During tough economic times, maintaining quality customer experiences is crucial to the survival of your business. Getting the right message across to your current and future customers will make or break your business.

Throughout the recession, companies like Eastman Kodak ( EK) have done a stellar job managing costs while increasing productivity. For many companies, profits are up and expected to rise in 2010, according to ConcensusEconomics.

However, robust hiring of full-time staff will not increase until confidence is restored on the demand side. Thankfully some companies are beginning to see demand increases, including Intel ( INTC), fueled by PC upgrades, Johnson Controls ( JCI), by increased vehicle production, and Omnova Solutions ( OMN), a producer of chemical coatings.

While it is essential to aggressively manage costs during the recession, your business will be doomed the moment you sacrifice your customer's buying experience. In fact, service and product quality should be elevated during tough times to build customer loyalty and grow revenue. Knowing where to cut costs and improve service will greatly enhance your company's success.

The key to playing through tough times is profit and a lean operation. To build and maintain your revenue streams, you need to keep current customers, sell them more, and seek referrals. Except for commodities, no one survives on price alone. Those who do will eventually go out of business when times are tough.

If you make it a practice to keep costs low, particularly in good times, you will reap higher margins and build reserves used to gain a significant competitive advantage during tough times.

Keep Your Word

It's really quite simple: To ensure customer trust and loyalty, keep your doors open and stay true to your company's promises. With more competition and less buyers, quality of experience is key, so continue providing customers quality products and top-notch customer service.

Look for innovative ways to offer increased value on things with little cost. For example, include low book-valued items from inventory at no charge or offer discounts on future purchases. Create value-added transactions and involve the entire company in working together to bundle products and services. Customers get more for less, and your business generates increased revenue and profit.

Whatever you do, don't cancel your traditional sales deals. This will turn loyal customers off, and they'll go elsewhere. Raising your level of communication during tough times can help increase customer loyalty.

Here are a few simple steps you can take.
  • Inform customers when products ship. UPS and amazon are prime examples.
  • Provide advance notice of delays.
  • Send updates along the way.
  • Respond quickly to requests.
  • Meet commitments.
  • Limit surprises.
  • Clearly communicate return and refund information.
  • Follow up to ensure satisfaction.
  • Send a heartfelt thank you.

Keeping your customers happy by staying in tune with their needs will not only build loyalty but also allow you to capture more market share as less savvy competitors stumble.

Don't Compromise Your Customer's Shopping Experience

Put your client first. Don't skimp on things that could sour their buying experience. Quality of goods and services must remain high, so don't switch suppliers just because someone else can do it cheaper. Remember, you usually get what you pay for, and your customers will notice.

If you need to reduce your costs, talk to your suppliers and see what they can do to help. Chances are, they don't want to lose your business either, and they'll work extra hard with you to offer better pricing, terms, or upgrades.

Experience matters! Don't fire your higher paid "front line" employees and replace them with cheaper, untrained labor. It's better to have fewer, higher paid professionals than a full crew with average talent. Now more than ever, customers expect a high quality shopping experience, impeccable service, and enthusiastic, knowledgeable sales and support personnel.

Case in point: Best Buy ( BBY) vs. Circuit City ( CC). Best Buy invested in its sales staff to make them product experts. Circuit City fired senior sales staff and replaced them with junior, untrained employees to save money. This, coupled with other ailments, led to their ultimate demise.

By maintaining a level of quality, customers will respect your integrity and dedication to their needs, producing loyalty for years to come.

Empathize With Your Customer

Show your clientele that you understand what they're going through. They want you to recognize that we are all under pressure in this economy, not just you.

If you need to change your business model, be sure customers understand your motives. Show them that you want to be there for them now, as well as when good times return. Everyone understands hard times, and we admire those who take proactive steps to be there for us in the future.

That said, don't throw caution to the wind. Some customers will ask for special pricing and terms and, where possible, accommodate their needs. But before accommodating their requests, consider asking for longer-term agreements to lock in future business.

When requests outweigh the value, it's time to say "no." It's critical to cut costs during a recession, and customers understand that. However, finding ways to cut less-essential expenses rather than vital ones is the key to playing through.

Get the Message Out

During these tough times, it's imperative to communicate the right set of messages to your customer base. This is your chance to show your humanity and develop closeness with your customer. Let them know you understand their hardships and what you're doing to lend a hand.

This is the perfect time to demonstrate your competitive edge. While others cut back on people, marketing, service and sales, you can step in and create confidence and certainty for your brand. Your integrity and image will directly affect your success, now and in the future.

-- Written by Bob Prosen in Dallas

At the time of publication, Prosen did not own any of the equities mentioned. Prosen is president and CEO of The Prosen Center for Business Advancement, where he shows current and future leaders how to rapidly increase performance, productivity and profit. The Prosen Center delivers the nation's only leadership and mangement training focused exclusively on business execution. that enable them to convert plans into results. Along with being a frequent guest on MSNBC and FOX News, Prosen is the bestselling author of Kiss Theory Good Bye, which gives leaders the tools and step-by-step directions to achieve extraordinary operating and financial results. Prosen earned his B.S. from Texas Tech University, an M.B.A. from Georgia State University and holds postgraduate certifications from MIT, Duke University and The Wharton School.

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