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Romancing the Stone Cold Customer in the New Economy

How exactly does the new, post-recession customer behave? How might specialty graphics business owners woo them? These are questions every wise entrepreneur must consider. The nature of decision making for potential buyers seems to have changed forever. Customers will still buy from people they like, trust and with whom it is convenient to do business.

By Vince DiCecco, President, Your Personal Business Trainer

How exactly does the new, post-recession customer behave? How might specialty graphics business owners woo them? These are questions every wise entrepreneur must consider. The nature of decision making for potential buyers seems to have changed forever. Customers will still buy from people they like, trust and with whom it is convenient to do business.

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  • By many accounts and indicators, the Great Recession is receding and the economy is finally moving again - but in what direction? Consumer prices are relatively flat, up less than one percent this year, and have not rebounded from where they were in July 2008. In 16 states and the District of Columbia, unemployment is more than 10 percent. Economists warn that any growth will be tentative, at best, and will become sustained only if consumers start spending more money. It took the government-backed Stimulus Act and "Cash for Clunkers" program at the end of 2009 to stifle inflation and jump-start the economy enough to generate a reversal in consumer spending and manufacturing production. But those programs ended and we are on our own again.

    How exactly does the new, post-recession customer behave? How might specialty graphics business owners woo them? These are questions every wise entrepreneur must consider. The nature of decision making for potential buyers seems to have changed forever. Customers will still buy from people they like, trust and with whom it is convenient to do business. But what they buy, when and how much will be drastically different than just a couple of years ago. In more prosperous times, shoppers splurged on $5 lattes and $200 blue jeans; retailers reacted by opening more stores and offering more choices. Today, consumers embrace frugality with a vengeance and are limiting their purchases to the essentials or the best deals.

    Succumbing to customers' demands for lower prices or offering deep discounts just to "move the goods" are not good strategies for long-term success in any business. The most logical alternative is to study and try to understand post-recession customers and adapt by finding ways to get them to think of you first when they are finally ready to purchase the goods and services you offer.

    Who Are You?
    Although many of today's buyers of specialty graphics are other businesses, you can assume that the spending behavior of the retail consumer will mirror that of the corporate merchant responsible for procuring goods for her business. This is because many of the decorated apparel products, digital and conventional signage and custom gifts and awards bought for marketing, promotional and branding purposes utilize discretionary dollars from a company's operating budget. Purchasing agents are spending corporate dollars as if they were their own and as if their jobs depended on it, which they do.

    Belt-tightening in bad times is normal. But after every recession since World War II, penny-pinching quickly falls out of fashion as many Americans resume their thirst for new cars, new homes and everything on the cutting-edge of technology. This time, things are markedly different.

    As with the Great Depression in the 1930s, the Great Recession seems destined to convert many Americans into eternal coupon-clippers, scrimpers, savers and do-it-yourselfers. The redemption frequency of rebate offers - a practice that manufacturers count on to almost never be submitted - are at a record high.

    Today's average household has dug a debt hole over the past decade from which there is no easy way out. Many homeowners, if they have not yet lost their houses to foreclosure, owe more on the principle of their loans than the dwelling is worth.

    Consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of the economy, is forecast by many market analysts to grow only weakly the rest of 2010 and into 2011. A study by research firm AlixPartners concluded that once a new post-recession "normal" settles in, Americans will spend at about 86 percent of their pre-downturn level. In an economy driven by consumption and job creation, the implications of this study are far reaching.

    For every kitchen not remodeled, there will be lost sales of appliances and cabinetry and fewer jobs for designers and contractors. As homeowners do work around the house themselves, there will be less work for handymen and gardeners. For every shopper who trades down from designer luxury stores to discount merchants, it will mean fewer profit dollars for retailers and manufacturers. Retailers will, predictably, offer fewer product choices and carry leaner inventories. They will also continue to reassess store locations and advertising.

    Frugality may be great for the family budget, but it is difficult for the national economy. I have painted a bleak picture here, but as Walter Cronkite said: "It is what it is." Uncertainty, fear of the unknown, a demand for greater value and selective loyalty seems like a perfect storm upon which to capitalize. However, as the customer's experience was critical to business survival before the recession, it will play a crucial role in business survival throughout the recovery. The worst illusion a business owner can have is that, in time, everything will revert to the way things used to be - but it will not.

    Though the future is uncertain, this much is clear: Businesses will need to develop and deliver greater value, a more pleasurable and memorable shopping experience and deeper emotional and sensory engagement with prospects and customers. Buyers will demand it, and they will severely penalize those vendors unable or unwilling to deliver it. We, as business owners, must be ready for it.

