The New Customer Isn't Different

Everywhere you turn these days there is advice about how to handle the new (post-recession) customer. Be on your toes, on your knees, between your ears. But are they—the same folks you did business with before the recession—really that different? I wish the proponents of this new, improved customer handling would explain how and, more importantly, why these same people are somehow different now.

It’s no question the times put the kibosh on a lot of elective remodeling projects. When things get tough, responsible people defer some expenditures, first frills and then basics as needed. Things don’t stay tough forever, and we are seeing signs of recovery in housing needs—chief among them, remodeling and home improvement.

There are many warnings about how different the new customer is. I’ve heard they are smarter, more dollar-wise, more quality conscious and more value aware. Why does that make them new? Wasn’t your company responding to these same preferences before? Weren’t these concerns a top-drawer item in 2007 and ’08?

If you are scurrying around looking for some magical formula to find this “new” customer, including a large presence on social media, take a good look at your former client list. Maybe even call and talk with these clients. Has their objective in selecting a contractor with whom to invest several thousand dollars changed? I think not. The client with whom you have a solid reputation for performance is still there.

When a family invests thousands of dollars for improvements with my company, they want more than sticks and bricks. They want good advice; they want to be informed; they want sound guidance. Even if it means smaller jobs, offering these things keeps them clients for life. If you respond to the fad or early endorsement of an untried product, you are putting your client at risk. If your client wants to try some new and unproven product, you have a responsibility to investigate and make certain the risks of the product are clear. Your allegiance is to the client and, unless you waive responsibility, you will need to make it work. Your new customer still may ask why he can’t buy his whirlpool tub at a big-box store to save money; he may have heard about doing that on Facebook or Twitter.

Absolutely make sure your communication skills are up to date but that doesn’t mean faddish. Clients want to understand what you are doing. Make instructions clear and make sure clients understand. In addition, ask clients how and what type of communication they prefer. If they say telephone, email, fax or snail mail, do it that way. It’s OK to suggest alternative methods, but it’s their money and being comfortable spending it is important to them.

During my years in business, I have not heard many complaints from clients about instructions being too clear or basic, nor have I ever been asked to provide less detail. Of course clients don’t read all the correspondence you send, but it is better that your communication goes unread than unsent. I have said many times the client who is the toughest to please is the best referral. How many times have you heard someone say, “If you can make John happy, you must be good.”?

Don’t assume the people for whom you have done great work in the past have gone through some metamorphosis; products change but good customer service doesn’t. If your company was able to create good client relations before the slowdown, it will still work. Understand and keep abreast of new market offerings so you can offer recommendations. Sound advice about proven products is best because your clients expect no less from you.

Whenever you recommend an unfamiliar product or process to your client, you are going out on a limb. Be smart about it and make sure when anyone is sawing the limb, you are on the tree side, while you’re here ... .

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