The Right Moves in White-Knuckle Times Can Keep Your Customers Loyal


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“Think Units.” That was the headline on the Plexiglas-framed desk-top poster that appeared in my office in-basket one Monday morning in the early ’80s. I was working for a Fortune 100 firm, and the poster was a “friendly reminder” from the execs in the C-suite that every sale (and sales dollar) mattered.

The message struck a chord. I was a frazzled, newly promoted brand manager nervously contemplating what to do, exactly, to boost my brand’s sales in a market downturn. It was my first encounter with a sour market brimming with cash-strapped, budget-pinched customers, and I was feeling the heat.

I made it my job to communicate, communicate, communicate the positive message.

Fast forward twenty-something years later. “Think units” is apt advice for succeeding in today’s white-knuckle times. Without question, unit sales and the dollars they generate help keep firms afloat in a slow economy. But experience has taught me to pay attention to an additional unit of measure: my loyalty-making time during a market ebb and how to invest it well. I’ve lived through downturns before, and here’s what I’ve learned. The right moves now can pay big loyalty-making dividends later. So resist the urge to make rash decisions that can alienate customers and come back to haunt you. Instead, slow down, take a deep breath and consider these six ways to invest your time well.

  1. Above all, protect your revenue pipeline. Assume every sales dollar is at risk. For example, if you’re selling B2B, buying decisions are typically made by a committee that, in addition to the decision maker, can include buyers, gatekeepers, influencers and users. (A recent Miller Heiman Sales Best Practices Study found that more than a third of B2B sales professionals said they needed to persuade six or more people; 82 percent said they had to persuade at least four people.) Your selling team should mirror your client’s buying team. Get covered, and fast.
  2. Treat the business of referrals seriously. When a client refers you to another potential client, treat it as the big deal it is! Most firms have gotten far too casual in both identifying and acknowledging referrals. That’s bad business for two reasons. Failing to acknowledge a referral dramatically reduces the likelihood that the client will repeat the behavior in the future. But that’s just one transgression. The other is the violation of the customer’s tit-for-tat rule of trust that says, “When I do something nice for your business, let me know you know.”
  3. Remind customers how you rock! In tight-tad times, it’s critical your brand gets the credit it is due. In the consumer space, it’s the practice of this reminder principle that prompts airline pilots to announce the on-time arrival in their “Welcome to Austin (or whatever the city)” greeting at landing. It’s why my Office Depot receipt for desk supplies reads, “You saved $7.46” and why Westin Hotel’s “Do Not Disturb” door hanger features the message, “I cannot come to the door now. I’m still in heaven,” referencing the comfort of Westin’s signature Heavenly Bed™. Not only do these businesses provide good service or products, but also they remind you how good they are.

    If you sell B2B, getting the word out is equally crucial. For example, a global oil company’s specialty chemical division provides a monthly letter to inform its customers about the services it has delivered over and above its contractual obligations. The letter is carefully written and designed so as not to come off boastful or like a sales solicitation. Instead, it is a matter-of-fact report on the additional benefits the supplier provided and the efforts taken to deliver them. It identifies the buyer’s executives who asked for extra services. These executives often emerge as the vendor’s internal champions.
  4. Upgrade your brand’s “responsiveness.” The Internet continues to unleash new ways to respond to customers, and forward-thinking firms are using these tools to reap the loyalty-building benefits well ahead of their competitors. For example, Twitter, the free social networking and micro-blogging site that allows users to send text-based posts (known as tweets) up to 140 characters long, is proving to be an effective customer-listening post for Southwest Airlines. When Travis Johnson sent a complaint about the airline’s check-in process into the online ether, a Southwest employee sent him a quick, public response which read, “So sorry to hear it! What don’t you like about the check-in process? Did your flight get off okay?”

    The airline sees the responsive opportunity inherent in social media sites and has mobilized accordingly. Southwest’s social media team includes a Chief Twitter officer responsible for tracking Twitter comments and monitoring a Facebook Group, an online representative who oversees the airline’s presence on such sites as LinkedIn, Flickr and YouTube, and another who interacts with bloggers.
  5. Aggressively feed your innovation pipeline. Innovation—and the defensible points of difference it can create for your brand—is how you command customer loyalty (and premium pricing) in good times and bad. But a firm’s ability to innovate is a fragile corporate competency that requires constant nurturing, especially in a downturn. When the marketplace recovers, your brand must be ready to pounce.

    In a September 2008 interview for The Wall Street Journal online, Intel CEO Paul Otellini explained the importance of continual investment in research and development, when he quoted Gordon Moore, one of his CEO predecessors, who always said, “You can’t save your way out of a downturn.”

    Otellini said, “I knew that when we came out of this downturn, this would be a very different industry—and I wanted [Intel] to be ready for it.”
  6. Help keep hope alive. To help boost troop morale, put your knowledge to work about your brand’s initiatives. You probably have a unique vantage point in the firm with knowledge about such things as new products soon to launched and efficiency improvements scheduled to come on line. If so, share your optimism. Says Otellini, “I was upbeat … but nobody else was yet. So I made it my job to communicate, communicate, communicate the positive message.” Using information about future product launches and efficiency improvements, Otellini held open forums and webcasts. “I told employees to send me any questions via email, and I’d answer them. I wasn’t trying to sell them on the idea. When half of your 80,000 employees are engineers, if you try to put sales into it, you’re dead. You have to convince them through reasoning and logic the accuracy of your claims.”

Think units in today’s rough-and-tumble market. Recalibrate your loyalty-making moves to maximize your brand’s sales and your management time. Acting now will drive big rewards down the road.

Jill Griffin
Griffin Group
Jill Griffin is a "Harvard Working Knowledge" author of three books on customer loyalty. She serves as public board director for Luby's Cafeterias, Fuddruckers and Jimmy Buffets' Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurants. Microsoft, Dell, Marriott Hotels, Ford, Toyota, Wells Fargo, IBM, Subaru are a few of the clients served since she hung out her "Loyalty Maker" shingle in 1988. Jill delivers customized keynotes worldwide. Sign up for her monthly loyalty tip at


  1. Griffin’s comments are spot on. Corporate management is generally quick to slash marketing budgets in a crumbling economy when these are the very areas that must remain stable. Griffin offers reminders of strategy that we may already know such as protecting the pipeline and those that are all too easily forgotten in the fray but are truly the most important — why we rock! If we don’t believe, why should they? Griffin’s comments regarding innovative techology and morale are key to the survival of our companies in these troubling times. A must read article! I sent this one to my C suite!


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