Multi-unit operators are utilizing all kinds of loyalty-generating tools to keep customers coming back time after time

Building customer loyalty is no easy task in today's highly competitive business world where consumers will change brands or products to save even a few pennies. Businesses from mom and pop operations to multi-national conglomerates are routinely looking for new and unique ways not only to recruit customers, but to turn them into loyal, repeat shoppers who also spread the word. As numerous studies have shown, it's much more cost-effective to keep existing customers than to find new ones.

Whether it's through rewards, incentives, coupons, technology, or simply old fashioned, one-on-one customer relations, franchisees are adding to and refining their customer loyalty-generating techniques. We talked to a few in the trenches and here's what they are doing.

Gone to the dogs

"Customer loyalty is simply built through constant communication, follow-up, and relationship development," says Chuck Black, an Aussie Pet Mobile multi-unit operator with six units covering a 20-by-20 square-mile territory just north of San Diego. Black parlayed more than 30 years of experience at JC Penney, where he learned all about customer relations and how to generate loyalty, into his franchised business which did more than $500,000 in sales last year. For Black, it all begins on the first visit to the customer.

"On our first visit, we inform our customers about many of our ancillary products and services that can complement the regular pet grooming," he says. "We leave a coupon after every first visit to encourage them to call us again." This procedure is followed by a dispatcher making a follow-up call the day after the service has been provided to ensure the customer was completely satisfied. Next, every customer receives a thank you card, which is later followed by reminder cards for the next visit. Black captures each customer's desired frequency for and sends the reminder cards based on that info.

Further down the road, he continues the ongoing correspondence by sending a newsletter and post cards, all to remind customers that he's ready to provide service when they need it. If, after all of this finely orchestrated communication, he has still not heard from the customer, he makes a personal phone call.

This entire process has been effective for Black, who says he has around an 80 percent rebooking, repeat customer base. His success has also been recognized by the Aussie Pet Mobile franchise which has dubbed him a platinum level franchisee, an honor set aside for only the system's top performers.

Black's system of customer service requires dedication and consistent performance; he's grooming well over 500 dogs each month and has more than 3,000 customer names in his database. He says he uses an off-the-shelf software product to help organize the information and manage the process. Black and another employee handle all of the customer service calls, which, on a busy day, can reach 20 phone calls or more.

"We have found that our customers really love the personal phone calls from us the most," he says. "Pets are very important to people and we provide a flexible and efficient product that helps them take care of their pets." Indeed, in terms of creating customer loyalty, he says it's critical to be consistent not only in the product you offer, but the service that you deliver. "You have to be professional with every customer. When we schedule a visit, we tell them exactly when we will be there and then we make sure we are there when we say we will be. Then, we do a consistent job every time." He says this and effectively following up the service, wins repeat customers.

"A repeat customer is much easier and cheaper to keep than finding a new one."

Cache in the bank

Little red plastic credit cards are working wonders to promote customer loyalty for Chris Byler. He operates two Children's Orchards, an upscale, resale boutique franchise concept, one in Kansas City, Mo., and the other in nearby Blue Springs, Mo.

The Children's Orchard franchise launched its "Cache Card" program, which rewards shoppers with in-store credit that's stored on a special card, a couple of years ago. The card works as an incentive to induce customers to accept in-store credit in lieu of cash for the and other children's items they sell to the store. In addition to the credit posted to their cards, they will often receive anywhere from 25 to 50 percent additional credit on top of that.

Byler says the cards offer a number of advantages. "In terms of creating customer loyalty and repeat business, the benefits are really obvious. If you've got credit on your Cache Card, you're going to shop with us," he says. Incidentally, the cards are reusable and can only be used in his store. He says he typically offers the cards to customers during special promotions held throughout the year. Once the cards are in his customers' pocketbooks, he encourages them to accept credit to the Cache Cards, rather than cash, when they come into to sell clothes. He makes it even more attractive by tacking on an additional percent of credit to the trade-in amount.

