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Five Tips for Cultivating First-Tier Customers

It's always a good feeling for a business to have a core group of reliable customers. You’ve worked with them for a long time, and you probably have a high level of comfort with them.

That sense of comfort is dangerous: it could be complacency. After all, if 20% of your customers represent 80% of your revenues, your business is vulnerable if a key customer departs. And it may not be through any fault of your own or your staff — companies get acquired, new managers bring in their favorite vendors, key contacts retire. That’s why it’s important to identify those companies within the second tier that have the potential to be first-tier customers, and focus on upgrading them.

Here are five tips for cultivating first-tier customers:

Identify first-tier candidates. You can learn a lot from your customers’ buying patterns. Start by looking at their current purchases. Are they increasing over time, either in frequency or in amount? This alone indicates an account to which you should pay more attention. But also spend some time researching the company. Is it getting positive coverage in the press? Are its financials healthy? Does it seem to be growing? Updating your customer relationship management (CRM) application with this information gives you a clear view of your customers over time.

Make sure your salespeople can access this information. One of the advantages of today’s CRM applications – such as Salesforce.com and SAP is that they offer BlackBerry users the ability to access data, wherever they happen to be. Set up connections between users’ smartphones and your back-end database. In some cases, users can even synchronize data and access it when they are offline.

Cultivate those relationships. The nice thing about your current customers is that you already have a relationship with them. It’s not like making a cold call. Have your salespeople sit down with their internal contacts and show off their knowledge about the customers’ potential. Then have them ask how your company can be their partners in that growth.

Entice them through promotional offers. Customers can become complacent, too. If a particular customer thinks of you as a second-tier or alternate supplier, they may not want to make a change from a current primary supplier. Offer them a discount, or even provide a targeted service for free (ideally, it should be one that doesn’t cost you a lot to provide). Your willingness to offer a one-time deal may make them amenable to buying more of your products or services. But make sure they know it’s a one-time offer, or you’ll undercut your ability to charge regular prices later.

Stay focused. While you are cultivating new first-tier customers, be sure to give attention to your current best customers. Maintain responsiveness and continue to devise new offers for them such as credits or additional services in return for referrals. Always call your best customers after a sale, to find out whether they have any comments. Listening and demonstrating that you are interested in their concerns can enhance their loyalty to your company.

For more information on small business sales and marketing:

About.com: Marketing

AllBusiness.com: Sales & Selling

Business Know-how: Marketing