The relationship between you and your overseas customer shouldn’t end when a sale is made.
If anything, it requires more attention.
Once you’ve completed the initial export transaction, you must expect to provide a broad spectrum of “complimentary” services in order to encourage repeat business. In this article we’ll talk about the kind of follow-up “care and feeding” of customers that will keep them coming back.
A customer in Ireland with whom I’ve been dealing for about 5 years recently emailed me (on behalf of a client) an order for a product that I don’t even handle. Completely bewildered, I emailed back, saying that there must be some mistake.
He replied, “There is no mistake. I want you to take care of this because I don’t know the supplier and I trust you to conduct this business properly. Take your usual percentage. After your last shipment, you shocked me when you emailed a week later to ask if there was anything you could do to assist my marketing efforts on the product received. I will never forget this. Most American suppliers don’t communicate with us after the sale unless we place another order, but you were different.” I would have thought that standing behind my product and taking professional responsibility for my customer’s satisfaction and success was the obvious thing to do, but apparently I was wrong!
Think of your after-sales follow-up as part of your product. If this attitude is as rare as my Irish customer said, you will be setting an unprecedented standard of professionalism. Your customers will be deeply impressed, and they’ll never again want to settle for less.
YOUR CUSTOMERS ARE YOUR BUSINESS
Let’s go back to basics for a minute. What drives your business efforts? What are you really in it for? To make a ton of money? To achieve total quality control? To order around a bunch of employees and be the big fish in your pond?
Whatever your motives, if you want to stay in the game, you had better be in it for the right reasons: to get and keep customers worldwide.
Without customers, there is no business. Without business, there is no global marketer.
Never forget who’s driving the deal. You can explain to the customer all you like about your company policy and why things are the way they are when it comes to pricing, packaging, product design or anything else, but if the customer doesn’t like what he hears, there’s no deal. If the price is too high, there’s no deal. If product quality is insufficient, there’s no deal. If you can’t show them a market, there’s no deal. If they don’t see value, there’s no deal.
The customer dictates what you will provide, not you, not your company policy, not the economy, not Congress. So pay attention to your customers. They know what they need and what they want. Do your best to make it happen for them.
You won your customer over with the first sale. If you don’t follow up with ongoing service, you may lose her future business. Whether you lose a customer a block away or 12,000 miles away, she is still a lost customer — something you cannot afford. Don’t think of customer service as a sprint, in which you go all out and then drop in exhaustion. It’s a marathon without a finish line. So if you want to keep her on your team, begin your relationship all over again after the sale!
KEEP IN TOUCH WITH YOUR CUSTOMER
The first step in after-sales service is to say, wholeheartedly and preferably in person, “Thank you for your business!” Then follow up by expressing further sincere appreciation by email and in writing. These are musts, absolutes, givens. Don’t fail to do them just because they seem so obvious as to be insignificant. Your customers will notice. Nor will they fail to notice the omission! What you might classify as “NBD” (no big deal) might be just the “NBD” your customer needed to convince him to do business with you again.
After that, plan for regular communication. If you’ve got the time and energy, contact them every day. If that’s too burdensome, communicate regularly on a schedule that’s workable for you and sufficient to inspire your customer’s confidence.
Besides initiating regular communications, offer your customers 24/7 availability. Set up fax lines, Twitter, e-mail alerts, a wiki, Skype account and telephone voicemail services from which you can retrieve messages around the clock. Get a second telephone line in your home or a separate cell phone number to give out to special customers in case of emergency. Customers need to know where you are when they want to communicate with you. They need to know you are reliable and dependable and will minimize risk for them. Be reachable all day and every day, ready and willing to serve.
If you’ve got the time and energy and an ample budget, visit your customer every chance you get. You know that your personal friendships need regular maintenance visits. Your customer also needs to see you regularly — to see what new offerings you have, to resolve problems that come up in the course of your relationship, or just to make sure you’re there. One in-person visit with your customer is better than a hundred emails daily. Do try to make time for your customers.
When all else fails, communication might be all you have to offer your customer. But that offering is a service, and for your customer, that service is as good as a product.
SATISFY YOUR CUSTOMER
You can deliver the right product, the right service, the right price — but do you deliver satisfaction? The only way to find out is to follow up and ask flat out, “Are you satisfied with my product or service?” And if the answer is “no,” you’d better have a plan.