"Customers love the cards; there's a perceived value in carrying one around," he says. Of course, the most significant advantage of the Cache Cards for Byler is that they allow him to keep his cash flow nice and healthy. He says he's probably got around $10,000 to $12,000 out on Cache Cards right now. That's $10,000 to $12,000 more cash sitting in his bank account or purchasing more inventory for his stores.

And Byler has uncovered another advantage to offering the Cache Cards. "We discovered that when customers return to the store to use the credit on the cards, they usually spend even more than what's on the cards." And, he says, the cards tend to bring customers back to the stores more often, all of which helps increase traffic and sales for him.

Byler's direct costs for offering the cards to his customers are minimal compared to the advantages he's gained by using them. "It might cost me $4,000 per year to purchase the cards, have them printed, and cover the small transaction fees, but it's been worth every penny."

But even with the success he's experienced with the Cache Card program, Byler doesn't put all of his eggs in one basket when it comes to building customer loyalty. He also uses a "Mom's Club" promotion which offers customers early e-mail notification of upcoming store events, special after-hours shopping opportunities, and other exclusive member-only happenings. And he's captured their names, addresses, phone numbers, and other important information that will allow him to do follow-up when and where he deems necessary.

As a community service gesture, Byler has even teamed up with a local hospital that works with troubled young mothers. He gives free Cache Cards pre-loaded with $20 credit so the moms can purchase items for their newborns.

"We're always looking for new ideas, new promotions," he says, "we want to keep customers coming in the doors as often as we can."

Pumped up

Within the last year, Pleasanton, Calif.-based Pump It Up has rolled out its Birthday Club customer loyalty program. But for multi-unit operator Rob Delozier, creating customer loyalty is about so much more than birthdays.

Delozier, a pharmacist by operates three Pump It Up locations: Charlotte, N.C., Chattanooga, Tenn., and St. Clair Shores, Mich. He also runs a communications and public relations company in his hometown of Knoxville, Tenn.

"We're trying to get the message out that Pump It Up is a safe, easy, and clean place to have parties and other events," says Delozier. "The Birthday Club has been a great for building our birthday business." The program builds a database of customer names and information (especially childrens' birthdates), which are captured when parents up for the program via the Internet. Once in the system, the kids receive a special Birthday Club certificate, are eligible to take part in contests and promotions at the website, and receive special gifts when they have their birthday parties at Pump It Up. The system sends email notices to the parents weeks prior to the child's birthday reminding them to schedule the day and time of the party.

The Birthday Club program generates a lot of business for Delozier, who can be busy with 12 to 14 parties a day on weekends. Each guest who attends a party is required to fill out a waiver form for their children. That form creates one more way that Delozier captures potential customer information. But Delozier has done even more to take matters into his own hands when it comes to recruiting and retaining new customers.

Not content to settle for the busy weekend business he can acquire through the Birthday Club, Delozier utilizes his account representatives at his communications company to hit the streets and promote the availability and multiple uses of his Pump It Up facilities. "You've got large open facilities that can be used by kids outside of just birthday parties," he says. His reps call on local schools, churches, and other community groups in order to make them aware of the potential uses of the Pump It Up facilities.

Case in point: Delozier's partner, who runs his Pump It Up location in St. Clair Shores, became aware of a nearby school whose floor had literally rotted out. The kids needed their physical courses but had no place to go. Delozier donated the use of his facility so the kids could complete their required coursework. It was a goodwill gesture and one that he hopes will ultimately turn dividends in terms of awareness and additional business in the months and years to come.

He has also worked with local autism groups to put together programs that allow moms to get a short break while their children are playing at the Pump It Up location.

Delozier has even marketed and used his facilities to host business meetings and events.

He says he has really tried to open up the way people see his Pump It Up locations. "We decided we really needed to market ourselves outside of just kids' birthday parties," he says. "That's why we've worked with school systems and PTAs to organize programs for the kids and donated money back to the schools."

For Delozier, the approach has been to make his facilities widely known and available to as many groups as he can.

"I can't think of a better way to create customer loyalty than that."

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