Is Your Business Habit Forming?
The best companies create customers who can't live without them. Follow these ABC's of customer retention and never give them a reason to go elsewhere.
Executive director, Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship, Illinois Institute of Technology
Habits are much like technology--they can be good or bad --it's all a matter of what you make of them. Some become second nature, others require constant maintenance and vigilance, and still others seem expressly made to be broken. Bad habits are those we typically call addictions or even diseases; good habits are lauded as evidence of stern discipline, rigorous training, and a commitment to quality and excellence. The truth is that many of the things we do on a daily basis have far more to do with habit than good reasons.
We all have good and bad tendencies, whether we realize it or not. Indeed, it's a full-time job to avoid, enhance, nurture, change and/or care for all of the diverse commitments that these behaviors entail. Habits are funny little things - so weak at the outset that you barely notice them - and then, seemingly overnight, they become so strong that they are very hard to break. Naturally, the older and more established they are, the more challenging and difficult they are to change or abandon.
One interesting psychological aspect is that, if we really look carefully, we sometimes discover that routine and process is what we are most attracted to, and affected by, rather than the behavior. I was absolutely addicted to Diet Coke for decades and then one day I quit cold turkey and discovered quite quickly that I didn't miss the beverage as much as I missed the daily beats. The regularity of stopping every day at 7-11 for my Big Gulp; the simplicity of the every time answer: "I'll have a Diet Coke"; and the satisfaction of that first, over-carbonated and essentially tasteless, sip to start off the morning with a bit of cold caffeine.
In the same way, this is something that almost every smoker would readily admit to. No one with a brain thinks that smoking is healthy, but smokers persist because something in the routine and the ritual is comforting and feels satisfying, even though they know full well that it's slowly killing them. And it's not just that smoking is something to do with their hands on a boring date (that's what our phones are for) or to help keep the weight off or to be a "cool" kid. It's a lot deeper and sadder than that.
I think of our worst habits as unfortunately comfortable grooves we get into even as we still try to convince ourselves -- despite copious evidence to the contrary -- that the reassurance and consistency and comfort they offer will somehow save us from their obvious ill-effects. We're blinded by our own actions. Initially, we tell ourselves that these foolish acts evidence our individuality, our developing style, and the risks we willingly take to set ourselves apart. Then we reach a certain point in our lives (and our careers) where it's clear that the mission has changed. We go from acceptance and adherence to avoidance and abandonment as we try to break the old chains and move to a healthier and more sustainable business and personal life.
For any business, on the other hand, there's nothing better than to become a regular habit for your customers. And the best way to accomplish that highly desirable status is to look to our own quasi-compulsive behaviors for the keys and the cues that drive our personal actions and incorporate these same drivers as much as possible into the ways in which you solicit, support and sustain your own connections to your own clients, consumers and customers.
I'd focus on five strategies which, over many years of application, I have found to be the most consistent ways in which to assure -- as much as humanly possible in the incredibly fluid and fickle world which we inhabit these days -- that your customers stick around and come back.
A = Anticipate My Needs: Go to Where the Puck is Headed, Not Where It Is
The demographic and behavioral data we have available today makes it incumbent upon smart companies to get a few steps ahead of their customers if they want to keep them. Saving me time, helping me be more productive, and showing me how to make smarter decisions for my own benefit are all ways of demonstrating that your business is in the "business" of looking out for me. Getting the job done is table stakes; helping your customers get a jump on the future is the golden ring.
B= Beat My Expectations: Experiences/Expectations > 1
There's just no question that the businesses that succeed today are completely committed to continuously raising the bar in order to meet the growing demands and expectations of their customers. Customers' expectations are perpetually progressive. Yesterday's miracles are today's "so-whats." It's all about surprise and delight. If my every day experiences don't regularly exceed my expectations, I'm more than likely to leave as soon as anything even arguably better comes along. No one owns the customer anymore; we're obliged to earn their trust and loyalty in every transaction and on every single day.
C = Consistently Deliver: No Delays, No Mistakes, No Surprises
Consumers have the luxury of being unforgiving. In many cases, if you mess up at the outset, you'll never get a second chance to make a first (or any) impression because they won't stick around to give you that opportunity. But your existing customers have already decided that it makes sense to deal with you as long as you continue to execute and to deliver the goods. It takes years to develop trust, confidence and the kinds of bonds that won't break under the slightest stress, but it's nothing you should take for granted in this "what have you done for me lately" marketplace.
Execution is everything and you're competing not just with the guy down the street, but with everyone across the globe and especially with whoever delivered the last, best and most satisfying experience to your customers. You don't have to do it better than Amazon every day, but you'll be left in the dust if you don't make every effort to keep up.
D = Deepen Our Connection: Double Down on Your Winners
The very best customers are the ones you already have, and the easiest money is earned by increasing your share of their spend or, as McDonald's used to say, your share of their stomach. So much of business efficiency today is about mining targeted slices and niches segmented from the broader general population and also about reaching the right customers - the ones who are engaged, connected, and willing to spend on an ongoing basis. It makes no sense to play a volume game where you're focusing on traffic metrics rather than working to build a real and specific audience for your products and services. Go deep. It pays real dividends and beats the guys who are "a mile wide and an inch deep" because they're trying to be all things to everybody.
E = Evidence: Show Me How Smart I Am to Stick with You
Everyone's an expert today on almost everything and - right or wrong - they're happy to share their "expertise" with your customers. It's important that you help your customers do their homework and feel smart about the choices they've made to do business with you. You need to make sure that they have the facts, the formulas, and the ammunition to support their decision to choose and then to stick with you so they can withstand the constant onslaught of conflicting views, arbitrary and unfounded opinions, fake surveys and studies, and all the general noise pollution and commercial clutter that's out there today. Give them the proof to make them proud.
As the band Chicago sang in "Hard Habit to Break": "I guess I thought you'd be here forever.... I was acting as if you were lucky to have me.... Doin' you a favor .... I was spreading my love too thin."
Don't make the same mistake with your customers. There is no substitute for paying attention and, if you don't, customers quickly stop caring.
You want to become a very hard habit to break.