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Do your clients still know you?

“I got a phone call this morning from one of our oldest customers. He fired us. After 20 years, he fired us. Said he doesn’t know us anymore. I think I know why.”

The speaker recounted his phone conversation to his account reps.

“We used to do business with a handshake, face-to-face,” he said. “Now it’s a phone call, a fax, ‘get back to you later,’ with another fax, probably.”

This United Airlines commercial originally aired more than 20 years ago, before email and the advent of social media.

But it still resonates.

So many businesses are started by an entrepreneur, skilled in the producing the product or service that spawned the company. Customers came because of the skill and stayed because of the attention. As the owner of a small business, the founder could track every project and knew every client. When someone was upset; he knew it.

Growth has a way of making that kind of personal attention obsolete. Time passes and a founder looks around to realize that whole projects are being performed for customers he never met. And what about the ones he knew – the ones who built his business or who inspired him to go into business in the first place? Chances are, they’ve been delegated. Delegated to talented people, to be sure, but delegated just the same.

Sooner or later, the thought has to occur to these customers – your old friends — that if they mean little enough to your company that they can be delegated, your company means little enough to them that they can go elsewhere.

Looking ahead to 2013, most business owners set targets for growth — more revenue, more customers, bigger projects, better distribution. But how many set goals reflecting stronger relationships, customer retention, and expressions of gratitude?

Many years ago, I read a book, Raving Fans, in which author Ken Blanchard urged business owners to “pay attention to the ‘fines.’” He meant that people rarely voice their complaints. When asked about service or the particular product they purchased, even when dissatisfied, they normally respond that things were “fine.” Not every customer can be counted on for enthusiasm, but the silence and the “fines” speak volumes to those with a keen enough ear and enough focus to notice.

So what are you doing to focus on client retention, rather than just growth? Studies indicate that a new client is seven times more expensive in terms of marketing and advertising dollars than existing clients.

The point is that it is much cheaper and more efficient to keep the clients you have than spend every ounce of energy trying to bring new prospects in the door.

If you do not already track trends in returning business, 2013 is an ideal time to start. After all, nothing speaks to customer satisfaction more than repeat business. Even more than tracking it, look for the things that increase the pace of returning business over time.

Perhaps, like those executives in the United Airlines commercial, you can forgo email, faxes and phone calls and, just once in a while, put in the time to travel even great distances for a handshake.