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Learning About Customer Loyalty

Paul Mansour Paul Mansour

Paul Mansour is staring at a concrete block wall painted in patchwork hues of blue. “We’ve got to get this repainted. We have a big customer visiting in two weeks and it looks like a mess.” The different shades of blue mark the spots where Paul painted over graffiti during his first weeks as plant manager for a steel processing plant on Chicago, IL’s West Side. He stepped into his new role roughly nine months ago after more than a decade in corporate marketing. It was a move that took him from a private office in a Chicago loop skyscraper to a west side neighborhood dotted with used car dealers, pay day loan stores and industrial complexes. This is also the place where I see a career-long focus on customer experience and loyalty reach a pinnacle for Mansour.

Non-GMO Project

The term “customer satisfaction” isn’t something Mansour uses often. He speaks about “customer thrill” instead, which is indicative of the way he sets the bar high on everything he does. Shortly after running his first marathon, he decided to complete one in every state. He only has 17 more to go. When Mansour and his family bought an electric car, they soon installed solar roof panels to power it. Then they convinced Tesla and two solar panel providers to bring their latest products out to their house for a green energy open house. He does nothing halfway. So, it came as no surprise to hear that Mansour stepped into a decades old processing plant with its small team of seasoned laborers and started preaching the tenets of company culture and process improvements to thrill customers and grow sales. I can only imagine their initial reactions.

Oftentimes in marketing we need to focus on short-term sales. What types of content do we need to produce to gain a conversion? What ad will capture attention prior to SupplySide West? But, choosing to take a longer view and focusing on the customer experience takes a lot more work. We all know, whether or not we’re involved directly in the sales process, that developing good customer relationships takes time. Building a sales team that makes the right first impression, listens to the customers’ needs, and presents the product as a solution is just one aspect of a strong long-term customer partnership.

Maintaining a good customer relationship is even tougher than starting one. I’ve never been in a kick-off meeting where a sales rep describes her firm’s mediocre customer service or mostly not-on-time delivery. Of course customer relationships are always strong in the beginning. Everyone involved is excited about the possibilities of growing business together and the little things that can start eroding customer experience on a daily basis haven’t yet begun to surface.

The hard work of maintaining long-term customer relationships comes with a payoff: loyalty. “Focusing on customer experience is an-ongoing process built into a company’s DNA. It’s not an initiative someone decides to undertake for a period of time,” Mansour tells me as we walk among large coils of steel on the plant floor. “You have to have that mindset on a cultural level starting with your own employees,” he said. “If they don’t believe in that goal, your customers never will.”

So what looks like a marketing and sales objective to grow sales through positive customer experiences on the surface, often starts with an internal change in company culture and processes. For Mansour, it all started with the bathroom. “It was really disgusting when I first got here,” he said about the one bathroom in the plant. “It hadn’t been touched in years. How do you expect these guys to take pride in their work when we don’t take pride in the place they do their work?” Remodeling the bathroom was a first step in connecting the day-to-day task of processing steel to the larger concept of improving customer performance to grow sales. Next was a holiday party with custom jerseys printed with a logo designed to symbolize their team and the long-term objectives they were striving toward.

We walk the plant floor watching long strips of metal being fed through wet saws to be edged. Mansour calls the machine operators over one by one. He introduces me while simultaneously reminding members about safety steps and work order details. His relationship with the team is easy, casual, yet respectful on both sides. They genuinely like him, and I wonder if he knows that things could have easily gone the other way. His college and previous professional experience are a world away from the steel plant and the operators. Most have been working these machines for years before Mansour had a notion of improving their customer lead times and production.

With a company culture in place that is focused on delivering great customer experiences and the processes employed to deliver those experiences, it’s crucial to build a feedback loop with your customers. So many of us hope we don’t lose customers but are never entirely sure where we stand in our relationships with them until it’s too late. In his previous position as a marketing manager charged with evaluating the customer experience, Mansour employed the Net Promoter System developed by Bain & Company. There are multitudes of websites and books addressing the system in detail, but basically it’s a way of surveying your customers to find out if they would recommend your business and why or why not. Depending on the scores and answers you receive, it’s easy to see which are outspoken advocates for you, which are passive customers and which customers are detractors (likely taking meetings with your competitors).

Focusing on the feedback from those passive customers and the detractors means dealing with information that’s hard to hear. It’s also the reason you need to center your internal culture around customer experience before you try to address the issues. With no buy-in from the rest of your management team and the employees at large, broadcasting how much you suck won’t make things any better. But, with an entire company committed to thrilling customers and the processes in place to allow that to happen, hearing customer complaints is the first step to making improvements.

“You’ve got to have those difficult conversations with your customers,” Mansour said. “Learn how to fix relationships. It’s tough, but it’s how you improve. Sometimes you might receive a low score from a customer just because you take too long to respond to emails. That’s a quick fix.” The thing here is that you don’t know until you ask. Additionally, just the act of asking if they are happy with you can lead to better dialogue with customers, and stronger relationships.

While feedback and assessment are beneficial, real customer loyalty is built when you make good on your promises. In our industry in particular, broadcasting what you’re all about as a brand is nothing new. It’s the “reason to believe” for many customers who buy on brand beliefs and quality in addition to price or product features. In those situations, you set a high bar for customer expectations by telling them upfront that you are dedicated to non-GMO (genetically modified organism), to responsible sourcing, or whatever your brand’s standards may be.

Being upfront with your B2B customers is no different. Once you identify ways to improve your relationship with customers, it’s important to tell them about it. Call them up and talk about the issues they have with your brand or company and listen to their suggestions for improvement. From there, lay out a plan to make changes to improve the customer experience. Communicating the plan to customers instills ownership in the relationship on both sides and it holds your brand accountable for delivering on your promises.

The process of building customer loyalty by fundamentally changing your company’s culture and processes to focus on the customer experience requires dedication from multiple roles and functional areas of the business. It requires total commitment to putting good ideas and wishful thinking into real plans that require hard work.

As I leave the plant, Mansour, still concerned about the upcoming customer visit points to a dented, twisted guardrail that borders the parking lot. “That thing. That has to come out.” I asked him if he’d ever imagined worrying about the status of a banged up guardrail as part of his day-to-day. “Everything is right here,” he said. “MBA classes, business books, all of that theory is more relevant here than in some job you get straight out of business school.” With that I realize Mansour is once again all-in on probably the toughest, yet most rewarding customer experience project he’s ever attempted.

From a marketing lens, I see this story as the ultimate branding exercise. If customers know that your team and everything they do are aligned to providing the best customer experience possible and you are able to deliver, that level of dedication will become your brand reputation. The customer stories that grow from that level of dedication comprise the most genuine marketing material available to any brand, whether you sell coconut oil, vitamin B or processed steel. NIE


The Shelton Group is a boutique public relations and marketing agency working exclusively in the dietary supplements and natural products industry since 1990. Todd Pauli works with clients to develop comprehensive marketing strategies that integrate social media, advertising and content marketing. Prior to joining The Shelton Group, Pauli led marketing communications efforts for several well-known businesses, including NOW Foods, one of the largest supplement manufacturers in the natural channel. Contact him at todd@sheltongrouppr.com.