“I can’t believe this,” the printer said. “We’ve bent over backwards for these people for years, and they go with someone else over a $10 price difference! What ever happened to loyalty? What happened to keeping your business with the printer who earned it?”
These are good questions. But they raise a few more good questions, starting with “How exactly did you earn their business?” and then finishing with “Are you sure they agree?”
Earning the business
I think printers and customers can have very different perspectives on a printer’s performance. From the printer’s perspective, “I haven’t heard any complaints” seems to qualify as a rock-solid relationship. From the buyer’s perspective, there’s a lot of opportunities for little things to add up to a less-than-satisfactory association.
Think about this for just a moment. It’s pretty well established that Murphy’s Law runs wild in the printing industry, and that just about every order is an accident looking for a place to happen. That’s not an indictment of your print shop; it’s just a fact of life in any custom manufacturing business. There’s a lot that can go wrong, affecting quality or service or both.
Now think about this. Your best customers give you the most chances to screw up, and the confluence of Murphy’s Law and multiple chances makes it likely that your best customers see you at less than your best far more frequently than you probably want to think. So yes, you may bend over backwards for them on some occasions, but if you also let them down on other occasions, they probably see all that as balancing out – at the very best!
Here’s an exercise that might help you to understand this dynamic a little better. On clean sheet of paper, write down the names of your two or three best customers, and then for each of them, assign yourself a point for everything you’ve done in the last 30 days that you think represents “earning their business.” Now deduct two points for everything you’ve done that may have had the opposite effect. Be objective; what we’re looking for here is the opposite of denial. I think you may find that you’ve done less to deserve their loyalty than you originally thought.
By the way, it may not be fair, but letting them down does carry twice as much weight as bending over backwards for them. Remember that there’s money involved in this! You don’t get any points for meeting their expectations (i.e. giving them what they paid for). You do get a point for anything they perceive as exceeding their expectations. But you lose that point and at least one more if you let them down.
Please note the words “they perceive.” Ultimately, your perspective on value and loyalty is meaningless if it doesn’t conform to theirs. If you think you did something that deserves a loyalty point and they don’t agree, then you simply don’t get the point you think you deserve. And if they think you let them down even though you don’t agree, you still lose at least two points. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. They should say that value is in the eye of the buyer. Sellers can talk about value, but it’s ultimately the buyer who decides.
I spoke with another printer recently who told me about a “ridiculous” problem he just encountered with a customer. “I couldn’t believe he got all bent out of shape about it,” he said. “Sure, it wasn’t quite what he wanted, but it’ll do what he needs it to do.”
Well, I’m not accusing you of sharing that attitude, but I hope you’ll agree that this printer didn’t earn any loyalty in that exchange. I can assure you that he doesn’t see the problem. I sincerely hope that you do.
As with so many things in life, the solution to the “loyalty problem” lies in better communication. As a starting point, don’t assume that your customers are happy and therefore loyal. Get out there and ask them how they feel about the quality and service they’ve been getting from you – and beyond that, how they feel about the overall value you provide. Tell them that you value their business, but don’t presume their satisfaction and loyalty. Ask them to tell you exactly how they feel.
With that information, you can hopefully shore up any