How to keep your customers coming back

‘Exceptional customer service’ creates customer loyalty

Clark’s Feed and Seed owner Larry Oltmann said he has loyal customers but tries to keep a low profile. “If I maintain a high profile, everybody starts shooting at me,” he said.


“Victoria sent me,” a woman says to Larry Oltmann as she enters Clark’s Feed and Seed in downtown Bellingham. “She said, ‘See Larry.’”

Oltmann smiles, tells her he’s Larry and listens patiently while she relates the problem she’s having with her cats.

“I will tell you I can cure everything with diet,” he says as he guides her toward the cat food section of Clark’s.

The scene is a regular one at the 109-year-old pet store. Oltmann, who has owned the store for 36 years, said 90 percent of his business comes from word-of-mouth. He said his customers learn to trust Clark’s employees, and pass that trust onto their friends.

“Words are cheap,” Oltmann said. “We spend a lot of time with customers.”

Turning customers into Clark’s unofficial sales force has developed a loyal customer base, essential for a store whose competitors are national chains such as PetSmart and PetCo.

Creating loyal customers is a challenge for many small local businesses. Apathetic customer service is the No. 1 reason customers do not return to a store, said Tom Dorr, director of Western Washington University’s Small Business Development Center. Customers do not want to frequent a store they feel does not care whether they shop there, he said.

“Guess what? You can control that in your business,” Dorr said. “You cannot control a competitor’s pricing. You cannot control external forces. But you can control how the customer perceives your business.”

The perception of a business is more than how it looks. Dorr said a higher level of customer service, which he coined exceptional customer service, is the primary way to differentiate a business from competitors and a way to retain customers. He said exceptional customer service differs from customer service in that it exceeds customers’ expectations instead of only meeting them.

“For many local businesses, that’s the only differential advantage,” Dorr said. “If you don’t have a differential advantage from the big-box stores, you’re not going to survive.”

But regular customers already have higher expectations coming into a store they know, and Dorr said exceeding those expectations is a challenge.

One way is to make customers feel special, he said. Do what Oltmann preaches at Clark’s: Invest some time with a customer to meet their needs.

Susan Sandell, owner of the women’s clothing store Sandell’s For Her in Barkley Village, said she often spends up to three hours with a customer.

“Whatever they need — and we have some people who are very needy,” Sandell said with a good-natured laugh.


The right people for the job

Exceptional customer service often comes from having the right employees. Terra Organica, located in the Bellingham Public Market, hires people who take what owner Stephen Trinkaus said is a Buddhist approach to customer service.

“We look for people who will be there for customers because that’s their nature and they want to do it,” he said.

Terra Organica employees do more than help customers find the groceries they’re looking for. Trinkaus said employees not only know a good portion of the organic food store’s customers by name, but know about their families.

“People really appreciate that community feel,” he said.

Establishing more than a professional relationship with customers is also important to Sandell’s. Sandell said employees not only welcome customers when they come in the store, but talk and have fun with them. Their effort has turned the clothing store into more than just a place to buy clothes.

“People will just stop by to say hello because we are interested in their lives,” Sandell said.

Part of establishing a store as more than a business is extending its presence beyond its doors. Dorr said businesses need to stay in front of their customers through small tokens like birthday cards, holiday cards, thank you notes or customer newsletters.

“You can’t be successful if you don’t do that stuff,” he said.

Sandell said she often sends out thank you notes to customers after purchases, and she has several hundred note cards with customer birthdays to send out store coupons as presents.

Another way of creating loyal customers is to offer incentives, such as discount and frequent shopper cards. Nearly every local coffeeshop has buy-10-get-one-free cards for caffeine junkies, and most grocery stores have membership or discount cards.

But Terra Organica has avoided that tactic. Trinkaus said the store does not offer discount cards because most of his customers are turned off by having to show a card every time they buy groceries.


Finding that unique niche

In the next year Terra Organica will see heightened competition with the opening of a second Food Co-op and a Trader Joe’s. Terra Organica has adapted to the competition by being different from the rest of the industry. In 2005, Terra Organica moved into the Public Market, a consortium of stores under one roof. That collection of stores cannot be duplicated, he said.

“A lot of it is creating something unique that nobody else can do,” Trinkaus said. “Even if there was another public market, it would be different.”

Being different is not only important for Sandell’s store, but to her customers also. She said customers come in on a weekly basis to see what new outfits Sandell’s has.

“We’re not going to have 100 special tops – we’re only going to have four,” she said.

Most of the products in Clark’s are not those carried by larger chains, and few of his products were in the recent pet food recall. They might be more expensive, but Oltmann said in the long run, the costs are comparable with cheaper products.

Years ago, Oltmann said, he started to become selective in the food the pet store carries. He said customers began coming in with questions about the food he couldn’t answer, so he began analyzing every ingredient on the labels. He said a pattern began to emerge, and now he knows nearly everything about every product in his store.

“All of our products have stories,” Oltmann said. “As a store, we tell stories.”

He passes that knowledge onto employees. But Oltmann said he can tell his employees what to say, but if they do not believe it, neither will customers.

“It’s like saying I love you when you don’t mean it,” Oltmann said. “They’re going to know.”

He sends new employees home with a 2-gallon fish tank to learn for themselves how to properly take care of it. Eventually, Oltmann said employees learn to trust what he says because they see it work for themselves.

That confidence is passed on to the customer, Oltmann said. He said it often takes a couple tries with other foods and businesses before customers become loyal to Clark’s. At that point, Oltmann said, customers trust him when he says he can cure anything with diet.

“We aren’t always going to tell you what you want to hear,” he said. “But what we tell you is the truth.”

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