CUSTOMER RETENTION

Customer retention refers to the percentage of customer relationships that, once established, a small business is able to maintain on a long-term basis. It is a major contributing factor in the net growth rate of small businesses. For example, a company that increases its number of new customers by 20 percent in a year but retains only 85 percent of its existing customers will have a net growth rate of only 5 percent (20 percent increase less 15 percent decrease). But the company could triple that rate by retaining 95 percent of its clients.

"Of course, growth is just one of the benefits experienced by companies with superior retention rates," William A. Sherden explained in an article for Small Business Reports. "Your profits also should improve considerably when customers stay on board for longer periods of time. The cost of acquiring customers and putting them on the books generally runs two to four times the annual cost of serving existing customers. So the longer you keep customers, the more years over which these one-time costs can be spread."

A variety of strategies are available to small business owners seeking to improve their customer retention rates. Of course, the most basic tools for retaining customers are providing superior product and service quality. High quality products and services minimize the problems experienced by customers and create goodwill toward the company, which in turn increases customers' resistance to competitors' overtures. However, it is important that small business owners not blindly seek to improve their customer retention rate. Instead, they must make sure that they are targeting and retaining the right customers—the ones who generate high profits. "In short, customer retention should never be a stand-alone program, but rather part of a comprehensive process to create market ownership," Sherden wrote.

According to Sherden, the first step in establishing a customer retention program is to create a time line of a typical customer relationship, outlining all the key events and interactions that occur between the first contact with and the eventual loss of the customer. The next step is to analyze the company's trends in losing customers. Customer defections may be related to price increases or to a certain point in the relationship life cycle, for example. Finally, small business owners can use the information gathered to identify warning signs of customer loss and develop retention programs to counteract it.

STRATEGIES FOR RETAINING CUSTOMERS

One basic customer retention strategy available to small business owners involves focusing on employee retention and satisfaction. A company with a high turnover rate may not be able to maintain strong personal relationships with its customers. Even if relationships are established, the customer may decide to take its business to a new company when its contact person leaves. At the very least, high turnover creates a negative environment and reduces the quality of service provided to customers. In order to reduce turnover, it is important to provide employees with career development opportunities and high degrees of involvement in the business.

Another possible strategy for retaining customers involves institutionalizing customer relationships. Rather than just providing contact with individual employees, a small business can provide value to customers through the entire company. For example, it could send newsletters or provide training programs in order to become a source of information and education for customers. It may also be possible to establish membership cards or frequent-buyer programs as direct incentives for customer retention.

Some companies may be able to use electronic links to improve the service they provide to customers. For example, e-mail connections could be used to provide updates on the status of accounts, electronic order systems could be used to simplify reordering and reduce costs, and online services could be used to provide general information.

Sherden noted that customer retention programs are particularly important in volatile industries—those characterized by fluctuating prices and product values. In this situation, superior service may discourage but not prevent customer defections. Some strategies that may be useful to companies in volatile industries include providing stable prices over the customer life cycle, basing prices on the overall cost and profitability of the customer relationship, and cross-selling additional products and services. All of these strategies are intended to minimize the changes and problems customers experience, thus making them want to maintain the business relationship.

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