not be obvious… but that will help you to put clients (and competitors, and employees!) first so that your small business can grow and prosper:
1. Change your thinking about why you exist.
If you go into work thinking, How do I make money? you’re already off on the wrong foot. What you need to be thinking is, How do I serve others? Taking your focus away from the bottom line may feel uncomfortable at first. Yet, ironically, it changes everything for the better.
Consciously putting your own best interests in second place goes against the grain of human nature. But you will find that when you focus on how best to serve clients, tough decisions make themselves. If it serves the client, you do it. If it doesn’t, you don’t. This neutralizes moral dilemmas and really simplifies your life. And it almost always has a miracle effect on your growth and success.
2. Take your business personally.
Never let the words “it’s just business” cross your mind (and certainly not your lips). This old standby phrase is simply not true, especially to a client who feels as though he has been belittled, treated coldly, pushed away, or used. Remember, to truly serve, you have to care. When you keep yourself at arm’s length, you can’t give your clients 100 percent… and you give them an incentive to take their business elsewhere.
Do you see your clients as sources of income, or do you see them as actual human beings with likes, preferences, quirks, and stories? People want to do business with individuals they like — and they like people who like them! Make a deeper connection with your clients by asking about their kids, their pets, their hobbies, and their jobs or businesses. You’ll find that most of them are just like you: filled with worries, hopes, and dreams. Once you get familiar with and invested in these things, you’ll work that much harder on each client’s behalf, and you’ll earn their loyalty in the process.
3. Little things matter more than you think.
Especially when you’re trying to get a small business off the ground, it’s easy to get caught up in pursuing the “big” goals: growing your company, expanding your client base, hiring more employees, and making a profit, for example. But don’t become so fixated on the forest that you fail to see the trees. In other words, stop being so distracted by the “big grand ideas” and start getting the small details right. Promises kept, deadlines met, little extra flourishes, and small acts of kindness add up to happy clients.
This principle definitely includes the simple act of communication. One of the things we do with clients in escrow is to call or email them every day, even if nothing is happening. This simple message of ‘nothing happening, wanted you to know,’ is a huge stress reliever and an even bigger business builder.
4. Hard times don’t justify stinginess.
We’ve all heard the expression “The more you give, the more you get.” And you may be willing to put it into practice when it comes to giving your clients things like honesty, competence, and care. But if you give away your expertise, time, energy, and (gasp!) money, won’t you just go broke? Not necessarily. It may take time, but whatever you give will usually come back to you with interest.
I remember being very apprehensive about donating a large sum of money to build a Habitat for Humanity house as a Christmas gift for our clients. I thought I’d never see that money again. But in the years since, I’ve learned that new clients chose us — and even that a bank gave us all of their foreclosures to sell — because they had learned of that donation. Now, you might not always give and get on such a large scale. But the principle works for all amounts of money, and it also works when you’re giving over-and-beyond service.
5. Don’t lie — even if it makes you look better, makes you rich, or keeps a client from walking.
Sometimes, it’s tempting to tell white lies, exaggerate, misdirect, omit, and cut corners to make life easier. Generally, it’s also easy to justify these things to yourself (She’ll never know, and it’ll save me hours of work, for example). But when it comes to putting clients first, these “little” lies are just as bad as the whoppers. Yes, honesty can be tough in the moment, but in the long run you’ll gain a reputation for trustworthiness that will change your life.
Trust the truth. When you cultivate a reputation for rock-solid honesty — for laying out all your cards even when it doesn’t benefit you, for telling the whole truth, for never holding back or sugarcoating — you’ll gain customer loyalty that money can’t buy. Clients will trust, respect, and refer you, and your own life will become easier. When you have only the truth, you wave goodbye to moral dilemmas and sleepless nights. You don’t have to worry about getting the story straight or remembering what you have and haven’t shared. You know you’re doing the right thing.
6. Be honest with yourself, too.
You should never lie to a client (or to anyone else). But honesty shouldn’t stop there. Ask yourself, Am I lying to myself about where my priorities lie and how others perceive me? Try to see your business as your clients and customers see you. Are you putting them first — or putting yourself first?
Small businesses start off with the best intentions and with a clear picture of what the customer wants. But soon, most of them drift off the path. Little by little, they start making it all about them and their growth, and poof! No more ‘Clients First’… and no more of the benefits living by this philosophy brings.
7. Treat employees at least as well as you treat your clients.
While (of course) you don’t treat your employees like dirt, you may feel that you don’t owe them any special favors, either. After all, you’re paying them — isn’t that enough? Well, no. Whether you realize it or not, the way your people treat customers reflects the way you treat them. Are you courteous? Kind? Polite? Enthusiastic? Do you listen when they talk to you and try to accommodate their needs? Or are you short, perfunctory, and even (sometimes) rude?
