Customer Service


A Peek Behind the Curtain of My CRM Laboratory

I’ll admit it — I have a secret life. In addition to being a CRM reporter, I’m also a small businessman. A tiny businessman, in fact; my goofy, niche company grosses about US$5,000 a year. We make detail parts for scale model airplanes — and while you can’t get much more niche than that, you also can’t find a better place to discover some CRM secrets that make a big difference.

In this case, CRM does not mean “technology.” It means the actual construction and maintenance of customer relationships. Our customers’ purchases are entirely discretionary; they could certainly build the models they build without our stuff. We have to make sure that we deliver products good enough to make them want to buy — then make the experience of buying good enough that they come back.

Here are some lessons that our 10 years of doing very little business have taught us:

1. Communicate With Customers Using the Right Tone

Our website was conceived as an in-joke. From the obviously grandiose description of the company (the photo of our “headquarters” building depicts the Northrop HQ in the early 1960s, for example) to press releases that parody corporate-speak, the site doesn’t take itself very seriously.

The home page shows calipers, a slide rule, blueprints, a hobby knife — and drops of what looks like blood, a joke that resonates with any scale modeler who’s accidentally stuck himself in the finger while building. Those jokes are not just a reflection on the owners — they’re a perfect match for our customers, who are practicing a hobby. It’s a diversion — they shouldn’t be made to take their hobby that seriously. They do it for fun, so coming to the site should be an extension of that fun.

We did this because we understood the customers; if you’re discussing brain surgery or end-of-life care, you would obviously use a different tone. But being on the same wavelength as customers — even on something as simple as your website — is a first key step to building a relationship.

2. Be There for Customers — Wherever ‘There’ Is

We made a point of being at events around the country — especially the International Plastic Modeler Society/USA National Convention — because nothing beats connecting with customers in person. Sure, we’d have a table in the vendor area, but it was even more important that my partner and I went to mixers, participated in judging, and spent our days talking — not selling.

After the events, we even received emails and phone calls from people who missed us at the show but talked to someone who had spoken to us. Showing the same commitment to being there as our customers further cemented the peer relationship we were aiming for.

Here’s another plus from talking to customers: Those conversations have led to numerous new products. We never would have added 110-gallon metal drop tanks to our line without a memorable conversation with a customer from Texas at one of these events.

Same goes for our F2H-3 Banshee detail set, the product of an animated conversation with a modeler from Arizona. You can’t take every suggestion all the way to a product, but you can seize upon the good ones — and when you do, give the person who suggested it credit to help prime the line for future good suggestions from other customers.

3. Simple Human Touches Have a Major Impact

One of the really simple things we did from the start was an afterthought. While packing up an order, I jotted a brief thank you note on the inside of the boxtop. This tiny human touch has kept customers coming back, and luckily, someone mentioned it in passing in an email, so we know it has an impact.

These tiny human touches take seconds and have a value all out of proportion to their expense.

4. When You Make Errors, Address Them With an Apology and Action

Nobody’s perfect, and we’ve had some lapses. One summer, it was simply too hot to make the rubber molds we use to cast our parts — the rubber wouldn’t solidify in the high temperatures. That caused a back-up in orders and delays that were really not acceptable.

To make up for it, we communicated with the customers to explain what was going on, and when we could fill the orders, we’d throw in additional products that were in keeping with the rest of the order. If a customer ordered products in a certain scale, for subjects from World War II, we’d toss in wheel sets for other World War II planes.

An apology and a corresponding action to make up for your failings is the least you can do (but it’s often more than many businesses seem able to manage).

5. In All Things, Be Honest

A lot of our business is mail order, and no matter how plain you make your terms, people will make mistakes in payments. Often, they overpay; this is where honesty in the relationship comes into play. We always refund the overpayment with a check, which is tucked into the order. The amounts are never high, but the gesture itself sends a message about commitment to the customer relationship.

On occasion, customers simply do the math wrong and underpay. Our practice has been to send the full order and to include a note saying that their payment was a little short, and when they had a chance, could they send the remainder of the payment. In 100 percent of these cases, the customers have sent payment; in one case, the customer went on a popular message board and praised us for working with him and allowing his modeling project to go on despite his mistake.

All these little things add up to very solid relationships and a core of loyal customers all over the world. While this is easy to manage for our little business, I strongly suspect these concepts are scalable as a business grows. Doing the right things, seeing customers as peers and being authentic work for enterprises of all sizes — and if they can have an impact on a goofy part-time business, they can have an impact on larger, more serious businesses as well.

CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz blogs about CRM at Forecasting Clouds. He has been a technology journalist for 15 years and has immersed himself in the world of CRM since 2006. When he's not wearing his business and technology geek hat, he's wearing his airplane geek hat; he's written three books on World War II aviation.

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