Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on June 28, 2021.
I recently spoke at a Chamber of Commerce dinner about what should be the Holy Grail of every company – become the preferred provider of products and services to its market. A preferred provider is one that everyone wants to buy from versus its competition.
Being recognized as a preferred provider is a huge competitive advantage. Depending on the situation, a preferred provider can charge a premium for its products and services.
So, how do you become the preferred provider to your market? You give your customers (or clients) a great experience and exceed their expectations, you hire the right people and you lead them in the right way. Preferred providers will tell a customer, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of it,” and follow through. You earn the customer’s trust and loyalty.
Give a great customer experience
My preferred provider of bikes, equipment and repair services is AAAA Bike Shop in Ventnor, NJ. The proprietors are Mike and Ann Marie Wiesen, who go out of their way to provide a great customer experience. They always meet or exceed my expectations.
About nine years ago, I told Mike Wiesen I wanted to switch from a hybrid bike to a road bike. Wiesen asked whether I was a leisurely or a serious biker, the distance I usually rode and the type of handlebar configuration I would be most comfortable with – drop down or flat.
He lent me two bikes to try out. After making my choice, Wiesen ordered the bike. I have been back many times for maintenance and repair work, which is always prompt and done right the first time. I also have recommended AAAA Bike Shop to my friends and purchased bikes there for my grandkids.
Hire the right people
Every customer facing employee you hire must have great interpersonal skills, possess common sense and good critical judgment, and be genuinely interested in helping people.
An April 2018 incident at the Rittenhouse Starbucks in Philadelphia led to a global public relations crisis for the company. Two black men were arrested for not making a purchase within minutes after their arrival. When the café manager asked if they would like to make a purchase, they responded they were waiting for a business colleague. They were asked to leave the café, but refused.
The café manager exercised poor common sense and a lack of critical judgement and called the police, who arrested them. The incident went viral with accusations of racial discrimination, and smartphone videos of the arrests were viewed around the world millions of times. There was a call to boycott Starbucks.
Quoting from the Starbucks Values Statement, “With our partners, our coffee and our customers at our core, we live these values … creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome.” The Starbucks manager did not act in a way consistent with the company’s values or their business model.
Lack of common sense and good critical judgment in employees is a significant risk factor that can seriously damage a company’s reputation. It needs to be treated as such by management. Before making an offer to a job applicant, perform due diligence and question them on how they would treat customers in various scenarios. Applicants can also be tested for these traits.
Provide the right leadership
The CEO’s tone at the top and the culture they nurture determines the attitude of employees toward the company’s customers. When I was CEO of PQ Corporation, our culture was focused on helping our customers be successful in their business by providing the industry’s best technical service in the use of our products.
When you trust your employees and listen to their ideas, it helps them develop a sense of ownership in what they do. Never micromanage your employees. Set expectations, jointly establish goals, ensure they have the needed resources to do the job and cut them loose to do their thing.
You want to hire people who, on rare occasion, will violate a policy when it’s in the best interests of the company to do so. This is why you must hire people with common sense and good critical judgment.
I was once asked if I could combine the above principles into a universal statement. I responded, “Treat your customers like you would like to be treated. Lead your employees like you would like to be led.” Do this, and you are on your journey to become the preferred provider to your marketplace and enjoy increased market share and bottom line results.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.