When to treat a customer like family

treat a customer like family

By Mark W. Schaefer

When I was just starting out in business, I spent a good part of my career in enterprise sales. I learned a lesson there that stuck with me throughout my whole career and I want to share it with you today.

One of my customers bought 100 percent of their raw material from the company I was working for, Alcoa. We went through a period when we were a terrible supplier. We had quality issues, production issues, and pricing issues that made us difficult to work with.

And yet, this company stuck with us. They would not move their orders to any other company. I was frankly perplexed.

One day, I had lunch with the company president and asked him why he stuck with Alcoa even when we were hurting their ability to produce their product.

“My father had a vision when he started this company,” my friend said, “and Alcoa supported him when others didn’t. They helped us with product design. Their metallurgists made us special materials to get us off the ground. When we ran into financial difficulty they were flexible with us and even gave us a loan for equipment we needed at one point.

“When my father was on his death bed, here were his final words to me: “Always stay with Alcoa. They brought us to the dance.’ ”

Now THAT is customer loyalty.

The lesson I learned from this is that your best customers aren’t customers. They’re partners. They’re family. And you should treat them that way.

It is a great joy to me that my long-time customers become my friends. When that happens, you can’t just view things in dollars and cents any more.

I am now in a situation where one of my long-time customers is going through some growth pains that necessitates a pivot. In the short-term it is going to create some financial hardships for me but I’m going to hang in there and support them because that’s what family does.

Will it pay off in the end? I don’t know. That’s not how a friend thinks about things.

I always look at a customer relationship and think “what would we do if we were one company? I have found that kind of thinking leads to the best results for everyone in the long-term.

I’m beginning to think this kind of thinking is growing out of date. But it’s worked for me this long. I can’t change it now. It’s a philosophy that … well … I guess you could say it brought me to the dance.

SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant. The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Illustration courtesy Flickr CC and Varmazis

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