I have had a particularly rough last few days of traveling. On the way to the airport this morning, I had that on my mind.  Most of the issues that I had don’t really have anything to do with the airline, but are a byproduct of air travel.  Nonetheless, because I travel as much as I do, I have become a very regular customer at several travel related businesses.  The fact that I am a regular customer at these places that I will name is what I want to talk about today.

When you have a regular customer, you get to know him or her.  You call them by name.  You may go up to the call office and chat with them when they come in.  You may give them special privileges’ or discounts. You may send them a Thank you gift at the end of the year.  All very nice gestures that are part of maintaining  a special relationship with customers that hold you in a high enough regard to give their business exclusively to you while forsaking all others. Excellent.  But what happens when a good customer becomes and ex-customer? Do you know about it?  Did you catch it in time?  Did you bother to learn why this “whale” or “big tuna” stopped patronizing you?  Database mining is the key to this and while I am not the most qualified person to discuss how you should go about mining your customer database because I am not an expert on your POS, nor am I an expert on marketing, in some regard I am the most qualified person to explain the importance of learning about your customers because I am a customer at many places.  I really enjoy learning about other businesses.  How they market, how they earn customers, how they make money. In my opinion however, there is a common denominator and that is customer service.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Whether you are an airline, a travel agent a drycleaner or a local hamburger joint, you must know what your customers think and what they think about you. You must know what they want. Often we try to avoid this fact-finding step by trying to offer the customers everything.  I once read a sign in a drycleaners shop that said “We specialize in Drycleaning, Shirts, Leathers, Suedes, Shoe Repair, Tailoring and Alterations.”  Perhaps a check with Webster regarding the definition of the word “specialize” is in order.  This is an attempt to be all things to all people.  This is merely a list of services offered rather than true specialties. Often the case is that only standard service and quality is offered in all categories.  Jack of all trades, master of none.  But I digress; certainly an education about the wants and needs of a customer is in order rather than an educated wild guess about those wants and needs.

I have a few examples to share with you.  They have nothing to do with the shirt business.  There is a good reason for this.  I guess that I am a “big tuna” at my drycleaner.  But I suppose that I am not the only “big Tuna” at this cleaner. If I stopped going there, I would expect that the owner would call me or write me and want to know what’s up. There are a number of good reasons why you will lose dozens of customers this year: moved away (I moved away from my previous drycleaner’s area), passed away, changed jobs, lost job, etc. Those are part of being in business.  But suppose that you lose customers because you press a lousy shirt?  Or your orders are consistently late?  Or you smash buttons? Or you can’t get collars clean? Or you lose shirts and miss-assemble orders?  Will you still concentrate on adding new “specialties?” Will you still think that you should lower your shirt price to attract new customers?  If you knew what your customers think, you will make far more educated business decisions because you will be informed.  Adding shoe repair, for example, is nonsensical if you cannot provide good quality and proper service for the services that you and your customers expect you to provide.

So, the idea is to learn from your customers.  POS database mining is probably the most effective way to do that.  When you go to the Clean Show next month, there will be many to choose from.  I am not qualified to recommend one, nor am I qualified to show you how to extract information from the one that you may already have.  But it is most important that you use your POS for more than a glorified cash register.  I am a good customer at numerous businesses and I am an ex-good customer and at many. I believe that it is unethical to continue to support a business that does not care about my wants and needs. Continuing to do so, in my mind, is sort of endorsing their carelessness.  I think that many people feel that way, but may not have thought it out that way.  You simply patronize a business because it is convenient and maybe you don’t know any better. It is hard to be a “big tuna” at the local dairy store or quickie mart, but we are in a business where you can generate – or perhaps stumble upon – a very good customer.  When a customer starts bringing you 10 shirts a week, plus his drycleaning, you know that he is a professional that has high regard for his personal appearance and changes his shirt mid-day in order to present that appearance in the afternoons as well as the mornings.  When he stops coming to you, you want to know why.

I have been buying airline tickets through Orbitz for many years.  I am currently on my last trip with them.  I switched to American Express travel for one reason only.  I get double Membership Rewards points with American Express if I book my travel with them.  This has been a particularly stressful switch for me because I regard myself as a loyal customer.  I am simply not going to switch from one provider to another for no good reason. American Express is like you are when you try to get a new customer.  You search for something that works.  The harder it is to get a customer, the more that customer is worth because you know that you are romancing a loyal customer.  If the customer is too easy to get, they may also be too easy to lose.  Will Orbitz contact me?  That remains to be seen, but I expect that a vendor of that type – one that can generate – or stumble upon – big customers would be very concerned about why they lost one.  Orbitz doesn’t make a ton of money on me – their fees simply are not that high – but I must be a good customer.  How many people buy three, four or even five airline tickets per month?  It simply cannot be the majority of their customers.

United Airlines is annoying me.  There have been a few incidences of poor service that, at this moment I simply choose not to ignore.  A couple of other major carriers will transfer my current status with United to their airline simply because they know that I will simply and suddenly become a new “big tuna” at very little, if any expense to them.  Will United Airlines call me?  That too, remains to be seen.  To you, it doesn’t matter whether they call me or not.  What matters to you is your business.  What will you do when you lose a regular customer? Will you or will you not make the appropriate tweaks in your business that will help to retain your good customer. United Airlines probably will not ever contact me.  They probably have 100’s of thousands of customers like me and therefore consider me to be relatively insignificant.  Shame on them.  Take care of the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.

My wife and I were very regular customers at a restaurant in the city.  So much so that the manager always came to our table to greet us, always seated us in the section that we preferred; we even had our own personal waiter, so to speak.  Because he was particularly good at his job, we always wanted him as a server and almost always got our wish.  The meals there were always “over the top.” I believe that special attention was paid. We were treated like king and queen. We moved away and the manager knew this. He knew in advance that we would not be anywhere near as frequent diners.  A few months ago, we made a special trip to this restaurant because we missed the special attention, fabulous food and royal treatment that we invariably experienced.  We returned to find none of those things.  The manager was the same though and he did acknowledge us, but nothing more. I expected to be received as the long lost son.  Perhaps our usual reception that would make me long to return.  My trip to this establishment, this time, was more complicated for me than previous visits because it was further away.  I would have expected to be treated more graciously rather than less graciously.  Don’t you agree that a big tuna in the making is worth seducing? That big tuna in the making is at least as valuable as the ones that you already have.

“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always got.”