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The Power of Keeping Promises: How to Create Customers for Life

Too many business owners treat their customers like widgets on an assembly line. They move them along, take their money, then make way for the next one. They reel their customers in with flashy advertising and marketing plans, and then leave them less than satisfied with their overall experience. Sure, your business may succeed in the short run. But in order to keep your customers coming back over the long term, you have to do it right: "the almighty customer" should trump "the almighty dollar" every time.

When you are working to create a brand, you are working to create a belief that has lasting value for your customers. That means keeping the promises you make--and even the ones you imply. Building a powerful, lasting brand means involving the entire organization—including sales, customer service, shipping, product design, marketing, and so on. In my book The Brand Who Cried Wolf: Deliver on Your Company's Promise and Create Customers for Life, I use children's stories and fables to communicate cutting edge principles of sales and service. My goal is to encourage readers to think about the very simple values and beliefs that they learned as children. The following nine simple strategies can help any company “live happily ever after.”

1.  Advertising, marketing, and branding are not the same animals and can't accomplish the same thing. The differences may seem subtle, but to be successful, you must recognize them. Both advertising and marketing are mechanisms used to connect customers and businesses. Branding, on the other hand, is the creation and support of a powerful perception and image based on unique, emotional experiences. It's so powerful that the perception or image becomes a belief. Branding, as I conceive it, is a feeling. You feel trust, loyalty, comfort, love, need, desire, and happiness for brands because of beliefs derived from very precise experiences. Maybe the advertising or marketing efforts of a company got you interested in the product, but they're not the factors that build brand loyalty. That requires interaction with the people and with the brand.

2.  Be careful what you promise. When individuals and companies don't deliver on their brand promises, they fail to create or maintain uniqueness in their brand categories. That translates to a lack of brand loyalty among your customers. That means they're just as likely to buy someone else's widget over yours. In the reverse scenario, when a company over-delivers on its promises, it is able to create a feeling of belonging and of family. The ultimate customer experience creates just the sort of customers you want: ones who bring you more business. You want them to feel married to your company. When you marry someone, you expect that person to remain monogamous, and that's the same feeling you want someone to have about your brand.

3. Separate yourself from the pack. Both you and your employees should be focused on exceeding your customers' expectations. You can start by getting rid of impersonal customer service techniques such as e-mail or automated telephone services. Be proactive. If your customers aren't happy, focus on rebuilding your relationships with them. The differentiator must be the level of service, the unique experience you offer each of your customers. You have to engender loyalty in customers so that they will go out of their way to shop with you, regardless of how far out of their way they have to go to get to you.

4.  Perspective is everything. To really find out how things are going at your company, you'll have to step out of your own shoes and take a walk in those of your customers and employees. Ask yourself, “If I were one of my customers right now, what would I love to have from me?” Then, do it! Next, look at things from your employees’ perspective. This is important, because loyal employees provide the ultimate experience for customers. When you see what work needs to be done, get started immediately. Create loyal employees who stand behind your company's brand. The benefits you receive from changing your perspective will far exceed those reaped from a narrower vision that includes only the bottom line.

5. You (and your brand) are probably not as great as you think they are. This is known as the “Lake Wobegon Effect—the human tendency to think we are better than we actually are. The implications in your personal life are obvious—maybe you alienate people with your superior attitude—and in business the effects can be just as devastating. When you think your business is the best, you don't work hard to keep making it better. Always keep part of your gaze directed outward. And always be ready to reevaluate your brand. Focus not only on what's working, but look for aspects of your brand that are not succeeding and do everything you can to improve them.

6. Understand your company's "reach of influence." Think about the ripple effect. You throw a rock in the water and ripples radiate out in all directions. Even after the water at the point where the rock was dropped returns to equilibrium, ripples continue. Your actions can create a similar ripple effect with your customers. You need to focus on actions that show you acknowledge and understand their needs. Doing this will help you create a brand whose promise creates a far-reaching, positive ripple effect in the form of evangelists who are ready to sing your praises near and far. Just remember that the ripple effect works both ways. Unhappy customers will be quick to spread the word about poor service. If you break your brand promise, you will suffer negative effects by  word of mouth, which can be even more damaging to a business than a direct negative experience. Your brand promise is inextricably tied to your reputation, and you want to make a big enough splash so that delivering on your promise ripples indefinitely!

7.  Don't pretend to be something you're not. Branding is not a matter of putting on a persona that you think others will like. You don't want your customers to feel like they are being "sold" based on a false business persona. When you are sincere about trying to understand your customers' needs, desires, and what they'd truly love from you, a genuine connection is made that is the foundation of trust. And customers who trust a business keep coming back to that business over and over again. You cannot develop an authentic, sincere brand without this understanding.

8.  The easy way isn't always best. Technology has made communication so much easier. But if you're not careful, relying too much on technology will erode your brand. All of these great ways to communicate—texting, e-mailing, instant messaging—mean a loss of personal contact. You lose the opportunity to create emotional connections and build your brand. Technology should help you streamline your operations, create new opportunities, reach a broader customer base, and reinforce your carefully developed brand. Regardless of whether or not your business is brick and mortar or Web-based, remember to use technology to transcend, not replace, your brand. Don't let technology be the end of your brand; let it be the beginning of expanding, extending, and sustaining it."

9.  Don't drive your customers to a flawed service. Appearance without substance—advertising and driving people to your business, without a powerful brand identity—leads to failure. You can't figure out what your service is after the fact. You can't put a message out that is not reinforced and transcended by the brand experience. Your values and sincerity are your brand, and any marketing or advertising efforts need to be based around that brand identity. Your brand can be created only by you and the relationships you develop.

All of these lessons work together to bring us to one critical conclusion: if you want to be successful, you must build a powerful emotional brand. You must stop looking at customers with dollar signs in your eyes and start creating relationships with them. When your customers see that you truly value them and care about the service you can provide them, they'll be customers for life. And that’s the real moral of the story.