Christie Nightingale noticed last fall that her company, Premier Match, wasn't signing up the usual 20 to 25 new clients a month.
To woo the 30% who were dragging their feet, she dusted off her Recession Special, which offers a discount of 10% off the full year's membership of $6,500 to $25,000. She also offered, for the first time, six-month memberships for newbies. As a result, the company has been able to maintain its rate of new customers.
"Compared to the recession of 2001-02, I find this crisis to be a lot more intense," says Nightingale. "I'm hearing people don't even want to spend money on a date! When I noticed that we weren't making appointments after conducting phone interviews and discussing our normal rates, I decided to offer the Recession Special to everyone who called in, simply to get people to commit to setting appointments and join."
In these belt-tightening times, Premier Match isn't the only company that has had to find creative ways to get customers to commit. How loyal a client is could determine if you'll be in business next year. Here are nine tips on how to keep them coming back.
Foster a sense of community: To get people excited about going to Pilates on Fifth in New York City, owners Katherine and Kimberly Corp started a daily give-away contest in January. Every day, clients whose names are drawn can win things like stretch bands, free classes and free downloads from their UltimatePilatesWorkouts.com.
Make it special: Joining Wegmans Shoppers Club has its privileges. Introduced in 1990, the program has evolved from electronic discounts and faster checkouts to include a free subscription to Menu Magazine, which features dishes cooked by the supermarket's culinary team, and notification of new products.
But the perk that captures the most attention: product recalls. "If we recall a Wegmans brand item, we can place automated phone calls as long as customers used their cards to purchase the products," says Jo Natale, director of media relations.
Offer deals: Something a small business can do at little cost is provide a loyalty card, where you buy 10 cups of joe and get the 11th for free. "I have three of these cards in my wallet forever," says Dan Blacharski, author of "Superior Customer Service: How to Keep Customers Racing Back to Your Business"(Atlantic Publishing). "These things are great. And there is very little expense in getting started: print up the cards and hand them out."
Keep it on the down-low: For Wegmans, the Shoppers Club card program has been a success for 19 years, in part, because the company keeps the list private. Whatever information it obtains from customers is used only for Wegmans business. "It helps us understand our customers and the products and services they are interested in. You have to be very mindful of that in terms of how you handle, store and maintain that information," says Natale.
Change the pricing structure: Sales and discounts are good, but frankly, low prices are the best incentive. That's why companies like Wal-Mart (WMT) - Get Report (Stock Quote: WMT) are beating expectations. If you can afford it, see where you can go down without cutting into your profits. Sometimes it requires thinking outside the box. In January, Pilates on Fifth started offering the Streamline Series. One teacher trains up to five students at a time, for $20 a class, a huge savings on the typical $95 private session.
(WMT) - Get ReportGive them what they want: Fish sauce is simply made from fermented fish. But at a local ethnic grocery that Blacharski frequents, he says the owner stocks brands from every country represented by his clientele. He knows that a Vietnamese shopper will stick to a Vietnamese brand, while one from Thailand will lean toward a fish sauce made from her homeland.
(WMT) - Get ReportRemain focused: In cutting back, your first inclination may be to halt staff training or trim anything that may make the customer experience a smooth one. Don't if you can help it, says Richard Hanks, chair and president of Mindshare, a customer service-consulting firm. "Customer loyalty is a share of their wallet, mind and mouth. Be willing to sacrifice a little here, and your profits may take a hit and you may need to dip into your reserves a bit, but now is the time to steal shares. When everyone else is cutting down to the bone, cut less than everyone else and you'll be in a great position when we get out of this recession."
(WMT) - Get Report After all, an experienced staff is worth its weight in gold. Just ask Apple (AAPL) - Get Report (Stock Quote: AAPL) . Whoever thought to add the Genius Bar to each store is brilliant. It's one more reason people are willing to pay Apple's higher prices.
(WMT) - Get Report (AAPL) - Get ReportTrain staff to stay focused: On the customer, that is. One way Daniel's Jewelers in southern California does that is to have management shop in its 50 stores. "The goal is to catch employees doing it right," says Rick Segel, author of "Retail Business Kits for Dummies" (For Dummies). "Then they have a meeting about the wonderful things people are doing. Behavior that is rewarded is behavior that is repeated."
(WMT) - Get Report (AAPL) - Get Report They also require that workers compliment one another in staff meetings. "An employee compliments another on what they did well, and they can't pick the same employee twice," says Segel. "It's awkward at first but people start observing. It becomes a form of education and raises the element of service."
(WMT) - Get Report (AAPL) - Get ReportNever lose customers to begin with: You won't need a customer-incentive program if your company has always done its utmost to make the client experience the best it can be. Experts say it costs more to find a new customer than it does to keep an old one. So if a customer had a horrible time with one of your employees, pick up the phone or drop by their table to let them know you value their business.
(WMT) - Get Report (AAPL) - Get Report "The best incentive is dependability, consistency, urgency and responsiveness," says Hanks, who is also author of "Delivering and Measuring Customer Service" (Duff Road Endeavors). "I overpay at Nordstrom. But I know I will never have a problem with them. They don't have a frequent-buyer program. They have my loyalty because of the underlying thing that they do."
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