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by John Ingrisano

The Freestyle Entrepreneur

Want to build a loyal clientele?  Then sell “membership” in your special club.  No, you do not need an online enrollment (though airlines and hotel chains find this effective).  Nothing formal like that.  Just do like Starbucks does:  Make customers feel that, when they do business there, they are part of something special … and that in turn makes them special.

 We all love feeling special, unique, valued, part of something beyond ourselves.  That’s why I grocery shop where the owner calls out, “Hey, John!” when I walk through the door; why I bank where my dog gets treats; or why I like to stay in the hotel that actually has my first name posted in the lobby when I arrive, because I’m a club member.

 I also love getting the you’re-special discount.  Years ago, when I spent a year playing and working on St. Maarten in the Caribbean, all I had to do was say “I live here” to get five or ten percent off my purchase in an island store.  I loved it.  It’s not about the money so much as just feeling a part of something.  I belonged.

 That’s why I was delighted the other day to walk into a fairly new, laid-back-but-upscale restaurant (Skalliwags) in my home down of Algoma, Wisconsin, and see a small note on the chalkboard menu over the bar that said:  “10% discount for locals.  Not only was the food excellent and the service good, but I also felt appreciated, part of that club.  So, come February, when the tourists have all beat feet for Florida, I’ll make a point of going back to this restaurant.  Why?  Because they value my local business, and they understand that it is local business that keeps the lights on in the off season. 

 As a small-business owner, how do you create that club-membership mentality?  Here are six powerful yet simple ideas:

  1. Give a discount to locals or to past or existing customers.  It need not be big, but make sure it is in your brochure and on your website. 
  2. Start the buy-ten-get-one-free punch card.  Some people live for those kind of discounts.  And whenever they whip out their cards to get punched, they’re reminding you that they’re one of your priority customers. 
  3. Acknowledge and greet every customer like he/she is your best friend and a truly valued customer.  A hearty “Welcome, come in!” helps build instant relationships.  Never let a customer wander in without a greeting.    
  4. Learn their names.  No, this is not always possible.  However, every time you are able to greet someone by name builds the relationship that much more.
  5. Ask their opinions.  If you are experimenting with a new recipe, offer a taste; if you are considering adding or discontinuing a product, ask what they think.  Not only does this provide instant market research, but it gives customers a sense of “ownership”  in your business.  (An alternate, highly effective approach:   Ask them  how you might improve a product or service.  The answers will be quite different from those to the standard question:  “How was everything today, folks?”  
  6. Throw in a freebie.  In a restaurant, ask your valued customers once in a while if they’d like a cup of coffee … on the house.  Or in a retail store, throw in a 25-cent piece of candy for the kids at checkout.  (When my family wandered into a business supply store 26 years ago as we explored the new town to which we had just moved, the owner gave each of my children a little toy.  Neither they nor I have ever forgotten it.) 

 Most of all, do not – ever – take your customers for granted.  They are your lifeblood.  You need them.  Make darn sure you do not miss any opportunity to let them know how much you appreciate their business. 

Work hard. Make money.  Have fun.  And make your customers part of your special club.  — JRI

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