Establishing customer loyalty is like planting a tree. It’s all about the long-term vision, says Pam Stark.
Stark has amassed more than 40 years of experience in the green industry. Now a consultant with Bruce Wilson & Company, she says forging the right bonds with customers takes forward-thinking leadership and great company culture.
“In order to be successful, you have to have a plan. You have to execute and you have to continuously manage that growing plant or that growing relationship,” Stark says.
Stark says she always measures how successful her company’s relationships are with clients based on what they write on reviews, even those that are anonymous.
Clients have written things like, “The relationships and trust built are the main reasons I enjoy working with your company,” and “I like knowing that my assets are getting looked after.”
These satisfied customers tend to be more forgiving during mishaps, especially if mistakes are rare, and they don’t bid out work at the end of each contract, opting instead to stay with your company. Stark says company owners should know who their most loyal customers are.
“As owners of the business or as team leaders of the business, you should be catching your customers frequently in terms of communicating with them and trying to get a read on exactly how you’re feeling about your company,” Stark says.
There is a difference between loyalty and trust, Stark says. In this context, trust is the customer’s belief that you will operate your company with honesty, integrity and character. Trust isn’t just given – it’s earned. And once a customer trusts you enough, they’ll show your company unwavering loyalty with complete and constant support for your product.
“There’s a lot that goes into trust,” Stark says. “It requires some investment.”
It’s all easier said than done, she says. Most company owners would say they want customer loyalty, but exactly how to reach that goal isn’t immediately clear. Stark says companies should build relationships gradually by evolving from a pure supplier level to a trusted adviser.
Stark says that at first, the professional relationship is strictly about goods and services, but then smart companies will focus on the client’s business-specific needs before proceeding to more of a personal relationship.
Figure out what’s going on in the clients’ lives, like what types of pressures they face from their bosses or what kinds of small things you can take care of as their trusted adviser.
The work is never done when building these relationships, Stark says. Clients are constantly evaluating your worth relative to the competition, so it’s vital to maintain your status as a trusted adviser once you get there.
“When you’re striving to build a book of business of loyal commercial landscape contractors, you have to know that you never really get there in terms of the end result,” Stark says. “You’re constantly being challenged to understand how you can add greater value to a customer relationship.”
“Culture is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. It’s kind of squishy and hard to put your finger on.” Pam Stark, consultant, Bruce Wilson & Co.
start at home.
Stark says one of the most difficult parts of creating strong bonds with clients is establishing your own company culture. A client only sees so much of your company during interactions, but Stark compares company culture to the tip of an iceberg.
“Culture is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. It’s kind of squishy and hard to put your finger on,” Stark says. “But it’s basically the beliefs and the processes, ways that you do business that underlie what the customer sees and experiences.”
Stark says it you need to see your business through the eyes of the customer. What does your company look like to clients?
Making expectations clear to your employees and setting policies for client interactions is important, Stark says. For instance, creating a rule that asks employees to call clients back within a set number of hours helps ensure the customer feels valued. Consistently evaluating your employees is necessary, too, so you can benchmark your company’s progress in creating a culture that truly focuses on the client first.
“It’s important that the customer-facing employee … understands how they’re being measured and how they’re being held accountable,” Stark says.
Stark also says companies should be proactive with clients rather than reactive, approaching and handling potential problems or tasks before they even arise. She adds that you should recognize the problems each of your clients face and try to consider them in your decision-making process. For example, if hotels want their landscaping done on weekends to create a welcoming atmosphere for guests but your company only services early in the week, you’re not offering client-specific help that’s essential in establishing loyalty.
Ultimately, Stark says creating a sound commercial culture comes down to a company’s leadership. Just as loyalty comes down to how much clients trust companies, changes to a company’s culture all depend on how much the employees trust their bosses. This culture is vital to retaining key clients in your commercial portfolio, Stark says.
“You can (be) all fired up and ready to make things happen, but if the culture back in your organization does not support a focus on the customer, you’re not going to get very far,” Stark says.