Your job is to serve others, period. You can’t do that by making distinctions between the people who work for you and the people to whom you provide a good or service. Realize that you set the tone for your company’s ‘personality,’ and that you’re creating a tribe of people who will beat the drum for your message. Going at it alone is too exhausting!
8. Make sure your highest praise comes from your competitors.
Yes, you read that correctly. You can — and should — strive to win the approval, goodwill, and admiration of your competitors. If possible, get to know their leaders and employees, and help them when you can. You don’t have to give away trade secrets, but you can offer advice, for example, or refer a customer whose needs are better matched to what another business has to offer. Don’t do these things manipulatively, but in the spirit of giving — your efforts will come back to you with interest. Have faith that there is enough business to go around.
Every Christmas, JoAnn sends personalized ornaments not only to our clients but also to the thousands of agents with whom we have done a cross-sale. We get incredible responses from them. Last month Brian Choate, who works for a competitor firm, went so far as to video a ‘mini book review’ for “Clients First“ in which he shared how much these ornaments mean to him. Trust me, the respect of your peers and especially your competitors is priceless. If you have little contact with them, now is the time to change that. Go to industry conferences. Join associations. Remember, it’s a big world but a small community… so make your mark in a positive, memorable way.
9. Look for chances to do something fun and special.
It’s true: All work and no play make Jack a dull boy. However, injecting a little lightheartedness and creativity into your business gives your customers something to look forward to and provides them with a memorable reason to stay engaged and loyal. Whether you give free popcorn to moviegoers, throw an outdoor tent party to celebrate each year’s new product line, or give a gorgeous framed print to your interior design clients, you make clients feel special.
These special touches will keep clients coming back. Every Christmas we send personalized ornaments to our clients and other business associates. We put a lot of effort (and money!) into this yearly treat and people love it. It sets us apart, and our investments always come back to us with interest!
10. If you aren’t driven to be “number one” with your clients, you might as well close your doors.
Many business owners will admit that they just want “to do a good job” or “make a living.” This isn’t good enough. Especially if your business is smaller and less established, being the customer’s second choice (or third or fourth or fifth) means you’re on the road to eventual failure. Why? When times get tough — or when a new flavor-of-the-month company shows up — customers will have no qualms about abandoning a company they don’t love above all others. Talk about a compelling reason to never (ever!) accept mediocrity. (Not to mention the fact that, by definition, you can’t take the best care of clients when you’re content with being good-enough.)
However, don’t make the mistake of thinking that being number one is about competing with other businesses. If your focus is on competing, then it isn’t on the customer. Instead, think of yourself as being in a contest to fulfill each client’s dreams… and you’ll automatically be competitive with other companies! Also, don’t buy into the belief that you have to win over a client only once. You must do so every single day. A good experience last month usually won’t be enough to keep a customer coming back this month if he or she believes that your level of service has slipped.
11. Never, ever fire a tough client.
When a client is needy, moody, picky, overly emotional, combative, or something else, it’s tempting to write him or her off. And if you can’t wave goodbye in reality (after all, most small business owners need to get paid!), you do it mentally and merely go through the motions of serving the client. That’s a mistake. If you aren’t meeting a client’s needs, it’s their job to fire you… not the other way around.
Clients First means all clients. In over fourteen years, my wife and I have never gotten rid of a single client — even when we secretly wished we could — and we believe this no-fire strategy has contributed significantly to our ultimate success. Here’s the payoff: When you make the choice to stand by all of your frazzled, frustrated customers, you will eventually reap financial and personal rewards. You may become known in your company or industry as the guy or gal who can handle the toughest customers. And chances are, your clients themselves will be grateful that you didn’t give up on them and may even send others your way.
12. A “Clients Last” attitude leaves a long legacy.
By now, I’ve established that having a Clients First attitude can benefit you and your small business in numerous ways. He’s also adamant that the opposite attitude can have just as tremendous of an impact… a negative one. Never, ever underestimate the damage that putting your clients last (taking them for granted, not listening to their concerns, patronizing them, putting your own interests first, etc.) can do, and how far it can spread.
A fellow real estate agent shared this story with us. When he was growing up in Buffalo, NY, every time his family drove past a local department store his father would never miss the opportunity to say, ‘I don’t go there.’ As our friend grew up and drove by that same store with his teenaged friends, he found himself saying, ‘I don’t go there.’ This agent never knew how the store had slighted his father, but regardless, he continued the tradition generationally. This is the damage ‘Clients Last’ can wreak.
No matter what industry you’re in, and no mater what good or service your small business provides, these twelve tactics will help with the task of bootstrapping your company. Even if putting clients first — no matter what — seems counterintuitive at first, give this way of doing business — and living life — a chance. If you take care of your customers, they will take care of you.
Joseph Callaway and JoAnn Callaway are coauthors of “Clients First: The Two Word Miracle” and founders of the real estate company Those Callaways.