Remember: a complaining customer is a customer about to leave. And when they do, they’re sure to tell 10 others about it! Figure out what went wrong, move heaven and earth to correct it, and hang in there and talk it through until you’ve restored, and even strengthened, the bond between yourself and your customer.
What about the customer who hasn’t complained, but has not reordered after several months, either? This doesn’t mean there are no more orders to be had. It means you’ve got to take the initiative to find out why they haven’t come! If your customer never tells you directly there is a specific problem marketing your product in his homeland, learn to read between the lines and pinpoint it. Then rethink your product, or offer sales support, as needed.
We have emphasized again and again that your overseas customer is very special. He or she is operating from within a different culture, so you need to take time and work extra hard to understand them and to see that they are pleased with the way you do business. You’re virtually certain to make mistakes along the way, but as long as you continually show that you want to do better and are always willing to learn from your mistakes, your customer will forgive your gaffes and give you chances to do just that. And remember, your customer will make mistakes too, so a mutual, generous give-and-take attitude will keep the relationship moving forward.
DELIVER ON YOUR PROMISES
If you promised the moon, deliver it along with a handful of stars. You want to shine in your customer’s eyes.
Delivering on your promises is doing what you say you are going to do when you say you are going to do it. Every time you follow through on a commitment, small or large, you build trust. If you say you are going to email prices to your customer by tomorrow, try for today. If you say you are going to air-ship sample products within a week, ship within a week – or sooner. If you say you are going to reduce prices because of local competition, reduce prices. Don’t just talk about it, do it. Keep supplying and standing behind what you promise again and again, over and over.
GO BEYOND EXPECTATIONS
Delight your customer beyond all measure. You’ve sold them your product or service, now astonish them with your out-of-the-box thinking by going way beyond the call of duty. If your customer wants ordinary service, let them do business with your chief rival. Don’t waste time worrying about whether they’ll appreciate it or not. Let them shop elsewhere and see how bad it really can get. They’ll be back, a little humbler and wiser, and eager to do business. When you give your customer more than they ask for, that’s value — and value is hard to walk away from.
For example, if your customer asks for product samples, send them product samples. But send them superfast (efficient!), individually wrapped in colorful tissue paper (memorable!), accompanied by a handwritten note expressing your hope that they find them appealing (personalized!) and a coupon worth 10% off on their first order (extra value!).
These are the things that set a global marketer apart from the wanna-be exporter. Customers are impressed by vendors that go beyond the obvious and safe ways of conducting business.
INVOLVE YOUR CUSTOMER
Don’t just get your customer to purchase your product, give them a reason to care — get them involved. If you are considering a new product for market, ask your customer for comments about the packaging, pricing, flavors, technology and distribution, so you can determine whether or not the product will be a good fit for their sales and distribution channels.
It’s also important to keep your customer posted if you’re having trouble meeting a commitment. No need to burden them with your life story, though. When a problem arises that they need to know about, keep the explanation concise and purposeful. You want your customer to know if factors beyond your control are standing in the way of your usual top-notch performance, but provide just enough information to develop an understanding and, where applicable, give them alternatives. That’s all they need – or want.
Involving the customer means letting them have a say in the course of events. A customer who perceives his or her input as having contributed materially to a desirable outcome feels very secure and positive about the relationship. Don’t wait for them to speak up — solicit their input regularly.
BECOME YOUR CUSTOMER’S PARTNER
One of the best ways to strengthen ties with your customer is to develop a product, market or distribution channel together. Pooling resources like contacts, skilled staff, production facilities or joint financing for a project can kick a business relationship into high gear. When you work together to make your efforts succeed, you both win.
How might you create opportunities to join forces with your customer? The easiest and quickest scenario goes like this: After exporting a product to your customer for a few years, you might consider producing that same product with your customer’s name on it as opposed to the manufacturer’s. Naturally, you’ll need to check with your supplier to get their approval for the private-label scheme. There is a lot involved in this type of operation, so make sure the manufacturer has a standard procedure that can easily be implemented, particularly overseas. Once you’ve got their backing, get hold of your customer and suggest it. Here are just a few of the benefits that will result:
- You get more commitment from your customer when her name is on the product.
- Offering a similar product with a different name and different product features will expand your market, customer base and distribution.
- With each of you having a stake in the project’s success, with both of you exercising greater care, offering more input and following through on every commitment, your relationship is bound to develop positively.
