Focusing on Fringe Customers

“My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions.”
Peter Drucker

Hundreds of thousands of people know I’m an author and a professional speaker. But very few know that I’m a mind reader as well. I can go into any room with any audience of 1 to 1000 people and tell every one of them what their job is.

In fact, I’ll even tell them, “I don’t know what business you’re in, and I don’t know what your job title is. But I know what your job is. Every one of you has a job in customer service and satisfaction. Every one of you has a job as a problem solver. And the higher you go in the organization, the bigger and more expensive problems you have to solve.”

Of course, they laugh. They know I’m not a mind reader, but they also know I’m right.

Then I’ll ask people to write down the names of three of their customers. And they do so. But then I ask them, “How many of you wrote down the names of your best, biggest, or most profitable customers?” Almost everybody raises their hand. They’ve written down their “core” customers … or the ones who already agree with the way they’re doing their business. Very few of them wrote down the names of their “fringe” customers … or the ones who give them headaches and complaints.

Now that’s understandable but not very smart … when you realize the future of your business will be significantly different than it is today. And who do you think is more likely to see the need for change in your business: A) Your “core” customers who already love you, or B) Your “fringe” customers who are asking you to do business differently?

The answer is obviously B. If you want to delight your “core” customers tomorrow, you must listen to your “fringe” customers today. They’re the first ones to see the need for new products and services, for new procedures and processes, and for new features and benefits. They’re the ones knocking on your door saying, “This is what the future is going to look like, and this is what you need to do.”

At the very least, you need to learn from your “fringe” customers and make some changes based on what they tell you. Try these tips:

=> 1. Find out WHY your customers refuse to buy from you … and make adjustments.

Sometimes it takes a little digging to get to the “real” reason. When one company surveyed its “fringe” customer base, they couldn’t quite figure out why these folks refused to buy their products. According to the surveys, these people liked the products, the prices, and the selection.

Finally one person at the company figured it out. When the company service rep asked the customer for his/her credit card information over the phone, some of the customers withdrew their order. Being an older clientele, they weren’t comfortable giving out such information.

Of course, the naive service reps tried to “educate” their customers, letting them know how safe their credit card transaction would be. They tried to tell the customers why they the customers were wrong and why they at the company were right. Not a smart move.

Then one service rep suggested a new approach. Why not ship out the product without a credit card number? The customer could simply send in a check 15 days later. Almost everyone thought that approach would be financially disastrous, but it worked. The “fringe” customers became “core” customers. And the losses were trivial … because this company knew the kind of customer they were dealing with … and knew they could trust them to pay.

You see … if that company had only paid attention to its “core” customers, they wouldn’t have learned anything. They wouldn’t have acquired any new customers because the “core” customers were never bothered by the credit card issue. It was not until a service rep listened to a “fringe” customer that the company decided to change the way it did business.

=> 2. Find out WHY your customers refuse to re-order from you … and make adjustments.

That’s what had to happen at another company that specialized in shipped merchandise … in particular, the company that makes “Depends,” the adult diaper. According to their customers, the product was high quality, the prices were great, the service was wonderful, and the deliveries were always on time. So why did a certain percentage of their customers refuse to re-order the product once they got it?

The “core” customers had no clue. But the “fringe” customers were loud and clear. They did not want their box of “Depends” delivered when they weren’t home, sitting on the doorstep all day long, with the “Depends” name in large, bold letters across the box. It was the last thing they wanted their neighbors to know. They said they’d rather skip the advantageous price and delivery and buy in the privacy of their local pharmacy instead.

Fortunately, the company was smart enough to listen to their “fringe” customers. They repackaged and delivered “Depends” in a plain brown box. Their lost “fringe” customers came back, and their old, original “core” customers … who were never bothered by the box’s label … loved the product even more when it came in a plain brown box.

The point is simple. If you want to grow your business as well as change your business for the future, listen to your “fringe” customers.

=> 3. Put yourself in the customer’s shoes … emotionally speaking.

That’s the lesson from Dennis Wiitanen, a member of my audience when I was speaking at a National Guard Claims Avoidance Workshop in Las Vegas. Interestingly enough, I was speaking on the topic of conflict resolution, and Dennis ended up with a real live conflict on his hands.

