What's the best way to grow your business and get new customers through the door? To many people, this probably sounds like an advertising or marketing question - but to Adrian Swinscoe, an economist and strategy consultant, it's actually about the way you treat the customers you've already got. In his new book, Rare Business (that's rare in the sense of unusually good, not lesser-spotted), Swinscoe argues that SMEs can make huge improvements to their customer service by doing some relatively simple things - and that doing so would have a huge impact on their growth. He even has some examples of firms that have managed it...
Swinscoe insists that Rare Business isn't your bog-standard business book; he's not claiming to have some kind of 'secret sauce' that will guarantee success. Instead, he says, it's more of a philosophy - a way of encouraging people to think differently about business growth. And the most important aspect of this, it seems, is giving greater primacy to current customers. He argues that the standard focus on growth via acquisition-based broadcast marketing is outdated - and companies would be better served looking after their existing assets. 'Take better care of the relationships you've already got,' as he puts it. 'If you do a great job, they'll tell other people about you'.
All well and good. But what does this actually mean in practice? Well, he discusses various options. One is adding more of a human touch to your customer interactions, even if it seems less efficient; for instance, making sure that callers get to hear a human voice, rather than an automated response. 'We can get trapped in systems and processes,' Swinscoe says. Gathering feedback is also a bugbear of his; he argues that customer surveys should never be longer than three questions (are you happy with our product/ service; if not, why not; if so, would you recommend us to a friend).
But he reckons it goes beyond this; it means thinking about your business in a different way. 'It's not just about the top and bottom line. It's a whole ecosystem. It's in your interests to think about what your customers need and what would benefit them.' So, for example, he advocates trying to introduce your customers to other useful contacts. Good account managers will do this instinctively, but he's probably right that it doesn't happen enough. It also means being nice to your staff; otherwise, how can you expect them to be nice to your customers? 'It's like water, it flows downhill,' he says.
What kind of businesses are doing this well? There are case studies dotted throughout the book, but Swinscoe highlights a few examnples that he thinks best illustrate the Rare approach. One is Beales Hotels, who took the decision to keep all its staff on during the recession despite plunging revenues - on the grounds that firing people would compromise customer service and constrain its future growth. Then there's Winweb, a business that operates across the globe but with an entirely virtual workforce. And he also cites Norman Broadbent, a headhunting firm whose commitment to customer relationships is embedded in its values - and these, in turn, factor into the size of a consultant's bonus (rather than just the fees he or she earns).
So there are some interesting ideas in here. Swinscoe has also taken a novel approach; having decided that the standard self-publishing route was too restrictive, he actually set up his own publishing company to make sure the finished book was exactly as he conceived it. And he has big plans for the Rare concept; other books with the same theme are in the pipeline, plus a regular conference and awards further down the line. Ultimately, he hopes there'll be a big community of Rare advocates. Though we're not quite sure how big this community can get before the Rare title gets a bit confusing...
RARE Business by Adrian Swinscoe is out now, published by Rare Publishing.