By Noel Ward, Executive Editor Endless streams of ads send out a very clear message that new customers are more important than existing ones. May 5, 2005 -- Two columns last week brought to mind a couple of my pet peeves about the way many companies today do business. Mark Bonacorso pointed out the ridiculous direct marketing done by many companies that ought to know better, while Frank Romano noted the poor customer service he received at a pair of overnight courier companies. My gripe, I guess spans both of these areas. The Quest for Customers The endless steam of ads for cell phone service, internet access and cable or satellite TV all have one universal flaw: they send out a very clear message that new customers are more important than existing ones. After all, newbies get better deals, more options and are treated well. Us old hands--who keep the companies in business--are ignored, treated with contempt or subjected to bureaucratic baloney. Consider Verizon. I've had a Verizon cell phone since before it was Verizon, as the company has changed names a few times. They had great coverage and excellent customer service, so I stayed. But not once in the past 9-plus years have I received an actionable benefit or special offer because I was a customer. Oh sure, I am encouraged to upgrade my phone, but when I try to do so, I'm told I have not reached the point in my contract where that is allowed. So why did they send me an offer? I would presume Verizon knows when my contract is due for renewal. They know everything else about my phone usage, and my account info on their web site is personalized for me. When I log in, I get a landing screen with a picture of my phone. If I put in my wife's or daughter's phone number, I get pictures of their phones (which are currently different from mine). But none of our phones can be upgraded until two months before the contract date. Yet the site--and regular direct mail pieces-- still urge me to upgrade. The MBAs in marketing at Verizon (and lots of other companies) have clearly left some villages searching for their idiots. The MBAs in marketing at Verizon (and lots of other companies) have clearly left some villages searching for their idiots. It is worth taking a look at the practices that have grown up in your business that might have your customers wondering how much you are really paying attention to who they are and how you can serve them better. How sensitive are you to each customer's needs? How can you be more responsive? What rules has your company instituted that may not make a lot of sense--and make it harder to do business with you? It may be worth asking your customers to see what they say. And they'll probably tell you, and appreciate it that you asked. Mom Always Said to Say "Thank You" Not to keep beating on Verizon, but since I've been sending Verizon Wireless an electronic payment every month for nearly a decade, you'd think they might offer me some kind of spiff for being a loyal customer, especially in a time of number portability and a big competitor like Cingular. Maybe an early upgrade, extra minutes, some free texting for my daughter. Something that doesn't require me to spend more money to get the benefit. But no. I get zilch. Zip. Nada. Zero. My cable company, Adelphia, is no different. Being a monopoly, I guess they don't need to do anything positive or proactive, but while they offer new customers an introductory rate of $19.95 for the same package of TV and broadband for which I pay about $90, you'd think maybe they could throw me a bone (or a couple of free pay-per-view movies) every so often as a little thank you--and to keep me from putting a satellite dish on my house. But no. Instead they call me every two months pitching digital cable even though I have repeatedly told them I neither have nor intend to buy a digital TV. Sure, they want to get a customer back in for a quarterly fleecing, but at least they make them feel welcome. On the other hand, some car dealers do get it. Which is pretty amazing, considering car dealers are among the most greedy and rapacious of all modern businesses. Yet the better ones (a relative term) offer discounts on parts to regular customers, provide free loaners, give discounts on various services, and more. Sure, they want to get a customer back in for a quarterly fleecing, but at least they make them feel welcome. Then there is the hole-in-the-wall garage I take my car to when I don't want to work on it myself. On various visits they have replaced--at no charge --a hub center cap on an alloy wheel, a dead light bulb and a hood support strut. It's just the way they do business. (I really have to go drop off a case of beer over there some Friday afternoon.) And for what it's worth, they do zero marketing and always have a full calendar, with customers coming from 50 miles away. On a bit larger scale, there's U.S. Airways, an airline with which I've long had a love-hate relationship. I rode their planes a lot last year, and in January received a letter thanking me for flying them in 2004 despite their financial woes. The letter offered an automatic one level upgrade on their frequent flyer program after 10 flight segments over six months (a normal amount of travel for me). I know this is totally trivial, doesn't cost U.S. Air anything, and filling seats certainly helps them. But it shows they're at least trying to pay attention. By comparison, I flew United a lot last year, too--and got no special offers. How Do You Say "Thank You?" What do you do to thank your customers for their loyalty? OK. Enough grousing. The point here is that all businesses have plenty of regular customers. Too often they are taken for granted. The old adage that it is less expensive to keep a customer than acquire a new one is as true as ever. What do you do to thank your customers for their loyalty? How do you let them know you appreciate their business? It doesn't have to be much, but it's the kind of thing that can maintain awareness and further separate your business from the competition. A thank you can be something that is directly related to the work you do with a customer or something completely unrelated. Tickets to a concert or sporting event are common. Maybe you add a service for your best customers that you charge others for, or give them a better rate on some jobs. Or you influence other companies to use the products or service some key customers offer. There are countless ways to say thank you. And you probably know what they are, but in the press of the day-to-day it's easy for them to fall through the cracks. Small tokens of appreciation stand out in a graceless age when even a simple 'thank you' is becoming a rarity. When competition comes from across the country and across town, it's important to use all the tools possible to build lasting relationships with your customers. Small tokens of appreciation stand out in a graceless age when even a simple 'thank you' is becoming a rarity. I think of sales rep I know who works for a print engine vendor. One of his accounts had mentioned enjoying a particular wine but was unable to find it anywhere. When we all had lunch one day, the rep pulled a bottle of the desired vintage out of his bag and presented it to the printer. There was no deal in the offing, no new order pending. It was just a thank you for continued support.