In short, during one of the breaks in class, Dennis wandered over to the J. C. Penney store to buy a new pair of shoes … which turned out to be a disaster. A short time after the purchase, he had to glue the left sole back on, and then glue it again a few months later. Then the sole cracked completely through and all the way across the ball of the shoe. To make matters worse, the insoles and the back of the shoes tore apart, making them very uncomfortable to wear.

Living in Michigan, it took him a great deal of time to find a real person in the Las Vegas store he could contact and lodge a complaint. Dennis explained that he wasn’t a kid who was hard on shoes. Indeed, he was a middle-aged professional, engineer, and government leader who only wore the shoes around the office; so there was no reason to think the shoes would fall apart from overuse or misuse.

Unfortunately, the store manager figured Dennis was just another dishonest customer trying to rip off the store to get a free pair of shoes. So he replied with a curt note, saying if Dennis could come back to that same store with his receipt, they would make an adjustment on another pair of shoes. Now how realistic is that? How many people keep their receipt on such an ordinary purchase from several weeks or months before? And how likely was it that Dennis would travel from his home in Michigan to the store in Las Vegas?

The store manager made a fundamental mistake in customer service. He dismissed his “fringe” customer as a nut case instead of putting himself in Dennis’ shoes … emotionally speaking. Instead, he should have heeded the advice of Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo. She said, “My father was an absolutely wonderful human being. From him I learned to always assume positive intent. Whatever anybody says or does, assume positive intent. You will be amazed at how your whole approach to a person or problem becomes very different.”

If the store manager had assumed positive intent, he might have retained Dennis’ business and good will. And he might have retained Dennis’ good word-of-mouth advertising. Now all he gets is Dennis’ bad feelings and bad word-of-mouth advertising.

And the same goes for your business. You’ve got to put yourself in the customer’s shoes and try to think and feel like he’s thinking and feeling.

To put it in dirt-plain, bottom-line language, bad customer service costs you money while good customer service makes you money. One customer, well taken care of, could be more valuable than $10,000 worth of advertising. Good service leads to lots of great PR, which opens doors you could never open by yourself, which in turn leads to additional sales.

As business philosopher Jim Rohn used to ask, “How do you deserve a fortune? Render fortunes of service.”


=> 4. Invite customer feedback.

Charlene Begley as the CEO of GE Enterprise Solutions knows that. She said, “Before Jeff Immelt became the CEO, he gave me this advice: Spend a ton of time with your customers.”

And when you do that, ask for their feedback. Of course, many customers are reluctant to criticize. So when you ask them how you did, they’ll probably say “fine,” which is basically useless feedback … because you won’t learn anything. But people are almost always willing to give suggestions. So ask them, “How can I (we) do better next time?” They’ll tell you. Just make sure you’re listening, and make sure you’re open to what they have to say.

The same goes for your relationships at home. You’ve got to invite feedback as well as be receptive to it. Unfortunately, too many husbands and wives … like too many customers … stuff their feedback until it comes out in a less than effective way.

That’s what one husband discovered. As his wife was making a breakfast of fried eggs for him, he suddenly burst into the kitchen. “Careful,” he said, “CAREFUL! Put in some more butter! Oh my GOD! You’re cooking too many at once. TOO MANY! Turn them! TURN THEM NOW! We need more butter. Oh my GOD! WHERE are we going to get MORE BUTTER? They’re going to STICK! Careful … CAREFUL! I said be CAREFUL! You NEVER listen to me when you’re cooking! Never! Turn them! Hurry up! Are you CRAZY? Have you LOST your mind? Don’t forget to salt them. You know you always forget to salt them. Use the salt. USE THE SALT! THE SALT!”

The wife stared at him. “What in the world is wrong with you? You think I don’t know how to fry a couple of eggs?” The husband calmly replied, “I wanted to show you what it feels like when I’m driving.”

Now I don’t recommend that feedback strategy at home or in the business world. You’re likely to get into a lot of trouble. But take a lesson from this husband and wife. Invite customer feedback before they stuff it. And then give feedback with tact and receive feedback with calmness.

Action:  Contact 5 “fringe” customers this week to get their feedback on your products and services. And consider making some changes based on what they tell you.