EXCHANGE INFORMATION WITH YOUR CUSTOMER
There are always opportunities for you to become your customer’s “partner” in many of their endeavors. Just keep an eye out for how you can help them to get where they want to go, not only in terms of business but personally, spiritually and intellectually. Give them something to reach for. For example, let’s say you sold your customer a containerload of hammers. Later, you read in the International Daily Herald about a company that makes colorful textured plastic sleeves that slip onto the handle of a hammer, allowing the home carpenter to get a better grip while pounding away. You call your customer to tell him about it, and email him a copy of the article. Your customer is impressed because you appear to be one step ahead of him, and pleased to see that you are keeping him, and the growth of his business, in mind.
Offer your customers fast-breaking news, ideas and useful contacts that will help their business, even if they don’t have anything to do with yours. If you provide them with grocery foods but they are trying to source non-food grocery items, point them at a good supplier you’ve heard of. The more you do for your customers, the more valuable you become to them, and the more secure a foundation you will have built.
You can find appropriate and professional ways to contribute to your customer’s personal interests as well. If your hammer customer mentions an interest in aerodynamically designed boats during a business dinner, you might advise him of a trade show soon to be held in your city — the largest and most important show in the boat industry — that he won’t want to miss. Arrange for hotel accommodations, tickets or admission to the show, and dinner. Don’t look at it as wasted time. Look at it as an investment. The rewards of bonding with your customer are exponential.
If you can’t fulfill a need for your customer immediately, be willing to extend yourself a little. For example, if your customer asks you a question about a subject you don’t know a lot about, do a little research. Don’t hold back — give them the ranch and the cattle, too. Prove that you’re not only a good supplier, but a valuable all-around business associate.
You have to lead before your customers can follow. You have to act before your customers can react. Global marketers are leaders that act. Help your customers find their way, and they’ll stay with you.
ARRANGE INTRODUCTIONS FOR YOUR CUSTOMER
Arranging an introduction to an important business contact is a gesture that demonstrates the utmost respect and appreciation in the global marketplace. Such an introduction can be one of the most valuable services you can offer your customers. Remember the time and trouble it took you to build the solid foundation you have right now with your customer. What would it have been worth to you to have a mutual associate smooth the way? Give your customer this benefit — and strengthen your ties further — by making a few key introductions.
This service holds particular value in Japan, where business is conducted primarily through an official introducer, called a shokainin. A shokainin not only introduces but also vouches for the integrity of the individual they are introducing. If you make an attempt to call on a customer in Japan on your own without the assistance of a shokainin, he or she may agree to see you as a courtesy gesture, but it’s unlikely that business will develop as a result of this meeting. Cold-calling for business may earn you a reputation as a bold and energetic salesperson in America, but this practice is viewed as offensively aggressive in Japan. If you want to do business in Japan, enlist the help of a shokainin!
Even in countries that don’t run on such a tight network of relationships, an introduction can still open doors for your customer. During your communications, be alert for ways in which a person or company you know might help your customer increase his growth and profitability or enhance his position in the marketplace. Then, introduce them. Once you have undertaken this responsibility, you must monitor the situation to make sure all goes well. If it does, you get credit, and deservedly so. If it doesn’t, you must investigate why things went amiss and intervene to resolve or remedy any hard feelings. Your role as the introducer is an important one. If completed diplomatically and successfully, it gains you the utmost respect in the global network.
BUILD INTERDEPENDENCY WITH YOUR CUSTOMER
You have served your customer, satisfied them, gone beyond their expectations, and helped them to grow. But have you built a bond with them that encourages them to look to you when there is a problem, or when they need an experienced internationalist’s advice? In other words, have you built a sufficient interdependency between yourself and your customer?
This may seem hard to grasp, especially from an American’s perspective. We are encouraged to conduct our business lives with an all-capable, self-sufficient, every-man-for-himself or woman-for-herself attitude.
That was fine for the driven, boom-and-bust entrepreneur of the ’80s. But for the global marketer laying the groundwork for the 21st century by building a worldwide network of close connections, after-sales service should be geared toward fostering a healthy give-and-take, an interdependency, with your customer. Knowing that you have a friendly associate out there pulling for you is comforting and adds to your confidence in everything you do.
Support your customer’s success in any way you can, and you will be building a constructive interdependency that can become your gateway to the world.
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About the Author: Global business expert Laurel Delaney is the founder of GlobeTrade.com and its wiki community (http://globetrade.wetpaint.com). She also is the creator of “Borderbuster”, an e-newsletter, and The Global Small Business Blog, all highly regarded for their global small business coverage.