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    What's the Frequency?
    Most people respond to a challenge similar to the way many salespeople respond to customer resistance or objection by talking more and listening less, speaking faster and louder, over-emphasizing product features, failing to point out specific benefits to the customer and acting more nervous and less confident.

    As Dr. Phil McGraw asks: "How's that workin' for ya?" The post-recession customer wants you to talk with her, not at her. And it all begins with the frequency with which you initiate a sincere, mutually beneficial dialogue. During my sales and marketing seminars at regional trade shows, I often pose the following questions to attendees:

    1. In the course of a year, how often do you initiate contact with a current client via mail, email, phone, fax, sales call or hosted event? How about with a prospective customer?
    2. Which type of contact (e.g., mail, email, etc.) is most effective and produces the desired and quickest response most consistently?
    3. How do you measure the effectiveness of your marketing and communications efforts? What is your return-on-investment?
    4. How many prospective opportunities in the pipeline are you actively pursuing in order to improve your chances of closing new business fast enough to meet your goals?
    The typical answer I get to the first question is "it depends," or a range of numbers from one ("We mail out our catalog to everyone once a year") to about 50 ("We call to collect their order for the week"). I hope it's obvious that these responses, without a sound strategy, are virtually meaningless.

    I offer the following rules of thumb to determine with what frequency it is appropriate for a particular specialty graphics business to contact clients and prospects:

    • If a client orders once a year, quarterly communication is sufficient.
    • If the client orders weekly, monthly "special" messages should be adequate without running the risk of becoming a nuisance.
    • Use your best judgment for customers in between. You may find that the majority of your clients should be contacted between six and ten times a year, but not everyone at the same time.
    • Find a unique reason for your contact: It's the customer's birth month, she ordered something from you this time last year or you are celebrating your business's anniversary with a sale. Make sure to vary the vehicle by which you convey the message. Don't always rely on an email blast, for example. Ask if you can visit and tour their facility to rekindle the relationship.
    • Personalize the message to the intended recipient even though you are sending a mass mailing. There are a number of companies and programs -,, and - that can help you manage emails to your client and prospect lists which will distinguish your message from all the others.
    The disheartening truth about the answers I get to the other questions I pose is that rarely do I hear a substantive answer. Most business owners confess: "I can't give you an accurate response to those questions." For me, it is gratifying to inspire business owners to be curious about the health and well-being of their own enterprise and sales efforts.

    The ultimate test as to how often you should initiate contact with customers and prospects is to ask yourself: "What lasting impression is my business leaving when it reaches out to communicate with our customers? Will my efforts cause them to seek me out when they are in the market for my goods and services? Will they think of me first and go out of their way to do business with us?"

    The Right Thing to Do
    The best response to the challenge of winning over the post-recession customer is to increase sales efforts, reduce wasted efforts, exhibit leadership by providing the relevant information and support your customers' need to make the best decision for their situation and become a trusted servant in their eyes. Demonstrate a spirit of helpfulness rather than make an obvious attempt to "sell" to them.

    The intuitive and clever business owner or sales manager will insist that their sales people implement some of these disciplines and practices:

    • End every sales call or conversation with a scheduled date and time for the next meeting or phone call with that customer or prospect.
    • Give the client a reason to initiate contact with you. Some examples include: Taking advantage of a sale that will expire, saving money sooner rather than later or laying claim to an item before they are all gone. This way, you are not always hunting down the prospect.
    • Double the number of prospects in your pipeline by asking for referrals from your best and most loyal customers. Update your "brag book" portfolio of testimonial letters (you have one, don't you?) and reconnect with customers that haven't bought from you in a while.
    • Conduct an assessment of each sales person's selling skills and provide training in the areas that need the most attention. If you don't care to invest the time in assessment, concentrate on your sales team's listening and probing skills. And teach them the concept of "under-promise and over-deliver."
    Enticing coupon offers and almost hard-to-believe low prices may get the value-seeking, post-recession buyer's foot in your door, but it will not keep them coming back. Go out of your way to have ready the most popular items and find every possible means to lower your cost of goods sold without sacrificing quality and performance. The savvy post-recession consumer isn't going to be taken in by hyped-up bells and whistles of your latest offering. They may in time, but not during the slow and arduous economic recovery. Defer to your best customers as to what is genuinely more value for their precious buck. Best of luck as you venture into the new normal.

    Vince DiCecco, owner of Your Personal Business Trainer, is a business development and training consultant based in the Atlanta suburb of Acworth, Georgia. With more than 30 years experience in sales, marketing and training, Vince offers a unique perspective on business and management issues.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, 3rdd Quarter 2010 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2010 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

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