By Noel Ward, Executive Editor September 15, 2003 -- So much of business success remains in the basics. All the marvelous ERP systems, contact managers, Flash-y websites, and CRM campaigns all come back to the fact that at the end of day the basic rules of business--and life--still apply. A recent hunt for a new used car afforded me the chance to see how a number of companies treated their customers. Since I like Saabs, my first stop was a local specialist with a dozen years in the business. The owner is a straight-shooter and honest. His technicians typically go through a car and fix all kinds of things before selling it and he gives it a one-year warranty, almost regardless of the mileage. But the cars aren't cleaned up until delivery and often look and feel worn when sitting on his lot. If you're a hobby-mechanic like me, little alarms begin going off and you start questioning the price. The sales pressure is pleasantly low but you never get the feeling the owner really wants your business. Other Saab shops I checked out clearly just wanted to move the iron out the door, over the curb and down the road. Their cars were OK, but there was a lingering feeling that while you could a good one, it might not be a great value. Then you find a place that works the way you'd do it. Joe Vitere, owner of Swedish Connection ( in Bergenfield, New Jersey, is a professional Saab tech of 20 years and has run his own operation for 15. He opened his own shop to service Saabs and Volvos and began selling cars as a natural extension of the business. Catering to an educated, affluent audience, he pays attention to their needs and sells cars that neither he nor his customers have to worry about. Each car is serviced up to its current mileage requirements. They get new tires if needed. All get new floor mats and even new wiper blades. He doesn't sell cars that have been smoked in. And since he has routinely serviced many of the cars he sells, he often knows their histories, their previous owners, and can sell the car with confidence. Most come with a nationwide zero-deductible warranty to add value and provide peace of mind. As we worked the deal, Joe exceeded my expectations, adding important value based on my needs. The car I was buying has nice alloys and new performance-oriented tires, but I live in New Hampshire and said I would be needing snow tires in just a couple of months. Without hesitation Joe added a set of used alloy wheels and new snows to the deal at no extra charge. I mentioned my need to tow a small trailer and he put on a new factory hitch, again at no extra cost. “My reputation goes out the door with every car I sell,” Joe told me. “I want every customer to be happy. Plus I want them to come back here for service. I know I won't see your car for service, but you still have to go away happy.” Unlike many small business owners he takes the long view and sees the bigger picture. He knows from chatting with me--and asking the right questions--that I (a) have a daughter closing in on driving age, and (b) that my wife looks forward to a Saab wagon instead of her present SUV. Joe is poised to do more business with me. And he will. So what does all this mean for your businesses? Five basic principles that build on one another. 1. Know your customers and prospects. Make an effort to understand their likes and dislikes, their needs and aspirations. This enables you to craft your services to better fit their requirements and expectations. 2. See the big picture and take the long view. Think about the lifetime value of a customer, not just what the next job is worth. Pay attention to evolving your offerings to fill their future needs, and working to make you the preferred provider. 3. Ask questions. This is the best way to learn about your customers and gain the knowledge you need and grow the big picture. Develop an ongoing dialog with customers about their businesses and where they are going. Then continually help them get there. 4. Service the daylights out of your customers. In an age when many businesses persist in treating customers as an inconvenience, delivering better service is easy—the bar is set pretty low. So don't stop there. Take the next step and provide exemplary service. It will be remembered and will deliver returns far beyond the small costs of providing it. Deliver more than customers expect. 5. Treat customers with respect and professionalism. Your mother always told you to be nice to people. So do it. Treat people with respect and courtesy and it will usually be returned. Be honorable. And be a professional. If you don't know what these mean, close up shop and practice saying, “Would you like fries with that?” There are more than just five principles, of course, but these cover a lot of ground and should be part of the foundation for any business. Where does your business stand on these five rules? What do you do to keep your customers happy and encourage new ones? And how do you extend these principles throughout your organization? Let me know what you do, and what principles you'd add to the list.